Stranger Things: World’s End (Chapter 1)

This ten-chapter novella is the third in a trilogy, the first two being Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation, both of which should be read beforehand. They are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. 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 these stories down.

                             Stranger Things, World’s End — Chapter One:

                                  Wasteland

Friday, May 22, 2037

William Byers woke, cold. He had heard the howls, and though they could have been part of his dream, he doubted it. The demo-dogs were out in droves lately.

He sat up in bed slowly. His joints ached and his piles were inflamed. Reaching up his crack, he scratched vigorously. Between the heart attack he had last year, and the ass attacks he suffered every night, he felt his sixty-six years with a regularity that made him question his worth to the Hawkins Colony. If not for his veteran knowledge of the Upside Down, he would surely be regarded as deadwood. He was frail and couldn’t handle field work. Wall patrol was out of the question; he was no combatant. The greenhouses, maybe; he could assist Minnie there if he had to. But there was no cause for worry. His place in the Colony was writ for life. He had suffered for Hawkins more than anyone alive — abducted, possessed, and almost killed rescuing enslaved children. His reward was the leadership of the Colony, a truly thankless task that required him to chair the council and make decisions that never pleased everyone. Dustin Henderson and Steve Harrington were also on the council, for saving the town against repeated depredations of the shadow world. Until two years ago, Lucas Sinclair was a member too. Will sighed, thinking of Lucas. This would be a hard day for Mike.

He put on a pair of socks before walking down the hall. Spring was half over, and it was freezing. He cursed the new weather patterns, longing for the days when May didn’t feel like March. Before the Pockets opened. And for the time before that, when no one took the idea of Armageddon seriously. For that matter, William Byers wished he were still living before Donald J. Trump entered the White House, whereupon everything went to hell. His years of life between 1971-2016 seemed an age of purity. America had been majestic, even at its worst. He remembered savoring life and dreaming big. That itself was now a dream. America was a wasteland: a nuclear wasteland on the coasts, a shadow wasteland in between. And the shadow was growing.

He passed Mike’s door and looked in on him. His nephew was asleep and gently snoring; a lucky kid, all things considered. He lived with his uncle in the most spacious house in the Colony, and had virtually no responsibilities. That would have to change in another year. When you turned thirteen, you had to start pulling your weight.

Today Mike was turning twelve for his third time. He was one of five kids in a community of two hundred fifty-two, the other four being an infant born last month, a three-year old toddler, an eight-year old mute, and a fifteen-year old who fancied herself beyond her years. It was a raw deal. Mike desperately needed a friend.

In the main room Will pulled water from a bucket and killed the dryness in his throat. Moonlight filtered through the window, and showed the time of 3:10 AM on the wall clock. He stood and listened. Within minutes, raw howls decimated the night silence. The demo-dogs were near; maybe even a full grown demogorgon in the pack. He would hear gunfire shortly. Steve Harrington was one of the patrollers tonight, and Will always felt good when Steve was on the wall. The man was in his seventies, but he was the Colony’s best shooter.

Will sat on his recliner and closed his eyes; he had to sit before lying down again, or his back would rebel. Considering all his ailments, he was amazed he had survived this long — six whole years — at Ground Zero. He supposed that his Peace Corps experience helped. Botswana had been home for two years, and he had loved every day of it, hardly missing the comforts of running water and electricity. But he had been in his prime then; his early to mid-twenties. And he had signed on for a limited duration. The American Wasteland was here to stay. He had given up on Eleven, or just about. She was a broken shell.

Since the pounding of the nukes ten years ago, Jane Hopper had been a raving lunatic. Tormented by the guilt of her son’s reverse aging, the nuclear wipe-outs had triggered her complete meltdown and full dependency on others. Mike was two years old (for his third time), and once again she had relinquished him to the care of Lucas and Raquel Sinclair. They were all living in Hawkins, the home of their childhoods, having moved from Oregon to avoid the coastal calamity. They had heeded the rumors, unlike most American citizens. On July 4, 2027, those other citizens paid the price. As they waved flags celebrating their nation’s independence, the United States became the overnight home of a new kind of independence — the kind you made anywhere you could stand, fight and hold your ground.

There had been some recovery since the radiation cleared in 2030, but living on the seaboards was like being in the wild west. The midwest was drastically worse — the true wasteland now, with only the tiniest fractions of people remaining to rough it out. On September 11, 2031, “traveling gates”, called Pockets, had materialized across half the state of Indiana, blooming out in a radius from the town of Hawkins. Nuclear survivors who had fled the coasts suddenly found themselves in a worse situation. Hordes of vile creatures — demo-dogs, demogorgons, aboleths, shriekers, and more — emerged from clouds of toxic atmosphere, which appeared out of nowhere and stayed for days before vanishing and reappearing miles away. Families were torn apart and eaten in their homes. Indiana became a no-man’s land.

The Pockets had multiplied like fruit-fly nests, and the shadow holocaust expanded by a radius of a hundred miles every year. Now there were twenty-one states under constant attacks from the Upside-Down: most of the midwest and much of the south. It was impossible to survive in any of those states without fortified protection; and few people wanted to stay and join a Colony. The way Will saw it, they should damn well get used to it. At the rate the Pockets were expanding, by 2042, America would be Upside Down in all states from the east coast to the Rockies. By 2048, all of continental America would require walled Colonies. Alaska and Hawaii alone would remain free; pale vestiges of a superpower brought to its knees.

The nuclear holocaust had been devastating, but the shadow holocaust spelled the world’s end. It was set on a course to swamp the globe.

A premonition made Will open his eyes. Someone is here. In my home. Watching me. He looked through the moonlit darkness, his heart quickening. That made no sense. There were no intruders in the Colony. There were two hundred fifty two residents, and they all got along. The Council hadn’t needed to appoint any police force beyond the patrollers managed by a competent chief. Then Will saw who it was, standing by the hallway from the bedrooms, and he started breathing again.

“You move like a ghost,” he said to Mike.

“You don’t,” said his nephew. “Can’t you get a cup of water without banging everything?”

“I’m clumsy.”

“I want to stay home today. For my birthday.”

Nice try. “You know the deal, Mike. Every month. Especially on your birthday.”

“It’s a waste of time.”

Maybe. But you’re the only chance she’s got. “The e-pod will be here at the crack of dawn. Be ready for it. You want to stay up now, and I’ll cook an early breakfast?”

“No, I’m going back –”

Gunshots exploded outside, and they both jumped. Someone yelled, far away. Then another shout, followed by a steady round of gunfire. Silence for a few seconds; then more shots. Finally it stopped. The alarm hadn’t been sounded, which meant the threat was neutralized. Courtesy of Steve Harrington and his crew.

Mike came over and sat next to his uncle.

Will ruffled his hair. “Change your mind?”

Mike shrugged. “I won’t be able to sleep now.”

“It’s your birthday, kid. What do you want?”

“Pancakes. And ham and eggs, and toast.”

“Okay, your majesty. We won’t have anything left for lunch after that, but it’s your day.” He stood up, lit the wall lantern, and went to the kitchen. “Promise me you’ll be ready when the lab guys get here?” he called, banging pots and pans as he began preparing St. Michael’s feast.

“Whatever,” mumbled Mike, promptly falling asleep on the couch after all.

 

“Ready?”

Mike ignored the question. He was never ready to see his mother.

They were at the Hawkins Lab, five miles from the Colony. They had been picked up and driven there as usual, in the lab’s e-pod. Such rides were an unheard of privilege in the post-apocalypse. E-pods were the old governmental cars powered by small nuclear reactors, functioning as both air and ground craft. The lab scientists had negotiated with New York for two of them, and they guarded their prizes zealously. Air transport was a priceless commodity anywhere, but especially in the shadow wasteland, where a pack of demo-dogs could pulverize most ground vehicles in minutes, and outrun them under fifty miles an hour. Ground cars were notoriously unreliable anyway; most of them ran on alcohol.

Will and Mike got special treatment for a reason, and that reason was behind the door they were approaching on the second floor. The woman inside was broken; if she could be made whole again, America might have a fighting chance.

The lab had been reopened four years ago in a last-ditch effort to save the country: to find a solution to the Pockets, which were generated by the Gate at the bottom of the lab. No one knew how this Gate had been created, or by whom; it was thought to predate the Pockets by about a year. The scientists were led by Dr. Mark Reardon, and their progress had been negligible. Reardon believed the only real solution was the woman being cared for; she had dealt with shadow gates in the past, and worse. The only thing that ever penetrated her insanity was the boy at Will’s side.

“Be positive,” said Will, knowing that Mike would go through this ritual with the usual sullenness. He could see a retort jumping into his throat, but before his nephew could say anything, a scream stung the air.

It was Eleven’s voice, raw and heinous. It was impossible that anyone could scream like that and be remotely sane. It was the screech of a soul in relentless pain.

Before the scream ended, Will was dragging Mike toward the bedroom door.

Mike squirmed and broke his uncle’s grip, flinging him off. “No! I’m not going in there!”

Will seized him again. “You are going in there. You’re the only one who can reach her. Mike, she’s your mother.”

Mike said nothing, hurling defiance with his eyes.

“Come on,” said Will, pushing Mike through the door.

Inside, Jane Hopper’s bedroom was almost completely bare. The doctors kept it this way to minimize clean-up duty. The medication she received blocked her telekinetic powers, but occasionally the medication wasn’t strong enough, or it came too late. There were pictures on the stand near her bed: the first showed her and her boyfriend Mike Wheeler when they were fifteen, on Christmas Eve. The second showed Mike Wheeler alone, closer to twenty, without his eyes, sitting and playing guitar. The third showed her in her late thirties, matronly looking, and next to her son — a Mike Hopper slightly older than the incarnation now at Will’s side. The fourth showed Jane in her fifties; she looked strained holding her “second” baby, the same Mike, at six months old.

