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.
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.”
“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.
“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)