This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.
The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter Two
Circle of Death
The forest held its breath. Summer air tensed, and the hut crouched in defense behind a circle of skulls. There were no legs that Hopper could see; so much for fairy tales. But he hated the look of those skulls.
There were about sixty of them: supported on stakes five feet tall, evenly spaced seven or eight feet apart, circling the Hut at a radius of eighty feet. They grinned with the long canine teeth of vampires, and promised harm on any who would dare pass.
Hopper felt for his gun, disgusted with himself for being spooked by Halloween gimmicks. He had been to the Upside Down and back, and fought far worse than old hags and scare props. But it was over five years since his last Hawkins battle. He was out of his element and wished Jane were here. I’m the sheriff and I want my daughter beside me. He was growing pathetic.
It had taken him two and a half hours to find the hut since he left the main road of Bellevue Hopewell. Betty’s map had been accurate, as far as it went. But it had left Hopper a lot to cover on foot. He had finally found this clear-cut after being led down dead-end roads and paths to nowhere. It was a ten-minute forest walk from where he had left his car, at the end of a dirt trail so treacherous that it almost upended his four-wheel drive.
Steeling himself, he walked between two of the stakes. He almost filled his pants when voices shouted at him from both sides:
The skulls were barking in coarse Russian accents, and talking out of sync so that one skull repeated over the other. They had swiveled on their stakes and were looking straight at Hopper, following his movement. He surveyed the other skulls in the circle, but they hadn’t moved or spoken. Only the two he passed between.
From hell the voices grated again: “Back-ack! You cannot pass-not pass!”
Hopper was trying not to show fear. If these voices were trick audio recordings, they were convincing. Smelling his own sweat, he kept walking past the skulls.
As soon as he set foot inside the circle, he heard a crackling sound behind him. He spun around with his gun ready, and his day got much worse. Twin jets of flame poured out of the skull mouths and slammed into him with the rancor of burning coals. He screamed and fired off a gunshot as best he could. One of the skulls shattered. Then pain filled him everywhere. He dropped the gun as fire raced over his torso and down his arms. He was going to burn alive.
He dropped and rolled, pounding his arms and chest as he tumbled. That act saved him from another blast of flame, which shot through the space where his head had been. He kept rolling, away from the stakes and deeper into the clearing. It was working; the fire on him was being smothered. He kept rolling. Another blast pounded the grass near his foot. He could smell burnt hair on his chest, but the flames finally went out. He rolled a few feet more, then leaped to his feet, backing away from the stakes. He was surprised by what he saw.
He was about twenty feet into the circle; a quarter of the distance to the hut. The other skull he had passed was rotating back to face the forest again. Either it was giving up on him, or he had passed beyond its range of fire. Of the other skull he had blasted, only bits remained on the stake. If he hadn’t destroyed it he’d still be burning. He couldn’t have dodged two of them.
He looked around the circle. None of the other skulls had come alive. The hut sat more than fifty feet away. He was going in there, by God, to save Sara Schwartz, and any of the other missing kids. Hopper wondered about that. It was a small hut, no more than fifteen feet wide; tight quarters for even two people to share. He was seriously revising his opinion of the old woman now. She was clearly dangerous and homicidal. She would pay for trying to burn him alive.
But he didn’t have his gun; it had fallen on the ground near one of the skull-stakes. The one he hadn’t shot, of course. He started walking back to get it.
When he got within ten feet of the perimeter, the skull began revolving toward him again. Hopper backed off. The skull stopped, and then turned back to face the forest. Fuck this shit. He made a rash decision.
He ran for his gun, looking down at it all the way, but feeling the skull’s revolution with every leap forward. He was being stupid, but he needed his piece. He dove spreadeagled, and grabbed the gun as a sheet of flame barely missed him and scorched the earth. Hopper flipped over on his back and saw the skull gloating down on him. He took aim. Smile now, shitbrain.
The shitbrain exploded; the skull would smile no more. Hopper got up, on full alert. He thought he had heard someone yell from the woods. Or was it just the explosion?
“Who’s out there?” he yelled, holding his gun steady. Had he been followed? Or did the old crone have other tricks up her sleeve? “I’m a police officer! Show yourself, and put your hands in the air!”
Nothing from the forest but silence. Hopper waited a full minute before convincing himself he was mistaken. He turned and walked back towards the hut, glaring at it as he approached. The old bitch had probably been watching him all along and laughing. Hopper was sickened to think of Sarah caged inside with a homicidal hag.