The Jane Hopper who sat propped up on pillows couldn’t be recognized from those memories. She was a parody of her former self; a grotesque distortion. Her nightgown hung in tatters. She stared at her visitors with rabid eyes. Fury clenched her face, and whimpers moaned in her throat. Will knew they were safe from her tantrums because of the injections she received. The drugs didn’t affect her power; they acted on her mind so she couldn’t use it. Safety hardly mattered to Will. The sight of her tore him apart regardless.

“Hi El,” he said softly.

She let out a scream savage enough to tear a lung.

At Will’s side, Mike tried to back out of the room. Will stopped him. “Go on,” he said. “Talk to her. Go, Mike.”

Mike slowly walked over and sat on the bed next to his mother. “Hi, mom.”

His mother slowly registered his presence. Her face of fury turned on him.

“Take her hand, Mike,” said Will.

Mike took her right hand. “It’s okay, mom. It’s me. Mike.”

“Mike?” Her damaged voice crawled like an injured thing between her lips. The rage on her face began to dissolve.

“Yeah. It’s me and Uncle Will.”

“Oh, Mike.” Tears spilled from her eyes. She fumbled for him, leaned over and hugged him, and moaned into his shoulder. Mike looked like he wished he were miles away.

Will cleared his throat. “Mike turned twelve today, El. It’s his birthday.”

It was the wrong thing to say. She stopped murmuring and looked up at Will with fierce distrust. She clung to Mike and spoke in his ear: “He’s poisoning you. Against me.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “Mom –”

Abruptly his mother grabbed him by the shoulders and violently shook him back and forth. Her face burned with fury again. “I’m your mother, and he’s not! He’s not! He’s NOT, do you understand!”

Mike was being whiplashed to and fro, and he yelled at his mother to stop.

Will almost intervened but gave it another few seconds. Usually her bouts of rage against Mike didn’t last any longer than that. She stopped shaking him and clutched him to her breast. “You’re going to stay with me,” she panted. “I spoke to the doctors, and you’re going to live here, so we can be family again.” She started weeping. “With me. You want that, right?”

Say yes. Lie to her. Show a mercy. But Will already knew Mike was going for honesty.

“I can’t, mom. You need to get well first. Then you can come to the Colony.”

Agony filled his mother’s eyes, and then without transition she slapped his face. Will moved to intervene.

Mike broke free of his mother’s grip as Will got to him, but she immediately snatched him back, with a grip that was ferociously strong for her sixty-six years. “Don’t contradict me!” she shouted in Mike’s face. “I’m your mother, and he’s not. He’s NOT, NOT!!”

“Let go of me!” yelled Mike.

Will gently grabbed her wrists. “Let him go, El.”

She snarled and bent over Will’s arm, sinking her teeth into his wrist. He yelled, more from the shock of her biting him — she had never done that before — than from the pain, though it was excruciating.

Two lab workers entered the room. Jane Hopper backed up against her pillows and screeched, threatening to kill anyone who touched her. The lab workers were as gentle as they could be in restraining her. She fought like a demented lioness and hurled obscenities at them, spit flying from her mouth.

Will was shaken. “Let’s go, Mike,” he said, but Mike was already at the door.

“Mike!” his mother wailed. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Mike! Come back! No! NO! NO! DON’T LEAVE ME!” She was sobbing and kicking at the lab professionals. “Don’t leave me… please!”

As they both left the room, Jane’s shrieks ripped from her abused throat. Will’s heart sank. She was only getting worse.

 

“I hate her!” Mike yelled for about the sixth time when they were back home.

Will was doing his best to control his temper. He seldom lost it. But Mike had been outright impossible since his mother’s episode that morning. He had yelled at Dr. Reardon as they left the lab, and shouted at Will on the drive home. The drivers in the e-pod’s front seat had kept quiet with poker faces, and Will had marveled at their professionalism.

“I can’t control the way you feel, Mike, but don’t ever let me hear you say that you hate your mother. Your mom is the most amazing person I’ve ever known. And I expect better behavior from you in front of others.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

Will sighed. “Yes I can.”

“You’re not the boss of me. Uncle Luc was.”

“That’s right. He was. Now I am. And I dare say I give you a lot more leeway and freedom than Uncle Luc ever did.” Will was conveniently omitting the fact that he sort of had do be lenient with Mike. His nephew didn’t respect him as a parental figure. Lucas Sinclair had disciplined the hell out of Mike and been loved for it. Whenever Will tried such measures, the results were risible. There was a reason he had never had kids.

“Your mother deserves respect.”

“She’s a hag!”

“Stop it, Mike. She hurts. She’s trapped in an inner hell. You know she’s not herself. She raised you. Twice.”

“Uncle Luc raised me.”

Jesus. Will knew that Mike had complicated memories of his previous two lives. He certainly remembered them, but parts of them seemed unreal; like dreams or pictures in a book, he said. But surely he remembered his mother’s unflagging love and commitment to him. She had done everything for him, and saved him from an eternity of black hell in the Upside Down. In the process, however, she had caused him to age backwards. Then he had to start life all over again.

“Your Uncle Luc was a great man. Don’t let his greatness diminish your mother’s.”

“She stinks. She’s hysterical.”

“She can’t help –”

“I’m not going there to see her anymore!”

“Listen to me!”

“Just because she can make tornadoes doesn’t make her special!”

“Will you please calm down?”

Mike only got more furious. “She’s a shitty mom! I never had a mother!”

“Shut up, I said!”

Mike burst into tears, and Will cursed himself. He couldn’t recall the last time he had yelled at anyone like that. Probably years ago. Maybe decades. Lamely, he put his hand on Mike’s shoulder to apologize.

“Don’t touch me!” shouted Mike.

Will should have let him go, but he was angry again — angry at all the yelling, and tired from being up so early. He shook Mike and told him to shut up, grow up, and stop acting the child. Forgetting of course that he was still a child. Mike told him to let go. Will wouldn’t let go. A stream of twelve-year old F-bombs filled the room. Will still held him firm. Suddenly Mike stopped struggling, and closed his eyes.

Without warning, Will felt smashed by a wave of burning coldness. He couldn’t see or hear a thing. An awful sense of deja vu hit him, as if this had happened before. He felt caught, paralyzed, on a landscape of contradictions: freezing incineration; searing numbness; a vacuum that permitted no life, and yet couldn’t kill, because there was no moment to the next, during which life could cease to be. Mike was somehow doing this to him.

Then — it felt like only a second later, but also many years — Will was suddenly right again, his senses registering everything they should. He was still holding Mike, but they were far outside the house, at least a hundred feet away. He let his nephew go. What the hell had just happened?

“What did you do?” Will demanded. In his first life Mike had possessed an amazing power over time. In his second life that power had taken on a mind of its own and shrunk him down to infancy. In this life he had shown no evidence of that power at all. Or had he?

Mike didn’t answer, and he started walking away, around their house to the back.

“Hey,” said Will, confused, following him. “I asked you something.”

“You’re not the boss of me,” said Mike as he kept walking. He was cutting around other buildings and heading towards the Colony’s recreational field.

“Where are you going?”

“You’ll see.”

They came to a hill overlooking the play field, and Mike stopped next to a tree. He looked down at the two people using the field — an adult and a child playing frisbee — then sat against the tree.

Will looked down at the frisbee throwers, and gasped in shock. He wasn’t seeing right. He started walking down the hill to get a better look.

“No,” said Mike. “Stay under the tree with me.”

Something in Mike’s tone compelled obedience. Will stopped, but he didn’t take his eyes off the impossible figures below, shouting and laughing as they threw the frisbee. One of them was his good friend Lucas Sinclair. The other was Mike Hopper himself.

Lucas had been killed two years ago by a demogorgon. Mike was up on this hill right next to him. Neither of them could be down there.

“Uncle Luc was my father,” said Mike. “You’re not my boss.” He put his head on his knees and broke down sobbing.

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What readers are saying about World’s End

Here’s what readers are saying about my novella World’s End. Thanks everyone, for your praise and enthusiasm. I never dreamed you would be as moved as I was in writing the story.

“I read parts of World’s End during my work hours. That’s how much I couldn’t put it down.” (Stephanie Gatley)

“Fan fiction can be awful, especially when the only fan it satisfies is its author. With World’s End, Loren has reached way beyond his own tastes, and tells a story with broad appeal. Stranger Things, indeed.” (Greg Wright)

“How many times have you reached the end of an emotionally intense book or movie and felt bereft? You’re not ready to let go. You need to know what happens to your friends. You miss them. Loren brings them all back with a vengeance. And the story goes on.” (Tina Lozeau)

“Honestly one of the best time travel stories I’ve read – and I’ve read many.” (Taheem Kazmi)

“Loren transports us into the world of Stranger Things so vividly, that you may as well be reading the Duffer Brothers’ next screenplay.  He is a master at including the best cultural references from the eras, and weaving in an interesting plot that keeps you staring at the last page after you’ve finished.  It sucks you in hard and then kills your soul in all the right ways fanfiction should.  Definitely a must read for any Stranger Things fan.” (Kylie Hargrove)

“A thrilling story that is actually superior to the plot of the TV series’ season two.” (Matt Bertrand)

“Eleven has suffered so much throughout Loren’s trilogy, and worst of all in World’s End. What her son manages to do for her in the end made me cry.” (Darren Hughes)

I will start posting the chapters to World’s End tomorrow, one each day from December 16-25.

Guest Review of my Stranger Things Novel

It’s been a while since Leonard Ridge has written anything for this blog. He sent me his (spoiler-free) review of my Stranger Things novel, which I post below. It’s not a kind review, though I suppose Leonard has said worse about me.

           Loren Rosson’s Stranger Things: From College to World’s End
                                     Reviewed by Leonard Ridge

I count myself among those who will do whatever it takes to steer a friend back on track, no matter how impossible the task or conceited the friend. So here I am to offer what I’m sure will be unwelcome remarks about Loren’s latest novel, a piece of fan fiction that is, to put it mildly, self-indulgent trash.

