Hashtag Barry and Squeaky walked through the long grass toward the trees with the hope of finding their path to Hashtag’s home unnoticed. Neither knew how long they had been in the school. For Hashtag, it felt like a lifetime. For Squeaky, time was still frozen, his body crystallized and encased, standing in the doorway, watching the storm of dust tower over everything. The sun had moved but it still blazed high in the clear sky.
Each of them descended the steps of the abandoned school born anew. Squeaky’s brain was still wrestling with the sight of dead bodies, and not just any random dead body being hauled into an ambulance. These were people he had known his entire life. They were, sometimes perhaps enemies, but they were also familiar. And they weren’t just dead bodies; they had been mutilated beyond almost all recognition, their faces frozen in malformed fear. He tried not to blink or close his eyes or their disfigured countenances would leap into his vision.
He hadn’t noticed it yet, but sensed that a new kind of panic was rising deep from within him. Every day he had approached the world with a smile even when it just flung shit right back at him. Days were long and he wished them to be longer, eking out every drop of warmth he could grasp. But the palpitations in his chest seemed to herald a time when darkness may wash over his inner brightness. He kept his head low and on the path, trying not to blink.
Hashtag had never felt more alive. His stomach ached and his chest felt like it was on fire. His face was bruised and bloodied, sharp cracks of pain streaking out through his entire body whenever he moved in the wrong way. He was exhausted, confused, and his mind wouldn’t stop racing.
But each time something negative surged through him, rather than recoiling, he reached out and embraced it and pressed it further into himself. When he inhaled, he held out his chest and rolled his shoulders back. When he walked, he strode with purpose, his gaze high and forward.
As they wandered their way through the woods, the dark expanse of the canopy blotting out the light, his mind wandered to the images of Ryan, Carlos, and Alexis, crumbled and gray and red. They were just shells now, poor husks of empty life, echoes reverberating down the abandoned building, no longer with origin or meaning. He wondered if Kelsey and Brad looked the same way when they had died, twisted and hollow and sad. He knew they did. He knew that while he didn’t do the deed himself, that thing did and that it came from him.
He breathed in the earthy air and shut out questions of what or who it was, why or how it existed. He instead thought about all the times that he sleepwalked, mumbling to himself, shushing his house, the backyard, and the empty streets with his feet. He thought about his dreams of red and blue and of Brad before he died. He thought about the gorilla at the zoo, the eyes dangling from gigantic hands. He thought about the first time they raced out of the abandoned school and how the cold electrical air embraced him. The world had never been as bright or as vibrant as it was now.
He obviously did not want to hurt anyone else, but more than anything else, he wanted to always feel the way he felt now.
They were nearing the edge of the woods where they would need to trek the last mile or so out in the open. They could use relatively inactive streets, hoping that the daytime traffic would be greatly reduced, but none had a guarantee of not being noticed.
“What are we going to tell them?” Squeaky broke the silence. He trailed a few feet behind Hashtag.
Hashtag stopped, turned, and looked at Squeaky. “We’re not telling them anything,” he said.
Squeaky shook his head and replied, “No, I know we’re not saying anything about what… you know, happened. I meant this,” he gestured at himself and at Hashtag, each covered in sweat and dirt and blood.
Hashtag looked down at himself and then back up at Squeaky, making a face like he hadn’t noticed it before. “Oh, that,” he said. “Uh, we got beat up? Actually, that wouldn’t even technically be a lie.”
“Okay, okay, that’s true, but who beat us up?” Squeaky asked, waving his hands in the air. “We can’t say it was Ryan or Carlos, we can’t associate ourselves with what happened back there. And not to mention why were we there and not at school in the first place? Do we say we were at the school, were we sick this morning and miraculously felt better at the same time? Were we out on an early morning adventure and just lose track of time? Were we lost?” Squeaky inhaled deeply and started coughing violently.
Hashtag walked over and awkwardly put a hand on Squeaky’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it so much. No one’s going to think twice about two guys skipping out on school, looking a little roughed up. Plus, no one is going to really look at us when we’ve got this ugly thing,” he gestured at himself generally.
Squeaky looked up, slowly cracked a smile, and then burst out laughing. “Oh man,” he said between breaths, “you just dissed yourself so hard. That was amazing.”