He frowned as he got closer. There wasn’t even a window he could see. Just a door and a small chimney poking out the top. As he closed half the distance — almost forty feet away — he raised his pistol and pointed at the door as he walked. “Anyone inside the hut!” he shouted. “Come out with –”
His bladder unloaded at what happened next. The hut was suddenly towering thirty feet in the air, and spinning as it leaped in every direction. Unbelieving, Hopper saw the chicken legs: two feet thick and twelve feet long, with claws that could shred a lion. The legs had unfolded from underneath the hut’s resting position; it was now every bit the running hut of Yamhill gossip. The clawed feet were fearsome, stamping the ground every half second, and shaking the earth with the force of a T-Rex. Hopper had never pissed himself before while on duty. He had drastically underestimated the old woman.
“STOP!” he bellowed, aiming his gun at the shack. “I’M SHERIFF JIM HOPPER, YAMHILL COUNTY! MAKE THE HUT STOP AND COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!”
Apparently Baba Yaga wasn’t in an obliging mood. The hut lunged in his direction — and kept coming.
“Shit!” Hopper wasn’t about to unload fire. If Sara was inside, he could kill her. He turned and ran for his goddamn life. Which was a second thing he had never done as a cop. The crone had emasculated him into a pissing coward.
The chicken legs pounded and Hopper ran harder. There was no way he could outrun this thing; he was praying that once he was outside the circle, the hut would go back to rest. The stakes were less than twenty feet away, but it looked like twenty miles. Jesus fucking shit, what a stupid dead shit I am…
The hut was so close behind it sounded like a stampede. Hopper almost added feces to the mess in his pants. He was about to be crushed and shredded by claws larger than he was. He ran towards the two stakes whose skulls he had destroyed; he had a feeling they were about to be avenged. Miraculously, Hopper ran between them. He made himself stop and turn around.
The hut was no longer chasing him. Fifteen feet away from the stakes it had resumed its dance, shucking sideways, stamping backwards, forwards, while spinning like an amusement-park ride. He caught his breath. He had to get back to his vehicle and call for backup — he was thinking the entire Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office police force plus a few hundred military troops — but if the hut fled the area, he’d have a search mission on his hand. Nothing for it. He was useless here alone. If the hut ran away, he was powerless to stop it.
But he lingered to see what it would do next, or if the old woman would show herself. The door stayed shut. The hut danced gleefully, as if putting on a stage performance. By now Sara and any other kids must have been throwing up from motion sickness. Then the hut started skipping back to the circle’s center. It squatted down and folded its monstrous legs underneath: once again an ordinary log cabin, at a safe distance.
Stay there, bitch. I’ll be back with an army.
But that would be after nightfall. He checked his watch: 7:04 PM. Sunset was less than an hour away.
In ten minutes he backtracked through the woods to the dirt road where he parked his car. He opened the driver’s door and popped the trunk lid. First things first: he needed out of his burnt shirt and his soaked pants. He seethed, still unable to believe that he had pissed himself.
He removed his travel pack from the trunk and took out the pair of jeans, flannel shirt, and underwear that had been inside for months. He looked around the area to be sure he was alone, and then stripped out of his clothes. He’d need a new shirt for his sheriff’s outfit. He started putting on the clean set of clothes.
A branch snapped to his left, and he swore, caught half naked. Someone was in the woods after all. Was he being followed? He yanked up his pants without zipping them, grabbed his gun, and pointed at the trees. “Who’s there?” No answer. “Show yourself, I’m a police officer!” His car testified to that, even if his clothes no longer did.
More branches snapped, and a kid poked his head around the cover of a tree. No: two kids. There was a girl behind the next tree. She stepped out slowly. “Don’t shoot us!” The boy came too. And then another boy emerged from behind a boulder. Three kids, wearing backpacks, spying on him. They looked about fourteen years old.
Kids or not, Hopper’s guard was up. For all he knew they were forest pixies who could spit fire. Today anything was possible. “You kids put your hands where I can see them! And start walking towards me — slowly.”
“Yeah, okay,” said the first boy. “Chill out man, we’re coming.” The kids walked out of the woods with raised hands.
“Stand over here,” said Hopper, pointing his gun at the end of the dirt road.
They came onto level ground and he holstered his gun. Zipped up his pants too, as if it mattered. They’d seen him in all his glory. “Who are you kids?”
“We’re from Bellevue,” said the girl.
“Give me your names.”
“I’m Leigh. Leigh Davis.”
“Travis Mitchell,” said the first boy he’d spotted.
“Dash,” said the other boy. He looked like pure trouble.
“Dash?” said Hopper. “Is that a nickname?”
“It’s my name,” said Dash.
“It’s short for Dashiell,” put in Travis.
Hopper ignored Travis. “You have a last name?” he asked Dash.
Hopper waited. Dash looked at him.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Hopper. “I’ll put you in my trunk.”