I am referring to the novel, or trilogy of novellas, called Stranger Things: From College to World’s End. They are generational stories that follow those kids we love from the TV series — Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, and Will — into their adult lives. In Loren’s imagination they confront terrors that make the Demogorgon and Shadow Monster look like puppets out of Sesame Street. But I intend to keep this review spoiler free. Suffice to say the Upside Down is dishing out nastier threats than before; none of the three novellas has a happy ending; and the fate of one character in particular is so tragic and depressing, to say nothing of degrading, that it qualifies the trilogy as misery porn. To those familiar with Loren’s fiction, this is nothing new. He always abuses his characters. But up until now, those characters have been exactly that: his own. The Stranger Things kids belong to our collective consciousness. They are not Loren’s to throw into the meat grinder for his self-gratification.

The first novella, The College Years, is the worst offender in this regard. It is also the most vapid story of the three; indeed there is hardly a story to speak of. It opens in 1990, with the boys on their first summer vacation from college, though it is hardly that for Will. His mother still helicopters the hell out of him; that he is a legal adult be damned. The vacation turns grim for the other two boys too, when the fourth member of their group who has been dead for three years suddenly shows up — very much alive, though unable to speak, and smelling like a thousand sewers. (I’m avoiding names to avoid spoilers; in Loren’s vision, this character died horribly at the end of what will be Stranger Things season 4 in the TV series.) It’s a premise that shows promise, but in Loren’s hands goes nowhere. Even in the novella’s best chapter — a hideous flashback to the dead character being brought back to life, enslaved and tortured in the Upside Down — there is little to advance the plot, and it’s drowned in a pretentious writing style that shows Loren trying to impress himself more than the readers he so blatantly disdains. Frankly I felt raped reading this story, in two ways. First for having to watch my favorite character torn apart in graphic detail and then suffer more in prolonged agony; second for the abuse of trust between Loren and his readership — the trust we hold that a writer will make good on his promise and deliver at least some payoff to the horrors he puts us through. Loren didn’t do that, though he obviously thinks he did; the final paragraphs deliver a genuine surprise, but it’s a gimmick that simply gives him an excuse to write two more novellas.

And if the second novella shows Loren telling a story for a change, it’s a fairly lousy one. The Next Generation fast-forwards us to the year 2009 during the week of Halloween. Eleven has a child now, a foul-mouthed fifteen-year old with a hard-on for the actress Ellen Page and a fetish for the fantasy hero Elric; or perhaps it’s the other way around. Either way, the autobiography is shameless. That Loren can write characters so transparently in his self-image does not show him to be a true writer. As for the narrative itself, it’s weighed down by weaknesses, above all a clash in tone. The first five chapters are from the point of view of Eleven’s son, and are at many points crude and vulgar in the extreme; the last three are from Eleven’s. The minds of a fifteen year old boy and his thirty-eight year old mother are light years apart, and the clash is so jarring that it comes across less like versatile writing, and more like two authors writing at cross-purposes. There is also mean spirited humor, even in the last three chapters, especially the vicious dinner-table argument over Barack Obama. Loren confided to me that he laughed himself into fits writing that scene, but I don’t find it funny in the least; I found it racist. There is loads of belching throughout the story too. Of the three novellas, The Next Generation shows Loren at his most crass and juvenile. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Loren Rosson story without misery porn, which the final chapter provides… and sets the stage for worse calamities.

Which brings me to the third volume that has been so wrongly praised, World’s End. Loren’s readers say that he “outdid himself” in this story, and they love it so much that they have been begging him to write more Stranger Things fan fiction by the truckloads. I beg everyone’s indulgence in allowing me to set the record straight. It’s true that Loren outdid himself in World’s End — with bloated narrative and cheap thrills. It’s twice as long as it needs to be, and is a time travel story, which means the usual fare of reworking the past, but I promise you in ways that are less impressive than meets the eye. It’s almost impossible to review World’s End without dropping major spoilers, so I’ll just say that some of the chapters will have you turning pages in such a fevered excitement that you’ll be hoodwinked into believing that Loren is as clever as he thinks he is. The setting is post-apocalyptic, but don’t salivate over that either; Loren can’t write a dystopian society to save himself. The year is 2037, long after President Trump ignited a nuclear war which devastated eighteen states on the east and west coasts, and killed one hundred and twenty-four million Americans. The Stranger Things “kids”, who are now sixty-six years old (the ones still alive, that is) must work to stop a second holocaust that came after the nuclear one: the Upside Down’s invasion of Indiana which has by now spread to twenty states in the midwest and south. By 2048 the shadow world will swamp all of continental America, and thus the time-traveling mission: to stop the Upside Down holocaust before it ever started. It’s a good idea, but Loren muddles it by having the main character recruit the Stranger Things kids when they were twelve years old in 1983, and take them into the future (which is the main character’s past) on a preposterous detour to a different point in time that has no bearing on their mission. This is so that they can watch a fucking movie together (I kid you not), and only after that will they try to save the world.

I’ll say one more thing about the pile of manure that is World’s End. I’m exceptionally pissed about Loren’s witless and insulting portrayal of Donald Trump. Not because I like the man; I loathe our current president as much as anyone else. What offends me is Loren’s far-fetched scenario that caused President Trump to initiate Armageddon. I won’t spoil this either, but it’s a truly galling move. Trump is his own self-caricature; he doesn’t need the supplements of Loren’s ludicrous caricatures piled on top in order to make a point.

Why this trilogy has been fawned on by Loren’s readers is beyond me. It’s surely a testimony of their loyalty, to say nothing of their compassion. I realize I’m in a minority position, but my honest advice would be to avoid this trilogy as if it were a contagious disease.

Stranger Things Trilogy: Word Counts

I am grateful for all the feedback I’ve had on my Stranger Things trilogy so far. I posted the first novella in August, and the second novella second in October, and the third will come later (though many have read the pdf, which I am willing to send). The third is the longest of the three, and almost half the trilogy. I compared my word counts to other writings, and it turns out the proportional lengths of my novellas are close to those of the books in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

My Stranger Things Trilogy

Volume Title Word Count Percentage of Trilogy
1 The College Years 19,094 24%
2 The New Generation 23,655 29%
3 World’s End 38,301 47%

C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy

Volume Title Word Count Percentage of Trilogy
1 Out of the Silent Planet 57,000 22%
2 Perelandra 82,000 32%
3 That Hideous Strength 118,000 46%

Not that Lewis’s trilogy has anything to do with mine, aside from these figures. I didn’t plan on each story getting larger; it just happened organically. I will say that while That Hideous Strength is arguably the weakest volume in the Space Trilogy, World’s End is the strongest in mine — according to everyone who has read it so far.

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 8)

This eight-chapter novella is a sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years, which should be read beforehand. Both are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. 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 these stories down.

                          Stranger Things, The New Generation — Chapter Eight:

                              Retro Incendium

She let Mike finish school that year, but he would not return to Marshall in September. By then his body would be shrinking with a vengeance. Jane remembered how he had shot up over five inches between his thirteenth and fifteenth years. When summer came, he was well back into that biological time frame. There was no way he could pass for a junior in the fall. People would catch on.

Tobias and Mike made the best of that summer, and Jane savored their friendship, knowing it couldn’t last. She would later look back on that summer of 2010 as the last time her son knew happiness.

In the fall she started “home schooling” Mike and minimizing his contact with the outside. The residents of Tibbetts Street who had known him were all dead, so that simplified things in the neighborhood. She forbade Mike to linger on the porch and lawn. Only the Sinclairs and Tobias Powell entered her home, and of course members of the Hawkins Club when they flew out to visit.

Medical appointments would have been an insurmountable problem, but Will the Wise bailed her out. His old doctor from the Hawkins Lab, Sam Owens, had connections in Portland and was able to hook Mike up with a physician who kept his condition secret. Jane was indebted to Dr. Owens and surprised the man was still alive; he was almost ninety now. He had engineered her secret adoption by Jim Hopper in 1984. She never dreamed he would still be protecting her in the twenty-first century.

Mike took all of this amazingly in stride for the first two years. After that things got bad. Fast.

 

The spring of 2012 was the worst period. Mike’s voice warbled and he hit puberty in the reverse direction, snared once again on the trajectory of childhood. He was almost twelve: May 22 would be his thirteenth birthday, and thus his last day as a thirteen year old. He grounded himself in denial and resisted his hormonal impulses, insisting he was a teenager in his thoughts and actions. It was like trying to become a character from a novel or film. The background was there; he certainly remembered his teenage experiences. But they felt illusory and out of reach.

Tobias came to visit around this time. In two weeks he was graduating from Franklin High School. Marshall had closed in 2011, in an attempt to consolidate the city’s resources into fewer and bigger high schools. It was a narrow decision made by the school board (4-3), with the result that Marshall’s students were spread to Madison and Franklin. Tobias ended up at the latter and hated it; Mike was glad to have missed the whole mess.

Even so, it wasn’t right. Mike should have been at Franklin now, graduating with Tobias, sharing their experiences together, looking forward to the senior prom, and then to college in the fall. Tobias had been accepted at Columbia. Since their first year at Marshall, he and Mike had dreamed of attending Columbia together. They would conquer New York and move mountains.

Mike was eating lunch in the kitchen when Tobias arrived. Jane went to the front door and let him in. He was eighteen; a man now.

“Hi, Miss Hopper.” Tobias looked brittle. “Is this a bad time?”

It’s always bad. “No, of course not. Come in. Mike’s in the kitchen.”

“Mom?” Mike chirped. He had come to see who it was. “Hey! Tobias!” He ran and put his arms around his friend, who was now much taller than he. It used to be vice-versa.

Tobias returned the hug rigidly. “How’s it going, Mike?” These visits had become visibly difficult for him.

“Awesome. I got to show you my new comics.”

Tobias forced a smile. “Okay. Great.”

“I mean, if you want to see.”

“Sure.”

“Let’s go in the living room,” said Jane. “Can I get you something?”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

“Mom made roast beef sandwiches.”

