The Door No One Remembers in Mike’s Basement

One of my astute proof-readers caught an error in chapter 3 of my novel Endless Night. It’s the chapter where the kids are in Mike’s basement getting slaughtered in a ruthless D&D campaign. Something happens at the end which makes them want to leave the house as fast as possible, but it may be too dangerous to go up the stairs into the kitchen. My reader pointed out that there is a door in Mike’s basement that leads directly outside, so why didn’t they just use that?

Now, I have seen each season of Stranger Things series many times, and I was never aware of an outside door in Mike’s basement. I’ve spoken to others who also didn’t recall such a door. So I got on Netflix and breezed through some of the episodes, and sure enough — once you look for it — it stands out rather obviously. The door to the outside is close to the D&D table, and right next to the desk-table that was turned into El’s hideaway fort.

I took screenshots and drew up a map of the Wheeler basement as follows. It turned out to be a worthy exercise. There are other things about Mike’s basement I wasn’t aware until I looked carefully, like the tool area behind the staircase.

(So here’s my question: given this door, why do the kids never use the damn thing throughout seasons 1-3? Do they just like the exercise of climbing the stairs and going out the front door, when they need to leave the house?)

These the screen shots. Click on each to enlarge.

The first scene of the series puts the matter beyond doubt: the outside door is right there, close to the D&D table. To its right is the desk that Mike will soon be turning into El’s hideaway fort. The poster of The Thing (behind Will’s head) is still there in season 3.

Another shot of the same scene, with the staircase visible.

 

Same scene, showing the open bathroom behind Mike, which puts the bathroom opposite the wall that has the poster of The Thing.

Same scene again, and a very helpful angle that shows the tool area of the basement behind the staircase. There is a work table on the far side, and a small desk on the side closer to the gaming table. Note: there is no telephone on the pillar behind Mike, but there will be by the time of season 3.

The couch and food table are the first things you see in the basement when coming down the stairs.

As Mike tucks in El, the outside door is plainly visible to his left.

The couch area. By season 3, there will be a TV to Mike’s left, on top of the area where the green blankets are sitting.

Same scene after Mike leaves for school.

The couch view of El’s fort and the door to the outside.

Another shot of the outside door, a bit hard to see, but clearly there.

This view of the door makes clear that it goes to the outside. It’s clearly outside lighting, especially from the window above El’s fort.

View of the tool area and work table behind Dustin.

The boys are at the D&D table, and Dustin is sitting where Mike sat during their campaign. The open bathroom is now behind him.

Another shot of the couch area.

The clearest shot of the outside door in season 1, as Dustin prepares to school Mike and Lucas on the nature of magnets.

The epilogue scene, wrapping up the D&D game. As in the opening scene, except you can see behind Mike that he has kept El’s fort intact, even though she’s presumed lost or dead.

In season 2 we hardly see any of the Wheeler basement, except for a scene like this, where Mike is being forced to throw out his toys as punishment for raising hell in school, and…

…this one, as he looks over to the fort he has kept intact for a whole year, as he pines for El and tries calling her on his walkie-talkie every night.

Into season 3, with a hugely grown Mike, and a TV now in the couch area.

And also a phone on the pillar at the bottom of the stairs. The fort is gone now, and it’s just a desk-table again. The Thing poster is still behind the D&D table.

There are much clearer shots of the basement windows in season 3.

The clearest shot of the outside door in season 3, as Will prepares for a campaign that Mike and Lucas have no interest in…

…but which they are going to play, and have their sleep cut short for it.

Another shot of the couch area, and the tiger poster.

El no longer has a fort to call home, but that TV is very useful.

Another view of the basement from the bottom stair.

Mike is talking to Lucas who is on the couch. Behind him to the left is the bathroom door, next to the washer and dryer…

…which comes in this close-up shot.

Endless Night (Chapter 7)

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 Seven

                    The Hill of Evermore

Shivering like an invalid, Eleven hung with sap in her veins and waited for the organic convulsion that would end her humanity. Her hallucinations were getting desperate; she was hearing Mike Wheeler now. A fitting torment, given what she had done to him.

On the off-chance it was really him, she had sent him a vision of what she had seen two nights ago: the shadow army in its entirety. So that he knew what was coming. Not that it mattered. She was about to die. No one else could stop the invasion.

Certainly not her friends: Lucas, Max, Dustin, Will, or Vijay. They were on the tree too. The other side of it. Or maybe not. Her nightmares made it hard to tell what was real. In the Void she heard echoes of their cries. So near, yet a world away.

Mike would have been with them. So he couldn’t really be here, with her on the shadow side.

He couldn’t be here at all. None of her friends were on this hill. Her mind was taunting her as the clock ran out.

The tree kept her alive when she would have otherwise died. From hypothermia if not despair. Her world was cold enough right now. Here in the Upside Down, it may as well have been deep space. Far too cold for a human being to survive dressed as she was, with only a coat, and no gloves or head protection. She was frostbitten on her hands and face, though the tree minimized tissue damage. Sap flowed from a splinter of wood jabbed into her neck, and made her resilient even as it worked against her biology.

The tree preserved her, but it also neutralized her. She was in a delirious sleep and unable to summon her powers. She could access the Void, but the results were confusing. Sometimes she got sounds with no sight; other times what she saw couldn’t be trusted. Her nightmares were constant, and the Void mixed phantoms with reality. She saw her friends in the tree, climbing, shouting for her; Max cutting branches with a knife. Screaming as the tree assaulted them. Bound by limbs, muzzled by leaves. Screaming inside their nightmares, yelling at her, accusing her of abandoning Mike. Then the mutations: Lucas and Max becoming flayed; Dustin turning into a demo-dog; Will’s skin going black; Vijay’s arms turning into snakes. She shut it all down, unable to separate fact from fiction.

The tree was transmuting her; preparing for her consummation. She knew the sap infection was a two-day process. The Illithid had gloatingly explained it to her. That was sometime on Friday morning, hours before sunrise. Now it was close to midnight; Sunday morning. In less than five hours the creature would return for its apotheosis: to ingest her and annihilate the world.

She had been infected like this once before, when a flayed crawler was in her leg. On that July holiday two summers ago. She had been held down by her friends, and cut open by Jonathan Byers until the agony was unbearable. Friends meant well, but on that day she could have cheerfully killed them all. Throwing them off instead, she had ripped into her leg and forced the alien critter out, screaming so wrathfully that a nearby window shattered. Her powers didn’t come back for six months. It took another six to make her whole.

The Illithid wanted to make her whole — with itself. There was no forcing out the contaminant this time. The sap was in her blood everywhere. She was resigned to consumption. Glamours of Mike wouldn’t fool her.

Yet the delusions persisted. She heard his voice again:

El.

He seemed further away. Not next to her in the tree anymore, but on the ground calling up.

I’m getting you out. This is Gorn. He’s a worm. A shadow creature. He’ll do what I say.

She struggled for clarity in the black ether — and then saw it: a huge tentacle reaching up to impose itself around her, caressing the branches that constrained her. The creature was native to the Upside Down; the tree responded to one of its own. She felt her arms and legs released by the branches. The splinter receded from her neck. As soon as it withdrew, her eyelids began to flutter. Her body, free at last, began falling from the tree. She felt herself caught by the worm and lowered down gently.

Mike spoke: “Give me your mask, Seth.”

Real speech. She was hearing again. Coming back. She couldn’t open her eyes or mouth, but she could feel: the arctic cold hammered her. The tree no longer warded her from the freezing air.

“Fuck you, Wheeler. I’m not losing my face — Hey!” There was a struggle, and lots of swearing from Seth. Then she was being propped up and a wool ski mask pulled over her head. She tried talking again. Her mouth was dead weight.

“El. Can you hear me?”

She shook her head, moaning, and then realized that was wrong. She should have nodded. All her signals were scrambled. There was too much sap in her blood.

“You’re in deep shit, Wheeler. Get us out of here. Now!”

She still couldn’t open her eyes, but she recognized Seth’s voice. He had been one of the guys who ambushed her at home. He had surprised her out of nowhere, and shot her with a tranquilizer.

Mike was apparently ignoring Seth. “El,” he said, holding her close. “Gorn is going to try something. I hope it works. I think it will. I trust him. He does what I say, since I’m marked. But he’s going to have to bite you. It’ll hurt, but it should clean you. Of whatever that tree put inside you. Okay?”

No, she panicked. Don’t bite me. I can’t —

It was as if someone plunged a pair of blunt scissors into the side of her neck. The pain was excruciating, a living claw that raked through her neck and head. Her throat fought to scream, but her mouth stayed locked. She felt a strange contradiction of liquid ice. It poured through her puncture wounds and into her bloodstream. She went immediately into convulsions. Her heels drummed the ground, and spasms racked her body, arching her back into hideous contortions. A cadaverous grin showed through her ski mask. Hisses of breath blew out her nose. The liquid ice scourged her circulatory system, punishing her like purgatory for untold sins. It was too much — way too much.

MIKE, IT’S KILLING ME! STOP IT!

He couldn’t hear her, of course. She wasn’t in the Void anymore. Just screaming in her mind as her body was cleansed by unholy abuse.

“She’s dying, Wheeler. You fucked up.”

“She’s not!” Mike was pleading, doing his best to restrain her. “She’s going to be fine. Gorn said so.”

Gorn’s antidote was killing the patient. Razing her inside; building seizures. The worm’s mucus was purging her, but it was far too virile. The human body wasn’t made for such potency.

“Please. Don’t die, El.”

Her contortions stretched her back into an impossible posture. Tremors shook her muscles. Then, as if moved by Mike’s plea, her body loosened. The seizures began to subside.

“Don’t die,” he repeated, caressing her masked face.

The worst of it was over. She began breathing normally again. There were still problems. Her eyes opened, but they felt like bricks; everything she saw was a blur. She barely made out Mike’s ski mask. Her mouth opened too, but she could only croak. Gorn’s mucus had done its work, but she had a long climb out of the blackness.

“You’re going to make it, El.” Mike was holding her close. “Listen to me. We’re going back. To the same hill in our world. I have no choice. Now that I’ve rescued you, I have to continue my original orders. The Illithid will be there. At the hill.” He whispered the next part in her ear: “You have to kill it.” So Seth wouldn’t hear, presumably. I’m sorry. I know it’s a shitty deal. But I have no choice. This has to be done now. He resumed loudly: “Gorn has to fly fast to get us out of the Upside Down. He’ll strap you in, and I’ll hold you in front of me. Okay? El? Can you hear me?”

No, not the worm. God, the smell…

She didn’t think Gorn was the worm that had brought her here. Her worm had been a she (the Illithid had referred to it as a “her”) with bad attitude. It had hissed in El’s face, snapped its teeth, and howled in anger when El was placed on its back. If not for the Illithid’s commands, it would have torn her to pieces; if not for the creature’s guardianship, it would have thrown her off its back. Mike’s worm seemed placid by comparison, but El didn’t trust it. Gorn had almost killed Mike on Sunday night with its breath.

“Relax,” said Mike. “I got you.” She felt herself being lifted, and then fastened by a tentacle as Mike settled in behind her. Seth must have been behind Mike. Then there was the unmistakable sensation of soaring, as the worm launched into the air. She remembered some of her flight to the Upside Down. She had been groggy, fading in and out, as the Illithid sat behind holding her. Like Mike was doing now. She remembered the same smell.

Now she was under the sedative of self-recovery. Returning to herself, she swam in memories. They reiterated the essence of who she was. Her life as a lab rat, crushing cans and kittens. Opening the Gate. Escaping an abusive life, and then hiding out with boys. Her new home in the woods, with a real papa she had learned to love. Closing the Gate — a lame piece of self-congratulation. Her most important relationship, destroyed by dishonesty. Mike. She wanted to talk to him, to rewind that horrible fight and start over.

It was her father, of course, who had pulled the strings. She cursed herself for not seeing it. He had done this before. His methods were more circumspect this time, but it was the same game.

As Gorn picked up speed, she spiraled deeper into memory. Down to the phone call that started it. In early December, Hopper had gotten a job offer in Oregon. He would start mid-April as the sheriff of some county out there. For much better pay than he was making in Hawkins. His dead brother had left him his estate in the town of Newberg. Hopper was keeping his transfer secret until March, when he would give his six-week notice.

He was elated. Since the death of Joyce Byers, Hawkins had been for him a cycle of dead-end routine and grim shades. Oregon offered him a new start in life. He felt like he had a chance now.

El felt like an abyss had opened beneath her. Her life would be completely shattered.

“I can’t leave Mike,” she had said, not believing her father could do this to her. They were eating dinner. She ignored her plate for the rest of the conversation.

“I know it will be hard, kid.” He devoured his TV dinner like it was gourmet. “But that’s why I’m telling you now. You know, so you can be ready to say good-bye. When the time comes.”

“Are you crazy? I’m never going to be ready.” I love him. What’s wrong with you? “I’m… not leaving Hawkins. I won’t leave.”

He looked at her a long time before responding. “Mike can come out to visit us –”

“I have to be with him! We love each other! Why would you decide this without asking me first?”

The argument had devolved into platitudes (from him) and remonstrations (from her), until she threw back her chair and stormed from the table.

Spiraling deeper. Later that night, crying in her room. Staring at the ceiling. He, knocking gently, then sitting at the edge of her bed, trying to find the right words. There were none.

“I’m sorry, kid,” he said. “Moving is hard. But this is something I can’t pass up. It’s not just for me. It’s for both of us — you especially. With the salary I’m being offered, I’ll be able to provide for you in a way I can’t do in Hawkins. We’ll have a big house. You won’t have to worry about getting a job. When you become an adult, I can set you up in your own place — I mean, unless you want to keep staying with me. This cabin is nice, but… you know, it’s small.”

“I like this cabin,” she said, wiping her eyes, not looking at him. “My friends aren’t in Oregon.” I’m not leaving him. I’m not.

He took a deep breath. “I know. And you’ll hate me even more for what I’m going to say now.” He paused. “About Mike. You handle this however you want, but you may want to consider breaking up with him sooner than later.”

She looked at him then. “Why would I do that?”

“To make the parting easier. When we leave in April. If you keep seeing each other until then, you’ll be miserable when the time comes. Both of you. I know — it’ll be hard no matter what. But consider getting the worst of it over with. Before I give my notice in March. Deal with the heartache now, and get a distance from each other. You know, to sort things out.” He looked around her room. “God, I’m going to miss this place.”

She realized at that moment that life was innately cruel. That happiness was transitory, and could be snatched away in a snap. To make the parting easier. She sure as hell wasn’t breaking up with Mike before Christmas. They had been building to a critical mass, and she wouldn’t rob themselves of it. “Going all the way” was what he called it. Max had referred to it as “making love”, or “having sex” — or “fucking”, as she really preferred — when El consulted her on the matter. She and Mike were planning to “go all the way” on Christmas Eve. They did, and it had been one of her biggest milestones.

When her father announced his Oregon vacation in early January (which wasn’t really a vacation: he was going out to settle the estate and prepare for the move in April, but she was the only one who knew that), she had made her decision. She would make those two weeks count with Mike, and then break up with him shortly after. She saw her error halfway in. Their honeymoon had made the situation worse; far worse. They may as well have married each other. To make the parting easier. By agreeing to Mike’s honeymoon, she had gone out of her way to make the parting an outright betrayal.

Desperate, and trying to salvage anything in the mess, she shifted the breakup date to the period of the honeymoon itself — the night after his home was assaulted. With increased threats from the Upside Down, she reasoned that Mike had bigger worries than romance. Breaking up would hurt him, but at least he would be preoccupied with saving lives; saving his town. It was the path of minimal heartache, surely.

In this too she had been disastrously wrong.

She couldn’t tell him the real reason; wouldn’t say anything about the move to Oregon. For one, Mike would insist on seeing her right up to the middle of April. But worse, he would completely blame her father. He hated Hopper for engineering their break-up up in the summer of ’85, and he would see the migration to Oregon as motivated by malice: to remove El out of reach, as far as possible. He would declare war on Hopper. Love was a battlefield, but Mike and her father escalated that field to World War III.

Now she saw how foolish even that reasoning had been. By shielding her father, she had made herself the demon. Lacking any clear explanation, Mike was convinced that she simply didn’t love him anymore; that she was tired of him; bored out of her mind. It demolished his sense of self-worth. To make matters worse, she saw (with crystal clarity now) that her father didn’t deserve her protection. He hadn’t changed; he was still trying to break them apart, but this time with a strategy more sly. She had been hoodwinked by his “wisdom”: that breaking up with Mike ASAP would lessen his pain in the long run. Max would have told her how stupid that was. El hated her naivete. She would be catching up on life’s simplest lessons at the age of thirty.

Gorn was burning fast, and Mike hugged her against the freezing winds. He and Seth were arguing about something.

Thirty. She wouldn’t live past fifteen. They were going on a suicide mission. She couldn’t fight the Illithid when she was climbing out of paralysis.

But assuming she survived this mess, she was glad to be barren. If the love of parenthood was so manipulative, then she didn’t want children. Maybe she would adopt, but she promised herself that she would never be jealous of a child. Kids deserved to experience love on their own terms.

Gorn screeched and flipped out of the Upside Down. Almost instantly, they were back in their world, bulleting at the same speed. El’s teeth chattered. Her mask and clothes barely sustained her. Her memories kept coming, insistent as the cold.

Mrs. Wheeler, at least, had been direct and honest. You’re rotten, she had said by the dishwasher that night, digging her fingers into El’s arm. Ever since you came out of that lab. You ruined this town and our lives, and you’ll ruin Michael. El couldn’t deny it. She was rotten; as rotten as the tree she had been on for two days. She had ruined Mike. You tore out my heart! Why would you do that to me? Killed a whole part of him. You’re a shitty person! A lousy, shitty person! Responsible for her actions, she could blame only so much on a joyless father.

Memories made her writhe now, and she shoved them to the periphery. She had earned whatever was about to happen to her on the hill.

Seth was bickering with Mike. He was too far behind in the roaring winds for her to make out everything, but the gist was that Mike was in the deepest shit imaginable. Apparently he was behaving like a double agent, working for and against the Illithid, but she didn’t understand how, and had hardly grasped the bare bones of what he wanted from her. He had said something about his “orders”; that the Illithid would be waiting for them at the hill; that she had to kill it. Was he delusional? She was half paralyzed.

She budged her eyelids open, and was relieved to see again. The view from this high in the air was staggering. If not for the rotten smell and lethal temperatures, the ride would have been spectacular.

Gorn was slowing down. It looked like he was circling back to the hill that he had flown away from in order to flip.

I rode a worm too. She tried saying it. “I — wode — rode — a worm — too.” The words spilled from her mouth clumsily, as if through lips numbed by novocaine.

The hill appeared. It was bathed in a pale light, the source of which seemed to be an orb suspended high in the air. It illuminated the hill in a moonlight equivalent. El could make out the shadow tree at its center, and figures standing near the tree. One was humanoid looking: the Illithid. The others, three them, looked like black multi-legged beasts.

She tried talking again. To shake off her fear. “I rode a worm too!” she called behind her. “It was meaner than yours!”

“Maedred?” yelled Mike, shocked. “You rode Maedred?”

“She didn’t tell me her name!” A stab at humor.

“Mr. Carol told me her name! He said she was vicious! Female worms are nasty!” He added in a resentful tone that she barely heard: “Like in other species.”

Mike. She wanted to explain everything, and there was no time.

Gorn set down at the edge of the hill. Mike began helping her off the worm’s back. She saw Seth already on the ground and running across the hilltop to the Illithid.

“He’s saving his ass,” said Mike, lifting her down.

“How?” she asked. God, she could hardly stand.

“By telling the truth. Rescuing you wasn’t his idea, and I gave him no choice.” Mike laughed abruptly. “Be funny if that thing doesn’t believe him.”

“Mike.” She clung to his arm to keep her balance. “I can’t –”

She broke off as a shriek devastated the air. It came from deep in the woods, not far away from the hill.

“Maedred,” said Mike nervously. He looked at Gorn. “Worms can’t be close together, or they fuck each other while killing everything else in sight. Or so I’ve been told.”

Gorn threw up his head and answered his twin with a prolonged howl. It echoed over the forest; a mournful plea that reminded El of the basset hound that lived across from Max’s home.

She ignored Gorn. There was a bigger problem. She looked across the hilltop at the tree, and felt sick. They’re in there. All of them. Captured like I was. Minus the sap transfusion. “Mike.”

“Yeah?”

“They’re in the tree.”

“What?”

“Lucas. Max. Will. Dustin. Vijay. We can’t see them from here, but I know they’re in there. Maybe those… things are there to guard them.” From a distance of fifty feet those multi-armed monsters looked hideous.

“Jesus. Listen, El. You have to save them. Kill the Illithid. And the thralls — that’s what they’re called. Now that we’re here, I can’t help you anymore. He put me under his mark; his control; it’s everywhere in me. He’ll make me do bad things. He might make me hurt you. And he wants to kill you.”

It wants to eat me, she thought. She didn’t like the way Mike was personalizing the creature by calling it “he”. But eating her now wouldn’t give it the power it craved. She’d been purged. It would probably indeed settle for killing her.

“Can you walk?” he asked.

“Barely,” she retorted. What he expected was crazy. Save everyone. Kill the Illithid. Kill the thralls. She could barely focus without everything spinning.

They advanced across the hilltop, Gorn slithering behind. Mike was right though. No matter how impossible, she had to save her friends; get them out of the tree. She saw Seth talking to the Illithid, and pointing at her and Mike. The creature’s eyes blazed with despite; its aqueous face was whetted to eagerness. The thralls squatted by the tree. Four arms and two legs a piece, but they seemed to use all six as legs.

“You have to kill him,” repeated Mike. His voice sounded frayed. “You might have to kill me. I love you, El. You hate me and I don’t know why. But I love you. Remember that. Please.”

“Mike,” she gasped. That wasn’t fair. This wasn’t fair. “What’s supposed to happen here?”

“He’s launching a shadow invasion. He’s going to use the worm to ferry a whole army from the Upside Down. This hill is his staging ground. He’s going to use me in his army, somehow. Now he’ll probably use me against you.”

She would never kill Mike. By all she held dear — him most of all — never.

They reached the creature that had watched their arrival. It was her first clear look at the Illithid without the haze of tranquilizers. It was six and a half feet tall, with the head of an alien sea creature, and claws that were giant talons. It shed the cold of a thousand freezers. The air here was warmer than the Upside Down’s, but that wasn’t saying much. The -5 degree forecast had devolved into -20. The creature’s presence impacted local weather. She felt she would never be warm again.

Seth stood by like a lapdog, his face shouting misery. He was horribly frostbitten. She realized she was still wearing his mask. The Illithid didn’t seem to care about his suffering.

The tree was about twenty-five feet away, guarded by the three thralls. Its captives were shrouded behind leaves and limbs, but they were definitely there. As in the Upside Down, the foliage was wet and pliant despite the cold. She spotted the blue of Lucas’ coat; a bit of Max’s red hair peeking through; Vijay’s leg; Dustin and Will must have been buried deeper. Her visions hadn’t shown any of them being transformed or injected with sap; only restrained. She had seen Max cutting branches with a knife. The tree would have defended itself. El could only imagine why they had been climbing the tree to begin with. Maybe they heard her crying from it. On the shadow side, she had heard them in her nightmares. The tree was no Gate; it couldn’t be used to travel across the two worlds. But it did bridge them.

There was a long object on the ground near the base of the trunk. She did a double-take when she recognized her father’s shotgun. She had no time to wonder how it got here. The Illithid stepped toward them.

It looked at Mike and spoke: “Prazul ir hext, u’ raza.”

Mike stood rigid like a servant, but El could see pain flooding his eyes.

It lashed out at Mike, barking: “Vorgiz!”

She had no idea what it was saying. When it had spoken to her two nights before, it had used English. She guessed that its special control over Mike gave him fluency in the alien tongue.

Mike turned to her, helpless. “The Master wants me to tell you: Mr. Carol is dead. Ogden shot him. You don’t know him, but he worked at the school. He was pretending to serve the Master but really wasn’t. He’s the one who made me rescue you. So that… so…”  Mike was struggling, fighting for words that he wanted to speak, in order to clarify. “So that you would kill the M-m-aster…”

The Illithid growled and seized Mike’s throat. Its talons could have shredded his neck in seconds.

El yelled at the creature to stop.

The creature turned slowly. “Demon brat,” it grated. “Speak again, and I’ll remove your uterus.”

It hurt for her to yell. It hurt to stand.

“Listen to your fuck-boy,” it continued, still holding Mike. “You were rescued. A dear man, a noble man, lies dead for it. You will return to the tree. For your conversion. My ascendance. Our oneness.”

The creature’s voice scraped her eardrums. She didn’t understand why she had been rescued or who Mr. Carol was or how he related to Mike. All she knew was that she had to kill this evil creature. It would destroy Mike; her friends; the world.

The creature spun suddenly and threw Mike into Seth’s arms. “Ruin him,” it commanded Seth.

Seth grinned. It made his frostbitten face look hideous. Eager for payback, he threw Mike on the ground and tore off his ski mask. He put it over his head, and then proceeded to clobber Mike with his fists.

