The Future Revised

As the year 2021 approaches, it’s become clear that some of my “predictions” need revision. The last chapter of Stranger Things: The New Generation took the story past 2018 (when I wrote the novel), leaving me to speculate on future events. I had Donald Trump winning the 2020 election, and then getting a third term during which he started a nuclear war in 2027. It’s fairly obvious now — barring some miraculous turnaround this fall — that Trump doesn’t stand a stance in the 2020 election. Covid took care of that.

This needn’t affect the overall plot. I can still have Trump win the 2024 election for a non-consecutive second term (like Grover Cleveland did in the 1892 election), leaving him to blow up the world in 2027. This allows me the fun of predicting how disastrous Joe Biden’s presidency will be — which is precisely what will make Trump’s comeback possible. So here is the revised section of chapter 8 (see the full chapter here).

Revised section from Chapter 8, “Retro Incendium”

In 2021, the kids from Hawkins — Jane Hopper, Lucas Sinclair, Dustin Henderson, and William Byers — turned fifty years old. It was a terrible year for their milestone, marred by national crises that heralded worse disasters. For one, America was still in a pandemic throttle. Between March and December of 2020, the novel coronavirus Covid-19 had killed 278,000 Americans (for a total of 1,107,000 people worldwide), and with the onset of winter the virus was feeling its oats again. Donald Trump ate the blame and lost his second term; his successor Joe Biden began doing everything humanly possible to ensure Trump’s return to the White House in 2025. Biden was, in Dustin’s words, a “worthless pile of shit” — taking up the torch for Obama and America straight back into war. Lucas was a wiser man now and gave Dustin no argument, washing his hands at long last of the two-party system. Then, in June 2021, two appalling decisions were reached on the Supreme Court.

The first was Carlson v. Dale, which overturned Roe v. Wade. The outrage spawned movements that made Antifa look pacifist. Violence shook the streets. Jane despised abortion, and would not have aborted Mike even to save her life. Were it not for her friends and father, she would have grown up to be a virulent anti-abortionist. Thanks to them (all men, interestingly) she understood why the issue was ethically challenging, and she had come to accept a woman’s right to choose. Now, after forty-nine years, that right had been torpedoed at the whim of five justices: Clarence Thomas (who wrote for the majority), John Roberts (whose flip-flopping on abortion issues had made him impossible to predict), Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanagh. Gorsuch filed a separate concurrence, upholding the majority’s opinion while rejecting some of Thomas’ argument. The four dissenting liberals — Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan — lamented the shame of a nation.

Lucas and Dustin couldn’t contain their fury. Lucas had two daughters, and Dustin’s daughter Olivia had had an abortion when she was a teenager. Carlson v. Dale was unacceptable. They told Jane they had joined an underground support network for women who needed abortions. Jane didn’t want the details. She supported Lucas and Dustin and respected the movement, but she couldn’t be involved. Her personal revulsion for abortion was too strong.

The second decision was Trump v. United States. In another 5-4 vote — and in an unprecedented display of judiciary arrogance — the court declared the 22nd Amendment unconstitutional. That amendment had gone into effect after Franklin Delano Roosevelt served four terms as president, and limited a president to serving two. In early 2020 Trump had asked the Supreme Court to repeal the 22nd Amendment, determined to remain in the White House for three terms if not four. Covid killed his chance for reelection, but the Court heard the case on its merits anyway. Two days after ruling on Carlson v. Dale, the justices announced their decision.

According to the majority, the 22nd amendment violated the intentions of Constitutional Framers like James Madison, who had intended longer appointments for presidents. To bar any qualified individual from running for president, regardless of the number of terms already served, cut the heart out of popular sovereignty. That principle, wrote Alito for the majority, was sacred: the People of the United States were the only source of governmental power; they, and they alone, were authorized to determine how many terms a president could serve; and they determined that in the voting booth.

The People of the United States, for their part, went ballistic. Jurists went insane. The Supreme Court had no authority to declare a constitutional amendment unconstitutional. It was an amendment. It was constitutional by definition. The only way to overturn an amendment was to repeal it through Congress. Aside from even this, the logic of the majority was risible. Whatever James Madison and other Framers had initially thought, they had ultimately rejected long-term service for fear of making a presidential monarchy — Trump’s obvious goal before Biden’s ascendance.