“Really, I’m okay.”

“Do I want your opinion?” he asked, laughing. “Or did I get that right?”

Tobias nodded.

Mike punched his arm lightly. “You need to give me a response.”

Tobias forced one: “Then I’ll whip it out of you!”

Mike laughed.

In the living room they sat down in comfortable chairs. “So wow, you’re graduating in a few weeks,” said Mike.

“Oh yeah. Bye-bye Franklin High.”

“Yeah. I’m glad I wasn’t around when Marshall closed. I liked it. But I don’t know. I remember liking it, but I don’t really miss school that much. I mean, I miss you.” He looked down at his shoes, unsure of what to say.

Jane stood up. “You know what, I’ll let you guys talk. I’ll be outside if you need anything.”

Tobias looked grateful. “Thanks, Miss Hopper.”

Jane sat on the front porch while Tobias and her son talked for almost an hour. Toward the end she heard Mike shouting. She closed her eyes. She had dreaded this day. She heard Mike yell again, and then his feet pounding up the stairs. Tobias came and found her on the porch. His eyes were wet.

“Miss Hopper… I’m not going to see Mike anymore. I’ve been trying my best, but I can’t do it anymore. He and I are getting too different now.”

“I understand. You don’t have to explain.”

“Well, I tried explaining it to Mike, and of course he’s really upset.”

“So are you.”

He wiped his eyes. “He’s a kid again. About the age we were when we first met. We don’t… connect anymore.”

He broke down then, and Jane held him as he cried. “You were a great friend to him, Tobias.”

“He fucking hates me now.”

She had sworn to herself that she wouldn’t be angry with Tobias when this day came. Mike desperately needed a friend, but by now that was too much to ask of Tobias. He was an adult going to college. Mike had the age and maturity of a seventh-grader.

Tobias said good-bye, and Jane wished him the best. She never saw him again.

 

The next downslide was in November 2016, when a tycoon named Donald Trump crushed everyone’s expectations and was elected the forty-fifth president of the United States. Mike was a diminished eight year old, and was flabbergasted to see his two uncles suddenly united in fervent opposition to the new president. The Hawkins Club gathering in early December was worlds apart from the one seven years ago. For Jane, that was the only good thing about the ascendance of Donald J. Trump: it made Lucas and Dustin tight again.

Naturally, Dustin couldn’t resist a few parting blows at the lame duck. Like many outraged voters, he blamed Trump’s victory on Obama’s complete failure to address the plight of the middle class, not to mention his own black tribe. Lucas, in a rare gracious moment, conceded that President Christ Obama was hardly that after all. Jane could see Mike struggling to make sense of it all, but he was no longer equipped to digest politics. All he knew is that his Uncle Luc and Uncle Dustin were best friends again.

By summer he had winnowed down to a seven-year old, and it was at that point Mike started to lose his memories. Not lose, precisely; he remembered being older, taller, going to school, and his best friend Tobias who permanently unfriended him. He remembered liking books and movies that were scary, and couldn’t understand why. He remembered the War of the Uncles. But it was all turning dim and feeling like a dream. By August he disputed the reality of his memories. Jane got her first unpleasant taste of this development as they ate breakfast one morning:

“Mom?” he had asked.

“Yes?”

“Was Grandpa Jim ever real?”

“Was he ever real?”

“Yeah, or was he just one of the stories you read to me?”

She stared at him, upset by the question. “Mike, we have photos of Grandpa in the living room. You see them every day. You’re saying that you can’t remember Grandpa?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“All those times he came over for dinner? When he took you hiking and rafting? When he died in the hospital?”

“Sort of. But none of it seems real.” He frowned. “I forgot about those photos.” Abruptly he left the table and ran into the living room. When he came back, he was crying hard, and holding the picture of the three of them — Mike, her father, and herself — in her favorite family portrait. “I don’t understand things anymore, mom,” he sobbed.

She took him in her arms. “I’m sorry, honey; I’m sorry.” She felt utterly helpless as he kept crying. Since that cursed Halloween night, he had lived half his life backwards, and she was no closer to finding a solution to his regressive condition. Retro incendium. Dustin’s words haunted her. Burning backwards.

 

In 2021, the kids from Hawkins — Jane Hopper, Lucas Sinclair, Dustin Henderson, and William Byers — each turned fifty years old. It was a terrible year for their milestone, marred by national crises that heralded worse disasters. In February, President Trump put a complete stop on the immigration of all non-white peoples to America. Then, in September and December, two appalling decisions were reached on the Supreme Court.

The first was Carlson v. Dale, which overturned Roe v. Wade. The outrage spawned movements that made Antifa look pacifist. Violence shook the streets. Jane despised abortion, and would not have aborted Mike even to save her life. Were it not for her friends and father, she would have grown up to be a virulent anti-abortionist. Thanks to them (all men, interestingly) she understood why the issue was ethically challenging, and she had come to accept a woman’s right to choose. Now, after forty-nine years, that right had been torpedoed at the whim of six justices.

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

The second decision was Trump v. Hennessey. In another 6-3 vote — and in an unprecedented display of judiciary arrogance, not to mention stupidity — the court declared the 22nd Amendment unconstitutional.  That amendment had gone into effect after Franklin Delano Roosevelt served four terms as president, and limited a president to serving two. According to the majority opinionsuch an amendment violated the intentions of Constitutional Framers like James Madison, who had intended longer appointments for presidents. To bar any qualified individual from running for president, regardless of the number of terms already served, cut the heart out of popular sovereignty. That principle, wrote the majority, was sacred: the People of the United States were the only source of governmental power; they, and they alone, were authorized to determine how many terms a president could serve; and they determined that in the voting booth.

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

For all the public outrage, it seemed likely that Trump would get his third term. He had won the election of 2020 by a wider margin that the one he stole in 2016. The more enemies he made, the more his constituency snowballed. The country was more polarized than it had been during the Civil War. Unless the Democrats could produce a strong charismatic, Trump’s victory in 2024 looked like a slam dunk. He was reaching the disaffected and promising them gold; when he dumped shit on them instead, they praised him to the stars. Jane remembered Dustin saying that all presidential elections since John F. Kennedy were won by the most charismatic candidate. Party, policies, and even sanity were ultimately irrelevant; people were suckers for charisma. That would be the only way to oust Trump: by stirring the masses with as many thunderous speeches and glowing promises.

Mike was four to three and a half years old during those horrible months, and for the first time Jane was glad of her son’s affliction. He was young enough now not to understand anything beyond playing with toys and being entertained by company. That was suitable: she didn’t want him aware of Donald Trump’s America.

 

Her relief didn’t last. By the fall of 2023, Jane Hopper was having a nervous breakdown. She insisted to herself that she had it under control, until her body gave up on her. She was playing with Mike when it happened.

“No!” he said, grabbing her fingers. He was down to twenty months, and psychologically still in his terrible twos. He knew about thirty words, his favorite being the negative he was now shouting.

“No! No!” He was hitting her chest with his tiny hands.

“Come on, honey,” said Jane, trying to settle him on her lap and keep the panic attack at bay. She had them all the time now; the meds prescribed by Dr. Archambault hardly helped.

“Nooooo,” Mike was enjoying himself, trying to wiggle free. She tugged him down firm, and then her grip slipped. His sideways motion sent him to the floor on his little behind. She gasped, fearing an injury, and then saw that he was laughing and okay. She reached down to pick him up — and fell to her knees. Her breath wasn’t coming back. Oh God. She closed her eyes and tried to rein in the attack. Her body was sweating, and her arms shook as she pressed her hands against the floor to keep kneeling. Dimly she was aware of Mike pelting her with “no’s” and “mommy’s”, as he leaped around her laughing. She needed help. Lucas.

Her cell was in the kitchen. Standing up was out of the question. She lay down on her side and tried breathing slowly. Mike’s face appeared over hers, curious now. “Mommy?”

She held out a weak hand. “Here, honey.” He came into her arms and she cuddled him, as if to galvanize herself by soaking up his infant energy. Her tremors multiplied. Call Lucas for me, Mike. Use your iPhone. Absurd. She hadn’t allowed Mike an iPhone for years now. He could barely talk. Her chest tightened, and her vision swam. Breathe. Breathe, damn it. Come on.

Somehow she did and kept from passing out. Mike had wiggled free again, and was all around her, though not quite as entertained. He didn’t like seeing mommy stretched out on the floor. Nor, for that matter, did she.

She was finally able to push herself up when the worst of it faded. Then she stumbled into the kitchen and dialed Lucas, crying over what she had to ask of him.

 

Jane faded in and out; in to perform her necessaries, out to abstain from a reality which had become too cruel. She had lost the two people who meant everything to her. There was no one left who could reach her.

More than twenty months ago, she had relinquished Mike to Lucas and Raquel, begging them to adopt her son for the remainder of his infancy. She couldn’t watch him grow any smaller, and she couldn’t take care of herself, let alone him. In his final twelve months they fed him formula, and gave him the love and attention she could no longer provide. Another black mark in her catalog of failures. She had committed herself to the care of Mike’s doctor, Dan Archambault, who diagnosed her with an extreme anxiety disorder and recurring schizophrenia. Only strong sedation could get her to sleep. Dr. Archambault paid her house visits, appointed two nurses who rotated over her 24/7, and had Sam Owens from Hawkins foot the expensive bill. Jane’s panic attacks increased, and she lashed out in bolts of fury. When she dreamed, it was usually of Mike shriveling into a mangled fetus. Screams and crashes could be heard coming from the house on 74th Avenue and Tibbetts Street. The nurses routinely cleaned up after telekinetic tornadoes.

Lucas or Raquel, sometimes both, brought Mike over occasionally, so she could hold him for a while. They timed the visits to coincide with her more sedated periods. Those visits stopped after May 22. Jane’s instructions had been firm: after Mike’s “zero” birthday, she did not want to see him anymore. Lucas and Raquel were to continue caring for him until he was unable to survive outside a womb.