Hashtag stepped back, turned around, and gazed out toward the end of the trees and into the street on the other side. He craned his head toward Squeaky and said, “See? Everything is going to be fine.”
On the intervening walk, they had more or less convinced themselves to act normally. Squeaky rambled on and on, each topic a further reach from the last until he was waxing poetically about that one time he saw a mouse in a glove and what sort of life he imagined it lived. Hashtag sighed and scoffed and laughed at Squeaky’s stories. In just the short time from the edge of the woods to the house, they had nearly forgotten about the three dead bodies in the abandoned school. They were abruptly reminded when they saw that both his parents’ cars and several others, including a police cruiser, were parked outside the house.
They froze at the end of the block, hoping that no one inside had seen them yet.
“What do we do?” Squeaky half yelled, turning toward Hashtag.
Hashtag closed his eye and inhaled through his nose, “We go inside, like we were planning to. This has to be unrelated, right? They wouldn’t even know about, uh… the others yet, and we weren’t there when Kelsey… well, you weren’t and I was asleep.”
“I do not like how calm you are being right now!” Squeaky exclaimed.
“Well, we can’t go to school like this,” Hashtag spoke slowly. “We could go to your place, but we know your dad is going to be there and he will not react well.”
Squeaky kicked a small rock and watched as it arced through the air. “Damnit, I know,” he replied. “Fine, we go inside but you better have a plan.”
They sauntered up to the house and Hashtag opened the door as casually as he could muster. They were greeted by an audible gasp and stares from several pairs of eyes. In the living room, his parents sat, drinking coffee, alongside Dr. Walls and two others that Hashtag did not recognize.
He broke the silence first, “Mom, Dad, you’re home early.”
His father slowly set his mug of coffee on an end table. “We could say the same for you and Squeaky, too.”
Squeaky, not knowing what to do with his hands, waved.
“And what happened to you?” his mother continued. “Why aren’t you at school? And what happened to clothes? And your face?”
Hashtag looked down, “Can we talk about that in private, please?”
“Yes, honey, of course,” she answered. “Squeaky, would you be a dear and run down the hall for a moment. Clean up and put on something of Hashtag’s that’ll fit.”
Confusion spread across his face. He turned toward Hashtag who simply shrugged. Not wanting to be difficult, he trudged down the hallway and into the bathroom. He left the door ajar, turned on the water in the shower, and then promptly turned around and stuck his ear to the door to eavesdrop.
“Um, I meant not in front of these people,” Hashtag hesitantly said.
“Why don’t you sit down, Hashtag,” Dr. Walls piped up, pointing toward a chair next to the two strangers.
Hashtag looked to his parents who just nodded in agreement. He reluctantly shuffled to the chair and plopped down. “I mean, who are these people?” he asked. He looked at the two he had never seen before. One man and one woman, possibly a couple but he couldn’t be sure. They were sitting rather close to each other. He was dressed in jeans and a button down shirt. She wore a police officer’s uniform and attempted to smile warmly. Both of their faces were nondescript.
“We have a lot to tell you,” she began, staring directly into Hashtag’s eye. “We were going to tell you eventually, but then it seems that circumstances accelerated faster than we expected.”
“Yes,” the man continued, “accelerated quite quickly and not at all how we had planned it. It wasn’t supposed to be so,” he wove his hand in the air like he was going to pluck the word out of the atmosphere, “well, so violent.”
Hashtag scowled and looked to his parents, “What are they talking about? Who are they?”
“Just listen,” his mother responded with a nod that was intended as reassuring.
“We know about the other kids,” the police officer said. “Ryan, Alexis, and Carlos. And Kelsey. And Brad. We know what happened to them.”
“And we know who did it,” the man said.
Hashtag’s heart raced faster and faster with every word. He could feel beads of sweat beginning to form on his forehead and the skin on his arms began to tingle.
“Oh, no no no, Hashtag,” the man said while shaking his head, “You misunderstand. I don’t mean you. We know you didn’t kill them. It’s the thing inside you that killed them.”
Hashtag crossed his arms and glared.
The police officer leaned forward, “You see, Hashtag, we’ve been watching you for a very long time. We’ve been waiting for his arrival since you were born, since before you were born. And now we’re here to help, with everything.”
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)