Furious, El strained to summon her powers. Forces that would pulverize Seth into soup. The effort made her see stars. She was purged and functional, but impossibly fatigued. She pointed her arms at Seth and closed her eyes. She had ruined Mike two nights ago. She wouldn’t see him ruined like this. Kali, she breathed. Help me…

Then suddenly Seth was screaming. She opened her eyes and saw why. Gorn. The worm had lunged forward and taken Seth in its jaws, whipping him back and forth like an abused toy. She heard Seth’s bones snap like brittle sticks. Then, with a wet-sounding gulp, Gorn swallowed Seth whole. The worm belched its satisfaction; its stench rolled over the hilltop. It had all happened in a matter of seconds. El was in shock.

The Illithid was in a towering fury. It sliced the air with scolding commands. The worm didn’t oblige those commands. It curled and hissed, defying its master — clearly determined to protect Mike from any harm.

Its master paused, considering. Then it looked down at Mike. Slowly it raised a claw and uttered words of the deepest eldritch.

No. Mike —

On the ground Mike coughed. His body shuddered. Tremors rippled through him like waves. He rolled on the ground and cried out, as if he were being exorcised of a legion of demons. “Oh my God,” he gasped. His shakes went on and then stopped. He coughed more, and looked up at Eleven. “It’s me, El… I’m back. He let me go.” He began sobbing. “Jesus, he let me go. Help me.”

Above him, the Illithid snarled.

Oh, Mike. She wanted to rush over and comfort him. But she needed to do something of fucking consequence on this hill. Why would the creature return Mike’s self-control?

The answer emerged. Gorn was leaning over Mike, puzzled and distrustful. He sniffed Mike many times. Then the worm pulled back hissing. The Illithid snapped another command. Gorn was brought to heel, chastened at last. The Illithid waved its arm. With a keening wail, Gorn rose into the air and flew off.

He had just been put in the doghouse.

Gorn had apparently liked Mike — liked him so much that he had come to see Mike as his new master. The Illithid had removed Mike’s mark to destroy that outrageous bond. Mike was himself again; completely human. That was the good news. The bad news was that he was humanly traumatized. He couldn’t get up. He cried on his hands and knees, suffering from whatever hell he had been put through. El couldn’t imagine what that was. She was terrified of finding out. 

“El!” he sobbed. “Help me. Don’t leave me again.”

That did it. With every ounce of will, El smashed through the barrier that had been holding her back. The barrier of fatigue and self-doubt. She could afford neither. She stood straight and threw out her arms, willing the obliteration of the creature that had harmed Mike.

Power exploded from her. It loosed like a riptide, and flooded every inside fraction of the Illithid’s body.

The creature’s reflexes were fast. In milliseconds it diffused her assault with counter-forces. El screamed and blasted again. The Illithid parried a second time.

She didn’t pause for a moment; didn’t give herself a chance to shut down again. Alive with power, she screamed at her adversary, and then feinted, turning at the last moment to the tree. The branches smashed apart, loosing their captives: Lucas, Max, Dustin, Will, and Vijay. With their hands freed, they worked to clear their mouths; they had been gagged to silence by the tree leaves. Without transition El swiveled back to the Illithid. Too late. Its mind blast tore through her head. She fell to the ground clutching her head.

Mike yelled her name, ten feet away. He sounded hysterical. The others called her too, twice that distance in the other direction. Her head felt like it was in a vise.

Dimly, she heard a voice that sounded like Lucas’s: “Grab the gun, Will!” There was commotion over by the tree, and then a lot of screaming. Without seeing, she knew what had happened. The thralls had attacked as soon as her friends climbed to the ground. Jesus-Shit-Christ, could she not do anything right?

Her father’s shotgun fired. Someone (Max?) screamed at Will, telling to him to fire again. El could do nothing to assist. Her head was about to burst like a melon.

Mike was crying on her left. “Leave her alone!” he sobbed. “Leave her alone, you shithead!”

The shotgun spoke again on her right. She heard two horrible screams by the tree. One sounded inhuman. The other sounded very human. Then everyone was babbling a single name: Vijay.

No. Not him. Not that sweet kid.

The shotgun roared again, but El hardly heard. Her brains were about to go everywhere. The pain was too incapacitating for her to marshal a defense. The Illithid feared her and was trying to kill her fast. She screamed and pounded her fists on the ground, and then — by some accident or reflex of self-preservation — touched a space in her mind that gave her what she needed. She smashed aside the Illithid’s hold without even thinking. Drawing breath, she heard another shotgun blast. Someone was crying Vijay’s name. She had to get up.

She could sense the Illithid readying another attack. Ignoring her agony, she stood to confront it. With horror she saw someone else doing the same.

“No, Mike, don’t!”

Mike was already in motion. Sobbing El’s name, he charged his tormentor and then — No! — leaped through the air, as if to take on the Illithid with his bare hands.

She would replay what happened next for the rest of her life. The freeze-frame of Mike, suspended in the air. The Illithid with its claw extended, as if pondering an insect. Chortling as it weighed amusing alternatives. Deciding in seconds; waving its arm, hurling Mike’s body at the speed of a highway car.

“Mike!”

He was dead the instant he smashed into the trunk. They all knew it. Eleven died in that moment too, or a part of her. The remaining part didn’t falter. She faced her boyfriend’s killer and pulverized it with impact and screams. While over at the tree —

William Byers ignored the threat of the last thrall. He dropped Hopper’s gun and ran towards the trunk. Everyone saw as he cradled his friend’s body and screamed at the gods.

Dustin Henderson picked up the shotgun, not knowing what to do or how to fire it. He aimed it uselessly around the tree area, looking for the last thrall. It seemed to have fled the hilltop.

Lucas Sinclair was holding another corpse: Vijay Agarwal’s. Maxine Mayfield was holding Lucas as he blamed himself for Vijay. The poor kid had no experience with the shadow world, and had underestimated the danger. Trying to protect Max from a thrall, he had taken it on with a huge stick, and died in seconds.

Eleven was peripherally aware of these things as she bored through the Illithid, willing its flesh to levigate. For the first time the creature looked desperate. It tried countering her power, and she swiped its efforts aside with no effort of her own. She had exceeded herself. Killing Mike had been a grievous mistake; the Illithid was about to die.

The creature realized that — and ran for its life. Shielding itself with just enough evasive power, it broke off and raced to the edge of the hilltop. El swore and began to chase after it, and then stopped herself. She had to see. For herself.

Beneath the tree, Will couldn’t let go. The others stood over him crying. El knelt beside him and took his hands. He still wouldn’t budge. She spoke softly too him, and then took Mike from his arms.

Dead. No question. The ghostly light bathed Mike Wheeler’s face that was already freezing. She checked his pulse, listened for his breath, went through all the unnecessaries. Finally, she pulled her ski mask above her bleeding nose. I’m sorry. You deserved more and better. Tears spilling, she leaned over and kissed him.

“What do we do El?” asked Dustin, clearing his eyes.

She knew what she had to do. And she had no time to lose.  “Stay here,” she said, in a voice that sounded barely hers. It was a voice promising murder. “I’m going after it.”

“El,” said Max. “It’s dark out there.”

“Shouldn’t we stay together?” asked Lucas. “Two of us are dead.”

“I’m going,” she said, cutting off argument. “I have to stop it.” To kill it. “It’ll destroy the world.” It killed Mike. “Stay on the hill. You have light up here. Watch out for the thrall. It’s still around.”

“Thrall?” asked Max.

“She means the six-arm Jack,” said Dustin.

She left them and ran off.

Lucas called after her: “El, wait! You’ll need a flashlight!”

There was no flashlight. When Mike had given her Seth’s mask on the shadow side, Seth had kept his forehead light. And when Seth had taken Mike’s mask in payback, he had also taken Mike’s head light away, for good measure. Both of those lights were now in Gorn’s belly; digesting with Seth.

She had no time to spare on such worries.

 

She ran through the woods in the black of night. Hate drove her, nothing more. It was all she required. A hate as pure as the Illithid’s. The creature had killed the person she loved most; who had showed her how to live.

Her way ahead was clear, even without light. She had subconsciously accessed the Void to navigate. It was no mean feat considering her recent ordeal. Without her usual supplements — a bandana, white noise, and stationary calm — she was relying on sheer intuition and nerve juice. The desperation of her need pushed her to new limits.

The Void showed the Illithid not far ahead, vanishing over a hill. The ether showed her the woods; more surrounding imagery than she usually got. Vegetation and trees limned in black and white. It was enough to keep up the chase without light. She raced between pines and over uneven ground, inhaling air so cold that it threatened respiratory failure.

She was almost knocked on her feet by what came next: a blast of lightning and thunder. The lightning snapped overhead, flooding the woods and then sweeping it all back into darkness. The thunder shook the trees and earth. This was no natural storm; there was no rain or snow. It was minus 15 or 20 degrees. Precipitation was impossible. Thunder and lightning should have been impossible too.

The winds grew stronger each second. She had to lean into it in order to move forward. In the clouded blackness, lightning flashed again over the treetops, thunder booming at the same time. The Illithid had to be causing it. But for what purpose? Drama? Scare tactics? Or did the lightning advance some other hazard?

If the creature thought to deter her by smoke and mirrors, it was stupidly mistaken. It would die by her hands no matter what chicanery it threw at her.

And there: up ahead. She saw the Illithid in her mind’s eye, in the Void. With another flash of lightning, she saw it in real space, scuttling ahead, always just over the horizon. Microseconds later, she was back in the black ether. Now she was flipping back and forth — seeing in and out of the Void as if wearing dimensional bifocals.

I’m sorry Mike.

She wasn’t aware she was crying again, until her tears began freezing under and around her ski mask. She felt a black hole in her heart. She would destroy Mike’s killer, and maybe herself afterwards. Her escape from the Hawkins Lab had been from the start a roadmap to this harrowing end; Mike’s end. She had no business going on when he could not.

Wind snapped the pants against her legs — legs that felt like rubber. Gusts ripped at the surrounding pines. Lightning kept bringing everything to life, then snatching it away into darkness. Fighting to keep control, she ran faster, knowing she was falling behind. The Illithid was agile and didn’t seem to tire. Its long robe didn’t impede its speed. It ran and ran, chortling as it did so; she heard echoes of its glee across the gale of the Void.

You won’t laugh for long.

She wouldn’t last for long. Her lungs were on fire. She ignored the pain. Mike deserved more than her best, even if it killed her.

Ahead on her right, she heard a noise like the snapping of branches that didn’t seem to come from the wind. She paused, uncertain. That direction wasn’t the trajectory she had expected. The Illithid had been making its way toward the left. Had it suddenly changed course to throw her off the scent?

Cursing, she went right, and found herself on an incline. The ground sloped to a crest and she raced up. It looked down into a hollow. She half expected to find the whole shadow army waiting for her. She scanned the bottom of the hollow. The Void showed nothing. You won’t hide from me.

She was being foolish. The Illithid wasn’t hiding here; it was probably way ahead of her now in the other direction. And yet —

With a splintering crash, lightning struck somewhere so close that she felt the impact in her knees. The ground of the hollow lit up, and she gaped at what she saw. The bowl was shifting; upheaving.

What –?

She strained to see in the Void. It offered less clarity, but it was the same shifting of the earth, seen in vague contours. It looked like the start of an earthquake.

The forest was pure chaos now. Gusts of wind threw limbs and leaves at her in the black night, and with hardly any thinking, she used her powers to throw it all away from her. She watched the shifting in the bowl, expecting nastiness at any moment.

Then lightning split the heavens again, and she saw the truth of it. It wasn’t the ground that was moving. It was —

Gorn.

The worm must have fled here when the Illithid dismissed him in fury. Its maw opened and at once there was the toxic stench, even as the winds tore it away. Those winds were terrible now, snapping limbs from every other tree.

“Gorn!” she shouted. “I need help!”

But of course she couldn’t command Gorn. She wasn’t marked like Mike had been. And with the next blast of lightning she saw that it wasn’t Gorn. The worm had fewer protrusions around its mouth. It was the other one — the mean one, that had brought her to the Upside Down. The Illithid had implied it was female, when it put El on her back.

Don’t upset her, demon brat.

Upset her? El had ignited the worm’s rage not even half-awake. It took nothing to upset this bitch —

Maedred, she remembered. Mike had told her its name. And he too had implied that the female should be avoided at all costs.

As if reading her thoughts, Maedred roared in menopausal fury. She rose to confront Eleven, a gargantuan holy terror. El held the beast’s gaze without a drop of fear. Fear didn’t exist for her tonight. Maedred would fear her. I’m the demon brat, you bitch. Your boss’s own words. You don’t stand a chance. She kept seeing Mike’s corpse and burned to commit murder.

Maedred lowered her head to El’s level, gliding sideways back and forth, menacingly contemplating her. Then she reared in outrage, towering over El like a titan-sized cobra. With a flash of intuition, El guessed the truth: Maedred smelled the stink of her brother. Gorn had given El the gift of his mucus: the most intimate bond reserved for twins. Maedred had just gone nuclear. There was no mistaking her naked fury. Against the clash of thunder, the worm shrieked — a rage so jealous it was palpable.

El yelled back at her, taunting: “That’s right! He fucked my brains out!” And with that she unleashed a tsunami of telekinetic rage.

The worm was slammed backwards. She yipped and shook her body like a dog trying to dry itself. El screamed and threw more power, willing Maedred’s flesh to burst. One of the worm’s tentacles did just that; then a second. Maedred screeched. Her injuries were unprecedented. It was an unendurable outrage.

More lightning hit the night. The blasts were growing more frequent, fiercer; accumulating toward something dramatic.

El concentrated on the worm’s head — like Papa’s Coke cans and kittens. But Maedred had mountains of will. She threw off most of El’s power with her innate defenses.

A bolt of lightning struck the ground close by. It burned in the air, impossibly prolonged, for three seconds; then four. Static ripped over El’s skin; she looked to the left, and her heart skipped.

In the core of the blast she saw two pale orbs: the eyes of the Illithid. It had returned to the Upside Down, but it was somehow looking across into this world.

She snapped her attention back to Maedred. The Void showed the worm in full counter-attack mode. El blasted again, disintegrating another tentacle. Maedred roared.

El turned and confronted the Illithid’s eyes. Her nose was a red fountain, frozen beneath her mask. She ignored the blood; ignored her pain and horrendous fatigue. She saw Mike dying, and willed the same fate on his killer, sending all the power she had.

The orbs flared on, unaffected. Her powers hadn’t touched them.

“You piece of shit!” Mike’s favorite insult. She needed to figure this out. If the Illithid was back in the shadow world, then Gorn had taken it there. Gorn had probably spotted its master, or was summoned by it, while flying over this area. Once back in the shadow world, and safe out of Eleven’s reach, it had opened a channel between the dimensions. How it did this was anyone’s guess. Hers was that it had tapped into Gorn’s gating power and the psychic connection to his sister. But the channel was evidently one-way. El was powerless to harm the creature from her end.

The storm created by the Illithid was getting worse. The lightning struck now with horrific frequency, and with lean bolts, pounding everywhere around her at erratic intervals. First on one side, then the other; then behind her left and right. Each blast smoked the ground for long seconds; the space between the bolts swarmed with static. El’s hair crackled. Maedred was hit all over by the lighting — and to her horror El saw that the worm was galvanized by it. Maedred was rejuvenating, from the pain and shock of her lost appendages.

Another shaft of lightning hit and held the ground. The orbs of the Illithid throbbed, and its voice spoke inside her head:

I will have you yet.

She cursed the creature, using foul expressions she had learned from Mike. The creature had killed him and was threatening an inter-dimensional invasion. It was her absolute priority. But Maedred was the immediate threat. And the worm was getting its strength back, while El was weakening. Without rage and adrenaline to hold her up, she’d have collapsed on the forest floor. She was too freshly back from her ordeal on the tree.

The worm lashed out, biting, and El barely avoided having her face torn off. But she couldn’t avoid the deluge of Maedred’s breath. It was like inhaling a cloud of sulphuric gas, skunk scent, and vomit. El stumbled and retched; fell to her knees. She scrambled on all fours away from the area of effect, desperately trying to inhale fresh air. The winds helped; without them, she would have passed out. Her stomach contracted, and she threw up, feeling pins and needles growing out of her.

She wiped her mouth and looked up, unable to understand why the worm hadn’t finished her off and swallowed her whole — like Gorn had done to Seth. Then she understood. The Illithid hadn’t given up on its purpose. It was forbidding Maedred to eat Eleven, because that was for it to do; the creature still wanted invincibility; he needed El subdued, not killed, so it could put her back on the tree. Maedred’s task was to render her powerless. At this point it wouldn’t be hard.

Another long shaft of lightning: the Illithid’s eyes, dripping malevolence. They seemed to strain toward her as she stood up again. The strobe of the lightning was staggering. Its force sent shock waves across El’s skin. She could practically feel the Illithid’s hunger in the depths of the blast.

She faced Maedred for a final time; she was at her end. If she couldn’t do this now, her body would give up. Maedred snapped and coiled, craving devastation.

The lightning had become almost constant, firing the sky and the earth in violent blasts only heartbeats apart. And in the core of each bolt hung the Illithid’s eyes, rapacious and unmistakable. It revitalized its pet with psychic energy and reined in her madness. Maedred yowled, wanting to rake and chew this human apart. Her brother had showered Eleven with intimate favor; the only response was the utmost savagery.

I’m sorry. Even in the heat of her hatred, Eleven empathized with Maedred. Gorn was her love, and El had robbed her of something precious and fundamental. She imagined how she would have felt to learn that Mike had shared fluids (whether from above or below) with another female. Love was life’s ultimate gift, and yet so damaging. She couldn’t blame the worm for her fury — and for doubtlessly hating her master. Maedred wanted to devour this human whore, and she had been robbed of that too.

El gave the worm everything she had: murder and sorrow, hatred and regret, spooled into an annihilative vortex, let loose.

Silver light flared and thunder boomed, accelerating toward a crisis. The Illithid’s eyes were poised for violence in every flash. It saw its pet losing, and more static mounted in the air. The wind gusted like a wail torn from the throat of the night. El screamed, emptying herself of her essence — her life, as it felt. Maedred’s shrieks pulverized the skies, and were heard for miles across Hawkins and beyond. El kept her arms raised and didn’t let up. Blood flowed from her nose, even the corners of her eyes. And with a final thunderous bellow, Maedred began to unravel.

The worm dissolved into strands: dozens, hundreds of strings of purplish flesh. It was a hard thing to watch, and El cried, actually cried, for a creature of the Upside Down. In that moment she saw Maedred as dignified and majestic, like a dragon out of Mike’s stories and games. The head was the last part to dissolve. El, blinking tears, gave a final push… and Maedred died.

At once the storm was cut off. The winds died as the worm did; the air went still and silent. Everything swept into blackness. El couldn’t access the Void any more; she had fully expended herself. She let herself fall, and the night to claim her.

I tried, Mike.

It wasn’t enough. Now that she was drained, the Illithid would use Gorn to come after her. By morning she would be in the Upside Down again. Back on the tree.

I never stopped loving you.

She faded, praying the cold would kill her before the Illithid came.

 

Next Chapter: Westering

(Previous Chapter: Shadow Side)

Endless Night (Chapter 6)

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 Six

                           Shadow Side

Mike didn’t flinch as Liam’s fist struck. Didn’t drop his eyes. One of which was already turning purple. He didn’t budge in the chair. He was a slave to the mark imprinted in every gram of his flesh.

“Looking nice, Wheeler!” laughed Seth. Alex and Ross laughed too. They were taking turns with Mike. On this Saturday, Mr. Rice’s history classroom had been transformed into a torture pen. Mike had been right. Hawkins High was under management of the shadow.

Liam readied for another swing. If Mike were his own master he would have beaten them all into flayed soup. Murdered them, and damn the consequences. He had nothing to live for anymore. El had rejected him, and the Illithid had made him a tool. A mighty tool. He was stronger than the Hulk — and certainly stronger than any of these fools.

But he couldn’t strike back. Seth and his stooges had protected status. They served the Illithid, and Mike’s mark was absolute.

It had taken twenty-four hours to bring him under full control. Throughout Friday he had been delirious; in a state of transition, hardly knowing what was real. He knew that El had spurned him. That his friends were with him in Nancy’s room, and he needed to tell them something — something dreadful that happened to him — but either couldn’t piece it together, or find the words. El he recalled with crystal clarity, and for her perfidy he had no words.

By midnight he was a new being, commanded inside by an unbending will. He woke next to Will, and remembered everything. The Illithid. His Master and God. And remembered what God required of him. He could not do this thing. He had no choice. His freedom was in the past. He wanted to stay in bed with Will — wanted his other friends too — but his geas ruled him. He had to go.

So he had risen from bed, kissed Will’s forehead, and left Nancy’s room. In the cold chaos of his bedroom he changed into layers of warm clothes. Downstairs he put on a coat, gloves and a ski mask. Meteorologists had pledged a weekend of frostbite. It was already that bad when he stepped outside. He turned and looked up at his bedroom window a final time, and his heart broke. He wanted his childhood back, when his family was fun and Hawkins a normal town. He wanted El. Then he turned and crossed the lawn. He would never again sleep in his home on Maple Street.

There was a vehicle waiting for him, a block down the road. Mike knew who it was. Straining vainly against his new compulsions, he walked toward his fate. Seth Manor’s car was a deep green Pontiac trans am; a year old but looking six or seven; purchased by Seth’s father, to which his son had shown his gratitude by abusing the hell out of it.

Mike saw that Seth was in the driver’s seat and Liam Hendrickson rode shotgun. In the back were Alex Heft and Ross Whitaker. Mike grit his teeth. His mark was clear: these were his new friends, and Seth Manor’s word — in the absence of a higher authority — was law.

Seth rolled down the driver’s seat window. His smile promised leagues of hurt. “Get in back Wheeler. Make yourself comfy.”

Mike wanted to crush Seth’s skull and saw himself doing it. Then he got into the car, sandwiched himself between Alex and Ross, and gritted his teeth as Seth drove to the school.

The beatings had begun almost immediately. Seth and the others brought Mike to Mr. Rice’s classroom, turned down the window blinds, and begun working him over. To test their hold on him, but also, Mike was sure, in calculated revenge. Mike had humiliated them too often, and his self-appointment as Vijay Agarwal’s savior had been the last straw.

It was Mike who needed a savior now. Mike, who had the strength of a bull, but could do nothing against the compulsions of his mark. And his mark was clear: these four assholes were servants of the Illithid. He could not defy or harm them.

Their control over him seemed complete. Yet they worked to demonstrate his helplessness beyond a shadow of a doubt; that any hope he held out for himself was illusion.

So they spent hours — the entirety of Saturday — commanding him; degrading him. When Liam told him to jump, Mike stood from the chair and leaped into the air. When Alex told him to stand on the desk and pull his pants down, Mike obliged without hesitation. When Ross told him to piss on the floor, Mike did so. When Seth told him to come down off the chair and stand before him, Mike obeyed as if Seth were God on High. His reward was Seth’s fist in his face. Before he was marked, he would have been out cold on the floor from a punch that strong. With the Illithid’s essence in his blood, he stumbled back a step, but otherwise stayed on his feet. Seth then used pliers to tear off Mike’s right pinkie fingernail. Pain filled Mike’s every sensation. He looked detached as his body was put through every form of abuse conceivable to sadistic bullies. Inside his mind he was in hell.

Then they brought in what they called a thrall: a black creature that walked on two legs and four arms. They told him it used to be Mr. Rice, and with horror Mike could discern the face of his history teacher, shifting beneath the demonic visage. The thrall grabbed Mike with one of its arms, jump-spun 360 degrees, and threw him across the classroom as if it were an Olympic discus thrower. Mike’s body crashed into the far wall and battered against the floor. It was impossible anyone could endure this much pain and stay conscious. But Mike wasn’t anyone, nor entirely human. The thrall leaped after him and pounced, sinking its teeth into his back. Mike’s whole inner being cried out, stop, stop, stop… but he remained compliant. Seth and the others cheered the thrall on.

Hope had no relevance under these conditions. His mark left no room for choice. Mike was an instrument and nothing more: an organic extension of a psychic power. The Illithid wanted him, because it wanted Eleven; to co-opt her powers, and use them to destroy the world. The Illithid was monstrous enough. With El’s powers it could level cities like a nuclear bomb. And in retaliation for all she had done against the shadow world, it would enslave her boyfriend; use him against his own people; degrade him to the level of shit and scum.

When they got bored with the thrall, Seth dismissed it, and it left the room. For a moment Mike thought they were through. Then he saw Seth smiling like a dead promise. He grabbed Mike and threw him face down on the floor. Chuckling, he got on top of Mike and straddled him.

No.

“I’m going to take care of you now, Wheeler,” said Seth.

The other three laughed.

Seth began pulling down Mike’s pants.

In his mind Mike was already moving. He threw Seth off his back and leaped to his feet in a fury. Grabbed Seth, squeezed him, crunched every bone in his arm. Swung his other hand, a closed fist, into Seth’s teeth. Lashed out with a kick, shattering his ribs. Seth slumped in Mike’s hands, his cowardice and sadism turned to useless dead meat.

Mike did it; he did it. No one could stop his superhuman strength. No matter how much it cost, no matter what mental barrier had to be overcome, Mike did it. Seth hung lifeless in his fists, and Mike was free again. Free to walk out of the school, find his friends, and go after the Illithid —

But of course he didn’t do it. The whole idea was a mirage. As Seth positioned himself, Mike couldn’t move in any way that would threaten Seth’s person. Nor he could he squirm or evade, or say or do anything that would have thwarted Seth’s purpose. Seth had been given ultimate status. He was a proxy of the Illithid. Mike was subject to his every cruel whim.