Was it days since Mike’s birthday, weeks, or months? Jane couldn’t say, and it didn’t matter. He was dead; and so was she.

“Miss Hopper?”

She opened her eyes. She had been dreaming of fetal compost heaps in the Upside Down. It was a recurring nightmare. She swam in a mountain of aborted and miscarried pre-infants. She dug through their corpses screaming for Mike. She never found him.

“Good morning, Miss Hopper.”

Dr. Archambault. He was at the foot of her bed. Why did he bother her anymore?

“I have some startling news.”

She was empty and broken. It was nothing newsworthy.

“We’ve been monitoring your son very closely.”

Her son was dead. So was she.

“By now it’s clear that he’s no longer aging backwards.”

Of course not; the dead don’t age.

“He’s aging forwards again. Normally.”

The words made a rift, distorting her sense of what was what. No. The doctor was tricking her, manipulating her mind, as doctors had been doing since her birth in the lab.

“Your friends are here, Miss Hopper.”

“El?” Lucas came in and sat on the edge of her bed. “Hey there.” He took her hand. “We think Mike is in the clear. He’s put on weight since May 22 and getting more feisty. He’s not dying. It seems like he’s going to grow up again.”

Her zone began to crumble.

“Will is here too.”

William Byers appeared next to Lucas. He was carrying something in his arms. “Hey El,” he said. “He’s okay. See? He’s going to be okay.”

When Jane saw her baby, alive and cooing, her edifice collapsed. All the pain and rage of the past fifteen years poured out in tears and anguish. She took Mike from Will — daring the gods to punish her anymore — and clutched him to her breast, repeating his name over and over.

And as Jane cradled her son, Lucas and Will feared for her future. She had raised Mike twice, up fifteen and a half years, and then back down again. The tail ends of those cycles had each nearly killed her. It was unlikely she could handle a third round. She was fifty-four years old, strung out, and barely sane. No one had any idea if Mike was still subject to his time-power in some way, or even why he had started to age normally again.

Worries would come later. For now, healing was needed — the healing of love and friendship. The room filled with both, and Mike Hopper burped happily, feeling every bit of it.

 

Read about Mike Hopper’s new trials in the third novella, Stranger Things: World’s End. (Coming soon.)

(Previous Chapter: The War of the Uncles)

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 7)

This eight-chapter novella is a sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years, which should be read beforehand. Both are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. 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 these stories down.

                        Stranger Things, The New Generation — Chapter Seven:

                         The War of the Uncles

Everyone cried terrorism. National Security shut down Tibbetts Street for two weeks, denying survivors their homes. Those lucky few, including Jane and Mike, were rigorously interrogated, and found clean of ill intent. Most of the residents had simply vanished. The Llaza’s appetite left no remains. Survivors described horrors that kept the CIA swarming over Portland. Jane’s story was simple, superficially true, and profoundly false: she had come home late to find her son and his best friend hunkering in fear; she had called her friend Lucas, who had come; they had called the police when their cell phones worked again. As for Dominic Bragdon, who lived many streets down, he and his friends were presumed to have been trick-or-treating on Tibbetts when the horror struck.

During the two-week shut down, Jane and Mike moved in with the Sinclairs. Lucas’s apartment wasn’t huge, but it had a guest room for Mike, while Jane took over little Audrey’s bedroom. This was to the initial outrage of elder sister Shannon, who had to double up with Audrey, though she quickly relented; she loved Aunt Jane as much as Audrey did.

For Jane, staying in the apartment raised grim shades. She and Mike Wheeler had lived three floors below, when the complex was called Ione Plaza. Only last year the name had changed to the Vue Apartments. Glitzy renovations couldn’t suppress Mike Wheeler’s ghost. She saw him at nights, sitting in little Audrey’s chair; heard the melodies of his guitar notes; felt the crushing weight of his eyeless stare that accused her of killing their son. He was the only thing I left you, El. She pleaded with him. No! I tried, Mike! I tried to save him! Her boyfriend’s face of judgment transformed into her son’s look of innocence, growing eyes that were identical to hers, and then burning white, igniting him like the head of a match. You saved me, mom! His voice scraped insistently, rising higher. You saved me! He was shrieking, and his face began to melt.

Jane screamed and woke up. Sweat drenched her shirt and little Audrey’s blankets. It was a little after midnight. A door down the hall opened, and Raquel was by her side in seconds.

“Your nightmares are scaring me, El.” Raquel had long ago swapped out Jane for El. Years of Saturday night visits made her family.

“I’ll be fine,” Jane lied. She wouldn’t be fine for a long time. The Llaza was the worst adversary she had faced from the Upside Down. The day after Halloween, Mike had described it to her in repulsive detail:

“I knew everything about it because I was the monster. I had its mind and memories. I knew every single thing about it. It had a trillion-year lifespan. When I attacked it with my fire, all I did was push it thousands of years into its adult stage.”

“And it made you do that?” she had asked. “Forced you to make it grow?”

“The next day it would have made me fill another street. Eventually that thing would have become the entire state of Oregon.”

“Michael, how on earth did it give you a new power?”

“It didn’t, it only changed what was there. Like, it shifted the framework of my mind so that my time power was way more severe. It was in its larva stage — or what we think of as a larva — when it traveled through the internet and preyed on peoples’ fears. It got inside texts and images that people love, to scare them and break their will. So it could dominate them. And fuck with their minds in other ways.”

“But it needed someone like you to come in to our world.”

“Well yeah, that’s why we haven’t heard stories about streets being taken over until last night.”

She rubbed his head and kissed him. “You’re one of a kind.”

“Not anymore.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

“When your power hit mine, it killed it. It’s gone, completely. I can’t even fugit people. I’ve tried.”

She couldn’t tell if he was disappointed or relieved, but she guessed more of the latter. “I killed a lot of people when I was young, Mike. Even younger than you. I’ll never judge you for what you did to those four boys. Your secret’s safe.”

“But what I was saying about the Llaza. It terrorized people through their computers. I remember all those people from its memories. Thousands of them. It was doing that for like a decade, ever since the internet became popular. It liked to possess family photos. It did that a lot. It broke people — made them crazy. It broke me.” But it had also needed him. Oh, Mike.

“I guess it sensed that Ellen Page meant more to you than your own mother.” She was teasing. Sort of.

He didn’t want to talk about that. “Well, it’s dead. Because of you. Badass mom.”

“I thought I ended up killing you.”

“Naw,” he said. “You’re too badass for that.”

No, she thought now, as Raquel held her in Audrey’s bed. Not badass. Just lucky. In her battle with the Llaza, she hadn’t had time to even think how her power might interact with her son’s. She was just trying to fend off the vile creature; to shield Mike from it, and to keep his own power from destroying her. She could have easily killed Mike, and it was a miracle she hadn’t. I saw him burn.

 

It was the second week of December and an early Christmas at the home of Jane Hopper. Assembled with her and Mike were the official members of the Hawkins Club: Lucas Sinclair, Dustin Henderson, William Byers, and Nancy Wheeler-Perry. Sheriff Jim Hopper of Yamhill County used to be a part of these gatherings until his loss to cancer two years ago.

Foodwise, it was also a late Thanksgiving. Platters of turkey, stuffing, greens, and turnips were passed around the table, repeating the menu everyone had gorged on two weeks earlier. This was how the Hawkins Club did it, so everyone could spend the actual two holidays with their families: Lucas in downtown Portland, with Raquel and his daughters; Dustin in Boston, with his wife Lynn and son and daughter, Rafe and Olivia; Nancy in Springfield Virginia, with her husband Craig and daughter Drew; and Will in Hawkins with his mother, the ever Jolly Joyce. Will, who lived in Fishers, was the only Hawkins Club member who still visited Hawkins. The town had too many ghosts for the others, and far too much pain for Jane.

“Score!” shouted Dustin. He and Mike were throwing ice cubes across the table, into each others water glasses. A long standing tradition.

“What are you doing these days, Dustin?” asked Nancy. “Besides annoying everyone?”

“Pissing people off is my top priority. But I’m still the senior software engineer at MIT.” His alma mater.

“Are you going to annoy Uncle Luc about Obama?” prodded Mike. Jane shot him a look of daggers, which he ignored.

“Obama annoys the piss out of me,” said Dustin. “And what he did last week was galling.”

Mike was smiling. “Yeah, Uncle Luc, what do you think about Obama’s decision to send all those troops to Afghanistan?”

“I think,” said Lucas, “that someone is being too obvious in trying to turn this family party into Afghanistan.”

“Mike,” said Jane.

He wouldn’t take the warning. “This is important, mom. Everyone’s talking about it at school. We’re supposed to be stopping the war, and Obama’s revving up. He’s doing exactly what Johnson did to escalate Vietnam.” He looked over at his Uncle Dustin expectantly. Jane seethed, knowing Mike didn’t give a righteous damn about the war in the Middle-East, much less about Vietnam. He just wanted a shitstorm at the dinner table.

Dustin laughed. “Our son of a bitch president is doing exactly as I predicted from day one. But I have a feeling your mom doesn’t want to walk this road.”

“Please,” said Jane. “Can we not talk politics?”

“They have a right to discuss their opinions,” said Mike. He belched and asked for the gravy.

“But maybe we should talk about something your mom can enjoy too,” said Nancy, passing the bowl.

“And me,” said Will.

“Hey, Captain Librarian,” said Lucas. “Why don’t you try taking an interest in politics for a change. Crack some of those books in your 300s section. But I agree with El and Nancy. We’re not repeating the Fourth of July.”

“And I agree with Lucas,” said Dustin. “It’s a waste of time to obsess our dipshit president.”

“He’s not a dipshit!” said Lucas, taking the bait, and slamming his glass down on the table. “He got a shitty hand dealt to him by George Dipshit Bush!”

Dustin laughed again. “I’m sure that if President Christ Obama committed mass genocide, you’d excuse it on grounds of the shitty hand dealt to him by his predecessor. It’s the oldest line of partisan horseshit, Lucas, and you’re a better person than that. Or at least you used to be.”

