Kelsey rubbed her eyes vigorously and yawned while standing in front of her locker. Since Brad died, she had not slept through an entire night. She would inevitably wake up screaming and in a cold sweat. Her parents quickly acclimated to the noise and no longer came running into her room the moment she let out a shriek. Kelsey, too, had grown accustomed to the interruption. She’d sit up and stare out the window, look into the street, and remind herself that it was only a dream over and over until she regained the confidence to lay down and close her eyes again.
The dreams varied, of course. She had dreams in which she was being chased by that horrific shuffling noise. It would get closer and closer until it whispered into her ear, causing her to jerk upright and cry out. Sometimes she was the horrific shuffling noise, chasing a disembodied voice, a song carried on the wind. She dreamed about a stormcloud that followed her overhead wherever she went, never raining, just the constant concussive burst of thunder and lightning. Electricity stung the atmosphere, the earth dried up and flung itself into the air, suspended.
She shut her locker and yelped, “Oh my god, Lexi! You scared the crap out of me!”
Alexis looked down at her feet, pivoting her right foot on her toes, “Sorry I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Kelsey dropped her books onto the floor and let out a squeal, “Wait. You’re…you’re here, at school. You’re back? How are you feeling? We need to hang out! You know I tried to stop by a few times but your mom always said that you were busy. I live across the street, you know, I was there if you needed me.”
“I know,” Alexis replied meekly, “I just…I think I just needed some time alone.”
“That makes sense,” said Kelsey, picking up her books. “That totally makes sense. It’s been weird and rough on all of us. I haven’t talked to Ryan or Carlos since the funeral. Well, I tried, but Ryan wouldn’t talk about it and Carlos would… well, you know how he gets.”
Alexis looked up at Kelsey, “Oh I’m so sorry I left you alone! I was being selfish staying away all that time. Let’s grab lunch together and we can chat then.”
Squeaky strolled by, books in one hand, his other waving back and forth rapidly, “Kelsey. Alexis.” He nodded and continued down the hallway.
Alexis glanced at Squeaky, then at Kelsey just as Hashtag Barry stomped past them, following Squeaky. His eye cast downward as he called out quietly, “Hey Kelsey. See you at lunch?”
Alexis’ mouth dropped open. She stared at Kelsey with confusion beaming out of her eyes.
Kelsey shrugged and said, “Like I was saying, it’s been weird.”
“So, uh, does he always eat like that?” asked Alexis, a look of repulsion and disgust spread across her face.
Squeaky raised his head, bits of hamburger and gravy devoid of color ran down his cheeks, lumpy mashed potatoes stuck to his chin. “I’ll have you know,” he said, “that this salisbury steak is delicious and must be eaten with the respect that it deserves.”
Kelsey giggled and asked, “And how the hell is that giving the steak the respect that it deserves?”
“I’m appreciating it by devouring it quickly!” Squeaky retorted.
“Could you appreciate it quieter?” asked Hashtag, wiping a bit of gravy off of his cheek. “And, seriously, maybe a little bit less messy? Your lunch is flying into my face.”
Alexis shifted in her seat uncomfortably and looked at the ceiling.
Kelsey elbowed her and whispered, “You know you do that every time he talks? It’s rude.”
Squeaky said with his mouth full, “You know I can hear you right? It’s awkward. I’m pretty sure Hashtag can hear you too.”
Hashtag nodded slowly. “It’s okay though, I understand.”
Embarrassment and horror fell onto Alexis’ face. She glared at the ground despondently. “Oh, god, maybe I shouldn’t have come back. I’m not used to being around people yet. I should just go home and leave you all alone.”
“No, it really is okay,” insisted Hashtag. “Squeaky doesn’t really pay attention to anything other than what he’s eating, so he hardly notices anymore. Kelsey wears those dark sunglasses all the time. She tries to take them off and look at me directly but can’t. Don’t worry Kelsey, I don’t care. But you just came back to school and never hang out with us and I understand why. It’s not awkward for me anymore. I grew up like this.” He gestured generally at himself.