“Answer him, Dash, and don’t be an asshole,” said Leigh.
“Nyberg,” said Dash.
Dashiell Nyberg. Travis Mitchell. Leigh Davis. Hopper looked them over. “You want to tell me what you kids are doing out in these woods?”
“Watching you get naked,” said Dash. “You got a beer gut.” Travis smacked the back of his head.
Leigh took control. “We didn’t mean to spy, or, you know, invade your privacy.”
“You were spying on me all along,” said Hopper. “I heard one of you shout when I shot the skull.”
They looked guilty.
“You were out there, right?” asked Hopper. “Near the circle?”
“It was me that shouted,” said Travis. “I didn’t think you’d shoot in time.”
“I can’t believe you got to your gun without being fried,” said Dash. “Then shoot a bullseye lying on your back. You got skills, man.”
“Yeah, well guess what?” said Hopper. “Cops are trained. It’s what we do. Why are you here? What do you know about that circle?”
Leigh looked at Travis and Dash, a question in her eyes. The boys paused and then nodded, evidently coming to some pre-arranged agreement.
“We want to get inside the hut,” said Leigh.
Honestly, kids were the same everywhere. “Oh yeah? You think you’re superheroes?”
“No, but –”
“You’re all going home,” said Hopper. “I’m calling for reinforcements. Things are going to get ugly here.” He started towards his car door.
“No!” said Leigh.
Hopper looked back at her. “What?”
“Don’t you want to hear what we know about that hut?” asked Travis.
“Yeah, I do. And believe me, you’re going to tell me. After I make a few calls.”
“Please don’t do that, sheriff!” said Leigh.
“Hear us out, man,” said Travis.
“I need reinforcements now. There’s a girl stuck in that hut with an old lady who’s dangerous. A lot more dangerous than I thought when I came here. There may be other kids too. This lady has been taking kids from their homes every night this past week.” The circle had overturned his opinion that the kid-snatcher and the old lady who bought Sara were different people. “God knows what she’s done to them.”
“Of course,” said Travis. “But reinforcements won’t help.”
“That hut is magical, man,” said Dash. “Bullets and bombs won’t do shit against it.”
Hopper wasn’t about to scoff after what he’d just seen. He didn’t believe in magic, but he knew about other-worldly powers; he’d fought them in Indiana. “How do you kids know so much about the hut?” he asked, putting off his call for the moment. “Tell me how you know about this place.”
“We met a girl who lives inside,” said Leigh.
“A girl who lives inside the hut?”
“One of the kidnapped girls?”
“No.” said Leigh. “The granddaughter. Of the old lady.”
The bitch had a granddaughter? Hopper wondered again how many people were crammed inside that damned hovel.
“We ran into her at Bernards,” continued Leigh. “It’s the local farm up Highway 18.”
“I know Bernards,” said Hopper. The farmstead was located a mile northeast of Bellevue. From where they were now it was northwest, and about the same distance of a mile. Since 1975 Michael and Christine Bernard had sold the best produce in Yamhill County. Their fresh cider was also to die for. Hopper drove all the way down to Bernards every month, especially for jam.
“We go there a lot,” said Leigh. The farm would have been about a twenty-minute walk from Bellevue. “We saw the little girl there, buying veggies –”
“When was this?” asked Hopper.
“Two days ago. Thursday morning. She dropped a pouch. Dash picked it up, and we looked through it before giving it back to her.”
“Why did you look through her pouch?” asked Hopper.
“We weren’t going to steal from her,” said Leigh. “It was funny looking.”
“Like snakeskin,” said Travis. “Really hard snakeskin. Red and yellow.”
“And it felt warm,” said Dash. “That was weird. It was like it gave off its own heat.”
“She was weird,” continued Leigh. “None of the locals had seen her before. She wasn’t with a parent or guardian. She was this seven-year old girl, maybe eight, all alone, and she seemed nervous and fidgety. We were… you know, curious.”
“Okay,” said Hopper. “So what was in the pouch?”
“Some money — and we didn’t steal any! But it was a lot for a little girl. Almost two hundred bucks in twenties, fives, and ones. And a cloth with a poem on it.”
“A cloth with a poem,” repeated Hopper.
“And a few snacks, most of them half-eaten. It was gross. Anyway, we gave the pouch back to her and asked her who she was. She said her name was Marya, and that she didn’t have a last name.”
“I mean, who doesn’t have a last name?” asked Travis.
“And who has a name like Marya?” asked Dash.
“Sounds Russian,” said Hopper.
“We don’t need Russians,” said Dash. Travis smacked his head again.