Lucas couldn’t control his rage. “Obama’s done more good in a single year than Dubya did in eight!”

“Really? How?”

Lucas flared: “First of all –”

“Yeah, I know he saved the Endangered Species Act. Good for him. A lot of presidents have done a few good things and still ended up shitty presidents.”

“He’s left a lot to be desired,” put in Will, trying to mediate, “but I wouldn’t call him shitty.”

Mike was loving this, and just warming up. “You really think he’s a shitty president, Uncle Dustin?”

“Your Uncle Dustin,” said Lucas, “is living proof of the adage that for a black man to succeed, he has to be pure as the goddamn snow.”

“And there we have it,” said Dustin. “When people like you are cornered with the facts about Obama, you play the trump card of your stinking black ass.”

There was a stunned silence. Even Mike was aghast.

Lucas finally spoke. “Say that to me again, asshole.”

Dustin leaned forward and enunciated. “I said, ‘The-Trump-Card-Of-Your-Stinking-Black-Ass’.”

Lucas threw back his chair and stood up. Jane had never seen him so livid.

“Guys,” she said. “Come on. That’s enough.”

“Not a chance, El,” said Lucas, not taking his eyes off Dustin. “Don’t ever throw race at me, Henderson. My esteem for Obama is completely color blind. It’s ear-fucking relevant. But it’s obviously relevant to those who over-criticize him.”

“And you’re full of shit, Sinclair. Most of Obama’s critics –”

“Dustin, please,” said Jane.

“– are bang on the money, and you know damn good and well I’m no racist. Obama is factually a lame-ass piece of shit. In all the ways that matter, he’s Dubya with a black skin — which fools people like you. He’s educated and he can speak — which also hoodwinks people like you. And he throws us bones here and there — again, duping you unbelievable blasted idiots.”

“This is my fault,” said Mike, suddenly hating the War of the Uncles.

“Yes, it is,” said Nancy.

Jane made a decision. “I’m ruling this subject off limits. I’m not watching you guys ruin your friendship over petty feuds.” She had seen it happen before, with her father and Mike Wheeler.

“El is right,” said Dustin, playing the penitent. “I was in the wrong, and I apologize to everyone. I shouldn’t have spoken truth to Uncle Lucas. He needs his fantasies.”

Jesus, Dustin,” said Will.

Lucas was grabbing his coat. “You know what? Enjoy yourselves. I don’t need to listen to this shit.”

“Lucas, you’re not going anywhere,” said Jane.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing, El.”

“Don’t go, Uncle Luc.”

“Shut up, Mike! Be satisfied with the outcome you obviously wanted!”

Jane was shocked. She had never heard Lucas yell at her son like that. He was the only person she allowed to discipline Mike, and even in his angry moments, he had never been nasty with Mike before this. Mike was equally shocked, and speechless.

Lucas stormed out. Jane swept the table with a look of a hurricane. No one dared say a thing. “Mike,” she said quietly. “Go upstairs and wait for me.”

“What?!”

“Go!”

He swore an F-bomb, piled more turkey and stuffing on his plate, and stomped upstairs. If he was being banished, he wouldn’t go hungry.

Jane went outside and chased Lucas to his car.

Lucas was already inside, and rolled down the driver’s window. “El, I’m sorry I yelled at Mike. He’s not the one I was mad at.”

“He’s the one I’m mad at! He did exactly what I told him not to do. And you’re leaving because of it.”

He smiled. “Kids.”

“Lucas, please. Leave if you have to, but don’t hate Dustin –”

“El, don’t worry. Dustin’s my best friend and always will be. He and I just have to work out an understanding about how and where we discuss politics.”

“I’ve never seen you so mad. You reminded me of my father. And my old Mike.”

“Yeah, well, go easy on Mike junior. He got to me, but he’s just a teenager. Dustin was being a major asshole.”

She hugged him through the window. “Why is politics so ugly?”

Lucas laughed, putting the car in reverse. “I’m still a card carrying Democrat. Dustin shredded his card last spring. We’ll be political foes forever.”

He would be proven seriously wrong about that in another seven years, when a business clown and very dangerous demagogue won the 2016 presidential election.

 

It was a mild winter that passed in Portland, with the lowest snowfall seen in eight years. Tibbetts remained a ghost street. Buyers were bewaring, given the unresolved mysteries of Halloween night. Jane realized she missed the bustle, as she and Mike sat on their porch in early March, playing No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. They gambled with petty change. She finally cleaned him out, with a full house over his straight.

“Holy shit, dude, the way you played that.”

“You thought I was bluffing?”

“I knew you weren’t bluffing — you can’t bluff for shit, mom — but I thought you had a set, not a full fucking house.”

“Thanks for the confidence. And tone down the language a bit.”

“Whatever dude.”

“And you’re back to that?”

“What?”

“Calling me ‘dude’? I thought we passed that stage.” She had finally got him and Tobias to stop calling her “dude” last summer.

“You are a dude. You’re a badass dude. I never realized how awesome you are before you kicked ass. Last Halloween. You and Uncle Luc always told me about the Upside Down but I kinda wondered. Seemed silly. But you rock.”

She smiled. “I’m glad I meet your approval.”

“Yeah, you’re cool.”

Then she frowned. “Have you been feeling okay lately?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“You look a bit pale.” She touched his forehead. There was no fever, and on closer scrutiny he didn’t really look that pale. “I guess I’m wrong.”

“I feel a hundred percent. You worry too much, dude.”

“Yeah, dude,” she mocked.

 

That night at 2:15 AM, Jane woke and sat straight up in bed, wild-eyed, heart pounding. She knew what was wrong with her son. She sat immobile and erect for at least five minutes, going over it in her head, trying to convince herself she was a fool. She wasn’t. Terror crawled inside her. Don’t do this to me, God. Don’t.

She got out of bed and walked down the hall to Mike’s room. Violating her rule of privacy, she opened his door without knocking. The hallway light spilled in and showed him sound asleep on his stomach. She stared at him, torn. Part of her wanted to go back to bed and pretend she had a lively imagination. The other part of her acted. She sat on the bed and gently shook him awake: “Mike.”

He moaned and turned over. “Mom?”

“Get up, please. I need you to come with me.”

“What? What’s wrong? It’s… fuck, it’s two in the morning.”

“Do as I say. Now.”

He sat up, still half asleep. She grabbed his hand and pulled him off the bed. “Come on.”

“Where! Where are we going?”

“Just downstairs,” she said.

He was getting pissed, and demanded an explanation as she dragged him downstairs to the kitchen. She threw on the lights and stared at the pillar with pencil marks. She felt sick. She positioned Mike against the pillar and told him to stand up straight.

“What do you mean, I’m standing up!”

“Stand up straight, I said.”

“I am!”

She pushed his head up against the pillar, next to the pencil marks.

“You’re measuring me? Are you insane?”

She stared and saw exactly what she expected. His head didn’t clear the latest pencil mark.

“Mom?”

He had grown almost half an inch shorter.

She looked at his face and realized her earlier mistake. He wasn’t pale, exactly; his face was just… smoother, babier.

He was aging backwards.

She broke down crying then, as Mike, scared out of his mind, kept asking her what the hell was wrong.

 

“Merlin Sickness,” said Dustin’s voice over the conference phone.

“What?” asked Lucas.

“If you tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll kill you and you’ll thank me later.”

Jane and Lucas were sitting in Lucas’s office at the Fish and Wildlife Station. They had met here to use his conference phone, and both Dustin and Will were on the line, calling from their homes in Boston and Fishers.

“I’m a biologist,” said Lucas, “and I’ve never heard of Merlin Sickness.”

“Hyperion, hello? You never read Dan Simmons’ series?”

“Oh yeah,” came Will’s voice. “I read those. The first two books anyway. When I was in Botswana. It was that girl archaeologist –”

“Rachel Weintraub,” said Dustin. “She goes to planet Hyperion to study the Time Tombs, which everyone avoids like the plague, and she gets worse than any plague. This creature called the Shrike touches her, and her body starts aging backwards.”

“How is she saved?” asked Lucas. “Or is she?”

“If you mean cured, no, she isn’t,” said Dustin. “She keeps aging backwards until she reaches her first moment as a newborn child, at which point her father hands her to the Shrike in desperation, as a sacrificial offering. From that point she gets a certain salvation, depending on your point of view.”

“This doesn’t help, Dustin,” said Lucas.

“It was a scary concept in a sci-fic novel,” said Will. “I remember being more terrified by Hyperion than by most horror novels. But Mike has something different from the Merlin Sickness. Rachel didn’t just age backwards, she lost her memories too.”

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “A day’s worth of memories every night she went to sleep, plus all her memories of everything that happened since she was touched by the Shrike. In other words, she woke up every morning with her memories in the exact state they were in when she was that age before. Her parents had to explain to their poor daughter what happened to her, from scratch every day — why they were so old and things weren’t as they should be.”

“That story was heartbreaking,” said Will. “But Mike has been retaining all his memories at least.”

“You don’t think this is breaking me apart?” asked Jane.

“That’s not what I meant, El.”

“He’s going to ‘grow’ into a baby in fifteen years, and then, what, die, when he shrinks into a fetus?”

“We’ll work this out, El,” said Lucas.

“There’s nothing to work out, Lucas! He’s aging backwards, just like we age forwards. It’s unstoppable.”

“Not necessarily,” said Dustin. “Mike lost his power, but how do we know he can’t get it back? If he can, maybe he can stop this reverse-aging.”

“That’s just it, Dustin. He never lost his power. We were mistaken.” I was mistaken. Badly. “His power isn’t gone. It’s still being used. It’s streaming constantly, everywhere in his body. That’s why he’s growing backwards.”

“How do you know this, El?” asked Lucas.

