It had been four months since Squeaky had last seen Hashtag. He had tried to find him every way that he could think.
After he sneaked out of the Barry’s house, he ran to school and attempted to slip back into the daily routine, hoping that somehow this had all just been a dream or aberration and if he pretended that none of it had happened, then maybe somehow it hadn’t. But lunch came and went and Hashtag was nowhere to be found. At the end of the day, Squeaky hung out by Hashtag’s locker in the off chance he had just missed him in the hallways, but Hashtag never showed up.
The rest of the students were whispering more than usual, no doubt they’d found out that Alexis, Carlos, and Ryan were missing, that Kelsey was dead. The horror of the last 24 hours confronted Squeaky’s daytime fantasy and the shock and illusion were being worn down minute by minute.
Squeaky stormed out of the school and marched back toward Hashtag’s house. The red and blue strobe lights of the police cruisers was blinding. Whereas there had been one earlier, now there were five. And they did not appear to be visiting and having a chat in the living room. Guns were drawn, walkie-talkies were buzzing and crackling with numbers and orders.
Shit, Squeaky thought, they found out about the others. Beads of sweat materialized on his forehead and his legs melted. If they found the bodies, if they connected it to Hashtag, then they must have connected it to me. He tried his best not to dwell on the idea. He had to know what was going on and panicking on the sidewalk was more suspicious than anything else.
He ducked his head down and began to walk forward at what he hoped was a normal pace. His hands were fidgety so he stuck them in his pockets, but that felt uncomfortable so he tried to just stride with them swinging back and forth. Oh my god, I’m going to get caught, he thought. He had heard from someone somewhere, most likely on a television show he was watching way too late at night, that if you do something you normally wouldn’t do in front of people of authority, it makes you less suspicious. He stuck a finger in his nose and dug out the largest booger he could muster. He looked at it admirably. Then out of the corner of his eyes he watched as Hashtag’s parents were being escorted into the back of a police cruiser.
Where the hell was Hashtag?
There had never been any news about what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Barry. Squeaky assumed they had been taken into custody for questioning about Hashtag’s whereabouts and his connection with the death of Alexis, Carlos, Ryan, Kelsey, and Brad, but then they never resurfaced. Squeaky went to their house the next day and it appeared to be completely abandoned. Their vehicles were there, but they were not. He peered through the window and everything was where it had been before, now collecting dust.
He went down to the police station and tried to ask questions about the Barry family, but he was regarded with blank stares of disdainful annoyance, as though he were inconveniencing them with his inquiries. There were no records of their interview or of them being let go.
At school, Dr. Walls was no longer the counselor and no one seemed to know who Squeaky was talking about when he asked where he had gone. Ms. Gant had been the counselor for the last year, they said. He insisted that she was a fraud and probably working with devil worshippers. He was assigned detention for a week. The administration, the teachers, and even the students appeared to have forgotten about Hashtag entirely. No one mentioned Brad, Kelsey, Carlos, Ryan, or Alexis. There never was a funeral.
Squeaky even traversed the winding forest path to the abandoned school, but found it chained and heavily locked with several professional looking locks. He tried to sneak in, or bash in a window, but all of the rotting wood that had barred entry before had been replaced with fresh boards that made the interior impenetrable.
The school year ended and Squeaky found himself staying inside all summer, calling other cities’ police stations, giving out Hashtag’s description, his parents’, Dr. Walls’, and even the Twins. But every day that went on, the details of their images became more and more vague. People weren’t taking him seriously before, but now he could hear them choke back laughter as he relayed his fading memory of their visages.
He tried doing research at the library, but where do you even start? Red and blue eyes? Dust demon? Cold electricity? The librarians’ calm and collected demeanor twisted into something crudely shaped like pity as the season wore on.
Squeaky slowly started to believe that maybe he had some sort of mental breakdown, residual damage from a distant concussion. Wiping away an entire friend, a person, a family from reality seemed improbable at best and just the act of keeping the memory alive had started to become exhausting. The memories were fading and intertwining; details obscuring and clouded over with time.
School was starting in a few weeks; summer had slipped through his grasp. Starting then, Squeaky rededicated his effort into planning for the first day of class: picking out new pencils, pens, notebooks, binders. As he lay down to sleep that night, his thoughts swirled with all of the bright colors of folders and post-its, commingled with the dread of starting a new year. He had not thought of Hashtag for the entire day, and felt more relaxed than he had since before Brad had died, but then the nightmares began.
They were subtle at first. He would wake in the middle of the night, sweat on his brow and despair hugging his chest, but no recollection of any particular image or sound, only that sinking feeling. He brushed it off as stress before the start of school.
Then there were the whispers that called his name right before he drifted off to sleep. His eyes darted open wide to greet silence. The shadows stood in the corner, still and aloof. Only a few nights later, he could no longer force himself awake. His mind would plummet into a maze of hallways and doors, the whisper always in the next room, around the next corner. The whisper grew louder and more clear every night until suddenly the whisper was no longer out of reach and it was no longer saying his name.
He stopped in the middle of an empty hall, wood walls stretching in either direction for as long as he could see. The air was hazy and gray. What light existed was dull and always in the distance.
He watched a shadow dart around the corner and Squeaky opened his mouth to shout after it. His voice echoed down the endless hallway, “Red and blue and red and blue.” His heart sunk and he charged after the shadow. Right, right, left, left, left, he couldn’t keep track and he couldn’t catch up. He stomped his massive feet and banged his fists against the walls. He heard thunder roar through the air. His fingers sparked with electricity.
A little girl with dark wiry hair poked her large eyes around the corner. She must have been at least five feet shorter than he was, his head suddenly pressing against the ceiling. She pitter-patted toward him and looked up at him in indignation.
“If you’re here to wake him,” she said, “don’t bother. Hashtag’s not here. They sent him on a mission. The last time he went on a mission, someone like you showed up too, dressed up like,” she gestured toward Squeaky’s now gigantic body, “dressed up like his devil.”
Squeaky recoiled and looked down at himself, a swirl of dust and dirt rising to meet his gaze.
“It’s drawing you toward it,” she said and then bowed her head down, “I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.” Squeaky began to back away as she lifted her head and smiled, “It’s going to hurt a lot.”
Squeaky let out a shriek and jerked awake. The shadow in the corner was no longer still. His nightmare incarnate, red and blue orbs hovered in the corner. Hashtag stepped out of the darkness gingerly and the beast behind him lurched forward in perfect synchronicity. Hashtag stood upright and stared straight into Squeaky’s eyes. Squeaky scrambled backward and knocked his glasses off of his nightstand. He fumbled on the floor and swooped them up to his face.
“Hashtag?” he whispered harshly, “What the hell?”
“Hi Squeaky,” Hashtag replied. His voice was deeper, more serious, not wavering with his typical despondency. He smiled a crooked smile.
Squeaky blinked several times before mustering a response, “Where have you been? What are you doing here? I was just dreaming--”
“Yes, I know,” Hashtag cut him off. “And I suppose you already know that I’m here to see you.”
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)