“Relax, faggot,” panted Seth. He rubbed his hands over Mike’s buttocks, savoring the feel, and pried them open. He wedged his fingers up Mike’s anus, digging deep.

Mike raged inside his head, straining for some avenue of recourse, anything to do against this violation — but his mark was unyielding.

Seth worked his fingers, hard. “Don’t you dare shit on me, Wheeler. And don’t scream either. Any shit or noise from you, and I’ll fuck you with a gas pump.” Seth removed his hand, and Mike felt him shift on his back. And then suddenly something mammoth was inside him.

Mike screamed so loud that he thought his mark had finally failed to constrain him. But it was all inside his mind. Outwardly he remained obedient and silent, though nothing could stop his tears. He had never been degraded like this on top of so much pain. A locomotive had burst his rectum and rammed up his lower back. The locomotive drew back — and tore through him again. And again, and over again. Seth was going to make this last.

Alex was roaring approval, and Liam and Ross too. It wasn’t everyday they got to see someone raped so agreeably.

Seth grabbed the back of Mike’s hair and pulled his head up as he kept pounding. “Do you like that, faggot?… Is it good?… You better know it feels great on my end… What did you say to me this week — about breaking my hands?” His thrusts quickened into brutal slashes. Mike was bleeding horribly. His hot tears flooded the floor as Seth kept on with mounting fury. “What did you say to me, you faggot?”

“Break his hand, Seth!” yelled Liam. “Break his fucking hand!”

“Yeah!” said Alex. “Do it!”

Seth let go of Mike’s hair and grabbed one of his hands, preparing to break his fingers. Then he let go abruptly, as his whole body shuddered. “Oh fuck,” he gasped. “I’m cumming — I’m cumming right into you, Wheeler. Shit!”

As Seth shot his wad, the others cheered like it was a Super Bowl touchdown. Seth lay on top of Mike, catching his breath, and then stood, pulling his pants up. He looked down at Mike satisfied. “Who’s next?”

Alex was next. He was fat, smelled like he hadn’t showered in days, and packed even more meat than Seth. He slobbered over Mike as he fucked him mercilessly.

Inside his mind, Mike crawled into a space where no one could find or touch him. He was in complete shock: violated and traumatized beyond what most teenagers could endure. But his mark cared nothing for his traumas. It kept him functioning as required. Mike was raped and raped, and he took it with immobile acquiescence. Only his eyes showed the cavernous hurt.

When Alex finished, it was Liam’s turn, and as he raped Mike, he also broke his left wrist for the fun of it. If not for the stimulant of his mark, Mike would have blacked out at that point. He hardly felt what was happening anymore. The next thing he knew, Ross was on top of him, and then, at the end of some eternity, it was over.

He heard Seth say: “We’re done. And the bomb should be ready by now. Go tell the deputy.”

On some level Mike registered the three stooges leaving the classroom. His body felt numb; staggered by what it had been subjected to. Involuntarily he threw up on the floor. Seth laughed and told him to get up. Mike obeyed, his vision blurred from tears and shock.

As he stood, his ass rebelled; it needed surgery. His wrist was a bonfire of pain; it needed a cast. Outwardly he ignored the agony; inwardly he prayed for death. Seth sat at a desk to wait for Mr. Carol. He looked at Mike and gloated. “You’ve got a sweet ass, Wheeler, I’ll give you that. I haven’t cum like that in months. Get ready for the bomb. We’re going on a demolitions mission.”

Mike was already recovering and processing everything as if freshly woken. He wasn’t suppressing his traumas, for that was impossible. His mark simply enabled him (required him) to function at full capacity irrespective of his pain. He was literally living in hell. He had the distinct impression that it was time — time for whatever Ogden and Carol wanted him for. In ten minutes he heard strong footsteps outside the hallway.

Mr. Carol entered the classroom, looking like steel. He walked over to the teachers desk and sat down, looking back and forth between Seth and Mike. He didn’t speak for a long time. Seth coughed nervously.

Finally the deputy spoke. “Everything fine?”

“Yes, sir,” said Seth. “We tested him thoroughly.”

“I’m sure you enjoyed it.” Mr. Carol looked at Mike. “We have a problem for you to fix. The police are getting pesky. They’ve been snooping around the school and other places too.”

Mike didn’t say anything. A problem for you to fix. They were obviously working for the Illithid. He knew the creature wanted El; had known that since being marked on Thursday night. It wanted to devour her, and ingest her powers to become invincible. The creature had communicated this to him — precisely so that he would despair.

“Gorn is waiting outside,” the deputy continued, “I believe you’ve met already. Big, always hungry, likes to eat the ground. He’s a shadow worm. He carried you on his back.” The deputy tilted his head. “Sunday night, I believe?”

Fear lanced through Mike. Yes. No. I saw the worm. I didn’t ride it. That was a dream.

“Actually” — Carol fixed his gaze on Mike — “you two have bonded in a way you don’t even realize. You’ll depart on your mission as soon as you’ve said hello to Gorn, and allowed him to warm up to you.”

Warm up? Outwardly he was calm but inside himself Mike trembled.

The deputy continued. “I intend you to destroy the Hawkins Police Station. That’s where you and Seth are going. You’ll do as Seth instructs. It’s what Mr. Ogden wants.”

At first Mike didn’t credit what Carol was saying. Destroy the police station? It was outrageous. He wouldn’t do such a thing.

Seth spoke up. “Mr. Carol, I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. Wheeler is dangerous like this. He has superhuman strength. We tested his obedience, sure… but everyone has a breaking point.”

The deputy rumbled: “Mr. Wheeler is completely powerless over you, Mr. Manor. If everything you’ve done to him today hasn’t convinced you of that, then you’re as stupid as your grades indicate.”

Seth flushed. “All I’m saying, sir, is that he’s a slippery piece of shit.”

Mike tried to understand what he was being tasked with. “Why…?” He faltered as his voice broke. He had been raped and broken and was standing purely on eldritch energies. His feet felt like rubber. “Why… do you want the police station blown up? Is that what the Illithid wants?”

“Ah,” said the deputy, looking at Mike intently. “The police are suddenly a problem for us. Thanks to your friends. The Master needs them dealt with. You call him the ‘Ill-uh-thid’?”

Mike was jolted. His friends? Was Carol talking about Lucas and Dustin? Will? Max? “Which… friends? What did they do?”

The deputy’s mouth twisted; he may have been smiling. “Lucas Sinclair. Dustin Henderson. Max Mayfield. Will Byers. They were looking for someone on your behalf” — Mike’s insides rocked again — “and ended up at the home of Sheriff Hopper. They didn’t like what they found there. They guessed that the chief’s cabin was broken into, and that Mr. Ogden and I were behind this break-in. They guessed rightly: I had sent Mr. Manor with two of his friends. Your friends went to the police. The police came here this morning and searched the school. We barely kept them from finding you. Now the area around Hopper’s cabin is being searched, including the hill. That’s not good. We need — how shall I put it? — a diversion. Your friends, Mr. Wheeler, have made things difficult for us. They are, to be honest, a pain in the ass.”

“Leave them alone,” said Mike. Some of this made no sense to him. He had no idea what “the hill” referred to. He just wanted his friends safe.

Calmly, as if the details had no special meaning, Mr. Carol added, “Jane Hopper has also been put in her proper place. Eleven, I believe you call her. Tends to live in obscurity. A bit of a problem. Mr. Manor and his friends captured her at the cabin. She is now caged and — be assured — unable to do anything about it.”

Mike’s whole inner being crashed. No! El!

“She’s entirely powerless, Mr. Wheeler. You need to understand that.”

Tears came unrestrained. Mike suddenly didn’t care about anything else. He just wanted El. She had destroyed him two nights ago, and he no longer cared. He needed her — needed to save her.

“Deputy.” Seth looked like he was about to vomit. “That girl is a far worse threat than Wheeler. She should be killed at once.”

Mr. Carol looked mildly irritated. “I never mistook you for having a brain, Mr. Manor.” He spoke to Seth but kept looking at Mike. “Killing her would defeat the whole reason for everything we’re doing here. The Master needs her alive for his… ascendancy. As you’ve been told many times. So keep quiet.”

“Yes sir,” mumbled Seth.

Without shifting his posture or tone, the deputy said, “Go outside, Mr. Manor. I’ve had all I can stomach from you today. Wait by Gorn. I want to talk to Mr. Wheeler for a few minutes. I’ll bring him to you when I’m done.”

Seth got up and left. Mike watched him go, vowing to kill Seth with his bare hands. He still felt the locomotive up inside him. The feel of Seth ripping through him would never go away. If he had raped Eleven —

The door closed behind Seth, and the deputy studied Mike, saying nothing.

“You…” Mike could hardly get out what he wanted to say. His voice felt foreign, like something he didn’t own anymore. “You were always nice before. What happened? Are you under control, like me?”

“Tell me the truth, Mr. Wheeler,” Carol replied as if he weren’t changing the subject. “How do you feel about Gorn?”

Mike remembered the worm’s maw, and the abysmal stench that had nearly killed him on Sunday night. He said nothing. His feelings for the worm wouldn’t make a shred of difference to whatever he would be required to do.

“They exist in pairs,” said Carol. “Twins from the same egg. A male and female. Gorn is the male. The shadow creature — the ‘Ill-uh-thid’, as you call it — usually rides the female. Her name is Maedred.”

Mike’s stomach rolled. There were two of those things? “I was never on the worm’s back in the Upside Down,” he said. That had to have been a dream or physic projection. “There’s no Gate to the shadow world anymore.”

“None is necessary,” said Carol. “The worms can flip between our world and the shadow. It’s innate to their biology. They’re born with the ability. And they can take whoever rides on their backs. It took you there, for a little ride.”

Mike accepted the explanation. It explained how the Illithid was in their world. It hadn’t found a Gate. It had ridden a worm.

“The worms need to accelerate to a high speed in order to flip across dimensions — at least 160 miles an hour — and to burn at that speed for at least thirty seconds before flipping.”

He remembered the ride: held by one of the worm’s tentacles, and yet feeling like he was falling off, as he hurtled through the night sky.

“Fascinating beasts, really,” said Carol. “As twins they depend on each other’s existence for their powers. If one of them dies, the other loses the ability to flip across dimensions. Their biochemistries are somehow synced with one another.”

They’re hideous. Mike shuddered remembering. Their breath could kill if you got a direct whiff.

“And they have to be kept apart. If they come within a football field’s length of each other, they’ll be aroused and mate for hours, and kill anyone in sight. It’s a loud and destructive affair. Anyway. After you and Seth destroy the police station, you’ll be using Gorn to take a little trip to the Upside Down.”

Because he was full to the teeth with fear and isolation, Mike didn’t flinch. He told the deputy he was crazy.

The deputy sighed. “Maybe I am. Almost certainly I am.” Without transition he answered Mike’s earlier question. “No, Mr. Wheeler, I’m not under control like you. Just the opposite in fact. And I apologize for all the pain and indignity you’ve suffered in this room. I would have minimized your torments — and certainly that despicable gang rape — but Ogden was here all day, looking in on you. It had to be completely real and convincing. I’m not proud of what I’ve made myself.”

Mike was confused; he didn’t follow this. I would have minimized your torments…?

Carol kicked his feet up on the desk. “Mike,” he said distinctly, using his first name for the first time ever. “I’m giving you new orders.”

Mike blinked. New orders?

“I can’t countermand the orders already given. They come from Ogden, and he supersedes me. But I can give new ones, and you’ll be required to do them, as long as they’re not overridden by Ogden or that awful creature. The thing you call the Illithid.”

A fire storm of panic had hold of Mike. The deputy was playing some kind of deep game. And something in his manner told Mike that what he was about to hear was crucial, the crux of the whole situation.

“That creature has committed a crime against you.” As he spoke, his tone reminded Mike of the man he knew for the past year and a half at Hawkins High — the tone of a man of integrity, who cared for people, and couldn’t begin to express how much he loathed the pain he had inflicted on students this past week. “It’s reduced you to something less than human. You’re practically a machine-animal, bereft of choice. I share responsibility for all the abuse we’ve inflicted on you, and I apologize to you. There’s really no excuse for me letting those boys do what they did to you — except that I don’t know what else to do.”

Involuntarily, tears filled Mike’s eyes again. There was no guile in the deputy. He sounded sincere.

“Everything I’ve done this past week,” continued Carol. “I needed the headmaster’s complete trust. In order to make this work, now. That Illithid creature has to be stopped. If he isn’t stopped, it’s the end of the world. Again, I can’t override your mission against the police station. But this is what I want you to do afterwards.” He leaned forward and explained.

Mike went on breathing. It was the only response available as he was fed new orders — orders that would probably get him and the deputy headmaster killed. Occasionally he blinked. And inside, he allowed himself a dim ray of hope.

When he was finished outlining everything, Mr. Carol stood up and told Mike to follow him outside to join Seth and Gorn.

 

Seth would get a rude surprise, and Mike took some satisfaction in that. But for now he was consumed by the task in front of him, and minimizing the fallout. He saw no way of doing it. There was a police building to destroy, with innocent staff inside. He couldn’t stop the outcome any more than Mr. Carol could.

It was an easy mission; absurdly easy. He and Seth had only to enter the police station, leave the bomb anywhere it wouldn’t be spotted for a short while, exit the building, press the detonator, and fly away.

Easy as dessert, but hard as venom to swallow. Mike would be a mass murderer, even if he was an instrument of his captors. He’d never live with himself.

He and Seth had flown from the school to police headquarters, covering less than half a mile in thirty seconds on Gorn’s back. The worm had deposited them on top of the building, and then risen to circle them high in the air out of sight. Seth carried the bomb and relay switch. Mike carried the insurance of success. Only a marked soul could command Gorn and guard Seth with the efficiency of a Navy Seal.

“Let’s do it,” said Seth, moving across the roof. Mike followed him. They both had flashlights strapped on their foreheads, over their ski masks. Seth looked like an amateur thug. So did Mike. But Mike was a brutal killing machine.

As Seth moved ahead of him, Mike tried for the hundredth time to break his inner prison — to abort the mission and make a citizen’s arrest of Seth, or better yet, kill him with his bare hands. It was insufferable that he had to accept Seth, who had punched him through the black hole of rape; to work with him, and trust him. And once more Mike had the dislocated sense of being more than one person; of existing in separate realities. One part of him lunged at Seth, and used his inhuman strength to pound him to a pulp. The other part of him watched the struggle as if it were purely of abstract interest, while inside his skull he howled. He would not, would not, help kill innocent people.

He wanted El.

But the Illithid and its proxies had issued their wills, and Mike obeyed. He followed Seth, looking for any openings or shafts.

It wasn’t long until they found one. At Seth’s command Mike ripped out the plate of grated steel and tossed it aside. They both peered down a vent shaft that went to the level of the ground.

“Perfect,” said Seth. “Call Gorn.”

Gorn had bonded with Mike, and that bond had established a telepathic link. Mike called Gorn in his mind. We’re ready.

As the beast descended out of the air, Seth removed the bomb from his sack and dropped it down the vent shaft. Mike swore. He didn’t know anything about explosives. Mr. Carol had said this bomb wasn’t volatile and shouldn’t explode without the detonator, but Mike didn’t trust any bomb that was dropped or thrown around. They got back on Gorn. The worm buckled them in with separate tentacles and waited for Mike’s instruction.

Fly soft.

Gorn lifted from the building and glided west, purring at Mike’s telepathic strokes. As before, Seth held onto Mike’s waist, while Mike clung to one of the worm’s tusk-like protrusions on its back. They were held firm by the tentacles, but that offered little peace of mind when Gorn tilted sideways to turn, and plummeted without warning.

When they were at a safe distance, Gorn landed on the nearest roof; some corporation building. Seth took the detonator from his pack, and Mike braced himself, closing his eyes.

“Wheeler,” said Seth. Mike could hear him smiling. “Hey. Faggot. Look at me.”

Mike opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder. Seth pressed the relay device into his hand. Mike’s stomach rebelled. No. I won’t.

“Do it, Wheeler. Blow those cops to hell.”

Compelled to obey, Mike took the device from Seth, and, feeling dead as he did so, flicked the switch.

Seconds later an incendiary blast tore the heart out of the Hawkins Police Station.

Even at a distance of a thousand feet the explosion was deafening. A maelstrom of rock ripped the air, surely killing anyone who happened to be near the station. Seth shouted in fierce triumph. He clapped Mike on the back as if they were best buddies. Mike saw himself throwing Seth off the roof.

Within seconds he heard noises of all kinds — wails of structural damage, distant cries for help, sirens. Seth was in ecstasy. Mike saw red lights flashing on the streets below. Ambulances racing in the night, from the hospital to the police station.

“Nice work,” said Seth, satisfied. “Now get us to the hill.”

My pleasure, thought Mike, ready at last to see if Mr. Carol wasn’t an asshole after all. He told Gorn to fly in the direction of the hill. The worm launched into the air.

“Seth, you piece of shit,” said Mike, hardly daring to hope for this turnabout, “you’d best hang on for your life.” His mark required him to give Seth at least fair warning.

Seth hardly seemed to hear him. “Shut up, faggot. Just do as you’re told.”

Oh, I am. Mike prayed that Carol wasn’t jerking him around. And so will you.

With his arms around Mike’s waist, Seth pawed Mike’s groin with his gloved hand. “Any cops around Hopper’s cabin will be swarming downtown now, thanks to us. But if we do see any close to the hill, you’re gonna kill them all.” Seth continued stroking his balls. “You understand?”

Mike ignored the harassment. Through his telepathic link he communed with Gorn. Faster.

At once Gorn picked up speed, accelerating in the direction of the hill near Hopper’s cabin. Where they were supposed to go, and where the Illithid was waiting. Where they would instead find someone else. On the hill’s other side. The shadow side.

“Whoa!” said Seth, righting himself and letting go of Mike’s groin. “Slow down! We’ll be there in a couple minutes.”

The worm was going 50 mph. Faster than the standard 30, but not nearly fast enough to flip. More, nudged Mike.

Gorn accelerated to 70 mph.

“Hey!” yelled Seth. “What are you doing!”

Carol had been telling the truth. He was now on a course that Seth couldn’t stop him from. Mike’s mark didn’t even require him to answer Seth on this point, or to account for his actions. Not yet, at least. More.

100 mph.

Seth yelled furiously at Mike to stop. Mike ignored the command, relishing his ability to do so, though he feared for his life too. Gorn’s tentacles hardly felt secure. Mike hugged the tusk-like protrusion, Seth gripped his waist, and Gorn hurtled forward in the night sky. Galvanized by new purpose, Mike nudged the worm again.

130 mph.

Without ski masks their faces would have shattered in the icy winds. Seth screamed, ordering Mike to slow the fucking worm down. He slammed his fist into Mike’s side. Mike felt his rib crack. He ignored the pain and continued on the course set out for him. More, faster.

150 mph.

They were well past Hopper’s cabin and the hill by this point, and almost out of Hawkins. Gorn would have to turn and fly back once he flipped —

Do it.

The worm shrieked its satisfaction, pulling above 160 mph, preparing for what it was born to do. Seth clung to Mike, petrified out of his mind. Mike whispered El’s name, praying she was alive.

On the strength of high speed, terror, and desperate appeal, Gorn and his riders vanished from the air; flipped into the Upside Down.

 

She was snared in the branches like spider feed. About ten feet off the ground.

Mike recognized her instantly, despite the untold damage that lined her face. Her eyes were closed; frostbite discolored her cheekbones; her hair straggled as if it were falling out. Since he’d last seen her two nights ago, her beauty had been dismantled by brutality. And yet it hadn’t: she was still beautiful. Mike’s heart ached at the sight of her: Eleven, unconscious, hurt beyond bearing, abused to the verges of madness.

She had been assaulted in her home after leaving him that night — the night she had stabbed him in the heart and in the back (it had felt like both). According to Mr. Carol, Seth and his friends had been waiting for her at the cabin, and Seth had shot her with a tranquilizer. The Illithid had then come to retrieve her. Not to mark her, as it had marked Mike, but to cage her.

“She isn’t susceptible to being marked,” Carol had said. “Her powers protect her from that kind of control.”

“Where did it take her?” asked Mike, panic-stricken.

“To the Tree of Woe,” said Carol. “It’s what I call it. After two days on that tree she’ll be ripe for eating.”

The Tree of Woe. The deputy had plagiarized from the movie Conan the Barbarian, but this tree was worse than a crucifying block. It was a shadow plant, native to the Upside Down that, according to Carol, kept captives unconscious while preparing them to be absorbed: devoured by the Illithid. That preparation was a two-day process: a prolonged nightmare in which the tree injected its sap into victims that altered their biochemistry. El had been altered plenty: she had been on the tree for almost two days. She had only a few hours left of her humanity.

Mike’s mark ruled him, but it placed no restrictions on weeping. Apparently the Illithid had no concept of grief and would never think to prevent it. The sight of what had been done to El sent tears into Mike’s ski mask where they froze. He wanted to leap up, tear her free, and pull the tree out by its cosmic roots.

They lifted their foreheads and played the flashlight beams over the tree and its captive. “Talk to me, Wheeler,” said Seth. He could barely speak through his ski mask. It was colder on the shadow side of Hawkins; much colder than minus 20 degrees. The Illithid’s mark sustained Mike, but Seth’s lips were like rock. He had lost his bluster. He was lucky he hadn’t lost his teeth. If Mike could have done so, he would have smashed them out of Seth’s head. Seth had ambushed El in her home; it was because of him that she was here.

He couldn’t understand how El had survived for an hour like this, let alone forty-three. The tree’s power, or its sap, must have protected its victims from the cold.

Gorn, for his part, was stretched out on the hill, basking in his home atmosphere. Motes twirled and floated in the air. Mike hadn’t seen these motes in over two years, since the underground escapade with the demo-dogs.

They had shot into the Upside Down not far from the hill. The Hill of Evermore is what Mr. Carol had called it; another plagiarism, this time a Led Zeppelin song. “Operation Eleven,” he had said to Mike. “Or Operation Evermore. Think of it however you like.”

Had Carol been implying that this hill was a site of some mythic battle with the shadow world? The Zeppelin song was about that, and it even invoked the Nazgul from The Lord of the Rings. Mike thought of their D&D game three nights ago and shuddered. It was always D&D. Their foul campaigns may as well have conjured all the shadow monsters into existence. The demogorgon. The Mind Flayer. The Illithid. Superstitious bunk… but Mike wasn’t so sure.

What he was sure about was the nature of the tree. Carol had explained that it bridged the Upside Down with the world of humanity. “It’s on both sides of Evermore Hill,” he had said. “But it’s no Gate. You can’t use it to cross between the worlds. Eleven is on the shadow side of Evermore.”

Staring at her now, Mike wondered if there was anyone imprisoned on the tree in his world. That’s where he and Seth were supposed to be right now. To serve the Illithid. The creature was waiting there. It intended to use Evermore as a staging ground for its army.

“Wheeler.” Seth jerked him out of his thoughts. And, as if reading those thoughts: “This isn’t our mission. We’re on the wrong side.”

Mike didn’t take his eyes off El. “Shut up and listen, you shithead.” His anus was a pulverized wreck; his wrist howled agony. He wanted to kill Seth, not insult him. “We’re getting her out of that tree.” Brutal as impact fire, he added, completely against his will, “Or kill her if we can’t.” Mr. Carol’s orders had been clear: Eleven was to be rescued, but killed if she couldn’t be. She could not, under any circumstances, be co-opted by the Illithid. Saving the world took precedence over saving her life.

“I was never told –”

“Seth, I’ll say this once more. Do as I say, or I’ll kill you and feed you to Gorn.” Mike couldn’t do that of course — Seth had protected status as a servant of the Illithid — but he knew Seth couldn’t be sure of that, since Mike appeared to be acting independently. Seth didn’t know that rescuing El was Mr. Carol’s idea. Hopefully he wouldn’t guess.

Mike’s mark would allow him to subdue Seth if he tried to interfere with the rescue operation, but doubtfully to kill him, unless there was no way around it. Frankly, he hoped Seth would defy him. He was itching to learn the boundaries of his mark under these conditions — and to pay back Seth any way he could.

No such luck. Seth wasn’t quite that stupid. He knew he was no match for Mike in his marked state. He was freezing and he was scared — scared of the Upside Down, and of being stranded here. He wanted to get back to Evermore in their world, where events were converging. For now he complied and asked Mike what he should do.

“Keep the flashlight on her,” said Mike. “I’ll get her out.”

He had no idea if he could. He grabbed the lowest branch and swung up to her, reaching through leaves that were impossibly wet. He saw that El’s extremities were gripped by the rubbery branches, and that the end of one branch was jabbed into her neck. He looked carefully at the branch, and saw a sliver of wood that was in her like an I.V. injection. His instinct was to pull it out, but worried that it might kill her. However deadly the sliver was, it was also keeping her alive.

He put his hand on her gently. “El?”

Her body didn’t respond, though she was shivering. He wanted to yank her free and hold her, comfort her, bring her back to awareness. His love for her right then was overwhelming in its desperation. Her face wore its beauty like a bruise. He caressed it, and repeated her name. I need you, El. I need you…

He felt his mind stir, a presence behind it, and realized it was her. Communing with him in the Void. Mike… is that you?