“Because all the clues were right in front of me. When I shielded Mike from that fucking creature” (she heard them all gasp; they had never heard her use an F-bomb) “I continued using my power against it, but in a kind of reverse — to push it away from Mike, instead of wrapping and compressing it. But he was being forced to use his own power, and my shield, which kept the Llaza out, also kept his fire inside. Mike flamed himself.” She had seen him burn; heard him scream in the black void.

“He told me he was fine.” You saved me, mom. You saved me. She hadn’t saved him. She had put him on a stony backroad to hell. “He didn’t realize his power was still in motion, working backwards on him.” Because of me. I killed my own son. “None of us could tell, because he’s aging downwards at the normal rate. It took me four months to catch on.”

“But if that’s true,” said Will, “then it’s a reason to believe something can be done. You’re saying his power is working. It just needs to be shut off.”

“He’s tried, Will,” said Jane. “He’s tried six hundred and eighty ways to Sunday.” It was now four days since Jane had measured Mike. During those days, she had kept Mike home from school and forced him to try reaching into himself. He couldn’t feel a thing. The special spaces in his mind for tempus fugit and real-world aging were either closed or gone.

“I’m thinking more about you,” said Will. “If you helped caused the problem, maybe you’re the one who can fix it.”

“No way,” said Jane. “You don’t think I’ve thought of that? I was acting on instinct, in the heat of battle. I hardly understood what I was doing. And I was only acting against the Llaza. I had no time to think about how it might affect Mike. If I tried ‘fixing’ his power, for all I know, I could turn him into a fetus or a skeleton in seconds.”

“Well shit,” said Dustin.

“El is right,” said Lucas. “If there’s any way out of this, it has to come from Mike. He has the intuitions to guide his own abilities.”

“Except that he doesn’t,” repeated Jane. “He’s a blank slate now. He says there’s nothing in his mind to work with. It’s like whatever I did triggered a reversal, but it also made his mind a faucet that can’t be adjusted or turned off.”

“Retro incendium,” said Dustin.

“What?” asked Jane and Will at the same time.

“Retro incendium. Latin for ‘burning backwards’. That’s what Mike’s doing. Burning backwards.”

“Thanks for that Dustin,” said Lucas. “How do we stop him from burning backwards?”

No one had any ideas. They promised to keep brainstorming and stay in touch, and then hung up.

“El,” said Lucas, taking her hand, “we’re not giving up here.”

Jane hardly heard him. Her heart felt like ash. She was going to “raise” her son all over again, until she was cradling him and he needed formula to survive. She had done the math already: Mike’s birthday was supposed to be next month: April 11. Instead of turning sixteen, he would be almost fifteen again. From the point of Halloween, 2009, he had been fifteen and a half years old — fifteen years and 203 days, to be precise. He would age down to exactly fifteen years on May 22, which would become his new “birthday”, in effect. That meant on May 22, 2025 he would be an infant at the point he was born from her womb. What would happen then? She wasn’t counting on a stupid miracle like the one in that novel Dustin mentioned.

If there were gods controlling fate, Jane wanted nothing to do with them. She had lost Mike Wheeler to the Upside Down’s evil. She saved him from the Illithid, but the creature had ruined him so deeply that it killed him anyway. Now she was going to lose Mike junior because she had ruined him by saving him from the Llaza.

“El,” Lucas repeated.

“I can’t Lucas,” she whispered.

“What?”

“I can’t do this.”

“Come here.” He held her in his office for a long time.

 

Next Chapter: Retro Incendium

(Previous Chapter: The Llaza)

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 6)

This eight-chapter novella is a sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years, which should be read beforehand. Both are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. 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 these stories down.

                         Stranger Things, The New Generation — Chapter Six:

                                   The Llaza

When Jane turned on to Tibbetts and saw the Upside Down atmosphere, she slammed on the brakes. She hadn’t seen those floating particles in over twenty years.

She looked down the street, paralyzed. Mike. Their house was two blocks down, and the Upside Down appeared to extend well beyond that point. She held her breath and opened the car door, stepping out to look. Except for the idling of her engine, Tibbetts Street was utterly silent. Stars shone in the sky, but their illumination barely penetrated the shadowy atmosphere congealing over the homes.

She had to get to Mike. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he was having so many problems right as something like this happened. She knew that he had lied to her — about the “bat” on his window that made him scream, and the “stranger” who almost killed him — and she cursed herself for respecting his privacy.

She got back in the car and looked at the clock: 9:49 PM. That could mean anything. Mike had said that Ashlee’s party would go until 11:00 o’clock, and she knew that he milked Halloween for all its worth. She prayed he was still there.

A scream pierced the neighborhood silence, and Jane threw open the car door again, peering through the motes and shadows. She couldn’t see anyone. She was about to get back in, when a figure lurched on a front lawn. She squinted. It was a woman staggering towards the street; Jane called to her. When the woman saw her, her eyes widened and she lumbered toward Jane as fast as she could. From behind her, a shadowy mass protruded from the house, reaching for her. The woman barely evaded being snatched when the ground vanished beneath her, and she was swallowed. Jane heard a guttural belch, and a sequence of muddy slurping noises. The earth had just eaten this woman alive.

Her heart thundering, she opened the car door and grabbed the cell from her purse. She knew she was breathing Upside-Down air and hardly cared. It was unpleasant to inhale, but apparently not toxic. Her father had vomited from being trapped down in tunnels bored by the Shadow Monster, but his body hadn’t paid any prices otherwise. It was cigarettes that had finally killed him, and she cursed him for not taking better care of himself. She could use her father right now. She dialed Mike’s cell phone number.

After the sixth ring there was a click, and her son’s voice spoke the usual: “I’m either in class, listening to music, or beating off. Do it at the beep. If it’s important.”

The beep came. “Mike it’s me. Call right away. If you’re at Ashlee’s, stay there. Don’t come home, I’ll pick you up. Call me back. I need to know you’re all right. Don’t ignore this message.”

She hung up and dialed Lucas’s landline, watching the street in all directions.

His wife answered. “Miss us already?”

“Raquel, is Lucas there?”

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Raquel didn’t like the way Jane sounded.

“Can you please get him?” said Jane. “It’s an emergency.”

She heard Raquel yell for Lucas, and to hurry his ass.

Lucas was there in seconds: “El?” he said. “What’s up?”

“You need to come over fast.”

“What happened?”

“My street is a graveyard.” She saw Mike dead and banished the thought. Please. Not my son. Please. It occurred to her that he was the same age as his father when he was killed by the Illithid.

“God, no! There was a shooter?”

“No, it’s the Upside Down. I’m not kidding. I’m at the west end of Tibbetts at 71st.” She and Mike lived two blocks down, at the junction of Tibbetts Street and 74th Avenue. Tibbetts extended for a half a mile between 71st and 82nd, and for all Jane knew, the entire strip was under siege from the Shadow World. “It looks the Upside Down is covering all the homes on Tibbetts. I just saw the ground open and eat a woman alive.”

“Whoa! If I didn’t know that you never tell sick jokes, I’d say this is a pretty sick Halloween joke, El.”

“Not a joke. I have to get inside my house and look for Mike.” Please. Not him.

“No, no! Wait for me, I’m leaving right now. You said you’re at 71st?”

It was a twenty minute drive from his apartment on the west side of Portland to where she was now. She wasn’t waiting twenty minutes. “In case you forgot, I’m not defenseless.”

At that moment Lucas didn’t care that Jane Hopper was one of the most powerful people on earth. He swore. “You’re saying the entire street is taken over? That everyone is dead?” She heard Raquel gasp in shock.

“It looks that way,” said Jane. “Maybe some people alive, like that woman, but they won’t be for long. Like I said, I can’t tell how far it goes –”

“I’m calling the police and coming over.”

“Don’t call them yet. I think whatever is on this street can easily kill people with guns. If I can deal with whatever it is, it will save lives.”

“Jesus. Did you try Mike on his cell?”

“Yes. He didn’t answer.” She insisted to herself that was a good sign. If he was still at Ashlee’s, he probably wouldn’t answer. If he was home he probably would. Unless of course he was dead.

“I’ll meet you at your home. I’m taking my cell, and you call me if I need to know anything — and call me as soon as you find Mike.”

“I’ll look for you.”

She hung up and put the car in drive, rolling past the block of houses on both sides of Tibbetts, and then crossing 73rd Avenue. She had to avoid a car turned on its side in the intersection. There was no sign of anyone in the car, or around the homes. The same was true for the next block. Her house came into view at the intersection of 74th, and she pulled into the driveway. Killing the ignition, she got out and stared.

There was no question her home was the primary source of the Upside Down pollution. Shadows and dusty twinkles poured out the windows and front door, most of which had been thrown open wide. Her rage began to build. If Mike had been harmed in the slightest, she would wreak a devastation that made the transformation on this street look like afternoon tea. She ran to the front door, yelling Mike’s name. To her shock, a figure appeared in the doorway, and she leaped up the steps to confront him.

It was Tobias. He was hysterical.

“Tobias! Where’s Mike?”

He couldn’t answer. In her four years of knowing him, she had never seen Tobias Powell shed a single tear. She knew what his tears meant now and refused to accept it.

“Tobias!” She shook him. “Where is he?” He continued crying, unable to speak, and she took him in her arms, looking around the downstairs area inside her home. Motes and shadows swam in the air, and the walls were smoky and black. The floors and ceiling had undergone a similar transubstantiation.

“Look at me,” she said. “Is he dead?”

He nodded miserably.

Her heart felt like an abyss. “Where?”

“In… the wall.”

The wall? “What do you mean? What wall?”

“Upstairs. In his bedroom.”

She steeled herself. “Show me.”

 

Staring at the impression of her son, Jane thought of Han Solo in those movies Mike Wheeler liked. Like Han, Mike Hopper was “frozen” into the wall above his bed. From around his sculpted impression poured a heavy concentration of shadow atmosphere. The floor was a mess; his computer had exploded into a thousand fragments.

“Be careful,” Tobias urged. “When I was up here before, something made an awful noise and came out of the ceiling at me. I ran downstairs, and you showed up after that.”