“Grade A ramble!” Squeaky belched. “You make me so proud sometimes.”
“Yes, grade A ramble,” Carlos clapped his hands slowly as he walked up to the table. He grimaced at Hashtag and Squeaky and then looked at Alexis. “So, you’re back, huh? What are you doing hanging out with Buttface and Pipsqueak?”
“Very original,” called out Squeaky. “Whatever happened to apologizing for everything and not being such a major asshole?”
“Am I talking to you, little dude?” Carlos crossed his arms. “And that was from Brad, not me, before he...well, before he died.”
“Oh leave them alone,” demanded Kelsey. “They’ve never done anything to you.”
Carlos tsked and leaned in toward Hashtag, “True, true, but what did Cyclops over here do to Brad, you little eye plucking freak.” He waved his hand in a scooping motion in front of Hashtag’s face.
“He didn’t have anything to do with that and you know it!” Alexis spoke up. “Just, go away. Go hang out with Ryan and make fun of short people or whatever it is that you think is so funny these days.”
“You make fun of short people?” Squeaky asked. “Weren’t you, like, the shortest kid in school a few years ago?”
Carlos slammed his fist on the table and glared at Squeaky, doing his best to avoid eye contact with Hashtag while simultaneously doing his damndest to appear menacing. “I’m watching you two,” he said. He turned around and called out, “Alexis, feel free to return to the fold when you’re done wasting your time with these morons.”
“You know,” Squeaky said when Carlos was out of earshot, “I think I like him less than I liked Brad, and I hated Brad. Sorry, I know it’s not the right time to talk about him, let alone negatively, but I just do not understand how you two hung out with them.”
“They weren’t always so mean,” said Kelsey,“not when we were little. And I guess I kind of didn’t realize how mean they were being when I was hanging out with them. It was just supposed to be funny.”
“Did you ever see me laughing?” Hashtag asked sarcastically.
“No, no I guess not,” Alexis sighed, looking up at the ceiling.
Kelsey couldn’t sleep. She wrapped her arms around her knees, a blanket draped over her shoulders and around her body. She huddled at her open window and looked out onto the empty street. A streetlight buzzed and emanated a dim incandescent glow. A light breeze floated in and the shadows danced against her wall.
Red and blue, she thought. She hugged her legs even tighter. All she could remember were the colors, but their meaning faded as soon as she lunged her way out of the nightmare. She was being followed or she was following something. There were whispers that made the hairs on the back of her neck tingle and a coldness that left her body empty.
She shivered, It was only a dream. It was only a dream, she told herself. A beam of moonlight held dust suspended in its path. She looked at it oddly, her head turned to one side. She reached out a hand with her palm extended upward and held it in the light, trying to catch the dust.
A gust of wind burst through the window and a large stormcloud rolled between her and the moon and its light. Darkness seeped over the landscape and the streetlight struggled to illuminate the air.
Kelsey shivered and hugged her knees again. She looked out the window toward Alexis’ house. None of the lights were on and Kelsey envied their ability to sleep. She closed her eyes but thought of her nightmare and her eyelids snapped open.
“Hashtag?” she said to herself under her breath. She squinted and yes, Hashtag was standing near the streetlight, his head bowed down.
“Hashtag!” she called out as quietly as she could, trying to get his attention. “Hashtag what the hell are you doing out here?”
A light in Alexis’ house flipped on. A silhouette of a person behind the blinds stood in the window. Kelsey glanced at it and then back at Hashtag.
“Who the hell is that with you? Squeaky?”
Hashtag did not hear her. He swayed slowly back and forth beneath the streetlight, his eyes closed. He mumbled words to the air, to himself. He raised his head and shuffled forward, shuush shuush, shuush shuush. He looked at Kelsey. Shuush shuush, shuush shuush. He looked toward the light in Alexis’ house. Shuush shuush, shuush shuush.
Kelsey’s skin raised in a rising tide of goosebumps. The temperature sunk and electricity hung in the air.
Lightning cracked and thunder rolled, but it did not wake Hashtag. It was not until he heard the scream that Hashtag woke up in the middle of the street, alone.
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)