El! he said in the black ether. It’s me. I came for you. I’m here. I’m right here.

More stirring. No… you’re not. You’re part of my nightmare. Leave me alone.

No! I am here, El! To rescue you!

I don’t want you here. Get out of my head.

It crushed him all over again. He had been rejected, plundered of his free will, gang-raped, and now rejected a second time. He cried and begged her to let him help her, save her, take her back… and for her to take him back.

Is that… is it really you, Mike?

Yes, he cried. Please believe me. I’m here for you. I love you, El. Why did you screw me?

Mike… how can you be here? You need to leave. You can’t save me. No one can save anyone. They’re coming. All of them.

What do you mean? Who’s coming —

— and suddenly he was hit with a vision, and almost fell out of the tree. It was bad. El was communing with him; vision-sharing. She had done this sort of thing before, with her mother and Billy Hargrove, when she accessed their memories. Now she applied the reverse direction, allowing Mike to see what she had seen, two days ago, when she was captured and brought to the Upside Down.

He saw creatures of the shadow world. Hordes of them; hundreds, and thousands beyond. Old and new ones. Demo-dogs and demogorgons. Tentacled floating creatures that resembled the D&D creatures called aboleth. Plant-like fungi with jaws full of razor-teeth, shrieking abominably. And standing before them all, the creature in charge of the shadow invasion, worse than the Mind Flayer. A real mind flayer: the Illithid. Eight thralls, with two legs and four arms a piece, like the one that had abused him in the classroom. Mike could tell, just barely, who the thralls used to be: Josie Barrett, Ron Seward, Katie Martin, Harry Graves, Samantha Bacon, Laura Black, Daniel Latimer, Madison Wilder. Students from school. No doubt they had all serviced Headmaster Ogden sexually before being upgraded to this higher form of service.

Mike stared at the shadow army, unable to look away, and the Illithid advanced on him. It swept its arms in an arc, and Mike was blasted with a psychic force that sent him falling, falling, as the horde roared —

— and then he did fall. He landed on his back at the trunk of the tree, and the breath went out of him. El. He looked up, and saw her hanging in the tree unchanged. He wanted her connection back. Her voice and her memories. They were all she had left to give him.

 

Next Chapter: The Hill of Evermore

(Previous Chapter: Down for the Count)

Endless Night (Chapter 5)

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 Five

                         Down for the Count

William Byers knew it would be a bad day as soon as his feet hit the floor. He stepped into the shower, fully expecting the water to turn black and slugs to slide out the drain. Horror had come to Hawkins on Sunday night, and today was Friday. The weekend was about to turn Upside Down.

It was always the way of things — a week cycle, not a day more or less. In ’83 Will had disappeared on a Sunday night and was rescued the following Saturday. In ’84 his possession had escalated on a Monday until he was exorcised on Sunday. In ’85 the flayed horrors went from Friday to Thursday. Always a week, always to the day, each day getting worse, until a demogorgon was killed or a Gate closed.

So he counted on the same pattern in ’87. On Sunday night Mike had seen something terrible. Students were vanishing under predatory headmasters. The Wheeler home had shaken in the fist of a god. Whatever this was all building to, the almighty shit would start hitting the fan, and probably today. Will wasn’t religious, but he prayed in the shower for his family and friends. He had lost his mother; he couldn’t lose anyone else. He was glad Jonathan was in New York, but he wished Hopper was here. Mike and El’s honeymoon be damned.

He let the hot water crash against him forever. Then he dried off, dressed, and ate what he could of Aunt Ruth’s eggs and sausage. He had little desire for food, and even less for his aunt’s bitching. She wouldn’t shut up about the Supreme Court. The justices had come down hard against women who lost their jobs on maternity leave. States, they ruled, did not have to pay them unemployment benefits. While it was illegal to deny women benefits on the basis of pregnancy, the Court had concluded that the woman in question had not been singled out this way; she was denied unemployment benefits not because of her pregnancy, but because she had quit her job voluntarily. The law, in other words, prohibited discrimination against pregnant women; it didn’t require giving preferential treatment to those women who voluntarily left their jobs. To Will that sounded mighty slippery. To Aunt Ruth it was a sophistic outrage.

“I hope Sandra O’Connor gets pregnant and thrown off the Supreme Court, and loses her pension,” fumed Aunt Ruth. O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, had penned the unanimous decision.

“Isn’t she in her fifties?” asked Will, bringing his plate to the sink.

“She’s in a world of men who are idiots,” said Aunt Ruth, slamming the pots and pans she had finished cleaning.

What really had her piles festering wasn’t the Supreme Court decision (much as it galled her), but the nationally televised suicide. Yesterday the state treasurer of Pennsylvania had shot himself with a .357 Magnum in front of a crowd of news reporters. He had been corrupt and called out, and the Magnum was his self-atonement. Aunt Ruth had been offended to the core of her being.

“They shouldn’t be able to broadcast that,” she had said last night, turning the TV off and picking up a romance novel. Will had refrained from pointing out that Harlequin romances were more offensive and mind-damaging than videotaped suicides. Aunt Ruth, bless her soul, was more frustrating than sister Joyce on her best day.

“Do you need a ride today?” she asked, drying her hands with a towel. “Or is Lucas coming?”

“I need a ride to school, but you don’t have to pick me up.” Today Lucas was chauffeuring them after school. He was still feeling his oats, being the only one old enough to drive, and since last week driving his own Mazda MX-6. It would be months before Mike, Dustin, Max, or Will turned sixteen — most of them in the spring or summer.

“Well, do what you want after school, but I want you home by dinner,” said Aunt Ruth.

Will nodded. On this day he had every intention of being home before dark. Naturally that didn’t happen.

 

The first hiccup was Mike’s absence. Shortly before the first bell, they went to the school parking lot and called him. Lucas got his walkie talkie out of the Mazda, turned it on, and asked four times if Mike copied. Mike finally answered, sounding confused and upset. Lucas asked if he was all right; if his house was still standing; if he had spotted the creature of his nightmares. Mike returned feeble negatives. He had a stomach bug and just needed a day in bed.

“I hope it’s not the flu going around,” said Vijay, as Lucas put the talkie back in the car. Vijay was one of their number now and pleased to be accepted.

“I don’t know,” said Dustin. “He sounded weird. He better not be holding back on us still. If the Illithid is after him, he needs help.”

“He has El, genius,” said Lucas. “The best bodyguard on the planet. We’ll go see him after school.”

“Not me,” said Max. “It’s Friday, so El’s staying at my house today. Bring me home first before you all go to Mike’s.”

“Is your mom still cool about this back and forth?” asked Dustin. “She won’t rat you out to Hopper next week?”

“No way,” said Max. “She’s a romantic. She loves that Mike and El are sleeping together so young. Our secret’s safe with her.”

Will didn’t care about Mike and El’s shagfest. He was more worried about Mike’s “stomach bug”, which he suspected was a smoke screen for something worse. It was the sixth day, after all. The storm was coming.

The bell rang, and they went to class.

 

First period was a calamity. Mr. Rice was gone. The history teacher had an immaculate attendance, and students loved him. His absence hit everyone, not just Will, like a moral wrong.

Will looked over his shoulder at Max, two rows down. She was looking out the window, lost in thought. He thought of Lucas, Dustin, and Vijay, in chemistry class now with Mrs. Kjoss. Assuming that Mrs. Kjoss hadn’t vanished too.

The classroom door opened, and Mr. Carol came in. The class president Raymond Olson followed, looking grim. They both stood at the head of the class, Raymond slightly behind the deputy headmaster.

“Mr. Rice won’t be in today,” said the deputy coldly. “He won’t be back at all. And it’s come to my attention that like him, some of you are discussing mutiny.”

No one moved or answered. Slowly, relentlessly, Mr. Carol surveyed the class, looking from face to face. “That you speak mutiny, think mutiny, and plan mutiny.”

Still no answer. Then Max spoke up: “What exactly do you mean by mutiny?”

“Any questioning of Mr. Ogden’s orders or mine, or of any of our decisions, or our behaviors, at any given time, place, or for whatever reason, is mutiny,” the deputy slammed back at her.

“Then I guess I’m guilty of mutiny,” said Max without hesitation.

“Then go get your things out of your locker, and leave the school. You’re suspended for a month.”

Everyone gasped. He can’t do that, thought Will.

Max made a face. “Excuse me?”

“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” said Mr. Carol. “Excusing you. For a month. Starting now.”

“What bullshit!” said Max, standing up. “You can’t suspend me for that. What the hell is this school turning into?”

“I did suspend you, Ms. Mayfield. Just a few seconds ago. And this school is whatever Mr. Ogden and I say it is.”

“You and Ogden can eat shit,” said Max. “You’ll hear from my mom.” She grabbed her books and stormed out of the classroom.

Everyone waited, hardly breathing now. Mr. Carol continued: “Is there anyone else who admits mutiny? Ms. Mayfield won’t be coming back for a long while, despite what she thinks. Well? Anyone?”

Will was glad Lucas and Dustin were in another class. They would have exploded in Max’s defense and been banished alongside her.

The deputy looked them over. Pitilessly. Someone in the middle row shifted uneasily and eyes snapped onto him. The student, a shy sophomore named Brandon Hobbs, wilted in embarrassment.

“What are you afraid of, Mr. Hobbs?”

“Nothing, sir,” said the student, his eyes downcast.

“Good. Then clear out your locker and leave school. You’re suspended too. Because you’re a liar and a sniveling coward.”

Shamed and red faced, the boy left.

Absolute dread stalked them all now. Mr. Carol watched and waited. The air became oppressive, the silence strangely loud. Then, knowing it was his duty, Raymond Olson stepped forward and turned to the deputy. “May I suggest something, sir?” he asked.

“What do you wish to suggest?” asked Mr. Carol.

‘I believe there is no more mutiny in this classroom, and that these students are model –”

“I don’t share your opinion.”

“They’re good students who try their best -”

“Obeying their headmaster is best. Whatever Mr. Ogden says and decides is best.”

Raymond gave up. Will thought he looked like he wanted to hang himself. There was no remorse as Mr. Carol kept looking at him. “Consider yourself suspended for two months,” said the deputy.

Before the shock could register, he shattered the tension in the room: “You will all do as you are told — every worthless one of you.” Then he turned and strode arrogantly from the classroom, slamming the door behind him.

Will never found out what Mr. Rice had done, or what had became of him. What he knew was that Hawkins High wasn’t safe. Anything could happen to anyone, and parents seemed either powerless or clueless. When the final bell rang at the end of the day, Will ran out to the school parking lot as if Lucas’ Mazda were his salvation.

 

Dustin pounded on the door a third time. “Goddammit Mike, are you there?” He turned to the others. “If he’s in bed with her right now, I’m going to shoot him.”

“He’s not in bed with her,” said Lucas. “El is at Max’s. Plus Mike is sick.”

“Mike is a walking hormone,” said Dustin. “A terminal illness wouldn’t kill his sex drive.” He raised his arm to pound the door again — and then Mr. Wheeler opened it. He stood there looking put out, and did a double-take when he saw Vijay.

“About time,” said Dustin. “Is Mike upstairs?”

“He is,” said Mr. Wheeler, clearly wanting them all to leave.

“He wasn’t at school today,” said Lucas. “Is he sick?”

“You could say that.”

Will wasn’t sure whose father was worse, his or Mike’s. One was a raging asshole, the other a useless automaton. He almost preferred the asshole. At least Lonnie Byers showed signs of life.

“Could you elaborate?” asked Lucas.

“El broke up with him,” said Mr. Wheeler.

“What?!” they all shouted.

“She left the house last night. Mike hasn’t taken it well.”

“Are you shitting us?” said Dustin.

“Language!”

They were through with Ted Wheeler at that point. They barged past him and raced up the stairs to Mike’s room. Lucas pounded on his door, calling his name. There was no answer.

“Mike!” said Lucas again. “We’re coming in, okay?” He turned the knob and pushed the door wide open. They all looked inside.

“What the bloody hell?” said Dustin.

The bedroom was an arctic den. There was broken glass everywhere, from the window barely boarded up. It felt maybe a few degrees above freezing. Mike wasn’t there.

“What happened here?” asked Vijay.

“The break-up from hell is what happened,” said Dustin.

Will shuddered, as much from the mess as the cold. Mike hasn’t taken it well. So crushed at being dumped that he smashed his window in the middle of winter? Will couldn’t see it.

Then he did. El. This had “psychic tantrum” written all over it.

Lucas had already left the room and was moving down the hall. The others hurried after him.

They found Mike in Nancy’s room. He was on his sister’s bed, curled on his side. He looked utterly devastated. His eyes were red from crying. He started up again as soon as Lucas sat down next to him.

“What happened?” asked Lucas.

“She left me,” sobbed Mike. “She left me, Lucas.” He clutched Lucas’ jacket: “What did I do? Why did she do this? Why, Lucas?”

“Mike, calm down,” Lucas tried prying Mike’s hands from him. He had to use all of his strength. Will noticed that Mike’s arms were like rods of iron. Lucas strained and finally lifted the hands from him. He hugged Mike to his chest. “Come on man, we’ll figure this out.” They sat like that on the bed as Mike unloaded his grief. He had been shattered. Will remembered the summer breakup in ’85. That had been a juvenile spat for which Will had no sympathy whatsoever. Hell, he had rejoiced when El dumped Mike back then. Mostly because he resented Mike and Lucas having girlfriends. This — whatever this was about — was on another level entirely. El had effectively put a knife in Mike’s heart, and apparently out of the blue.

“Jesus,” said Dustin. “I never thought I’d see this day.”

“Me neither,” said Will. “I thought they had a no-dumping pact.”

“They did,” said Lucas. “Something serious must have happened. I mean, she must have dumped him for real. Mike, listen to me: do you have any idea at all why she did this?”

“No,” Mike cried. “She won’t say. I don’t think she likes me anymore.” Everyone was choked up now, even Vijay. Mike’s distress overtook him and he began shaking.

“Shit — Mike.” Lucas couldn’t calm him down. “Help me, Dustin.” Dustin got on the bed and with Lucas held Mike down as best they could. Will watched, upset. He had never seen Mike this traumatized — nor so strong. He was thin as a wire, but his arm muscles bulged as he struggled against Lucas and Dustin. Christ, he’s been lifting weights.

“Will,” said Lucas. “Go into the bathroom and get Mrs. Wheeler’s meds.”

“What?” asked Will. The death pills? “Are you crazy?”

“You heard me. I think they’re in a red plastic container. In the mirror cabinet over the sink. Go, man, go!”

Will bolted out of the bedroom, and down the hall into the bathroom. He opened the mirror cabinet and immediately saw what Lucas had described: a red container of pills with white print on it. Mike often bitched about his mother’s use of dangerously strong sedatives on top of her drinking. Mrs. Wheeler was probably passed out in her room right now. But Lucas was right. Mike needed sedation.

He took a pill from the container, poured cold water into a plastic glass, and hurried back to Nancy’s room. Mike was delirious. “I want to die, Lucas. I’m not the same anymore.” He sounded demolished, confused, and lost.

Lucas took the pill from Will. “Settle down,” he said to Mike.

“What does he mean, he’s not the same?” asked Dustin, whose face was beet red from restraining Mike.

“I love her, Lucas,” wept Mike.

Lucas held the pill to Mike’s lips. “Here, take this — no, stop fighting. Swallow it.”

It took almost five minutes before Lucas and Dustin could get Mike to take the sedative. He drank water from the cup as Will held it to his mouth. He got drowsy within minutes, and his sobbing lessened. Lucas took off his shoes and they all put him under Nancy’s blankets.

“We’ll figure this out,” repeated Lucas. “Just get some rest.” Mike’s eyes were already closing as he leaned back on Nancy’s pillow.

“What now?” asked Will.

“What now is we find El,” said Lucas. “That bitch has some explaining to do.”

“We shouldn’t leave Mike alone,” said Dustin. “His parents are here, but they don’t really count.”

“I can stay with him,” said Vijay.

“Will you do that?” asked Lucas.

“Yeah, absolutely. I’d rather not be involved in confronting El. It sounds like private stuff between you guys.”

“Thanks, dude,” said Dustin.

They left Vijay with Mike. On their way out of the house they heard Holly in the living room pestering her father. Will was uneasy. He had sensed something off about Mike — that he was disoriented for a reason that went beyond heartbreak. And since when was he so strong?

“So where are we off to?” he asked, as they walked over the front lawn to Lucas’ car.

“Max’s,” said Lucas. “That’s where El is.”

“Yeah, and she’ll be there until Monday now,” said Dustin. That was Hopper’s return date from Oregon. “The honeymoon is over.”

“Wait a minute,” said Will, realizing something. “The honeymoon was over last night. Mr. Wheeler said that El left the house last night. Wouldn’t that mean she went to Max’s last night? Why didn’t Max say anything to us today?”

“Well, she was suspended in first period, so we didn’t see her much,” said Dustin.

“We saw her before class started,” said Lucas. “She was with us in the school parking lot when I called Mike, and she told us that El would be at her house today. She didn’t say anything about this breakup or El coming over last night. There’s no way she wouldn’t have mentioned that. Unless…” He swore, and got the walkie talkie from the car.

“You could use the phone inside,” said Will.

“No, I’m not calling her on the phone. I don’t want her to know we’re at Mike’s yet.”

“Why not?” asked Will.

Lucas ignored him. “Max, it’s Lucas. Do you copy?”

They waited, leaning against his car.

“How did she get home from school today?” asked Dustin.

“I’m sure she called her mom,” said Lucas. “And I’m sure the drive home was nasty.”

Will agreed. Max’s mother would have taken the school’s side and assumed the worst of her trouble-making daughter. No one got suspended for a month without cause. Unless you lived in town like Hawkins.

“Max, I say again, this is Lucas. Do you copy?”

The talkie crackled as Max answered: “Lucas, what do you want? Over.”

“How are things with your mom? Over.”

“Don’t even fucking ask. She grounded me. Like that’s going to stop me from doing anything. Over.”

“That shit at school,” said Lucas. “There’s no way Ogden and Carol can get away with what they’re doing. But we’re looking for El right now. Is she with you? Over.”

“No, she’s probably not coming today, with Mike being sick. Over.”

“How does she get there?” asked Lucas. “On these Tuesdays and Fridays? Over.”

“She rides her bike.” There hadn’t been a serious snowfall in Hawkins for weeks now. “She’s usually here waiting for me when I get home from school. But she’s obviously not coming today. I’m going to call her in a few minutes.”

The boys looked at each other. If El wasn’t with Max — if she hadn’t stayed with her last night — then she must have gone home to Hopper’s cabin and stayed there alone. She wasn’t supposed to do that (Hopper didn’t want her by herself while he was gone), but then she wasn’t supposed to be over at Mike’s banging his brains out either.

“We’re actually on our way to Mike’s now, to see how he’s doing,” said Lucas. “We’re just about there. I’ll call you back and let you know. Over and out.”

Lucas put the talkie in his coat pocket.

“Just what the hell are you doing?” asked Dustin.

“Max could be lying,” said Lucas. “I want a head start to Hopper’s cabin before we tell her that El isn’t at Mike’s and that she dumped him.”

“Why?” said Dustin.

“You think she’s lying?” asked Will.

“I’m not saying she’s definitely lying, but it wouldn’t surprise me,” said Lucas. “Girls close ranks in situations like this. Remember when El dumped Mike two summers ago? Max took her under her wing and practically declared war on all of us.”

“Uh, not me,” said Dustin.

“No, you were off eating ice cream and playing with commies at the mall.”

“This is different, Lucas,” said Will. “When El dumped him before, it was over a stupid misunderstanding.”

“Girls stick together no matter what,” said Lucas. “I could be wrong — but I’m going to find out for myself.”

 

Minutes later they were speeding down Water Street.

“Will you slow down, for Christ’s sake?” said Dustin. “You’re going way above the speed limit.”

Lucas didn’t slow down. He burned down Water Street and cut onto Washington which would put them on Randolph. He cut a corner too fast.

Dustin swore. “Promise me something, Lucas. If Max ever dumps you, don’t flip out on us like Mike just did.”

“Will you shut up?” said Lucas. “Give me one of those.” He pointed to the six-pack of New Coke at Dustin’s feet. They had stopped at a 7/11 earlier, between school and the Wheeler home. Dustin pried a can from its plastic ring, opened it for Lucas, and then handed it to him. Keeping his eyes on the road, Lucas guzzled the soda in huge swallows.

“How you drink that shit,” said Dustin. “But seriously, don’t ever go crazy on us. Mike scared me back there.”

“Max dumps me so often that I’d probably flip out like Mike was doing if she asked me to marry her. Our relationship isn’t like Mike and El’s. We’re not that intense with each other.”

Mike and El are beyond intense with each other,” said Will from the back. “They’ve been treating this honeymoon like a real marriage.” For the hundredth time in his life, Will was glad he had no interest in girls.

“Well, they’ve been banging each other since Christmas,” said Dustin. “No wonder Mike is so upset.”

“He seemed sick,” said Lucas. “But not from the flu.”

“People get sick from break-ups,” said Dustin. “And suicidal. Mike was saying he wants to die. He probably didn’t mean it — people say shit like that — but we have to keep an eye on him.”

“One of us should stay with him tonight,” agreed Lucas. “Not Vijay. He’s already doing over and above.”

“I’ll stay with him,” said Will. “Did you guys notice how strong he is? Did you see his arm muscles?”

“You could say we noticed,” said Lucas. “We could barely hold him down. Has he been working out?”

“I’m not aware,” said Dustin. He paused and looked at Lucas. “Have you and Max ever? I mean, it’s not my business, but I’m just curious.”

“We haven’t done it yet. I want to, but I’m not obsessed about it.”

“Well, take my advice and stay a virgin. Sex obviously makes you way too vulnerable.”

Lucas drove down Randolph until they hit the intersection at Cherry. Max lived in this area only two blocks up. “I’m calling her again,” he said, taking out his talkie.

“I still don’t understand what you’re doing,” said Dustin.

Will thought he did. Max is going to be pissed. 

“Max!” said Lucas. “Do you copy?”

Static hissed on the talkie, and then Max answered: “Lucas, is she at Mike’s? Over.”

“That’s a negative. Over.”

“Then where the hell is she? Over.”

“We’re on our way to Hopper’s cabin,” said Lucas. “Can you meet us there? Over.”

“Is that where she is? Over.”

“We don’t know. El didn’t stay at Mike’s last night. She broke up with him and they had a bad fight. But she’s not answering at home. Over.”

“Are you fucking serious?” Max sounded stunned. “Why did she break up with him? Over.”

To Will, that sounded like an honest reaction. But it was hard to tell over the static of the walkie talkie.

“She wouldn’t give Mike an explanation,” said Lucas. “He’s practically suicidal right now. Vijay is staying with him. Can you meet us at Hopper’s? I mean, I know you’re grounded. Over.”

“If you think being grounded is going to stop me, you’re crazy. I’m on my way. Over and out.”

Lucas looked relieved — and then the talkie blared to life again:

“Wait, hold on,” said Max. “Can’t you pick me up in your car? Over.”

Lucas turned off the talkie without answering. Completely off.

Dustin looked over at him. “You’re in a motherlode of shit, dude.”

They reached the intersection of Randolph and Kerley, and Lucas headed down Kerley until they reached the dirt road to the woods and Hopper’s cabin. Will remembered the night of July 4, 1985. The Mind Flayer had demolished the cabin and bitten El’s leg. Reparations and healing had taken months.

The cabin loomed in front of them. Lucas pulled up and killed the engine. They couldn’t see any lights on in the windows. But it was still an hour and a half before dark.

They stepped out of the car and called Eleven’s name. It felt even colder in these woods: low twenties instead of high. Will suddenly remembered the forecast. Tomorrow and Sunday were supposed to be brutally cold — a high of 3 and a low of minus 5. They would need ski masks if they went outdoors.

“El!” called Lucas. There was no movement in the windows. They walked up the porch and knocked on the door. No answer.

“Well, shit,” said Dustin.

“Just as I thought,” said Lucas, turning away from the door. “You guys stay here and wait for Max. She’ll be biking over here now. I’m going to backtrack to her place and make sure El isn’t hiding there. I’ll be right back. Tell Max whatever you want — that I had to pick up Erica at the dentist.”

“She’s going to rip you a new asshole,” said Dustin. “Whether you’re right or wrong. But especially if you’re wrong.”

Will hardly heard them. He felt something weird and ineffable. The air was too still and the silence somehow oppressive. He couldn’t explain it.

“I don’t care how pissed she gets,” called Lucas, walking back to the Mazda. “I’m pissed. At El. And at Max, if she’s hiding El.”

“Guys,” said Will, trying to ignore his unease. “El could be inside and just not answering us.”

“Then break inside,” said Lucas. “That’s what I’d do.” He got in the Mazda and drove off.

“Break into the cabin?” asked Dustin. “Jesus. You up for that, Byers?”

“No way,” said Will. He wasn’t breaking and entering a sheriff’s home.

“Okay, go out back. There are two windows that look into El’s room. See if you can peek through the curtains and see anything. I’ll look into the windows out here and on the sides.”

Will went around back to El’s bedroom windows. One of them was impossible to see into, but the curtains on the second had been carelessly drawn. He peered between a crack and strained to see. El’s room looked vacant. The bed was made and things looked tidy. There were no lights on and no sign of El.