“Tobias, what happened here? What did you guys do?” It sounded accusatory, but seeing Mike like this made her feel angry and helpless.

“I wasn’t here. I don’t know what he did.”

“What do you mean you weren’t here?”

“I only came over when he called me but I couldn’t hear anything — some kind of interference. It was a messed up night, Miss Hopper.” He explained their aborted trip to Ashlee’s, and what Mike did in the park. Halfway through — when he got to the part of Mike kicking Dom in the balls — he was interrupted by a cavernous belching that spat from the floor. They froze and waited. Tobias resumed in hushed tones. When he finished his story, he looked at her nervously, clearly worried that she would call him a liar. He had just described her son murdering four people.

Jane believed every word of Tobias’s lurid tale, and she was certain that Mike’s newly acquired power was related somehow to this nightmare on Tibbetts Street. It was the reason he was frozen inside his bedroom wall. She had to get him out and was clueless how to proceed.

Without warning, the belching spat another alien obscenity, this time from the wall next to Mike. And from the Upside Down came a being of vacuous death.

It poured out of the wall, expanding, and then swept upward until it dwarfed her and Tobias and nearly filled the space of the bedroom. It was still part of the wall, like the black mass that had stretched out to snatch the fleeing woman and then devoured her underground. Whatever this monster was, it was omnipresent. Its skin was every house it had infected on the street; it was the ground, and the street itself. The shadow before her was a small part of it. The thing could manifest anywhere on the street, probably in many places at once, and somehow it was grounded in Mike. She saw Tobias flee the bedroom; there was nowhere to flee.

She realized that fighting the shadow would be useless. It was a drop in a swamp that needed full eradication. She had no idea how to achieve the impossible. She did what came to mind, and hurled her telekinetic forces at the shadow, more as a probe than a weapon, riding the waves with her consciousness in order to feel what the creature felt, to tease out its vitals and where it was weakest.

Almost at once, her power swept her into a flood of possibility. Her consciousness took her places she had never been. She felt as long as Tibbetts Street, as high as the homes on each side of it. She tasted the street’s tar, and felt the creaking in the wood of the houses. Motes flowed in and around her, glittering in her flesh, and extended for half a mile. Below her, in the ground, animals and critters scurried, cowering from the creature’s toxic presence. Mike had made the creature so mighty that it had brought the Upside Down to Tibbets Street. It was the Upside Down on Tibbetts Street, or more precisely, it was its infrastructure.

Without giving herself a chance to think about what she was doing, Jane locked her power with the creature’s — and then audaciously called it into herself, accepting the foul entity as her personal flesh.

At first the sheer pain and horror of it excruciated her. Its power was atrocious beyond belief, and she knew its name as she welcomed it: the Llaza. It ate into her vitals, flooding her veins with blackness. But desperate need drove her, and she hurled her forces in a way she had never done before, by attacking her own self, in her cells where the Llaza now fed and thrived. It was a strange battle, weird and horrible, waged within the confines of her flesh. The Llaza wasn’t discrete like the Demogorgon, the Shadow Monster, or the Illithid. It was a hunger that fed like a parasite. She could have fired her telekinetic blasts all night down the street, in every house, pounding away at manifestations of the creature everywhere while hardly damaging it at all. This way she struck at the roots of its parasitic existence.

In the void she saw Mike’s shattered soul as if it were limned in light. She felt his frozen tissues and poisoned bloodstream as if they were incused on her flesh. He was disastrously paralyzed but still alive. His heart limped at a rate so slow that he would have died without the life support of the creature. It needed him; so he could be saved. She clung to that thought like a thousand prayers.

Fury exalted her and carried her beyond her limits. As she sent surges of her power through herself, the Llaza responded with its own flares of power, and they tore inside her like a volcanic rupture. The clash of powers was too immense, and she almost died from it. Pain detonated in her skull, and a freezing agony that was the Upside Down’s signature yowled through the atoms of her flesh. She had to stop, or she would kill herself, long before doing enough damage to the Llaza. Then without thinking, she tried something else. Instead of assaulting the blackness within her, she seized the vile essence, wrapped it within spools of her power, and used her mental power to squeeze it down to size.

Somehow her intuitions paid off. Instead of blowing the creature apart within herself, she choked the life out of it, nullified it, and sent in spilling back outward in a lifeless cloud. Or at least a part of it; it was like the segment of a colossal snake. She had just destroyed a segment that straddled a block of homes somewhere between 77th and 78th Avenues. There was much more of it. The Llaza was huge, thanks to Mike; half a mile long — the whole street of Tibbetts.

She drew in another random segment of the creature and wrapped it around her telekinetic will. It was a hideously painful process; she never knew pain could be this thorough. She saw in her mind that she was now in a region close to 73rd Avenue. With a shock she saw Lucas there, and almost dropped her concentration. He was helping a little girl whose right arm had been torn off, trying to make a bandage with his shirt, and yelling furiously into his cell phone. The girl was losing too much blood. Jane reached out through the omnipresence she had carved for herself, caressing the fatigue out of Lucas, weaving her telekinesis in the girl’s wound to staunch the blood flow. As she did this, her control faltered; the Llaza roared in her veins, surging for freedom. She punished it, and herself, with furious inward blasts, keeping it jailed within her flesh. She barely withstood the shock. Then, as before, she spooled her power around it, smothering its essence on this part of the street. Six homes were freed. Inhaling air like it was her salvation, she readied for more.

She lost track of time as she proceeded down the street like this — the street that had merged with her flesh. Physically she was still in Mike’s bedroom; mentally she had transcended herself. She broke the Llaza apart, bit by hideous bit, rescuing anyone she could in passing. She couldn’t save everyone; at least a dozen people died — in their homes, on the street — and half were kids. Most of the residents on Tibbetts had already died anyway, before she arrived.

When she had liberated two-thirds of the street, the Llaza got desperate and went after Mike. His impression in the wall lit up in a blazing whiteness, and in her mind Jane could hear him begging the creature for life and freedom. With horror she realized the Llaza was trying to summon his power against her. To turn him against his mother. If that happened, she would wither in seconds, like Dominic Bragdon and his friends.

She tried shouting through the creature she was a part of, and thus him. Mike! Can you hear me!

Mom? His terrified voice came from a void.

Mike! She called through the black ether. I’m here! Can you see me? I’m getting you out! 

I can’t… see anything… I don’t remember… what seeing is.

I’m coming, Mike! Just hold on, I swear I’m coming! 

Mike screamed inside her head then, as the Llaza forced his power. A white blast ripped out of the wall and she barely dodged it by falling on the floor. She had no time to think; another blast would come in seconds, and from the way Tobias had described it, if it touched her, she would fry into a skeleton.

Relying on split-second intuition, she looped her power around Mike, holding back his fire as the Llaza tried hurling it at her again. She repeated what she had been doing, but in a kind of reverse, spooling a protective shield around her son as she pushed outwards against the Llaza’s suffocating essence. But Mike didn’t understand. In his ethereal dementia, he thought she was attacking him, and unleashed a torrent of white flame. Her shield protected her — but not him. Argent rebounded and filled Mike Hopper’s every atom. He burned like a star; screamed so the universe could hear.

So did the Llaza.

Tibbets Street convulsed as if pounded by an earthquake. The tremors tore through Jane’s arms and legs, throwing her to the floor as she spasmed and yelled Mike’s name. And with a sickening grossness, the Llaza — what remained of it — belched Mike Hopper out of the bedroom wall. Whatever she had caused to happen to him, it had tormented the creature beyond endurance. That torment ripped through Jane as well, and she lay on the floor in an agony that was nauseating. She saw Mike, unfrozen, kneeling on the floor, trying to stand. She couldn’t believe he was alive. She had just seen him burn with incandescent fatality. Her skin felt pulled in all directions. She was dying the Llaza’s death.

With a last effort she tried severing her connection to it to save herself. I’m sorry, Mike. She blacked out.

 

When she woke, Mike was kneeling over her. “Mom? Please. Say something.”

Her tongue felt like cement; her eyelids were mountains; and her upper lip red from a violent nosebleed. “Mike,” she croaked.

“Hey,” he said. He was smiling through tears and holding her hand. “You’re back.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I hurt you.”

“No, mom. You saved me. You saved me.”

It was a line from her past. From her other Mike. In 1983 she had kept him from smashing his body against the water of the quarry. Years later he had jumped off a bridge anyway. Her life was a series of ultimate failures. “I saw what I did,” she said. “Your fire burned you up. Because of me.”

“But it didn’t age me, mom. Something you did stopped that. You saved me.”

She had no use for consolation. She wanted nothing she didn’t earn. “Come here,” she said, and hugged him.

Footsteps pounded up the stairs. Lucas burst into the room with Tobias behind him.

“El!” said Lucas. Tobias cried out Mike’s name at the same time.

She could barely stay awake. Mike’s power hadn’t touched her, but she felt a thousand years old after what she had just done. The aftertastes of the Llaza scalded her tongue and throat.

“El,” said Lucas, kneeling over her next to Mike. “Holy shit — what you did. I don’t even know what you did. But it’s gone now. The Upside Down is gone. People are dead, but the homes aren’t possessed by that blackness anymore. The danger’s over. It’s over, El. You did great.”

“No,” she said, tears spilling. “I didn’t.”

“What are you saying?” demanded Lucas.

“She’s blaming herself for not doing enough,” said Mike.

No. That’s not it.

“I keep telling her she saved me, but she thinks I’m not okay.”

You aren’t. I saw you burn.

“You were awesome, mom, don’t you see?”

I was always too hard on you. You were right to call me names.

“Get her feet, Mike.” She felt her shoulders being lifted. “Let’s get her downstairs. Tobias, call the police.”

Mike and Lucas carried her out the room. “We got you, mom. You’ll be okay.”

I saw you burn.

 

Next Chapter: The War of the Uncles

(Previous Chapter: Regenesis)