“We asked who her parents were,” said Leigh, “and she said she didn’t have parents, just a grandma who takes care of her in the woods. These woods here. Marya called her ‘Mama Yaga’ and said they lived in a hut together. When she said that, we thought of the rumors this week — about the hut that ran around on legs — and asked her if she knew anything about it.”
“And?” asked Hopper.
“Marya said she wasn’t supposed to talk about it.”
“But she did,” said Dash. “Leigh can get any kid to talk.”
“I felt sorry for her,” said Leigh. “She seemed lonely and unhappy living in the woods with only a grandma.”
“That grandma is a dangerously crazy woman,” said Hopper. “You saw it in the circle. She calls herself Baba Yaga, but we don’t know who she really is.”
“Wait a minute,” said Travis. “Isn’t Baba Yaga a famous witch?”
“I don’t know,” said Hopper. “Is she?”
“Yeah,” said Travis. “From an old fairy tale. Russian, I think.”
“Fucking Russians,” said Dash. “I knew it. This is a communist invasion, I’m telling you.”
“Will you shut up,” said Travis. “The Russians aren’t commies anymore. For like eight months now.”
“Nuh-uh,” said Dash. “My dad says that’s bullshit. Even when the Berlin Wall came down, that was just part of a grand communist plot to make us let our guard down.”
“Oh my God,” said Leigh. “Don’t listen to him, sheriff. To make a long story short, Marya told us a lot of things about the hut. Like the only two skulls you can go between without getting fried. And how to make the hut stop moving and get the door open. And things inside the hut you wouldn’t believe — all these treasures. There’s a tree we want to find — well, I want to find it. Marya called it The Prismatic Tree. There are seven different colors of apples on the tree, and each color has different healing properties. There’s a library, an observatory, baths and swimming pools –”
“You believed all this crap?” asked Hopper. “That hut is a small room. It’s only fifteen feet wide.”
“But that’s just it,” said Leigh. “It’s not that way on the inside. Marya said there are twenty main room areas, and most of them are huge. We want to see inside, and find the Prismatic Tree. My Aunt Ingrid has multiple sclerosis, and one of the apples from this tree can heal her.”
“Even if this is true,” said Hopper, “which it obviously isn’t, you kids think Baba Yaga is going to let you wander through her hut and take whatever you want?”
“Marya said that Mama Yaga — I mean, Baba Yaga — leaves the hut every night at sunset, and doesn’t come back until midnight.”
“That must be when she steals the little kids,” said Dash.
“But Marya wouldn’t confirm anything like that,” said Leigh. “She was very protective of her grandma and resented our questions about kidnappings.”
“Hold on,” said Hopper. “How does the old lady get around far and wide to steal kids, without the hut?” asked Hopper.
“Well,” said Travis. “In the Russian fable, I think Baba Yaga has a flying cauldron.”
Hopper’s eyes narrowed. Even after what he’d just seen, this was sounding ridiculous. Especially what Leigh was saying about the hut’s interior. It was too off the scales. But he assumed it for sake of argument. That would mean, what? That the old woman had used the hut to move around on Monday and Tuesday, until she found a place to nest? He supposed that flying cauldrons were harder to spot than thirty-feet high mobile homes. It also confirmed what Hopper had suspected: that this woman, or witch, was a new presence in Yamhill County. She had been living in the forest clearing only since Wednesday, and it had taken her time to find it.
“So you’ve been waiting here for sundown,” he said to the kids. “Why didn’t you do this last night, or even the night before? Didn’t you say you saw the girl Thursday?”
“We planned for tonight,” said Leigh. “It took us all of yesterday just to find this place, based on what we could learn from Marya. And Dash had plans with his family last night anyway. Tonight our parents think we’re sleeping over at another friend’s.”
“And you want me to not do my job so that you can indulge fantasies of stealing from a witch?”
“No,” said Leigh. “We want you to help us steal from the witch.”
Travis spoke up. “Sheriff, you want to get inside the hut as much as we do. You won’t be able to do that with all the cops in Yamhill County — you’ll just get people killed. We know how to get inside.”
“Then tell me right now,” demanded Hopper.
“Fuck you, man,” said Dash.
“We can help each other,” said Leigh. “Marya said the rooms can be incredibly dangerous. We’re just kids. You’re an adult and a sheriff. You’re armed.”
If Hopper had been another man, he would have called for backup right then, and had these kids sent straight home. But he was from Hawkins, Indiana, and he had seen things, and beaten them, with the help of kids like these. Travis was saying that all the lawful manpower he could summon would be useless, and Hopper believed that after his episode in the circle.
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll try this. But I’ll say this once.” He got up close to them and looked down. “If you’re lying to me about anything, I’ll throw you all in juvenile detention.” But he knew they weren’t.
Next Chapter: The Dancing Hut
(Previous Chapter: Sara)