He backed away and stared at the cabin, wondering if Lucas was right. Suddenly he heard a noise to his right, and turned. “Dustin?” He held his breath and stood frozen, looking into the woods. “Is someone there?” He waited for almost a full minute. You were hearing things.

Like hell he was. He hurried back out front and called Dustin — and almost shat his pants when he saw the front door open. He went up on the porch and called Dustin again.

Dustin appeared in the doorway, looking grim. “It was unlocked. She’s not here.”

“What do you mean, it was unlocked?” asked Will, his nerves dancing. Neither Hopper nor El would ever leave their home unsecured.

“Just what I said. And someone’s been inside drinking Hopper’s beer. There’s an empty can on the table and another one on the counter half full. I don’t think Hopper would have left the place like that.”

“So what do you think happened?” asked Will, feeling sick.

“I don’t know, but — oh shit, here comes Max.”

Will turned and saw Max coming down the hill on her bike. She was bundled up and wearing a ski mask for winter riding. She braked to a halt, got off, and leaned her bike against a tree.

“Hey Max,” said Dustin, waving at her from the porch.

Max tore off her mask and came up the porch. “Where’s Lucas?”

“Uh, he’s somewhere –” began Dustin.

“He’ll be back in a few minutes,” said Will. And Max will kick the shit out of him.

“Why did he turn off his walkie talkie on me?”

Dustin and Will stared, not knowing what to say.

She was about to yell at them, and then saw the open cabin door. “Where’s El?”

“She’s… not here,” said Dustin.

Max pushed past them and barged into the cabin. Will and Dustin waited on the porch as she went through all of the rooms, calling El’s name. Dustin used his hand to mime his neck getting sliced. They heard Max swear as she kicked a can of beer (a third one unnoticed by Dustin) that must have been left on the floor.

Then she came out, eyes blazing. “I’m in no mood for shit. Where’s Lucas and what’s going on?”

“He’ll be back shortly,” said Dustin. “And we’d really, really, really rather let him explain.”

They waited on the porch and Max seethed. Soon the Mazda came barreling through the woods and slammed to a halt. Lucas got out. He saw the front door to the cabin open, and his face turned into a thundercloud. “Where is that bitch?” he yelled.

“Jesus, Lucas!” yelled Max, stepping off the porch to confront him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“She’s not here, Lucas,” said Will. “The door was unlocked. But there’s no one inside.”

“Are you serious?” he asked.

“I take it you didn’t find her either?” asked Dustin.

Lucas shook his head.

“Where were you looking for her?” asked Max.

“At your place.”

“What?!”

“You heard me. You got protective of El when she dumped Mike before. I had to be sure.”

“I swear to God, Sinclair, I’m going to break your face. Did you go into my house uninvited?”

“Of course not,” said Lucas. “Your mom let me in, like she always does. And I went into your room, like I always do. And I asked your mom if she’d seen El last night or any time today.” He looked up at Will and Dustin. “She was never there.”

Max was enraged. She grabbed Lucas by his coat collar and pulled him up close. “You piece of shit, if you go behind my back again like that, you and I are through.”

“But El never came to you, right, Max?” asked Dustin. “You haven’t seen her at all?”

“I already told you, and you just heard it from Asshole’s mouth. I haven’t seen her since our D&D game Wednesday night. She hasn’t been at my place since Tuesday night.”

Lucas removed Max’s hand from his throat. “Max, I’m sorry, okay? But we’re desperate here. I’ve never seen Mike the way he is now. El really put a knife in him.”

Max pushed his hand away. “Well, maybe she had good reason.”

“Are you serious? With no explanation? After how tight they’ve been?”

“That’s according to Mike,” said Max. “Maybe she gave him a reason and he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

“What reason could that possibly be?” asked Will.

“Oh, I’ll be sure and ask her that, Will, before I smash her face in,” said Lucas.

“Lucas!” said Max, appalled.

“Don’t ‘Lucas’ me! Mike was ready to kill himself when we found him!”

“She’s not here, Lucas! And she’s not at my place — as you saw with your own eyes! Something’s happened to her.”

“What if the Illithid got her?” asked Will.

“No one has seen the Illithid except Mike,” said Lucas, “and that was in his dreams.”

Max was furious. “With all the insane shit going on, and you question that?”

“I’m just saying –”

There was a sudden noise in the woods, and they all jumped. They looked and saw movement behind the trees. There was a low growling noise.

“Guys!” yelled Dustin, pointing.

Lucas was already reaching for the slingshot at his belt. “Who’s there?” he yelled. “El, is that you?”

It was not El. It was a pitch-black obscenity. It gangled out of the brush and roared, and Will almost voided his bowels a second time. The thing had two legs and four arms, and its body looked broken backwards as it clambered forward with its face upside. Lucas and Max were in its path, and they screamed and jumped backwards.

“Holy shit!” yelled Dustin, running down the porch steps and picking up the nearest stick.

Lucas had drawn his slingshot, his reflexes fast. He fired at the creature, the snap of his sling cracking in the cold air. The sling stone smashed into the thing’s mouth — destroying two of its teeth. Will saw that Lucas would pay for that. The beast vomited fury and scrambled for him with amazing speed.

Max threw a rock at it, as Dustin leaped forward with his stick. The creature paused its advance on Lucas and swiveled its head on both sides, sizing up Max and Dustin. Will remained frozen on the porch, not knowing what to do.

Dustin shattered his paralysis: “Will! Hopper’s rifle! Get it! Get it!”

Will turned and ran inside the cabin. The gun was hanging on the wall. Hopper was vigilant as ever in protecting his daughter. Will grabbed the rifle, hurriedly checking to be sure it was loaded. Then he heard Lucas scream horribly, and he hurried back out, praying none of his friends would die. He thought of his mother.

On the ground, Lucas was struggling under the creature, pinned by two of its arms. The slingshot was on the ground. Max screamed Lucas’s name, and Dustin used his stick to club the beast. He may as well have been swatting a house.

Will aimed the rifle. He remembered the last time he had held a gun like this — in his tool shed, when he was twelve. The night it all started. When El opened a rift and Hawkins became a playground for the shadow world. A playground that eventually got his mother killed.

“Shoot it, Will!” screamed Max. The beast’s jaws were about to tear Lucas’ neck apart.

Will fired. Rage shook the air as the bullet smashed into the creature’s body. Purplish blood sprayed across dead leaves and dusty snow.

“Shoot it again!” said Dustin.

The recoil had almost floored Will, and for once in his life he was grateful for his father. Lonnie Byers had been a terrible parent in every way. Lonnie Byers had believed that boys should man up and be gun-trained before the age of ten. Lonnie Byers had made his son cry killing his first squirrel. On this day, William Byers praised that shitty parenting.

He pulled and fired again. The creature flipped upward, and fell on its back that looked like its front. It moaned like a groaning grandpa on death’s door. Lucas scurried away out of reach. Will pulled and fired a third time. The bullet slammed into the creature’s neck; it moaned a last time, and then didn’t move.

Will slowly lowered the shotgun as Max rushed over to Lucas. “Are you okay?” she asked.

Lucas nodded. “Those teeth…”

“It’s dead, don’t worry,” she said, pulling him on his feet.

“Oh shit,” said Dustin. He was staring at the creature’s corpse. “No, no. That’s just wrong.”

“What?” said Lucas. “What is it?”

“Look,” said Dustin, pointing at the black face.

“Holy shit!” said Max.

Lucas didn’t see it. “What’s so awful?”

Will walked closer. He couldn’t see it either — and then he did. Jesus Christ. He wished he lived far away from Hawkins, where things like this didn’t happen. Above the creature’s mouth was a patch of translucence showing the vague contours of a human face. It was a face he recognized. The hideous thing they had just killed was — or used to be — the poor student whom Mike had seen giving Headmaster Ogden a blowjob.

“It’s Jack Grist,” said Will.

Lucas saw it and swore.

Will was undone by himself. He fell to the ground and threw up. He’d have nightmares for weeks. I killed him. I killed Jack. Knowing that wasn’t really true didn’t matter. Jack Grist may have been killed by shadow forces invading Hawkins, but it was Will Byers who had sent him to the grave.

He felt Max’s arms around him. He shook and she held him. “You helped him, Will,” she said. “He must have been in hell, living like that.”

“I hope there’s no doubt about this now,” said Lucas. “We have a shadow invasion on our hands.”

“We need the police,” said Max, helping Will up.

“The police?” asked Dustin. “Callahan and Powell are the police, and those guys don’t know shit from shine. And Hopper won’t be back until Monday. I think it’s up to us.”

“As usual,” said Lucas. “Do we ever get paid for saving this town?”

“We need El, is who we need,” said Will, wiping his mouth.

“There’s no sign of her?” asked Lucas.

“We found the door unlocked and signs of someone else inside. Someone, maybe two or even more people, were drinking Hopper’s beer.”

“They were waiting for her,” said Will. “And they got her. And then left this creature behind patrolling the woods.” But why? Had it been guarding something?

“So who are they working for?” said Max.

“Governor Whore?” suggested Dustin, unable to resist.

Lucas smacked the back of his head. “They were from the school, obviously. Working for Asshole Ogden — who must be controlled by the Illithid. He and Mr. Carol both.”

“But how they could they have captured El?” asked Max. “She could take on an army.”

“There’s no way to know what happened here,” said Will. “But I’m not feeling good about it.”

“Let’s check the woods,” said Lucas. “This thing, that used to be Jack, was here for a reason.”

“Bring the gun, Will,” said Dustin. “You’re the best shot.”

“Hold on,” said Max. “Are you up for this, Will?”

“Of course,” said Will. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

They all knew why, and it had nothing to do with killing Jack Grist. Will’s mother had been killed during the last Upside Down invasion. Not by the Mind Flayer, but by a Russian soldier. Joyce Byers had died under the Starcourt Mall, as Will and his friends threw fireworks as powerful as rockets in the food court. Every day Will replayed explosions of Satan’s Baby, and imagined an alternative outcome, in which his mother shot the Russian before he shot her. She had gone through hell and back for Will twice before; it was the only reason he was alive. For her to be casually gunned down during the third crisis was something Will had never accepted. He had barely spoken to anyone for months.

He was more than “up for this”. He was going get redress. For his mother, and for El, if she had been done any harm.

Lucas retrieved his sling, and also got his binoculars and a flashlight from the Mazda. It wouldn’t be long until sunset. They stuck together as they swept through the woods, on full alert for ambushes. From the cabin they tried to cover a radius that went beyond a thousand feet. They encountered nothing but trees and brush — until they came to a hill about a third of a mile southwest. The hill was treeless.

“What is this place?” asked Dustin.

“Stay back in the trees,” said Lucas, taking out his binoculars.

Will couldn’t remember El ever mentioning a hill like this near her home.

“Is there anyone up there?” asked Max. “Or anything?” she added.

“I don’t think so,” said Lucas. He got his sling out. “Let’s go up. Be ready with that gun, Will.”

“It’s getting dark, you guys,” said Dustin, as they started hiking.

Will looked at his watch. It was 5:35 PM. Aunt Ruth would be having a conniption. He should have called her at the cabin. They reached the top.

“Wow,” said Dustin.

“What kind of tree is that?” asked Max.

It was a huge tree, the only one on the hilltop, and like no tree they had seen in Hawkins or anywhere: gnarly, thick limbed, and black barked, with dark green leaves that glistened with moisture, even though the air was freezing. The hilltop itself was about a hundred feet long in diameter.

Max called El’s name, and they all looked across the woods from the height of the hilltop, Lucas using his binoculars. They saw nothing, and then turned and walked over to the tree.

“She’s not up here,” said Lucas. “Probably not anywhere around here.”

“Look at this thing,” said Dustin, as they got to the tree. He pulled at a branch and tore off a leaf. “These leaves are wet and it’s freezing.”

“We need to get back,” said Will. “My aunt is going to kill me for not calling.”

“My mom is going through the roof,” agreed Max. “Day one of being grounded.”

“I think we have to tell the police,” said Lucas.

“No shit,” said Max. “Someone broke into the chief of police’s home and abducted his daughter. And we can’t find her.”

Dustin discarded the leaf and renewed his objection. “We are not explaining six-arm Jack to Callahan and Powell.”

“I’ll tell you what we’re doing,” said Lucas. “Max is biking home. She’s already in deep shit. I’ll drop Dustin off at the police station, and then Will at Mike’s, so I can take Vijay home. Then I’ll come back and join Dustin at the police station to back up his story.”

“Which is?” asked Dustin.

“An edited version of all this. We’re not even mentioning the Upside Down. We need results, and those two twits won’t act on any science fiction tales. Basically we tell them that we can’t find Hopper’s daughter, we found their home broken into, and we suspect that Headmaster Ogden is behind it.”

“That he and Mr. Carol are preying on kids,” said Will. “They’re somehow behind the missing students this week, and now El.”

“Exactly,” said Lucas. “We need to get the police to check every room of that school, and the homes of Mr. Ogden and Mr. Carol.”

“What about six-arm Jack?” asked Dustin.

“We’ll drag the body into the woods and cover it with snow and leaves. We’re not saying shit about it to Tweedledee and Tweedledum.”

“That sounds good,” said Max. “And tomorrow we’ll continue doing our own thing to find El. We should probably come back here, for starters. Look around more thoroughly when there’s daylight.”

“With Mike?” asked Will.

“Mike is down for the count,” said Lucas. “He won’t be useful until he gets his shit together.”

“Well, I’m staying with him tonight,” said Will. “I’ll catch him up on everything. Hopefully that will snap him out of it.”

“It’s going to be super cold tomorrow,” said Dustin. “We’ll need layers and ski masks to be outside.”

“Put the gun in my trunk,” Lucas said to Will. “So we’ll have it on hand tomorrow.”

“What about El, you guys?” asked Max.

“I hope she’s alive,” said Dustin.

“If there’s anyone who can get out of a nasty situation on her own, it’s El,” said Lucas.

“It’s been a whole day, Lucas,” said Max. “No one’s seen her since last night.”

“I know that,” said Lucas. “But I don’t know what else we can do tonight. We need to eat and sleep.”

 

It was dark when they returned to the cabin and Will called his aunt. She gave him choruses of holy hell. He explained that he was at the Wheelers and needed to stay overnight with Mike. She refused his absurd request and told him to get home at once. At that moment Will could have shot her with Hopper’s rifle. Controlling his anger, he said that Mike needed a friend to stay with him. He was dumped by his girlfriend; his parents were ineffectual; he couldn’t stop crying. Aunt Ruth relented. She hated Karen Wheeler, and grudgingly approved her nephew offering Mike the support his mother couldn’t.

Max had already left for home on her bike when he hung up the phone. Lucas and Dustin had hauled the six-arm Jack (it was their official name for these creatures; there were bound to be more of them) off into the woods. Lucas called the Wheelers next and apologized to Vijay for them taking so long, and said he was on his way back.

“He’s cool,” said Lucas, hanging up the phone. “He called his parents and said he was having dinner at Mike’s. Mrs. Wheeler gave him some stew, and he ate it in Nancy’s room. Mike’s been sleeping since we left.”

“No sign of the Illithid around his home?” asked Dustin. “Or any six-arm Jacks?”

“Dustin, can you not use Jack’s name like that?” asked Will.

“Fine, you come up with a better name.”

 

Hours later, Will lay in bed holding Mike. Nancy’s nightlight bathed her brother’s face in a soft blueness. He had woken from his sedation but was still groggy.

“What’s wrong with me, Will?” he asked. “Why does she hate me?”

“El doesn’t hate you,” said Will. It was the fifth or sixth time he said it. He was disturbed by what he felt. His arms were around Mike, and Mike was was sheer muscle. He wondered about something. “Mike… you didn’t hit her, or hurt her, did you?”

“No!” said Mike. “I would never hurt El. I would never do that!”

“Okay, I didn’t think so,” said Will. “You’re really strong. Have you been working out?”

“Did she say that I did?” asked Mike.

“What?”

“Did she tell you guys that I hit her?”

“We can’t find her. We’re going to look more for her tomorrow.”

“What’s happening to me?”

“Nothing,” he repeated. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” Something bothered him about Mike’s question, but he was already drifting, the stress of everything that day finally catching up with him. He fell asleep with Mike in his arms.

 

When he woke the next morning, Mike was gone. He was nowhere in the house. It was day seven.

 

Next Chapter: Shadow Side

(Previous Chapter: Under a Raging Moon)

Endless Night (Chapter 4)

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 Four

                         Under a Raging Moon

Mike pounded on the door again. Where are you, asshole? He put his ear to it. Nothing. He checked his watch: 2:40. So much for office hours.

He had come for answers; to confront Ogden about administrative fascism and missing kids. His parents sure as hell weren’t going to do it. But the headmaster was gone and his office locked, as if he’d left for the day. He was usually here until at least 3:30.

Mike lingered for a few minutes and then left by way of the corridor that looped around the teacher’s lounge. As he walked by the room, he spotted two teachers inside, but no one else. He kept walking.

This morning he had finally told the others about the worm. His shadow flight in the Upside Down may have been a dream or hallucination, but the Drapers’ lawn spoke for itself. The police were still investigating the “vandalism”. Lucas had ripped his face for not speaking up.

“Why would you sit on that?” he had demanded.

“Because it’s crazy,” said Mike. “I thought I was dreaming.”

“So on top of the Illithid,” said Dustin, “we have a worm the size of a dragon to worry about.”

Right now Mike was worried about another problem: missing teenagers and hysterical parents. As of today, there were four: Josie Barrett, Ron Seward, Katie Martin, and Harry Graves. No one believed the school had anything to do with it, but Mike couldn’t get Mr. Carol out of his mind. Mr. Carol, frankly, seemed out of his mind. The administrative tyranny of this past week couldn’t be a coincidence. Nor the timing of the shadow threats on Maple Street. Mike was sure it was all related, and by God, Ogden was going to account for himself and his deputy. Except that Ogden wasn’t in his office when he should have been — that, in itself, extremely odd.

Towards the end of the corridor, he heard a cry and stopped. On his right was a stairwell leading to the school basement. The cry had come from below. Mike knew there was nothing down there but the boiler room, a couple of storage areas, and the old janitor’s office. Ron the janitor had been moved to an upstairs office. The rooms below had poor ventilation and got way overheated.

Someone’s down there, and he’s hurt.

Mike descended the stairs. With each step the air grew hotter, and the bottom was a furnace. Blazing heat filled a long fifty-foot hall. In the winter it felt rather nice… for about a minute. Mike was already starting to sweat. The boiler room was down on the left, and storage rooms on the right, but it was the door to the old janitor’s office at the far end that was noticeably wrong. It was closed, which was almost never the case. The room would cook. Light poured out the bottom crack. Someone was in there.

He didn’t want to see behind that door, but he wasn’t about to leave. Whoever was in that room was isolated from the rest of the school. He forced himself to walk down the hall. The boiler thrummed. He reached the door and put his ear to it, cursing the noise of the boiler. He strained to hear. Nothing. Then, after almost half a minute, he did hear something: a low voice followed by a weird moan. Mike strained more. It sounded as if the voice had said that’s it. There was more moaning. What the hell was going on in there?

His heart sounding in his head, and one hundred percent sure he would regret this, Mike turned the knob slowly. He pried the door open a crack, praying it wouldn’t creak. The hinges were silent as ghosts. Mike peeked in. What he saw took him long moments to process. At first he couldn’t make sense of it; then he got it, and, revolted, nearly cried out.

The room was at least ninety degrees, and was empty save for a wooden chair in the center. Mr. Ogden sat on the chair, his side to the door, clutching something in his lap. That something was a student’s head, moving around. The kid was on his knees before the headmaster, his face buried between Ogden’s legs. He was moaning, and as he came up for air, Mike recognized him: a junior named Jack Grist. He seemed dazed and glassy-eyed, though eager to please.

He was giving the headmaster a blowjob.

This was something out of the realm of Mike’s expectation, even in a town as messed up as Hawkins. He watched in disbelief, unable to back off, knowing he must. His intuitions screamed that if he were caught seeing this, the repercussions would be dire. The headmaster was behind something terrible. Was Jack Grist about to join the missing? Or was he in league with Ogden?

Maybe the latter. It looked like Ogden and Grist were enjoying each other — like they were secret homo buddies. Sweat was pouring down the headmaster’s face. His eyelids fluttered and he breathed fast. His spotted hands kept Jack Grist where he was needed for maximal output. Restraint looked unnecessary: the kid was sucking on Ogden’s erection eagerly; greedily.

But then why had Jack cried out? He couldn’t have been in this room when that happened; Mike wouldn’t have heard it. The kid must have been out in the hallway toward the stairs at that point. That cry had sounded like a hurt protest.

But he’s… Christ, he’s enjoying himself. Mike wished with all his heart he hadn’t come down the stairs.

“There,” panted Ogden, thrusting gently in his chair. “It’s coming.” The headmaster was on track for his orgasm — the last thing Mike wanted to witness. But it was the proverbial train wreck; Mike couldn’t blink. Ogden’s thrusts quickened as Jack Grist slobbered over his penis like a starving giraffe. Mike’s stomach lurched. The headmaster gasped, and he told Jack to lift up his head. The boy moaned, sounding confused. Ogden positioned the kid’s face in front of him, and ejaculated. Mike did turn away then, completely nauseated, as a thick jet of semen splatted everywhere over Jack Grist — his eyes, nose, mouth, and shirt collar.

“Beautiful.” The headmaster was holding Jack’s face, examining his dripping achievement. Jack Grist moaned again. Ogden released the kid, and then stood to zip up his trousers.

That was Mike’s cue. He closed the door softly and got the hell out of there.

 

“That’s mental,” said Dustin, when Mike finished.

“That’s disgusting, is what it is,” said Lucas.

“Why do you say that?” asked Dustin.

“Because they’re homos, you idiot.”

The schoolyard was a grave as they argued about what Mike had seen. Whatever was in the Hawkins air, kids and teachers didn’t want to hang around for it. It was cold too, like the past few days. It was supposed to be dangerously cold starting Saturday; below zero plus wind chill. Mike shivered, thinking of frostbite. They would need their ski masks for the week-end.

They would need some sanity besides. He could see that Lucas was revving up on the subject of gay people, and that Dustin and Max didn’t much care for it. Lucas wouldn’t talk like this if Will were around, but Mike was relieved just the same that Will had left. His Aunt Ruth had picked him up for a dental appointment.

“What’s so bad about homos?” asked Dustin.

Lucas spazzed. “What’s so bad about homos? Are you serious? Try and imagine yourself sucking on a penis like Grist did. Or some guy putting his penis up your butt. Tell me that’s not the most disgusting thing you can do with someone.”

“Lucas, that’s stupid,” said Max. Mike knew that she had lived next to gay neighbors in California.

“It’s not stupid!” said Lucas. “It’s gross. I mean, no offense to Will, if he likes guys, but that kind of stuff is just twisted and unnatural.”

They couldn’t figure out if Will was gay or asexual. Mike thought the latter but he wasn’t sure. Two summers ago he had ridiculed Will for his lack of interest in girls, and Will had stormed off in the rain. Castle Byers had paid the price. I’m sorry Will. I was an asshole. And so is Lucas, even though he doesn’t realize it.

“I’m confused,” said Dustin. “Where are gay people supposed to put their penises, if not a mouth or butt?”

Mike cut them off. “You’re both missing the point.”

“I haven’t missed any point,” said Lucas.

“We’re not talking about students blowing each other. This is a school headmaster and a student.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty fucking illegal,” admitted Max.

“I don’t know,” said Dustin. “Jack is a junior. He’s got to be at least sixteen, and that’s the legal age for sex here. It’s not like California, where you have to be an adult.”

“Legal age means shit if the student is forced,” said Mike. He didn’t want to use the word rape, but he had been getting strong coercive vibes watching that blowjob. Mr. Ogden was a domineering man. Mike had heard Jack cry out from the top of the stairs. Had he been pressured into the old janitor’s office against his will? Granted the kid’s groans had sounded like his and El’s when they had sex — like someone drunk on pleasure — but Jack had seemed glassy-eyed and under some kind of spell. What student would willingly blow a man who hated students and was old and ugly as sin?

“I thought you said Jack was enjoying it,” said Dustin.

“I don’t know,” said Mike, feeling sick. “It’s hard to say. It was really weird.”

“There’s a ton of weird shit going on,” said Lucas. “Kids getting punished, suspended for nothing, and disappearing. The class presidents met yesterday and listened to a lot of complaints.”

“There’s a mutiny on the way,” agreed Dustin.

Mutiny, thought Mike. The town was going to hell again.

 

Left. Right. Swaying on the beat. Her hands on his shoulders, his on her hips. Hoping the final days of their honeymoon would last. Here, in this room, to rhythm and desire.

El liked the mix so far — even “Louise”, which accused her. Her own copy of the tape was at Hopper’s. She had brought it home this morning when Mike was at school. The D&D game had preempted any possibility of listening to it last night.

They were reliving the Snow Ball on track three. Same postures, same positions, as if his bedroom were the gymnasium of Hawkins Middle. The stalker song: “Every Breath You Take”. Mike couldn’t wait for “Bring on the Dancing Horses”. When that one played, he would take El on the bed exactly as he had taken her on Christmas Eve. He liked rough sex, but tonight he wanted to recapture the tenderness of their first time.