That ascendance gave Trump a comeback as predictable as a Covid resurgence. He had sailed into the White House on the wave of Obama’s sins, and Biden replayed Obama to a fault. Joe Biden ignored the middle class as it was squeezed out of existence. He marshaled troops and deposed tyrants; Islamic jihadists obliged his overtures with the usual bloodbaths. He crusaded against marijuana, and with gasbag sanctimony persuaded three states (Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina) to reverse their decriminalization laws, and two states (Michigan and Colorado) to roll back legalization completely. He expanded the surveillance state — well beyond the elastic limit of the Fourth Amendment. He waged war, and waged it more, until by 2024 Trump’s rebound was a guarantee. Donald J. blazed the expected campaign trail, reaching the disaffected and promising them gold. He would dump shit on them instead, but knew from experience that he’d be praised to the stars for doing so. Jane remembered Dustin saying that all presidential elections since John F. Kennedy were won by the most charismatic candidate, no matter how transparently awful he was. Party, policies, and even sanity were ultimately irrelevant; people were suckers for charisma, even the blustering kind. The only way to oust Trump in the ’24 election would be to stir the masses with as many thunderous speeches and glowing promises. The Democrats had none to offer, and fate was writ: Trump would become the second U.S. president (after Grover Cleveland) to win a non-consecutive second term. Thanks to the Supreme Court he could also get a third.

Mike was four years old during Biden’s first year, and for the first time Jane was glad of her son’s affliction. He was young enough now not to understand much beyond playing with toys and being entertained by company. That was suitable: she didn’t want him aware of how plague, war, and moribund politics had shattered the face of America.

Retrospective: Weaveworld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Twelve Children of Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retrospective: The Seven Altars of Dusarra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. The Nameless God, Death. Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Prayer

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

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

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

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

Eleven’s Showdowns (Age 12 to 66)

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

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

Here’s how they rank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless Night (Chapter 9)

This nine-chapter Stranger Things novel is the long-awaited prequel that takes place before five other stories, which should be read in the following order: The College Years, The New Generation, World’s End, The Witch of Yamhill County and The Black Rose of Newberg. These are all works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series, from which I do not profit. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

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

                             Endless Night — Chapter Nine

                         Endless Night

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

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

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

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

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

I shred you for the joy of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Please don’t die.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Illithid stepped aside.

Mike saw his new “friends” and screamed.

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

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

 

THE END

(Previous Chapter: Westering)

Endless Night (Chapter 8)

This nine-chapter Stranger Things novel is the long-awaited prequel that takes place before five other stories, which should be read in the following order: The College Years, The New Generation, World’s End, The Witch of Yamhill County and The Black Rose of Newberg. These are all works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series, from which I do not profit. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.

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

                                 Endless Night — Chapter Eight

                              Westering

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

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

“It’s over,” said Will. “Really.”

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

“Where are Lucas and Dustin?” she asked.

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

“Not Lucas?”

Max lips went tight, and she shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including the one that had swiped Mike’s corpse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Hey, El.”

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

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

“No,” she said curtly.

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

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

“Don’t let me keep you,” she said.

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

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

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

She told him it was okay.

“Making any speeches?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Wheeler repeated herself: “You useless hateful –”

“Mom, stop it!”

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

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

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

“Mom!” shouted Nancy. “I said stop!”

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

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

She shouldn’t have come here.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

 

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“Lucas, tell me.”

“It was the new U2 album,” he said.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Beaches,” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Better how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded grimly. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“I liked Theresa,” she said.

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

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

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

The whole thing hurt. It really hurt.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Something else, huh?”

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

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

To do otherwise would deny her need to breathe.

 

Next Chapter: Endless Night

(Previous Chapter: The Hill of Evermore)

The Door No One Remembers in Mike’s Basement

One of my proof-readers caught an error in chapter 3 of my novel Endless Night. The kids are in Mike’s basement getting slaughtered in a ruthless D&D campaign, something happens 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 and far at once.

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 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. 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 hard deal. But I have no choice. 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 blown apart.

“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?”

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. Ever.

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 move 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 being naive. 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. 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 serious trouble. 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. 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 of 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 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. It hurt to yell.

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

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 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 in a fetal position, 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.

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 had forced himself to stand up. 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 hit 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 Mike’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 for 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 roaring 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 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.

That’s right. Your brother fucked my brains out. He may as well have. El could still feel the mucus in her veins; it was all that kept her going. Shouting defiance and reaching within, 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 anymore; 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)