Hashtag Barry sat in a large leather chair. He crossed and uncrossed his legs uncomfortably and tapped his fingers on the armrest. He glanced around the room aimlessly while he waited for Dr. Walls.
Along the far wall were ceiling high bookshelves, full of textbooks and reference materials. They did not seem to be organized in any sense that Hashtag could glean. Most were about psychology, but a few on other sciences as well: physics, math, sociology, biology, etc. All of the subjects were strewn about the shelves, intermingling: a linear algebra textbook next to a book about evolution, child psychology next to the physics of black holes. That is why it was so strange, Hashtag thought, that there would be a small section of books on the paranormal sequestered in their own area, near the corner of the office.
Hashtag slowly plopped himself out of his chair and began to walk toward the shelf when the door creaked open and Dr. Walls strode into the room. Startled, Hashtag froze in the middle of the room.
“I see you are admiring my collection,” Dr. Walls said. “Do not mind me; I will take care of some paperwork while you browse.” Dr. Walls lumbered over to his desk on the opposite side of the office and began to straighten files. He was a large man with a deep voice, a hawk of a nose, piercing gray eyes hiding behind thin wireframe glasses.
Hesitant at first, Hashtag meandered over to the shelves and went directly to Dr. Walls’ books on the paranormal. There were only a few dozen books, but the subject matter was vast: books about ghosts, demons, witchcraft, ESP, telekinesis, telepathy, satan, the occult, possession. He reached out a hand and grabbed a book on demonology and recoiled at imagery on the cover
Dr. Walls voice thundered behind him, “Ah, that is my personal collection. Are these of interest to you?” He stood and walked toward Hashtag.
Hashtag fumbled with the book, dropped it, picked it up, and quickly shoved it back into the bookshelf. “N...no, no it’s not really anything that I’ve...I was just curious…” he stammered.
“It is a bit odd, is it not?” Dr. Walls asked. “A school counselor with books such as these.”
Hashtag nodded and shuffled back toward the leather chair, hoping that was the correct answer. He hopped up into the chair and nervously kicked his legs back and forth.
“You are correct. It is a bit strange. But my wife feels about them as you did about that cover and so I keep them here instead of at home,” He smiled at Hashtag and sat in the chair opposite him. He crossed his legs and leaned forward and declared, “But this session is not about me, is it, Hashtag? This session is about you and how you are feeling. So,” he gestured widely, “how are you feeling?”
Hashtag crossed and uncrossed his arms and replied meekly, “Nervous. I’ve been in this room before but that was before you.”
Dr. Walls leaned forward further and asked, “Do I make you nervous, Hashtag?”
Hashtag’s eye darted around the room and he kicked his legs back and forth. “Yes,” he finally replied. “You make me quite nervous.”
“And why is that?” Dr. Walls asked. “Is it because of the books? I can put them in storage if if makes you feel--”
“No,” Hashtag interrupted, “it’s not the books. I just...I’m not used to anyone actually looking at me, let alone making eye contact. Please stop. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Dr. Walls looked at the floor for a moment and then back at Hashtag, “Why would I get hurt, Hashtag?”
Hashtag glared at the ceiling, “Because that’s what happens when things look at me for too long! Things hurt themselves. I’ve seen it over and over: squirrels, goldfish, dogs, cats, and now that stupid gorilla!”
Dr. Walls stroked his chin. “Ah, so you feel the incident at the zoo was somehow your fault. I see. But the gorilla did not hurt himself, did he? He hurt another gorilla.”
Hashtag thought about the silverback’s glassy eyes, his blood stained fists, his palm etched onto the pane of glass. The hairs on the back of Hashtag’s neck raised and he shivered. He thought about how every time an animal had managed to run away and kill itself, he had felt a lack of control, like death spiraled out of him willy-nilly. But, when he saw the silverback’s rage, his arms beating, his fists clenched and bloodied, her eyeballs dangling, Hashtag had never felt more in control, more vigorous and full of life.
“That’s true,” Hashtag said quietly. “It couldn’t have been because he was looking at me.”