Sting’s voice faded, and Roger Daltrey started his laments over teenage wastelands. They stopped dancing and sat on the bed. Mike turned the volume down so they could discuss school events. He recounted everything he had told the others.

“I don’t understand,” she said, when he described the blowjob. “What are homos?”

Mike took a deep breath. He was still hearing Lucas’s diatribes. “Homos are weird. They like to have sex with their own gender. You know — guys with guys, girls with girls. Mr. Ogden and Jack are homos.”

She didn’t get it.

“Like, imagine if you weren’t my girlfriend” — for some reason she jumped when he said that — “and that you were in love with Max. And you wanted to have sex with her.”

El was baffled. “How can girls have sex with girls?”

Mike wasn’t going there. “They just do it differently. Same with guys.”

“And they ‘blow’ each other like this? The homos?” She wanted to understand.

“Anyone can blow a guy. Like, you could blow me. But you can’t blow girls.”

That confused her. “So I could be a homo?” she asked. “If I ‘blow’ you?”

“No, no, El. You’re not a homo. You’ll never be.”

She was thoroughly lost.

“Never mind,” he said. “The point is, something wrong is going on at the school.”

“Because of homos,” she said.

“Because of everything. The worm we saw on the Drapers’ lawn. What happened inside the house last night.” My dream the night before, he didn’t add, hating to even think of that nightmare he couldn’t escape. “The missing kids at school. Mr. Carol treating us bad, when he’s always been solid. And now the weird homo shit with Ogden. Maybe he and Mr. Carol are possessed. You know, like Will and Billy were. The Illithid is a real mind flayer. Whatever our first Mind Flayer could do, the Illithid can probably do worse, even if it’s human sized.”

“Mike,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“Was I supposed to ‘blow’ you? Whenever we had sex together?”

Jesus. “No, El. Just forget about it.” Mike didn’t register the past tense she had used. He had actually planned to ask El for a blowjob by the end of the week — a special desert to cap off their honeymoon — but that was completely off the board now. Thinking of blowjobs in any context made him sick. Ogden and Jack Grist had scarred him.

“Mike, I…” she paused, clearly uncomfortable with something she had to say.

“What is it?” he asked. He put his arm around her, but she shifted away. “Hey, what’s wrong?” He reached for her again.

She took his hand and held it. “This vacation. You know it’s been fun.”

“It’s been awesome,” he said. Their eleven days of freedom so far from Jim Hopper had been a sabbatical in paradise. Mike had the best girlfriend in the world, and he was going to marry her someday. But something had been eating at El for well over a month now. Mike had a feeling he was about to find out what it was.

“This,” she said, looking down at the bed and around the room. “It can’t last.”

“Of course not,” he said. When Hopper returned on Monday, they’d be back to sneaking around for sex. “We knew this vacation would spoil us.”

“I don’t mean that,” she said, looking pained. “I mean… we can’t last. Together.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m saying that after this week, maybe we should take a break.”

“Take a break?”

“From each other,” she said.

“I don’t get it. What kind of break do you mean?”

“You know… like… separate. Break up.”

Mike felt like a bowling ball had hit his stomach.

“At least for a while,” Eleven rushed on. “So we can think about things. We’ve been  –”

“Stop,” he said. He felt sick again, but in an entirely different way, like some slow poison was pushing its way through him. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m saying that… we need to be on our own for a while.” The words came out in a torturous tumble. “We’ve been together ever since we met.”

“What do you mean? No, we haven’t. You were hiding out for a whole year when I thought you were dead.”

“I mean aside from that… I had no choice about that.”

He reached over and stopped the music. “El, what’s going on? Why are you doing this?”

“I just think we need a break, is what I’m saying.”

“I thought we agreed no more of this bullshit.” El had dumped him in the summer of ’85, but only for a few days and because they had been manipulated by her jealous father. Hopper had thought Mike was too obsessed with El and warned him to stay away. Terrified of the sheriff’s threats, Mike had started avoiding El, giving her reasons that were obvious lies — to which she had responded by “dumping his ass” on Max’s advice. They had been fourteen years old, still kids really, and Hopper acting like the worst child of all. Since then Mike and El had sworn a no-dumping pact. Break ups were off limits — unless it was for real. If one of them had a very serious reason.

“We swore a pact,” he said.

“I know, but –”

His voice rose. “So why are you doing this?”

“I’m trying… I don’t know!”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“Mike, please, I want to explain. It’s hard for me to explain!”

“What did I do?” he demanded.

“Nothing!” she said. “I feel bad about this. I feel sick.”

She felt sick? His insides felt as if punched by a super flu. Then it dawned on him what she must have meant by that. He felt as if someone had suddenly turned up all the colors and sounds of the world. “What are you saying? That you — what — had sex with some other guy?”

She gaped at him.

“Oh my God,” he said. His stomach almost upended. “Who is he?”

She was shaking her head wildly. “No, no –”

“Do I know him?” he yelled. “Do I fucking know him?”

“Mike, stop it! That’s not it.”

“Tell me who he is! Tell me, you unbelievable bitch!”

“Stop it! I love you!”

“What?!”

“I love you!”

“You what?!”

She couldn’t take being yelled at. She sat on the bed and put her face in her hands, crying.

He grabbed her wrists and yanked her off the bed. “Why would you do this to me?” he yelled in her face. “What’s wrong with you? What is wrong with you? What is –“

She was hysterical now and telling him to stop, to listen, that he didn’t understand.

He shook her violently. “What did I ever do to you? WHAT DID I DO?”

“Nothing!” she sobbed. “I love you.”

“Shut up!” he bellowed. “You don’t fix something you ruined by saying that!”

“Stop yelling at me!” she yelled, pulling away from him.

His rage escalated. “Tell me why!” He didn’t know if he was referring to her cheating on him, or breaking up with him, or both. One yielded the other; they were synonymous. “Why would you –”

“I DIDN’T!”

The poison was in his head now as much as his stomach. “I did everything for you, El. Everything!”

“Did you hear me?” she said furiously. “I would never cheat on you. You’re a jerk for thinking I would!”

“Then what?” he demanded. As far as Mike could see, the alternative was worse. “What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing,” she repeated. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” She reached for an explanation that seemed unfathomably inaccessible. “I… I love you, Mike… but I have things in my life… things I have to deal with.”

Things? She was blowing smoke, unable to speak words that would destroy him. “El, you don’t break up with someone because of ‘things’ going on.”

“I have to,” she cried.

“Just say it: you don’t love me.” He was crying now too, as he realized the simple truth. “You haven’t loved me for over a month now.”

“No!” She was wild-eyed. “That’s not true!”

“Then what?” he yelled at the top of his lungs. “What did I do?”

“Mike, stop yelling –”

“Is it when we’re in bed?” he asked, groping desperately to understand the widening abyss. “Do I hurt you?”

“No! I love being in bed with you.”

He believed her on this point. She always responded wildly when they had sex. But that again left a worse alternative: “So it’s just me then. You don’t like me.”

“You’re not listening to me!”

“I’m listening, you bitch, and you’re saying shit! Tell me why you don’t like me!”

She broke down completely then, and reached out to hug him.

He pushed her away. “Don’t touch me!” He was crying furiously. “You’re a shitty person! You’re a lousy, shitty –”

The bedroom door crashed open, and his father burst in. His mother hovered behind him in the hallway, looking terrified. She was drunk as usual at this time of night, but the din of World War III from this room had sobered her.

“What’s going on in here?” Ted Wheeler had never sounded so animated and angry.

“Get out of here!” Mike screamed at his father.

“Michael, lower your voice! Both of you! The whole house can hear! Holly’s in her room scared!”

“Holly can fuck herself!”

“Language!” shouted Ted Wheeler.

“I said get out!”

“Michael, listen to us!” said Karen Wheeler, still in the hallway. “Let El go. She needs to leave. And you need to calm down before you hurt someone. Or yourself.”

“Who are you?” spat Mike. “Get away from me.”

“Act civilized, Michael,” said his father. “We raised you better than this.”

Mike lunged. All the violence he had held in check was let loose in a sudden barrage: he threw himself at his father, raining blows on him, driving him backwards toward the door.

“Michael, stop it!” His father was heavier and even taller, but Mike was pummeling him on the strength of rage and betrayal. He wanted to tear El apart, so he assaulted his father instead. And quite effectively: it wasn’t looking good for Ted Wheeler.

“Ted, let it go!” said his mother, alarmed. “Just leave him.”

“Get out of my room!” said Mike, pushing his father into the hall.

His parents backed off, shocked out of their minds, and Mike slammed the door. He turned back to El.

She was sobbing and begging Mike to calm down. Mike stormed over to the stereo box, and slammed his fist down on the “eject” button. The cassette flipped out. He seized it and began furiously yanking the tape out. He tore it apart. He cried and kept pulling it out. El went hysterical. She grabbed him and told him to stop. Mike kept pulling out the brown strip and tearing it to pieces. His crying became uncontrolled, and his hands shook as he held the mix he was destroying. The mix he had made for her; that he had poured every atom of his love into. She had flushed that love down a sewer.

“Mike, don’t do this… please stop… please…”

In fury he slammed the cassette on his desk and grabbed his desk lamp. Lifting the lamp high above his head, he brought it down on the cassette, crushing it. Tears flew as he hurled the lamp against the wall, leaving a huge gash. El kept crying. He would have done the same to her copy of the tape, but it was at Hopper’s. She had taken it home that morning. That enraged him even more. He grabbed her and pulled her up close: “You tore out my heart! You tore it right out! You fucking killed me!” He let go of her and fell to his knees. He had never cried like this in his life. “Why?” he sobbed. “Why would you do this to me? Why –“

Her scream exploded the bedroom window. Shards of glass flew everywhere. Mike instinctively ducked, throwing up his arms to protect himself. Freezing air blew into the room, cold as the night it came from. He looked up to see the ceiling lights flickering. For one second, and then three. Then they went out.

He stood up and called to her in the black cold: “El?”

Something made noise by the shattered window. A thick flapping noise.

“EL!”

He could hear her sobbing. Traitor. He remembered Lucas’s old accusations, and the day she saved his life at the quarry. I’m the monster, she had said, weeping. He shouldn’t have corrected her; should never have defended her against Lucas.

He said her name again but she wouldn’t answer. Vowing violence, he felt his way to the bedroom door and opened it. The hallway outside was pitch black. El’s tantrum had killed the power everywhere. Footsteps pounded not far away: his parents, mad and hollering. Holly was babbling down in her room. Mike thought he heard footsteps next to him. He reached out, feeling no one.

He went back in the bedroom. “El, answer me.” It was freezing. The air blowing in from outside must have been 15 degrees. “Answer me, I said!”

The lights returned all of a sudden, and Mike stood gaping. Glass was everywhere. El was gone.

“El!” he called. It must have been her footsteps moving past him in the hallway. She was probably downstairs. He wanted her the hell out of his house.

He left to chase after her. A thudding noise followed from the bedroom as soon as he entered the hall, but he paid it no mind. His father was down in Holly’s room. His mother’s voice drifted up from downstairs. Mike stopped at the balcony to listen. She was having words with El, and they didn’t sound pretty. El was crying again, defenseless against Karen Wheeler’s venom. Mike was ready to kill them both.

Something shuffled behind him, and he spun around. And almost died in shock. A creature in a robe stood before him, and it was the face of his dream two nights ago. An octopus-like head; four tentacles sliding over a lamprey-like mouth; eyes burning with acidic hate. The Illithid. Mike went rigid as he felt himself swathed in a cocoon of some terrible power. The Illithid was holding up a claw, and its eyes blazed. Mike didn’t know it was possible for anything to hate so purely. The monster shifted, radiating the cold of Caina. Mike couldn’t move; couldn’t speak or breathe. In the corner of his mind being taken over, he appealed to a lost salvation: El! Help! Come back!

There was no coming back. The dream had seen this too. He was unworthy of her; inadequate in some way she couldn’t explain. It ruined him in a stroke.

Mom! He wept like a child as he felt himself being forged anew, molded to some unseen purpose. Dad!

The creature spoke in his blood: I am your mother-father. I give you everything. Its eyes swelled and became Mike’s world.

No… no… let me go… I’m just a kid… He was no such thing. Mike Wheeler was a veteran savior of Hawkins. And the Illithid knew it. It was here for bloody payback.

As Mike slowly understood what was happening to him, he saw the creature’s purpose — and the terrible role it had crafted for him.

Defying new imperatives, screaming in the cage of his mind, he willed Eleven to run, to flee the house, to get away from his mother —

The Illithid blew fury, and a sonic blast ripped through the Wheeler house. Down by the front door, his mother cried out, alone. Another tremor shook the house, and then stopped.

El had already left.

 

Next Chapter: Down for the Count

(Previous Chapter: In the Depths of Dol Guldur)

Endless Night (Chapter 3)

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 Three

                        In the Depths of Dol Guldur

Looking back on it later, Mike felt they had brought the whole shadow invasion down on their heads — the Illithid, the shadow worms, the bombing of Hawkins’ Police Station — with that stupid Southern Mirkwood campaign. Breaking into Sauron’s home was the ultimate orgasm for a D&D player, but by going against one Dark Lord, they had channeled another. Mike was convinced of this, and he carried that conviction to both of his graves.

Lucas would have scorned such superstition. Will was obliged to agree with Mike: he had born the brunt of the Upside Down’s terrors, and those too started with a D&D game.

But on that Wednesday night of January 21, 1987, demogorgons and shadow monsters were the last thing on Mike Wheeler’s mind. All he knew was that Vijay Agarwal had a module called Southern Mirkwood. The module mapped out Sauron’s mountain — the domain of the Lord of the Rings himself — in complete sadistic detail. To not play it would have been a criminal waste; Mike would have regretted it.

He regretted it anyway. And wondered how things might have turned out otherwise.

For now he lived it up in his basement with his friends and the new guest. Bona fide nerds, high on camaraderie. Armed with dice, character sheets, dungeon master screens, and the obligatory junk food. Eager to kill orcs and the vilest creatures in the abyss of Dol Guldur — the worst place to be in Middle-Earth. Only true Tolkien fans knew that Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, spent most of the Third Age living not in Mordor, but Mirkwood Forest, where he called himself the Necromancer. His mountain of Dol Guldur was reached by a stone stairway that went up the mountain’s outer face, and then, from the top, descended down into his lifeless domain.

Vijay had outlined their mission in advance. The year was 1321, early in the Third Age. They were hired by the Rhovanian King to rescue his son the Prince, who was captured by orcs and imprisoned in the Necromancer’s mountain. Their party was six: Mikael the paladin (Mike); Elia the elf mage (El); Luc the ranger (Lucas); Dulin the dwarf warrior (Dustin); High Priest Will the Wise (Will); and Maisie the hobbit thief (Max).

It was a suicide mission, warned the king in fairness, for no one escaped Dol Guldur alive, far less had the balls (or stupidity) to break into. But he would reward them handsomely if they succeeded, and, after all, what high-level characters didn’t thrill to the dare of a “suicide mission” in Dungeons & Dragons?

By God, Mike was looking forward to this.

 

Red Fangs lay dead. And deep in the mountain’s bowels, Sauron stirred from meditation. Something had broken his thoughts, disrupted his brooding; a source of power he couldn’t define. It seemed as if half-forgotten dreams rose from his thoughts… and then fury seized him. There were intruders in his mountain. He linked his mind to Khamul up on level three, and gave the Nazgul clear orders: the infiltrators were to be caught at once; slain if necessary.

Mike and the other players were unaware of this, but they knew something was coming. El had used her spells. She had killed the Great Warg; her magic would rouse the Necromancer. They had poked the Lord of the Rings, killed his favorite pet — and were about to pay the drastic price.

“Time to shag ass,” said Dustin.

“Up the main shaft?” asked Will.

“No choice,” said Mike, not liking it, but seeing no alternative. They had found what they came for, and the mission was a bust.

“Okay,” said Vijay. “As you leave the guard room, you hear distant shouts and clamor. It’s sounds like a lot more orcs mobilizing somewhere.”

“I can’t even believe this,” said Mike. They had rescued the Rhovanian Prince, and he had been killed right away; savaged and torn apart. Their quest failed at the point of success.

“Believe it,” said Dustin. “Vijay is like you. He rolls the dice and doesn’t fudge.”

“Now you know how it feels, Mike,” said Lucas, from his isolation on the couch. He was browsing through Vijay’s other modules while the others played at the table. He had been out of the game as soon as it began, and was still stewing over it.

Max joined him, falling against him. “Now I know what it feels like,” she said. It was her first D&D game, and her character — like the prince they rescued — had been killed by the Great Warg. “We’re both dead,” she said. “Don’t we go to Valinor now?”

“Uh, no,” said Dustin. “Only the elves go to paradise.”

“Hobbits go there too,” said Max. “Bilbo and Frodo –”

“You guys need to be quiet,” said Vijay to Lucas and Max. “You’re dead.”

Lucas had died a most insulting and indignant death, by a floor trap in the mountain’s entry hall. His corpse lay thousands of feet below that trap; probably somewhere around the level they were on now. He had thought himself shrewd and clever, using his ring of jumping to leap over what looked like a double pit trap. It had turned out to be a triple pit trap. The floor past the two pits was no floor at all, but paper that was painted to resemble the stone floor. That “floor” gave way at once, and Ranger Luc fell three thousand feet down a chute. Jelly on rocks.

Lucas was pissed, but Mike knew they were all lucky. More of them could have easily died in that hall, if not for Max. Her character — the hobbit thief Maisie Brandybuck — had proven her use, disarming four other nasty traps. Will the Wise, for his part, had wisely advised that they walk single file, which saved them from triggering a chill trap; it would have entombed every one of them in a wall of ice. Only Ranger Luc had been claimed by the Hall of Many Deaths.

From that point the party had proceeded down the main shaft, the interior winding stair that provided access to the eight levels of the mountain. It had no railings, and the chasm was vast, gaping thousands of feet beneath them; it would kill any clumsy fool who fell in. It was easy to imagine drunk orcs dying this way as Sauron laughed his ass off.

It was a hive down on level two. Orcs swarmed everywhere, making a din to match the silence of the first level. The party members were disguised as orcs, thanks to El’s illusion spells (cast well in advance of coming near Sauron’s mountain), and Will could speak the orc language. From this advantage they had prodded for information and learned that the prison cells were down on level six. They proceeded there directly, bypassing levels three, four, and five.

Level six was a hell-hole, and Vijay reveled in its horrors. What he described happening to an elf maiden in a torture hall shocked even Mike — and certainly El, who had minimal exposure to themes of rape (and worse). Games weren’t supposed to be this ugly. El had insisted on rescuing the elf, but was firmly overridden by the veteran players. To survive Dol Guldur, you stuck to the mission and no more. The Prince of Rhovanion was their target; they couldn’t be everyone’s saviors in this obscene hell. Not if they wanted to leave it.

When they found their target, they almost abandoned ship. He was guarded by the unholiest of unholies, Caran Carach, or “Red Fangs” — the Great Warg who had savaged countless armies across the southern Rhovanian plains. Keeping him company was a ten-foot troll and a nasty squad of eight Uruk-hai. Going all in was the only play. Weapons alone wouldn’t bring down these nasties. El and Will had to start using spells.

The king had told them the rumors: in Dol Guldur spell casting was an automatic alarm trip. The Necromancer smelled it on all levels of his mountain. Nothing for it.

El cast a death spell that dropped five of the Uruk-hai before they could draw their scimitars. Then Mike led the charge, and everyone crashed into the chamber, weapons drawn.

It was ugly. Max’s hobbit and the rescued prince died almost right away. Dustin’s character would have gone down too, but Will cured him in time with a healing spell. The party was now four: Mikael, Elia, Dulin, and Will the Wise. Getting the hell out of Dodge was the immediate new priority. Their disguises were shattered, and they had a long way up.

“Let’s move,” said Mike. “Back the way we came. El, be ready with more spells. I’m thinking chain lightning.” Every orc that lived in the mountain was about to descend on them.

El nodded.

“Dustin, we’ll need shock waves,” said Mike.

“No shit, Sherlock,” said Dustin.

“And don’t hit us while you’re at it,” snapped Mike.

“Ye of little faith,” said Dustin. His dwarf had a magical war hammer called Grimjaw. Twice a day Grimjaw could be used to strike the ground and send a shock wave out from the point of impact, stunning and paralyzing anyone on the ground within a hundred feet. But if you weren’t careful, the shock wave could rebound on you and your friends. End the game right there.

They rushed back to the central shaft.

 

Twelve hundred stairs to level five, and no higher. Scores of orcs poured down from level four, screaming battle cries. Leaving the shaft, the heroes ran in search of another escape route. But not Dulin; he turned and raised Grimjaw, and like a dwarven king of old heaped virulent curses on the servants of Darkness. The orcs screamed louder, ready to tear the dwarf apart. Dulin brought down Grimjaw. The shock wave rippled up the stair, knocking orcs off their feet; more than a hundred plunged into the endless chasm. Roars of outrage filled the shaft. Dulin lifted his finger to the remaining orcs, cursed them again, and then chased after his friends down the hall.

Dustin kept laughing. He had just killed a hundred plus orcs with a single stroke of his war hammer.

“Enjoy yourself,” said Will. “Hundreds more are coming. We’re going to be trapped on this level — way too deep.”

“We’re not giving up,” said Mike. “There have to be other ways up. Where does this hall take us?”

Vijay grabbed a marker and used the whiteboard. “The hallway ends at a huge underground lake and becomes a bridge.” He drew a rough rectangular-shaped room. “The lake is about six hundred feet wide and four hundred fifty feet across.”

“The mountain’s water supply, maybe,” said Dustin.

“Can we see any passages on the other side?” asked Mike.

“Hold on,” said Vijay, sketching in more details. “The bridge zigzags a path across the lake, and you can hear noise on the far side. It sounds like groaning and churning metal. It’s too far away, and too dark in the cavern, for most of you to see that far, but El can, with her elvish sight.”

El smiled.

“And?” asked Mike.

“El can see some kind of pulley system next to the bridge, going down into the lake and then up into the ceiling.”

“Interesting,” said Dustin.

“What do we do?” asked Will.

“You’d better decide fast,” said Vijay. “The orcs aren’t far behind.”

“What a clusterfuck,” said Mike. “We’re rats in a maze. Check for traps, Will. If the bridge is clean, we’ll run across.”

“I cast a ‘find traps’ spell,” said Will.

“No traps on the bridge,” said Vijay. “And the orcs are coming.”

“We run to the fork and turn left,” said Mike. “We’ll see what’s up with these pulleys, but I have a feeling this bridge will be our last stand. Get ready with chain lightning, El.”

“What does that do, again?” she asked.

“Same as a regular lightning bolt, except that the bolt arcs from one target to another, like a chain, for as many targets as you have mage levels. You’re 16th level, so in effect you’ll be blasting the orcs with sixteen lighting bolts.”

Lucas called from the couch: “Did you pull that out of your ass, Mike? I don’t remember a spell called ‘chain lightning’.”

“It’s from Unearthed Arcana,” said Mike. That was the supplement to The Player’s Handbook, published in ’85, when they were hardly playing the game anymore. Except Will.

“Ready with chain lightning,” said El.

 

The water flashed with reflected lightning as the orcs were blasted, killed, knocked off the bridge, or driven back. The survivors screamed and began to flee, terrified of the electric bolt that was jumping from one orc to the next and exploding each time. The heroes dared to hope. Then suddenly the hordes charged with renewed strength, as a dark and terrible Captain appeared behind them, forcing them on. It was a Nazgul. Elia’s lightning spell had called it like a mute summons. The Ringwraith now took full charge of the bridge attack, ravenous for payback.

Dustin swore violently. “I knew there had to be a Nazgul in this mountain!”

They had made their stand at the lake’s center, where the bridge turned at a right angle; the pulleys were about two hundred feet away.

“Time for blood,” said Mike. “I draw my holy avenger.”

“Avenger shit,” said Dustin. “You’re not sword-fighting a Nazgul. You’d die in two rounds. And Nazgul don’t bleed.”

“I cast ‘insect plague,'” said Will.

“That’s a good start,” said Mike. Swarms of insects wouldn’t harm the Nazgul, but they would make things very difficult on the orcs — obscuring their vision and stinging them every round.

Behind his screen Vijay rolled dice. “The insect swarms are pissing off the orcs for sure. Some of them even lose their balance and fall in the lake.” He looked at Eleven. “The Nazgul pushes to the front. He has you in his sights, El.”

Dustin looked at her. “He senses your power, El. Blast the fucker.”

“What do I do?” asked El, looking down at her spell list.

“Fire,” said Mike and Dustin at once.

“You mean fireball?” she asked.

Mike and Dustin started talking at once again, and Mike told Dustin to shut up. “Nazgul are undead,” he explained to El, “so they’re immune to cold and only half affected by lightning. Fire hurts them completely.”

“And if I can speak now,” said Dustin, “according to Tolkien, natural fire does them even more harm than magic fire.”

“Is that true?” asked Will. They all looked at Vijay, who didn’t answer.

“Of course it’s true,” said Dustin.

Mike scoffed. “What are we going to do, throw torches at this range?” They hadn’t used any of their torches yet in Dol Guldur, because Mike’s holy avenger provided enough light. “Fireball him, El. The explosion will take out a shitload of orcs too. That’s serious collateral.”

“Co-lat-er-al?” asked El.

“Yeah. Do it.”

