Hopper’s Cabin: The Season 3 Annex

There’s something different about Jim Hopper’s cabin in Stranger Things 3. He uses a curtain to close off the area of his bed, and I had a hard time making sense of this, since his bed is in the large living room area. Here’s a diagram (from Reddit) of the cabin in Stranger Things 2:

Here are some screenshots from season 2 that confirm the above layout.

Eleven sweeping up the mess of her psychic tantrum, and you can see Hopper’s bed adjacent to the bathroom.

The view of the opposite side of the living room area, where we see the back door to the outside and (to the right) the door to El’s bedroom.

A wide shot of the whole living room — bed on the left, outside door on the right.

So when in season 3 Hopper is suddenly using a curtain to give himself privacy, I thought it must be a pretty long curtain that sectioned off at least half of the living room, which I couldn’t visualize for the life of me. Going back and freeze-framing shows that not to be the case. Hopper’s bed has moved in Stranger Things 3 — to an annex that he apparently built between the time of seasons 2 and 3.

You can still see the outside through the window above the TV, but what used to be the back door is no longer a back door, but an opening into a new part of the cabin: an actual bedroom for Hopper that gives him more privacy. On the left we see that what used to be his bed is now just another couch.

So the adjusted map for Stranger Things 3 looks like this:

 

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 a 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, sisters, 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. It made him starve for the ground he walked on. 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; intimate caresses. Gorn purred, wrapping Mike in a tentacle, massaging him. 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 had become a death zone.

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 booked the next available flight, returning to Hawkins a day earlier than planned. The bombing 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 poleaxed. 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 a death sentence. “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 in a flood of tears. 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, stunned out of their minds. 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, yet a world away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet the delusions persisted. She heard his voice again:

El.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“El. Can you hear me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIKE, IT’S KILLING ME! STOP IT!

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

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

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

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

“Please. Don’t die, El.”

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

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

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

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

No, not the worm. God, the smell…

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

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

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

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

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

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

El felt like an abyss had opened beneath her. Her life would be 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 first?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this too she had been disastrously wrong.

She couldn’t tell him the real reason; wouldn’t say anything about the move to Oregon. For one, Mike would insist on seeing her right up to the middle of April. But worse, he would completely blame her father. He hated Hopper for engineering their break-up up in the summer of ’85, and he would see the migration to Oregon as motivated by malice: to 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 her naivete. She would be catching up on life’s simplest lessons at the age of thirty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. Mike —

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

Above him, the Illithid snarled.

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

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

He had just been put in the doghouse.

Gorn had apparently liked Mike — liked him so much that he had come to see Mike as his new master. The Illithid had removed Mike’s mark to destroy that outrageous bond. Mike was himself again; completely human. That was the good news. The bad news was that he was humanly traumatized. He couldn’t get up. He cried 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. Jesus-Shit-Christ, could she not do anything right?

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

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

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

No. Not him. Not that sweet kid.

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

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

“No, Mike, don’t!”

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

William Byers ignored the threat of the last thrall. He dropped Hopper’s gun and ran towards the trunk. Everyone saw as he cradled 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 to spare on such worries.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sorry Mike.

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

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

You won’t laugh for long.

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

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

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

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

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

What –?

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

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

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

Gorn.

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

“Gorn!” she shouted. “I need help!”

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

Don’t upset her, demon brat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will have you yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tried, Mike.

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

I never stopped loving you.

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

 

Next Chapter: Westering

(Previous Chapter: Shadow Side)

Endless Night (Chapter 6)

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

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

                                  Endless Night — Chapter Six

                           Shadow Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

The other three laughed.

Seth began pulling down Mike’s pants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!” said Alex. “Do it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally the deputy spoke. “Everything fine?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir,” mumbled Seth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike blinked. New orders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

It was an easy mission; absurdly easy. He and Seth had only to get on top of the police station, find a vent shaft, drop a bomb down it, and then fly away.

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

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

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

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

He wanted El.

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

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

“Perfect,” said Seth. “Call Gorn.”

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

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

Fly soft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorn accelerated to 70 mph.

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

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

100 mph.

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

130 mph.

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

150 mph.

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

Do it.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was never told –”

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

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

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

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

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

He put his hand on her gently. “El?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that… is it really you, Mike?

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

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

What do you mean? Who’s coming —

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

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

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

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

 

Next Chapter: The Hill of Evermore

(Previous Chapter: Down for the Count)

Endless Night (Chapter 5)

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

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

                                      Endless Night — Chapter Five

                         Down for the Count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bell rang, and they went to class.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max made a face. “Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you afraid of, Mr. Hobbs?”

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

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

Shamed and red faced, the boy left.

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

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

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

“I don’t share your opinion.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could say that.”

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

“Could you elaborate?” asked Lucas.

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

“What?!” they all shouted.

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

“Are you shitting us?” said Dustin.

“Language!”

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

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

“What the bloody hell?” said Dustin.

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

“What happened here?” asked Vijay.

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” asked Lucas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love her,” wept Mike.

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

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

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

“What now?” asked Will.

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

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

“I can stay with him,” said Vijay.

“Will you do that?” asked Lucas.

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

“Thanks, dude,” said Dustin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?” asked Will.

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

They waited, leaning against his car.

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

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

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

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

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

“How are things with your mom? Over.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucas put the talkie in his coat pocket.

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

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

“Why?” said Dustin.

“You think she’s lying?” asked Will.

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

“Uh, not me,” said Dustin.

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

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

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

 

Minutes later they were speeding down Water Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Max!” said Lucas. “Do you copy?”

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

“That’s a negative. Over.”

“Then where the hell is she? Over.”

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

“Is that where she is? Over.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucas turned off the talkie without answering. Completely off.

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, shit,” said Dustin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, go around the side. There are two windows that look into El’s room. See if you can peek through the curtains and see anything. I’ll look in these windows and then the back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, he’s somewhere –” began Dustin.

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

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

Dustin and Will stared, not knowing what to say.

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

“She’s… not here,” said Dustin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you serious?” he asked.

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

Lucas shook his head.

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

“At your place.”

“What?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lucas!” said Max, appalled.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just saying –”

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

“Guys!” yelled Dustin, pointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shoot it again!” said Dustin.

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

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

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

Lucas nodded. “Those teeth…”

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

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

“What?” said Lucas. “What is it?”

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

“Holy shit!” said Max.

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

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

“It’s Jack Grist,” said Will.

Lucas saw it and swore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is this place?” asked Dustin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” said Dustin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is?” asked Dustin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With Mike?” asked Will.

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

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

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

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

“What about El, you guys?” asked Max.

“I hope she’s alive,” said Dustin.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she say that I did?” asked Mike.

“What?”

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

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

“What’s happening to me?”

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

 

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

 

Next Chapter: Shadow Side

(Previous Chapter: Under a Raging Moon)