“I’m not even sure this counts as pizza,” Squeaky said while holding up a soggy slice, oil and cheese dripping onto his plastic tray. “I mean, I know there’s crust, sauce, cheese, and pepperoni, but I’m fairly certain this is just greasy cardboard.” He took a giant bite, chewed, swallowed, and grimaced, “Seriously, guys, this tastes exactly like cardboard.”
Kelsey eyed her slice of sausage pizza suspiciously, “Okay, I know it looks gross and all but how do you know what cardboard tastes like?”
Hashtag’s head rested on his arms while he glared at his plate, “He’s eaten cardboard; I’ve seen it.”
Kelsey took a bite out of her pizza and also grimaced, “Yuck. This does taste exactly like how I would imagine cardboard to taste.”
“The cardboard was better!” Squeaky exclaimed, his mouth full.
Hashtag reluctantly took a bite of pizza and immediately spit it out. “Gross. So, have either of you seen Dr. Walls yet?”
“No, mine’s this afternoon,” answered Kelsey.
“Ugh,” groaned Squeaky, “I get what we saw was pretty messed up and all but do we really need to go talk to the brain surgeon for thirty minutes.”
“I don’t think that’s what he does,” said Kelsey. “Besides, talking about it helps.”
“We’re talking, aren’t we!?” yelled Squeaky. He grabbed another slice of pepperoni and shoved it into his face and continued talking with his mouth full, “Look, that guy just weirds me out is all. I don’t know why. He just does. And I don’t like mandatory stuff. It’s annoying. I don’t want to talk about it with him. I want to talk about something else. What are we doing after school today?”
Hashtag picked up his slice of pizza and then set it down again, “I want to go back to the abandoned school.”
Kelsey nearly choked on her pizza and coughed it out onto her plate, “You want to do what!?” she cried.
“Quiet, quiet,” said Hashtag, looking around nervously. “I just need to know what is in there. I need to know what happened to the gorilla and Brad and everything else.”
“Yes!” squealed Squeaky, “yes let’s go back! That sounds scary and fun!”
“You two are out of your minds,” said Kelsey. “There is no way I’m going back there, not after what happened last time.”
“Oh, it’s fine!” Squeaky said condescendingly. “It was weird but it was probably us just getting into our own heads.”
“You know it wasn’t,” Hashtag said solemnly. “Something is going on and I’m worried it might have something to do with...well, with me.”
“It can’t,” said Kelsey, her head down.
“It can’t what?” asked Hashtag, frustrated.
“It can’t be you. It’s me. I was it last night. In my dream. I was it and I was in my house as it and then I woke up and it was still there I think, but I couldn’t see anything.”
All three fell silent and picked at their plates.
“Oh sure,” Squeaky said disdainfully, “you two get to have all the interesting dreams.”
Hashtag arrived home late. They had not gone back to the abandoned school, but instead argued about it and the implications of each of their dreams or lack thereof over some ice cream. The sun had already set and through the front window Hashtag could see his mother speaking on the phone in the dining room.
He tried to quietly open the front door so he could sneak in unnoticed.
“Oh I know,” his mother was saying, “this is all a lot sooner than we had expected or hoped.”
Hashtag closed the door behind him and kicked off his shoes.
“Mhm, yes, mhm, I agree. Thank you. We’ll be in touch.” She hung up the phone and turned around. “Hashtag! Where have you been? I didn’t hear you come inside. How long have you been standing there?”
Hashtag threw his backpack onto the couch, “I just walked in. I was out with Squeaky and Kelsey. Sorry it got late.”
“Oh that’s okay,” his mother replied. “I’m just glad you’re safe. And with everything that’s been going on lately, you need to have friends you can talk to.”
“Who were you talking to on the phone? That sounded serious.”
“Oh it was nothing,” she replied. “Your counselor just called to let us know what a good conversation you two had earlier today. Standard follow-up call is all.”
Hashtag looked up at her, confusion spreading across his face, “I don’t remember Ms. Jenkins ever calling you before.”
“Oh,” his mother said, “you know, it must be a new policy, especially after poor Brad and all. The school is just interested in making sure that you’re okay. And don’t you worry about it, Hashtag. Let’s worry about more important things, like getting you dinner.”
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)