 

Elia’s hand surged with power and a ball of flame shot from it, hitting the Nazgul and exploding in a blinding flare. Her friends on the bridge cheered as at least a dozen orcs died in the blast, burnt to a crisp, and many others fell into the water. Screams ricocheted over the lake’s surface. Then she watched in horror as the Nazgul stood unharmed. It held forth a broadsword that spat blue frost and absorbed the flame around it. The Ringwraith stared at Elia…and advanced.

“Son of a bitch!” said Dustin.

“We’re going to die on this bridge,” said Mike. “Let’s run to the end and check out the pulleys.” They were two hundred feet away.

“The Nazgul and orcs chase you, of course,” said Vijay.

“Of course,” said Mike.

“As you get closer to the other side,” continued Vijay, “the pulleys look like a system designed to carry water to the levels above. You can also see a passage beyond the pulleys, that slopes down and leads out of the cavern.”

“When we get there,” said Will, “I cast ‘find the path’.”

Mike approved. “The rest of us turn and fight while Will is casting his spell.”

Vijay nodded. “The Nazgul and orcs stop about fifteen feet away from you, ready to attack. Will’s ‘find the path’ reveals that the passageway leads only deeper into the mountain, and that the pulleys are your quickest way out.”

“How do they work?” asked Eleven.

“They’re in constant motion,” said Vijay. He scrawled a diagram on the white board. “The three chains drop from a circular opening in the ceiling and connect to three gears you can see just below the surface of the water. There are troughs attached to the chains that scoop water from the lake and carry it up through the ceiling.”

“Are the troughs big enough to hold people?” asked Will.

“Yes,” said Vijay. “One person at a time.”

“And there are only three,” said Mike. “You guys go, I’ll stay behind and follow after.”

“You’ll die if you stay behind,” said Dustin.

“Someone has to fend off the Nazgul while the others ride the pulleys. Otherwise they’re sitting ducks.”

“Fine,” said Dustin. “We’re all dead anyway.”

 

The chains ground along in ceaseless rhythm: down from the ceiling, into the water, and up again. The three giant scoops filled with water as they passed beneath the lake and were carried aloft. Elia, Will the Wise, and Dulin son of Fundin each leaped to a chain and landed in a trough, splashing water. As the chains slowly carried them upwards, Mikael faced the Nazgul on the bridge.

“Go back to the Shadow!” he cried, drawing his holy avenger.

The Nazgul hissed, tormented by the sword’s holiness. It raised its own sword, spitting blue frost. Behind it on the bridge, orcs cried for Mikael’s blood.

Mikael lunged. The Nazgul cried and drew back, wounded. Incanting Black Speech, it lifted its free hand in the air and made a fist. Mikael screamed, assaulted by some evil magic, but his holy avenger warded him. Halfway to the ceiling, his friends watched helplessly, unable to shoot missiles or spells for fear of hitting him.

Mikael swung his sword again, and missed. The Nazgul clenched its fist a second time — this time prevailing against the holy avenger’s power. Abruptly, all the moisture went out of Mikael’s body. Shrieking horribly, he shriveled into a dry husk and collapsed on the bridge. The orcs roared in triumph. Elia screamed Mikael’s name. The Nazgul raised its frost brand, and with both hands stabbed the blade down into Mikael’s withered form. Cheers thundered over the lake; orcs pounded their shields. Mikael jerked under the cold blade, and breathed his last.

“For fuck’s sake,” said Mike. He crumpled up his character sheet and threw it in the wastebasket.

“That was a nasty spell,” said Dustin. “Whatever it was.”

“Yeah,” said Will. ” ‘Power word dehydrate’?”

“Will, you’re a shit cleric,” said Mike. “I could use a ‘power word resurrection’ right now.”

“I don’t allow resurrection spells in my games,” said Vijay. They already knew this.

“Well you’re a shit dungeon master,” said Mike.

“Stop talking, Mike,” said Vijay. “You’re dead. On the bed.” They were calling the couch the “dead bed”.

“The bed’s overcrowded,” said Mike. Lucas and Max were spread out in each other’s arms. Mike got up from his chair. “Anyone want more food?”

“Yeah,” said Dustin, waving an empty bag. “We need more Cheetos.”

“You’re getting crumbs on my floor, asshole!”

“Chill out!” said Dustin. “You died, so what? It’s a game.”

“Bring some more Dr. Pepper, if you have it,” said Lucas. He had drunk two cans already. He knew better than to ask for New Coke, which was his favorite soda. Mike thought New Coke was toxic syrup.

“Jesus, it’s getting cold,” said Max. She grabbed a blanket at the end of the couch, and put it over her and Lucas.

“It’s called a basement,” said Dustin. “We’re underground.”

Mike swore and went upstairs. He needed to be away from this goddamn game for a few minutes. Power word fucking dehydrate. He shouldn’t have felt bad. Going against a Nazgul was suicide. But Mike hadn’t played as a player since… well, almost never. He had a dungeon master’s complex, and thought himself protected. He swore up a storm. Dustin was right: Vijay didn’t fudge any dice rolls. He was fair to a fault.

Max was right too, he realized. It was suddenly a lot colder — not just in the basement, but here in the kitchen. If the furnace broke he was moving out. He checked the nearest vent and felt the blast of warm air. The heat was fine. It’s the Nazgul. Here in my house, spraying cold with that goddamn sword.

He went upstairs and put on a sweatshirt, and also grabbed the small sweater lying on his bed. He smiled. El seemed to like D&D. He realized how much he missed playing. He recalled the summer of ’85, when he had ripped Will a new one. We’re not kids anymore. What did you think, that we were just going to sit in my basement all day and play games for the rest of our lives? It’s not my fault you don’t like girls. Jesus. Telling Will, of all people, to grow up. Every one of them was still growing up.

He returned to the kitchen and ransacked the fridge. No more Dr. Pepper, but plenty of Coke. Classic. Mike smiled vindictively, grabbed a six-pack, and then dug out a fresh bag of Cheetos from the chip cabinet.

Down in the basement, everyone whooped. Something wild had just happened. Mike prayed with all his heart that Dustin was getting killed.

He stood up — and almost dropped the chips and soda. For the briefest moment he saw a shadowy form outside the kitchen window. Someone or something was looking in at him. Then Mike blinked, and the figure was gone. He went up to the window and looked out. Nothing.

He dismissed it as the result of gaming imagination and went back downstairs.

 

Mike’s prayers had misfired. It wasn’t Dustin who died, but Will.

“Details,” he demanded, setting down the soda and food. “Vijay, we need a game pause.”

“That’s fine,” said Vijay. “I need to take a shit. And no peeking behind my screen while I’m gone.” He went into the bathroom on the other side of the basement.

“What got you?” asked Mike. He reached behind Vijay’s dungeon master screen and grabbed a third bag of M&Ms. He tore it open and replenished their bowl, picking a red one to eat right away. After eleven years, red M&Ms were back. Most stores wouldn’t have them until February, but Indianapolis was selling them already, and Vijay’s father had been to the capital over the week-end.

Will was stretching out on the floor. “Ask them. I’m disgusted.”

Dustin tore into the Cheetos bag. “Will the Wise looked at a symbol of death, and his bones dissolved inside his body.”

“He turned to mush,” said El. “Right in front of us.”

“Brutal,” said Mike.

After Mikael’s fall, the remaining survivors — Dulin, Elia, and Will the Wise — had ascended over 1500 feet and jumped off the water troughs on level three, not daring to ride the pulleys any higher. Terrible noises were coming down from the pulleys on level two, and they remembered the swarming orc hive up there. The plan was now to find the central stair on level three and resume their escape, before the hordes on level five could race up to intercept them.

Their entry point on level three was a room with nothing in it, except for a death symbol scrawled on one of the walls. Will the Wise had the misfortune of seeing that symbol. He failed his saving throw — rolling a putrid “2” on the 20-sided die — and his skeleton had liquefied on the spot, turning him, as Eleven said, into a steaming pile of mush.

That left El and Dustin in the game: elf mage and dwarf warrior. They had gone into a network of rich-looking rooms, apparently the chambers of some high ranking official. Probably filled with treasure, but they didn’t waste time looking. When they found the audience chamber containing a black throne, it was obvious these rooms belonged to the Nazgul. They had debarked in the lion’s den.

They ran away fast, down a hallway in the direction of the stair shaft. They were blocked by an Easterling sorcerer and had to fight him. It was a time sink, but he eventually died under Dulin’s hammer.

“I hope you got in some blows, El,” said Mike.

“I cast magic missiles at him,” she said.

“She did him the most damage,” said Max. “Dustin just moved in for the kill.”

“You lie,” said Dustin. “I was pounding the shit out of that sorcerer every other round.”

The toilet flushed and the bathroom door banged open. Vijay came back, trailing a noxious odor. Everyone pretended not to notice. Mike made a mental note to avoid Indian cuisine.

“Okay,” said Vijay, “let’s finish this. The stair is about a hundred feet ahead. And you can already hear the hordes from below. They’re coming, and they’re going to make it first.”

“Damn that sorcerer,” swore Dustin. “He made us take too long.” He turned to El. “All right, listen. They beat us and we have to fight. So you’re going to kill that fucker Nazgul for killing Mike.” He looked at Mike. “Mikael,” he amended sarcastically.

Mike flipped him the finger.

El was dubious. “How?”

“You have a ‘telekinesis’ spell,” said Dustin. “It does the same things you do in real life. Both of us are going to light up our pairs of torches, and you’re going to fire them all straight into that Nazgul shithead.”

“The same things she does in real life?” asked Vijay.

“Oh… inside joke,” said Dustin. “El can do magic tricks.”

“Really?”

“You’re an idiot, Dustin,” said Mike. “Fire is useless against the Nazgul as long as he has that fucking sword.”

“You’re dead and you can’t talk!” yelled Dustin. He turned back to El. “I’m hoping — praying — that the Nazgul’s sword only absorbs magic fire. Nazgul magic isn’t supposed to work against natural fire.”

Mike made an obscene noise.

“Okay,” said El.

“And your necklace protects you from projectile missiles, so I’ll let you lead first.”

“Yes.”

Dustin held out his hand for a diagonal handshake. “Dwarf and elf power?”

El grasped it and shook.

 

They stared at each other for a long moment: mage and Nazgul; elf and undead. Behind Elia lay Dulin’s corpse, a black arrow in his back. Before her, the Ringwraith and its horde, blocking the vortical shaft. She didn’t care. Escape no longer mattered. She would avenge Mikael and all her friends.

She had done as Dulin ordered; two torches each; four total, suspended in the air in front of her. As the Nazgul advanced, she loosed the firebrands at it. One by one they hit, and lit up the wraith like kerosene. The Nazgul dropped its sword and let out a shriek that seemed to shake the walls of the mountain. It jumped and spun and wailed like a child stung by thousands of bees. It was an avatar of undead pain; a wound in Sauron’s eye.

Vijay was caught up in the act, enacting the Ringwraith’s trauma. Mike had to admit he was a good dungeon master.

His prayers against Dustin had been answered. The dwarf had been shot from behind — from the direction he and El came — by an arrow of slaying. Some assassin had spotted them around the Nazgul’s throne room fighting the sorcerer, and then quietly followed them. The irony was cruel: Dustin had put himself behind El to avoid being shot, and he got shot anyway. Might as well blame it on Mike’s facetious prayers.

But Dustin had been spot-on about natural fire. The Nazgul was completely helpless now.

“I fireball the Nazgul to finish him off,” said El. She had one more fireball spell, and no worries about the sword of blue frost absorbing it. The sword was on the floor.

“The orcs are surging toward you,” warned Vijay. “An endless wall of them.”

“Well…” She panicked, looking down at her character sheet. Mike cursed under his breath. Cast your repulsion spell. But he couldn’t advise her. He was dead, like everyone else. She was on her own.

Vijay gave her a nudge. “Do you remember what all your high-level spells do?” Mike had explained her spells before the game started.

She saw a spell on her list and remembered what it did. “I cast ‘repulsion’, to keep everyone away.”

“Good,” said Vijay. “The orcs suddenly look confused and move away from you, in various directions.”

“How long does the spell last?” asked El.

“You’re a sixteenth level mage, so it will last thirty-two minutes.”

“Is the Nazgul affected?” she asked.

“No,” said Vijay. “But he may as well be. He’s burning like an inferno and can’t do anything useful — stumbling in every direction, banging against the walls, trying to put the flames out.”

There you go, El. Finish him off. Mike was proud. His girlfriend was actually going to kill one of the Nine Ringwraiths.

“I fireball the Nazgul,” she said.

“Your fireball hits the already-burning Nazgul and explodes like a bomb.” Vijay stood up dramatically, and everyone leaned forward. “The Nazgul wails. It shrieks. It howls in madness. It jerks forward. It lurches backward. It grabs an orc within reach and sets it on fire. It snaps the orc’s neck. It falls on its face –”

Vijay never finished. A deafening concussion rocked the Wheeler house. An inside thunderclap, shaking the walls and ceiling.

Everyone screamed and jumped from their seats. The floor rumbled and made their bones and teeth vibrate. The house was about to collapse.

“Holy shit!” yelled Max.

“What’s happening?” Vijay was cowering in terror.

The shaking of the walls, floor, and ceiling escalated… and then stopped. No one in the room moved or breathed.

Mike broke the silence. “Just wait,” he said in a shaking voice.

“Wait?” said Lucas. “For what?”

“I don’t know,” said Mike. “Maybe it’s an earthquake. They’re usually over in, what, less than a minute?”

“That’s no earthquake, my friend,” said Dustin softly. “Earthquakes don’t sound like thunder and lightning inside your house.”

“Something’s very wrong,” said Eleven.

Will started moving. “We need to get out of –”

Another monstrous clap — it sounded like a blast of lightning right upstairs in the kitchen — and the house shook longer this time; for almost fifteen seconds.

When it stopped, everyone’s paralysis broke. They shouted and ran for the basement door next to the gaming table. It led directly outside.

“Stop!” said Mike.

Everyone froze, looking at him.

“Don’t go out there,” he said. “When I made the food run, I saw something outside the kitchen window. It was… weird. It could be right outside the house waiting for us.”

“Thanks for telling us,” said Dustin.

“It was only for a second, and I thought I imagined it.” He knew it wasn’t the worm from Sunday night. That thing had been huge. But he wondered about the face in last night’s dream. Aqueous, octopus-looking, full of hate.

“Whatever you saw seems to be inside your house now, not outside,” said Max. “Like, right upstairs in the kitchen. We need to get the hell out of here.”

Vijay agreed. “I’m not waiting for your house to cave in, Mike.” He was no longer the dispassionate dungeon-master; he was the most frantic person in the room.

“Hold on,” said Will. “Maybe it’s stopped.” Over a minute had passed since the last tremors.

Mike took control. “El, you and me. We’re going upstairs. Just us. We’re going to make sure nothing nasty is in the house. When we call down with the all-clear, everyone can come up.”

Lucas began: “I don’t –”

“Stay by the door. If another blast goes off, or the house starts shaking, don’t wait for us. Just run outside. But not yet; not unless you have to. If that thing is out there, El can’t protect you from it when she’s searching the house with me.”

They reluctantly agreed, and he and El went up.

“Upside Down,” she said, when they reached the kitchen.

“You think?” She had to be right. The sudden coldness had been another tip-off he ignored. He likes it cold. Mike remembered Will’s possession. But while the Mind Flayer had thrived in coldness, it had never caused it. As far as Mike knew, none of the creatures from the Upside Down had ever altered the weather or made air temperatures drop.

This is a different creature, he thought with a certainty. And much more powerful.

They went through every room together, and found no structural damage. Windows, walls, and ceilings were intact. A few things were out of place. In the living room, books had fallen from their shelves; in his parent’s bedroom, a table lamp was knocked over; in the kitchen, a broken glass on the floor (courtesy of Holly, who had left it close to the edge of the counter); in one of the bathrooms, bottles of shampoo and conditioner had fallen into the tub.

They opened every door, every closet, and looked under every bed and piece of unlikely furniture. If there was an unwanted guest in the house, it was invisible. Mike declared the house free of intruders.

“It could be outside,” said El.

“We’re going there next,” said Mike. If this had been a B-grade horror movie, they would have checked outside first, declared the grounds safe, and then locked themselves inside the house with whatever was stalking them. People were stupid in horror films.

They returned to the kitchen. Everyone had come up from the basement.

“We weren’t waiting anymore,” said Lucas. “What did you find?”

“Nothing,” said El. “Aside from us, the house is empty.”

“Then what the hell was that? It was no fucking earthquake.”

“Let’s look outside,” said Mike.

“It’s not as cold anymore,” said Max. “For like, the last two minutes.”

“I noticed,” said El.

Mike had felt the change too.

They searched outside around the house and found nothing out of the ordinary. Mike checked with two neighbors, who said they had heard thunder from the direction of the Wheeler house, which made no sense to them. Mike told them they were fine, thanked them and returned home.

They argued more and agreed on nothing. Mike was sure of one thing: something from the Upside Down had been outside his window, and then inside his house. That being, whatever it was, had nearly brought his home down. It was starting again. But how? Had someone opened another Gate?

“There’s something else I have to tell you guys,” he said. “You too, El.”

“By all means,” said Dustin. “It’s always nice when you share.”

“I had a dream last night,” said Mike. “El was at Max’s and I was alone. It was a bad nightmare. Worse than my nightmares of Starcourt, even. I mean, it seemed real. It really freaked me out.”

“What was it?” asked Lucas.

Mike walked over to the gaming table and grabbed Vijay’s Monster Manual. He opened it to the “M’s”, flipped a page, and lay the book down on the table, pointing to the picture of the monster.

They all looked.

“Are you serious?” asked Max. “The Mind Flayer? That’s not what our Mind Flayer looked like.”

“‘Your mind flayer’?” asked Vijay.

“Yeah,” said Will. “There was an actual mind flayer that attacked Hawkins.”

“We called it the Mind Flayer,” said Mike. “But only because Dustin gave it that name, and we couldn’t think of a better analogy from D&D.”

“Shut up, you guys,” said Vijay.

“We’re not bullshitting you,” said Dustin.

“You expect me to believe this?” asked Vijay.

“It was a creature from another dimension,” said Will. “And not the first we’ve dealt with. This one was really bad, and it invaded Hawkins twice. We called it the Mind Flayer, but like Mike said, we were just using the best analogy we could think of. The thing was huge — like, thirty feet long with floating tentacles. The second time it was this gross-looking inside-out creature, made up of mutilated people. People from Hawkins.”

“If you don’t want me around anymore, then just say so,” said Vijay.

“If you don’t want to believe us, you probably should go home,” said Mike.

“But this thing,” said Max, pointing to the book, “is human sized. That’s a pretty puny mind flayer.”

“D&D mind flayers aren’t ‘puny’ just because they’re our size,” said Mike. “They’re nasty as hell. They ‘mind blast’ people with psychic power and then eat their brains. They’re just as powerful as the huge creature we called the ‘Mind Flayer’ — maybe even more so.”

“But Mike, you only dreamed this,” said Lucas.

“It wasn’t like any nightmare I’ve had before, Lucas. It seemed real — like the monster projected itself into my mind. I’m not shitting you, I almost had a heart attack in my sleep.” Mike had never seen eyes filled with so much hate. “And when I woke up, I was just dreaming waking up, and it was there waiting for me. And then I did really wake up. It was scary — and real. Now my house almost collapsed. I’m sure my dream was coming from an outside force.”

“You think this mind flayer is what you saw outside the kitchen window?” asked Lucas.

“Probably,” said Mike. Probably, shit. He was sure of it.

“Well,” said Dustin, “we can’t call this thing a mind flayer, even if it is. We called the thirty-foot long shadow monster the Mind Flayer for too long. We’ll just confuse ourselves.”

“I agree,” said Mike. “We’ll call it by its other name: an illithid.”

“Ill-uh-thid?” asked El.

“It’s an insider term,” said Mike. “It’s what’s what the D&D mind flayers call themselves.”

“Yeah,” said Vijay. “”Mind flayer’ is the colloquial term for ‘illithid’.”

Lucas was reading the description in the Monster Manual. “I don’t see any reference to that term.”

Mike had researched it all last night. “It was first used in the D-modules, in the late ’70s. You know, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Vault of the Drow –“

“Oh, I remember all right,” said Dustin. “The dark elves. That underworld was insane.”

Mike had run a brutal campaign. Lucas, Dustin, and Will had been subject to an unspeakable nightmare world. A city miles underground, where dark elves plotted against each other, demons and vampires walked the streets, and obscene sacrifices were offered in back alleys, all under a weird purple light. They had gone into torture parlors, bordellos, drug saloons. One of the torture saunas was run by an illithid; a mind flayer. It had devoured the brains of its clientele, and almost did the same to Dustin before Lucas and Will killed it. An illithid incapacitated a victim with psychic power, and then latched its mouth tentacles around the victim’s head, squeezing the brain out and eating it live. Mike’s role-playing had conveyed the procedure dramatically.

“I’d forgotten that word,” said Lucas. “‘Illithid’ it is.”

“So what’s our plan?” asked Will. “How are we going to stop the Illithid?”

“We don’t even know what it wants,” said Max.

It wants me. Mike had no idea why but didn’t doubt it. The worm — probably the Illithid’s pet — had been stalking him out from the Drapers’ front lawn, and the Illithid had infected his dreams. Now it was terrorizing his home. But he wasn’t ready to talk about the worm yet.

“Are you in with us or not, Vijay?” asked Dustin.

Vijay was studying them all carefully. “I don’t believe any of this, but I don’t think you guys are lying. And I don’t think you’re crazy. I guess I want to find out what this is about.”

Dustin clapped his back, smiling. “Then you’re one of us now.

Dustin clapped his back, smiling. “Then you’re one of us now. Get ready for dungeons and death. Your life as you know it is over.”

“I think we need to call it a night,” said Max. “We’ve got school tomorrow.”

“Let’s go,” said Lucas. “I’ll get you all home.”

“Mazda-man,” said Dustin.

 

“Mike,” she said later, when they were in bed and everyone had left.

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t he come after us?”

“I don’t know. The Illithid is probably warming up for something.”

“I mean the Necromancer,” she said. “In the game. If my spells made him aware of us, why didn’t he come to kill us personally?”

He couldn’t believe she was still thinking about the game. “Because he’s Sauron. The Lord of the Rings. He was killed at the end of the Second Age and he wants everyone to think he’s still dead. He can’t take the chance of showing himself. So he calls himself the Necromancer — it’s his disguise — and he let’s his dogs do the dirty work.”

“Oh,” she said, clearly not understanding.

“In the game we kept calling him Sauron, but we were kind of cheating there. Or at least we weren’t role-playing well. Technically, our characters wouldn’t know that Sauron and the Nazgul were alive. Vijay set our game in the 1300s. No one finds out the Necromancer is Sauron until 2850, and it’s not until 2951 that he moves to Mordor. Our game took place centuries before the story of The Lord of the Rings.”

All of this sailed completely over El’s head.

“I’ll read you Lord of the Rings sometime,” said Mike. “If you want.”

She closed her hand around his, but didn’t answer.

“Hey,” he said. “El. You okay?”

She turned to look at him in the darkness. His night-light bathed their skin in deep blue. “Can we make love now?” she asked.

What’s going on with you? Even after the camaraderie of that evening, she sounded isolated; abandoned. It was the same depressive cloud that had been over her for weeks.

He pulled her closer. “You know I love you, right?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Nothing will change that.”

She nodded.

He caressed her face in the cerulean rays.

“Mike,” she said, as if searching for words to say something.

“Shh,” he said, stopping her mouth with kisses. At first she just let herself be kissed, and then she was devouring him back. She slid her arms around him, holding him and tonguing him as hard as she could, until he was ready to do his thing — the thing he never tired at, and that brought her to a place that left misery behind.

 

Next Chapter: Under a Raging Moon

(Previous Chapter: MLK)

Endless Night (Chapter 2)

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 Two

                                          MLK

“He’s in trouble,” said Will.

“I see that,” said Mike.

It was the new kid from Boston, scholarly and full of nerd vibes. That was bad enough. Worse was his ethnicity. His family had immigrated from India and brought more wealth than Wall Street. That had sealed his fate upon arrival. This was Hawkins High in the ’80s.

“Should we do something?” asked Will.

“By ‘we’, do you mean me?” Mike cursed himself as soon as he said it.

Will’s face flushed. “I just meant –”

“It’s okay,” said Mike.

Together they watched the spectacle unfold. Mike felt shitty when he lost his patience with Will, but he was tired of taking point on bailing out every bully victim. Nothing for it. This would get ugly fast. Seth didn’t usually do this when Mike and his friends were around. But Vijay Agarwal was an outsider. He didn’t belong. He had lived in America for only three years; citizenship was a distant country. Surely the underdog heroics of Mike Wheeler didn’t extend to a filthy rich Hindu who mocked the American dream by his unwanted presence.

Seth never learned. He and his three stooges had the kid surrounded; a cowardly four-on-one. Neither Mike nor Will could make out what was being said, but the quartet was threatening Vijay in some way, and no matter how petty the threats, Seth Manor would be dispensing them like a death sentence. One of his stooges, a low-IQ mule named Alex Heft, barked something and shot out his arm. Vijay’s books flew from his hands. Folders scattered and fell open. Vijay’s homework assignments were whisked away by freezing winds; he’d never get them back. The bullies roared laughter. Mike marveled that cowards were so entertained. He felt more sorry for them than for Vijay Agarwal.

Then Seth seized Vijay by the front of his jacket, got in his face, and snarled whatever threats made him feel big and superior.

“Seth, lay off!” shouted Mike. “You want those hands broken?”

The schoolyard went silent. Those who hadn’t been watching were watching now. Mike cursed himself. First his mother, now Seth. Next he’d be threatening the headmaster. He heard footsteps behind him, and turned to see Lucas, Max, and Dustin. They had been inside the school talking to one of Max’s friends who hated being outside in the cold. He had backup now… just in case. Forty feet away, Seth looked at them all, uncertain. He still held Vijay, but with far less confidence.

“Let him go!” repeated Mike. “If I come over there, you’re all going home sick.”

The bullies never admitted it, but they lived in fear of Mike Wheeler and his faggoty-ass friends. The Nerd Lords of Hawkins High — Mike Wheeler, Lucas Sinclair, Max Mayfield, Dustin Henderson, and William Byers — could be mighty unpleasant if you crossed them. Wheeler especially was treated as armed and dangerous. He had a secret girlfriend: a witch who lived in the shadows, lifted automobiles, and exploded people from the inside out. Lucas’ girlfriend, one of the nerds herself, had been the stepsister of Billy Hargrove. Billy was a legend in the eyes of Seth Manor. Any relation of his had to be treated with caution. The Nerd Lords were given wide berth.

But Seth didn’t let go of his captive. “Mind your business, Wheeler! This timber nigger doesn’t concern you.”

Mike stifled a laugh. This clown didn’t know the difference between a Native American Indian and an Asian Indian. He closed the distance between him and Seth.

Seth got agitated. “I said blow off, Wheeler!”

“Yeah!” yelled Alex, waving his fists in the air like a moron.

Mike kept advancing. Seth never learned. He was like Billy: boorish, racist, and thoroughly boring. The thought of Billy put Mike on tilt. Dead for a year and a half now, Mike still saw him everywhere: at home on the face of his mother; at school on the face of idiot-ass Seth Manor.

“Walk away, Seth,” said Mike. “And you can live longer.”

“I’m scared,” said Seth, who actually did sound a bit scared.

Mike lost it. “You’re too stupid to be scared, you piece of shit! You want to keep this up? You want to provoke me?” He was going overboard but couldn’t help it. He was still fuming about his mother. And the worm that he saw or didn’t see. “It’s not smart to piss someone off who’s seen a lot of death. You may find yourself there.”

Students gasped. Threats like this didn’t sound facetious. Especially coming from someone like Mike Wheeler. Crowds of students were watching the altercation now. Mike knew his friends would be mad, especially Lucas.

“You threatening us, Wheeler?” asked Liam. Of the three stooges, he had the most vicious temper.

“You catch on fast,” said Mike.

“Forget it,” said Seth, letting his victim go. Vijay backed away, flashing Mike a look of gratitude.

“Smart move,” said Mike.

Seth exploded. “What’s wrong with you, Wheeler? You like timber niggers? Coming here on visas, stealing our parents’ jobs?”

Mike didn’t answer. He stared back at Seth. Next to him, Alex looked constipated. Liam was ready to charge. And Ross — whose face had more acne than a solar system had stars — pursed his lips as if tasting poison. Finally, Seth turned and motioned them all away. They walked off.

Vijay was shaken. “Thank you,” he said.

Mike nodded. “You should stick around friends.”

“I don’t have any friends,” said Vijay. He didn’t sound sorry for himself, just matter-of-fact. “I’ve only been here since the new year.” He began picking up his books. Most of his homework was long gone by now, carried off the school grounds by 15 mph winds. He retrieved what he could, and then headed into the school building.

Mike turned and walked back.

“That was laying it on thick,” said Lucas.

“Shut up,” said Mike, in no mood for it.

“What crawled up your ass?” asked Max.

“Those assholes did,” said Mike. “Or were you paying attention?”

“The assholes crawled up Mike’s asshole,” said Dustin.

“We have to report them,” said Lucas.

“Just forget it,” said Mike.

Lucas got angry. “What do you mean, forget it?”

“They might look for that kid later and do something to him,” said Max.

“His name’s Vijay,” said Mike. “And they won’t.”

“I don’t know,” said Will. “Seth seems to have it out for him.”

“And he called him a timber nigger,” said Lucas, waxing wroth.

“Seth is a dipshit,” said Dustin. “Vijay’s not a timber nigger. Timber niggers are Native Americans.”

“Stop using that expression,” said Lucas.

“You just did!”

“Not in the same way!”

“I don’t see what your problem is,” said Dustin. “You’re not a timber nigger, or any kind of Indian. Why are you so bent out of shape?”

“Shut up, for Christ’s sake!”

“Where does the expression come from?” asked Will.

“Who cares?” said Lucas. “We don’t need to hear the n-word at all, especially on this day. Of all days.”

“Lucas, I swear to God, don’t start again,” said Dustin.

“Don’t start what?” asked Mike.

“He’s been on a crusade about Martin Luther King Day,” said Dustin. “I had to listen to it last night when I was over his house. I’d rather not hear it again.”

Lucas had every intention of repeating his tirades. “We shouldn’t be in school today. Everyone around us gets Martin Luther King Day off. Indiana sucks.”

It was true. All of Indiana’s neighbors were MLK progressives. To the west, Illinois had adopted the holiday in ’73, the first state to ever do so. On the southern border, Kentucky followed suit in ’74. To the east, Ohio passed their bill in ’75. And in the north, Michigan did so in ’77. These states had legalized MLK Day at least ten years ago — long before the federal holiday took effect in ’86 — and many of the schools in those states had been closing for just as long. With the federal holiday in place since last year, more states were joining the cause, though sometimes kicking and screaming, and not least in Indiana.

Governor Robert Orr (Dustin called him “Governor Whore”) had moved heaven and earth to get legislators on board, over the bilious objections of one Senator Chairman Richard Shank. Shank had initially refused to even allow a hearing on an MLK holiday. A compromise was reached last March: the bill passed as a temporary measure, allowing Indiana the holiday for two years; at the end of 1988, the bill would expire and legislators would have to start over again if they wanted to make MLK Day a permanent state holiday.

Which made the whole thing a farce. Indiana had legalized a holiday for a limited duration and little benefit. Most state offices were open today; the few employees who were off didn’t get paid. And every single school in every district in all counties was open. There were states in the deep south that took the day more seriously than Indiana. As of this year, in fact, only ten states in the union didn’t honor MLK Day. Indiana may as well have been an eleventh.

They listened as Lucas sermonized on the subject. Like Dustin, Max had apparently heard a lot of this already too. “Indiana’s a different world than California,” she said.

“No kidding,” said Lucas. “When did California legalize MLK Day?” Mike was sure that Max had already told him.

“’82,” said Max.

“And you got the day off from school,” said Lucas.

“My school was closed,” affirmed Max, “but in those early years most California schools stayed open for the holiday.”

“Even though it was state law?” asked Will.

“State law affects state employees,” said Max. “School closings are usually decided by the individual school districts.”

“Our governor could do it,” said Lucas.

“Governor Whore?” asked Dustin.

“Will you stop calling him that?” said Lucas. “The governor’s the one doing everything he can. But he should do more. He should issue executive orders every year, until our law makers and school boards join the rest of the world.”

“‘More from Governor Whore’ could be our slogan,” suggested Dustin.

“Does it really matter?” asked Will. “I mean, who needs a day off in the middle of January?” They looked at him as if he had been repossessed by the Shadow Monster. “We just had Christmas and New Year’s. It’s the longest holiday stretch of the year.”

“Why don’t you go to class,” said Lucas.

“Yeah Will,” said Dustin. “There’s no such thing as too many days off.”

“So now you do want the day off!” said Lucas.

“I always want a day off,” said Dustin. “But they should bring back Lincoln’s birthday. He freed the slaves. There’s your holiday for the black cause.”

Lucas bristled at this. “We need a black man for the black cause. What’s your problem with Dr. King?”

“I love Martin Luther King. But we’re never going to see schools close for him in the redneck state of Indiana. Not even with Governor Whore behind us.”

Mike had heard enough. He had his own reasons for wanting the day off. He and El were already halfway through their two-week honeymoon, and he had every intention of making it count. He didn’t give two shits about Martin Luther King. He just wanted time alone with El, mostly in bed.

“Quit your bitching, both of you,” he said.

“People better start bitching louder,” said Lucas. “What’s your problem with Dr. King?”

Mike refused to be baited. “You guys want the day off? Take it off.”

“What?” said Lucas.

“You heard me.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Will.

“It’s what I’m doing.” Mike had just made his decision. “Taking the day off. Going home, right now. You guys in or out?”

They thought he was crazy.

“Well, enjoy yourselves –”

“Mr. Wheeler?”

They all turned. The deputy headmaster stood over them, his face vowing reprimands.

Mike swore to himself. Since when did Mr. Carol patrol the grounds like a grade-school monitor?

“You and your friends come with me.”

 

” ‘It is not smart to piss someone off who’s seen a lot of death. You may find yourself there.’ ” Mr. Carol looked up from his notepad. “And you said this within earshot of nearly half the student body.”

They were seated in his office. The dressing down was severe, coming from Mr. Carol. Unlike his boss Mr. Ogden, the deputy was widely admired. He was a firm disciplinarian, but not petty; he stood up for the weak and went hard after bullies; he didn’t over-punish, or at least not usually. Mike had always liked Mr. Carol.

“Seth is a bully,” said Mike. “I was standing up for Vijay.”

“As far as I can tell, Mr. Wheeler, you bullied the bully. Maybe you think you’re better than everyone else and above censure.”

Mike said nothing. This was absurd. Seth and his friends should have been the ones sitting here.

Mr. Carol turned his gaze on Lucas. “Mr. Sinclair? You’re his best friend. Am I to assume you stood by and did nothing to diffuse this witless pissing match?”

“Hey, I’m not his keeper,” said Lucas.

“What did you say to me?”

“Well, I’m not,” said Lucas. “But for the record, I approve what Mike did.” He paused and considered. “Entirely,” he lied.

Mike chewed back a smile.

“You’ll be entirely without letters of recommendation when you apply for colleges in two years,” said Carol. “I’ll be sure of it.”

“I’ll take my chances,” said Lucas, shocked by the nasty threat.

Carol turned on his next victim. “Mr. Byers?”

Will sat up. “Yes?”

“Don’t ‘yes’ me,” said Carol.

“Yes, sir… I mean…”

“Were you a fly on the wall, or did you offer Michael any counsel on the behavior of mature sophomores?” The deputy paused. “Or perhaps you encouraged Mike.”

That was grossly unfair. Will had urged Mike to help Vijay, but Mr. Carol was acting as if Will had incited violence. And how the hell did the deputy know exactly what was said out there? Did he have spies in the schoolyard?

“I said we should do something to help Vijay,” said Will. “He was being –”

The deputy waved his hand in dismissal. “Mr. Henderson?”

“Sir!”

“What about you?”

“What about me, sir!”

Carol’s eyes glinted with anger. “Stand up, Mr. Henderson.”

“Yes sir!” Dustin stood at attention and gave a perfectionist Nazi salute. A mistake.

“You aspire high, Mr. Henderson, which brings you low. Get down where you belong, on the floor, and give me fifty push ups. On your knuckles. Do it now.”

Dustin gaped. “Are you serious?” Another mistake.

The deputy suddenly surged forward in his seat and snapped, “What are you waiting for, you little shit?”

The kids stared appalled. Dustin almost said something but then thought better of it. He got down and began his knuckle push ups.

“Now. Miss Mayfield.” Carol had resumed his composure as if nothing happened.

“I have nothing to say,” retorted Max. She sat with her arms folded.

“Of course you don’t,” said Carol. “You have nothing of value to contribute. To this school or to yourself. You know how to skateboard. I’ll give you that.”

Max was outraged but didn’t reply. Lucas looked ready to tear the deputy’s head off.

Mike wasn’t sitting still any more. “What are you going to do about Seth?”

“Absolutely nothing,” said Mr. Carol. “Not that it’s your concern.”

“This is bullshit!” said Mike.

“Get out of my office, Mr. Wheeler. All of you.” He looked down. “And get up, Mr. Henderson. Your vain struggles against the floor aren’t helping.”

Dustin got up, winded. He began massaging his knuckles.

The deputy glared at them. “I know about you all, and I don’t care who you think you are, or what you’ve done in this town. It’s a new year. Ride your high horses again, and I’ll be there to knock you off. Go to class.”

They filed out of his office, furious. Mike sensed hidden threats. It’s a new year. What the hell did that mean?

 

One thing you could say about Vijay Agarwal. He didn’t let the shitheads grind him down. He was back the next day as if nothing had happened, walking by Seth and Co. with complete indifference. Mike decided he liked the kid. He was a freshman, but that was okay. He was from Boston, but had brought none of the uppity condescension you learned to expect from an east-coast transplant. He was unassuming; comfortable in his skin. Given its color that went a long way.

He came over to Mike before the bell rang for first class.

“Hey dude,” said Mike. He noticed an issue of Dragon magazine stuck in between Vijay’s books.

“Hi Mike. I know I’m only a freshman, but can I sit with you guys at lunch?”

“Uh, yeah. That’s cool.” He was sure the others wouldn’t mind. “You play D&D?”

“Yeah, but not since I moved here. I don’t know anyone. Do you play?”

A sore subject. “Not anymore, no,” said Mike.

“I’ve got the killer module to end all modules,” said Vijay. “I mean, aside from Tomb of Horrors.”

“Dude, you haven’t seen a killer module until you play The Dancing Hut.”

Vijay frowned. “Never heard of it.”

“You get Dragon.

“For two years now.”

“Oh. The Dancing Hut is from ’84,” said Mike, remembering the pain of that year too well. “You should back order the issue. It’s a Dragon classic.”

“I will. What’s it about?”

“A witch named Baba Yaga. She terrorizes countrysides, eats kids, and is practically invincible.” Baba Yaga’s Hut had been their last major campaign, in April 1984. For Mike it summoned a host of destructive memories. It was the year of Eleven’s exile — presumed dead or lost in some other dimension — and Mike had taken his anger out on anyone convenient. Accordingly, he had orchestrated a campaign so sick and nihilistic it pushed the bounds of decency. He punished his friends in the game as he felt punished in life. In Baba Yaga’s Hut, Dustin died; Will was turned to glass; Lucas barely escaped. They failed their mission entirely. Mike was immensely satisfied, though it hadn’t improved his disposition in the least.

“Sounds awesome,” said Vijay. “But here, breeze through this.” He handed Mike a module from his pack.

Mike gasped at the cover and title: Southern Mirkwood: Haunt of the Necromancer. He couldn’t believe what he was holding. It was a campaign module set in Middle-Earth. Middle-frigging-Earth. Tolkien’s world had actually been been made into a role-playing game. And this was Southern Mirkwood, the domain of Sauron long before he moved to Mordor.

“Where did you get this?” demanded Mike.

“The Boston comic store carries all the Middle-Earth modules.”

“There are more?” asked Mike.

“Loads,” said Vijay. “There’s a module for Angmar — you know, the Witch King — and Isengard, and Shelob’s Lair, and Goblin-Town, and Moria –”

“Are you shitting me?” said Mike.

“Who’s shitting who?” It was Dustin. Lucas and Will were behind him.

“Look, you guys,” said Mike, showing them Southern Mirkwood. “They make D&D modules for Middle-Earth now.”

“No way,” said Dustin, swiping the module from Mike’s hands.

“They aren’t actually D&D modules,” said Vijay. “It’s a different role-playing system. But you can adapt them to D&D. I do all the time.”

“Yeah, it’s not a TSR product,” said Dustin. “Some company I’ve never heard of. ICE.”

“Iron Crown Enterprises,” said Vijay. “But Rotten Gargoyle doesn’t carry any ICE products.” Rotten Gargoyle was the gaming store in Hawkins. In their middle-school days they had made weekly trips.

“The manager should be raped,” said Dustin. “I’m going to go in and bitch at — Hey! The copyright date is 1983. This thing has been out for years.”

“The first Middle-Earth module was released in ’82,” said Vijay. “Angmar, I think. The latest is Lorien. I got it for Christmas.”

“That pisses me off,” said Dustin. “We could have had a blast with these things.”

“Why don’t you guys still play?” said Vijay. “I know adults who play D&D. We should have a game sometime.”

“That’s a great idea,” said Will, looking at Mike.

Mike felt awkward. Vijay had made him realize how much he missed D&D, but this was troubled history. Mike had ridiculed Will for not growing out of the game. God, I was an asshole that summer.

He decided to un-asshole himself. “Yeah. It’s a great idea. Let’s do it.”

“Why not?” agreed Lucas, who had also teased Will on that rainy day in July. “It should be fun. We’ll get Max and El to play too.”

“Oh-ho, you rebel,” said Dustin.

“Girls?” asked Vijay, frowning.

“You have a problem with girls?” said Lucas.

Vijay paused. “No,” he said. “But they don’t usually play D&D.”

“They will with us,” said Mike. “You’ll dungeon master?”

“Yeah, absolutely.” said Vijay. “I’ve run Southern Mirkwood before, with my Boston friends. It’s insane.”

Lucas looked at Mike. “Tonight at your house?”

“Tomorrow night,” said Mike. “We’ll have the house to ourselves.” On Wednesday night, Holly would be sleeping over with a friend from school (and whose parents she found vastly more pleasant than her own), and Ted and Karen Wheeler would be out for dinner and a movie.

“Works for me,” said Dustin.

“I’ll pick everyone up,” said Lucas. He had been driving since turning sixteen in December. His father had splashed big last week, buying Lucas a Mazda MX-6. “Where do you live, Vijay?”

His home was in Loch Nora, of course, with the rest of the filthy rich. Vijay gave his address. “Thanks so much for inviting me, you guys. I’ll make it a great campaign.”

“You better, dude,” said Mike. “Or next time we let Seth eat you alive.”

“We should get an early start since it’s a school night,” said Lucas. “I’ll start picking everyone up at 4:30 and we can eat when we get to Mike’s.”

“Yeah, I’ll make some sandwiches and shit,” said Mike. “And we’ve got lots of snack food for during the game.”

“I’ll bring bags of M&Ms,” said Vijay. “My dad bought a whole bunch when he went to Indianapolis over the week-end.”

“Sweet,” said Dustin.

“It’ll be like old times,” said Will.

If any of them had known how catastrophically right Will was, they would have told Vijay to stay home and tear the Southern Mirkwood module to shreds.

 

That night Mike relived memories another way. Through music, the purest of pastimes.

He watched the tapes record as Depeche Mode’s rhythms filled the room. Two tapes: one for him, one for El, though she didn’t know it yet. The soundtrack of their life. A life that began on a rainy night, when she emerged from Mirkwood — their Mirkwood Forest — wide-eyed and bald-headed. Sometimes he wanted to shave her head again, to recapture that first fire. The lead song on his cassette mix would have to do instead.

He leaned back over on his desk, and decorated the cassette covers with loops and swirls. He smiled, imagining her reaction to the songs.

It was hard being without her, even for one night. But they had agreed she would sleep over Max’s on the Tuesdays and Fridays of Hopper’s vacation. Max was El’s best friend, after all, and El was supposed to be staying there anyway. And her absence was a window of opportunity. Oddly enough, it was Lucas’s diatribe yesterday about Martin Luther King Day that inspired Mike to make the soundtrack.

The songs were twelve. Side B was recording now. Depeche Mode; the singer’s voice, without peer. The vinyl played; the cassettes spooled in the dual tape deck. The equalizers were modulated to a sacred pitch — Mike killed to protect his frequency settings — and the music sounded immortal. Mike wanted to be a musician someday; a guitar player. He’d start his own rock band.

He finished his sketchy designs and looked at the cases. He had listed the tracks in groups of three:

Side A

1. Space Age Love Song, A Flock of Seagulls
2. Louise, Clan of Xymox
3. Every Breath You Take, The Police

4. Baba O’Riley, The Who
5. In Between Days, The Cure
6. Best Adventures, Thinkman

Side B

7. Here is the House, Depeche Mode
8. Temptation, New Order
9. There is a Light That Never Goes Out, The Smiths

10. Par Avion, Mike and the Mechanics
11. Bring on the Dancing Horses, Echo and the Bunnymen
12. MLK, U2

The first trilogy represented his middle school years. “Space Age Love Song” summoned how hard he had fallen for El that first week, even if his twelve-year old self had to move mountains to admit it. “Louise” covered his year of depression following her presumed death. The song was released only last November; when Mike had heard it he relived her self-sacrifice to the demogorgon (“my heart used to beat, now it only weeps; and I shiver, I quiver, into these strangest things”). It was the cathartic juice before the sinister romance of “Every Breath You Take”, their reunion song after that miserable year, and which they had danced to at the Snowball of ’84.

The momentous Summer of Love in ’85 got a trilogy to itself. “Baba O’Riley” was self-explanatory. Mike and his friends had entered a teenage wasteland that July, weighed down by growing pains. “In Between Days” played on similar themes (“yesterday I got so old it made me want to cry”), and his fervent need for El (“come back, come back, don’t walk away”) during their first breakup, when she had dumped him at Hopper’s engineering. He cursed Hopper, remembering. And “Best Adventures” was the suitable farewell to all their childhood glories.

Next was his “passion” trilogy; of love, dance, and death. It represented his first year at high school, and led with “Here is the House”, the song he was listening to now. It was from Depeche Mode’s incredible Black Celebration album, and to Mike it educed mutual surrender and the rising passion he and El had felt for each other during his freshman year. “Temptation” was an eight-minute redundancy that he couldn’t help dancing to. As for the Smiths song, it was gloomy and depressing like all Smiths songs, but uplifting too: by ’86 Mike was having dreams of dying by El’s side (“such a heavenly way to die”) in heroic fantasies.

Then came December, when the life went out of Eleven. “Par Avion” was the song for that (“here comes the night”), a slow haunting piece that also played to Mike’s stepping up sexual pressures on El, after months of chafing at their frustrations (“I’ve been waiting here for so long”). They rewarded themselves on Christmas Eve, losing their virginity to “Bring on the Dancing Horses”. His favorite song now obviously. He had no idea what the horses were and had given up trying to understand the lyrics. All he knew is that it was compulsive; the psychedelic rhythms got in his blood; and the lyrics, while enigmatic, spoke to a raw primal need; sex most of all.

The cap off went to U2’s lullaby “MLK”, his shout-out to Lucas and one of the best final songs on any album. A song, come to think of it, that was perfect to drift off to after making love. He would put that to the test when she was back tomorrow. But he also used this song to anticipate U2’s new album. It was called The Joshua Tree, and Rolling Stone had announced its March release. Mike couldn’t wait for it.

He paused the recordings when the song ended, removed Black Celebration, and put on the New Order single. As it played and recorded, Mike danced in his room. He danced for all he had — his girlfriend, his home, his friends. And for the gift of life, after all the blackness they had survived.

 

In bed later, he tossed and turned, closed his eyes, aching for the companionship he had grown used to over the past week. When sleep came it was thin, and lit by the crudely wild dreams of fifteen year old boys; dreams where lust and love came together as one. Where El moved her hands all over him, kissed him hotly, begged him to shoot inside her, made him promise to never leave her.

I’ll never leave you, he vowed, hammering her. Never.

She cried his name, ecstatic, and then her cries tapered off into something like anguish.

What’s wrong? He worked for a climax that wouldn’t come. Through the fury of his thrusts, he saw that she was crying now. El? He panicked and thrust harder. Am I hurting you? He should be stopping, not doubling down, but he had lost control. The dream was branching into rivers of unyielding currents.

Mike, she whimpered. I didn’t want this. Don’t me mad. Please.

He felt the rush of waves over him. Water that wasn’t wet; liquid he could breathe. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. El became less tangible in his arms. He cried out panic stricken.

She began dissolving in his embrace. He was inside her still — a frustrated exclamation point going nowhere — and she was going, leaving him by some unexplained cruelty.

El, no! I said I wouldn’t leave you! I promised! But he had it wrong. She was leaving him.

His panic exploded. EL!

Please, she repeated… and then she was gone.

He screamed and screamed and lashed out, tearing apart the grey mists of his dream. EL, WHERE ARE YOU?! He cried the question over and over.

Then he was answered, out of the blackness. Not by her — but by a face of aqueous evil that swamped his vision and blotted out mind and purpose. A face so horrid it could petrify air and rock. Mike thought of the shadow worm… and knew this was the face of its master.

In a voice as bleak as the grave it spoke: I see you.

Mike Wheeler sat up in bed and screamed. A few moments more, and the terror of that face would have killed him. He began to cry. The dream had been far too real.

Then he heard movement in the hallway. He had woken his parents. He tried to stop crying. The door slowly opened.

“I’m all right, mom. I just had a freaky dream –”

A figure entered the room that was not his mother. Nor his father. Nor any human being under the sun. It was over six feet tall, draped in a robe with tall neck frill, and adorned with a necklace of tiny skulls. Its head was the aquatic obscenity that Mike had just escaped. It uttered something harsh and alien, and advanced toward the bed…

And Mike Wheeler sat up in that same bed and screamed again — and kept screaming until his mother flew into the room, and he knew for certain this time that he had woken up for real.

 

Next Chapter: In the Depths of Dol Guldur

(Previous Chapter: Forgive Us Our Debts)