The first night that Hashtag spent at his new home with the Twins and the others had been strange, but something he found himself acclimating to rather quickly. After the dinner bell rang, echoing throughout each of the rooms with no discernable direction, Hashtag shuffled into the hallway and looked left and right. Either way appeared identical and none of the other doors were opening. He couldn’t remember which direction he had arrived from; he hadn’t quite snapped out of the surreal haze of his current situation. He began to walk right, hoping that he’d encounter someone else in the house soon.
After a few minutes of turning this way and that, arbitrarily picking a hallway when he came upon an intersection, the aroma of freshly cooked meat wafted toward him. Hashtag chased after it, finding it surprisingly easy to track the smell through the labyrinthine twists and turns.
And then suddenly it was all splayed out in front of him: a long, gigantic room, each of the walls covered floor to ceiling in bookshelves and paintings and tapestries. Ornate chandeliers illuminated the darkness through some unseen mechanism. In the center of the room, in a sunken floor, sat a table bigger than Hashtag had ever seen. It could easily seat fifty, maybe even one hundred people. Porcelain dishware adorned its surface, accompanied by bowls of stewed meat, baskets of thick crusty bread, heaps of mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, and dishes Hashtag had never seen before.
Other children were scurrying around the table like they were in the middle of a game of musical chairs he had interrupted. One by one they slowly began to take their seat until suddenly Hashtag found himself the last one standing. Embarrassment spread across his face as he scrambled to find an open chair and sit down. As he traversed the room, he noticed that the doorway he arrived through was now replaced with another wall packed with bookcases.
“Oh, it’s you,” a voice next to him said dourly.
Hashtag turned to see the girl with the wiry hair and big eyes. “Oh!” Hashtag exclaimed cheerfully, “it’s you. That’s nice. At least I’ve met you before. What was your name? Mine’s Hashtag.”
She stared up at him in horror and disbelief, her skin growing paler and paler. Her eyes darted around the room as she hissed, “Shut up! Do not ever tell anyone that again! And never ask me that again! Never ask anyone that again.” She crossed her arms and stared at the plate in front of her and then said, as though it were the simplest of truths, “Names have power, you know.” She turned and beamed at him, “And now I know yours.”
Hashtag glowed with shame and he hung his head. How could he have been so dense as to forget what Flower had told him just hours ago. The events of the day spiraled in his mind and his stomach ached.
A bell reverberated throughout the room and everyone began to shovel food onto their plates and into their eager mouths. Hashtag didn’t realize just how hungry he had been. He scooped a massive spoonful of mashed potatoes onto his plate, topped it off with some dark nondescript meat, and slathered it in rich gravy. He wielded his fork like a weapon and thrust mouthfuls into gnashing teeth.
The meat was tough and tasted stronger than the meat he was used to eating. He eyed it suspiciously.
“Goat,” the girl next to him said with her mouth full, “probably the one I used earlier. They tend to get a little tough when they die through ceremony.”
Hashtag held it up to the light to get a better look at it. He painfully wished Squeaky were there to say something silly or witty before devouring the gob of meat whole.
Studying and practicum were mostly conducted alone. Sometimes Flower would pop in to make sure that he was on task and relay messages from the Twins. Very rarely would the ominous duo make their own appearance. They seemed less keen on instructing and tended to stand back and observe, silence broken by the occasional question that when answered, was only met with silence.
Hashtag always excelled at but was never particularly interested in school. Interpreting literature, learning math fundamentals, scientific principles, memorizing dates, people, places, names, events just lacked any real substance he could chew. This, however, this was something else entirely.
There was rote memorization, yes, names of demons, angels, principalities, devils, lesser and minor gods and goddesses, but there were also so many stories to read. Mythology and folklore, hauntings, UFO sightings, time travel, precognition, telekinesis, telepathy, therianthropy, teleportation, anything and everything paranormal, they left no theory or school of thought left unturned. Hashtag devoured these stories with no additional prodding or pleading and after dinner, he would return to his room every evening in anticipation of reading more.
At night when he was trying to sleep, windows would open themselves, doors would swing wide and slam closed, whispers would sing songs in the air, and wails would echo out from the hallways. Hashtag relished it. It made the stories seem that much more real, like he was tapping into some ancient power that the rest of the world mocked as tinfoil hat wearing cockamamy.
From what Hashtag could glean, his practicum was very different from the other students. Some had never seen their entity outside of dreams. Some only had heard sounds at night, stairs creaking, doors squeaking, voices calling their name. A few had witnessed physical traces, prints in sand, blemishes in photographs, cupboards wide open. None had seen, let alone summoned their entity, except for Hashtag. While the others struggled to conjure a manifestation, Hashtag honed his control.
Hashtag could no longer tell which Twin was which. One wore red, the other blue. There were no other defining characteristics that he could grasp and as far as he could tell, they preferred to be addressed jointly.
“Do you recognize any of the names?” the Twin in Red asked, leaning over Hashtag’s shoulder, peering at a book opened to an illustration depicting a particularly nasty devil. The image was black and white, very old, and full of poking and prodding in unpleasant parts of the body.
Hashtag flipped the page. The demon had the head of a cat, nine inch horns arcing from behind its ears. It stood on top of an ailing human and poured liquid down his throat. Hashtag shook his head and turned another page. This entity had no discernable head, merely a giant eye in its torso, sharp teeth and a slithering tongue beneath that. Hashtag sighed and flipped the pages until he reached a bookmark.
“I keep going back to this one,” he said as he held up the book for the Twins to see. “I don’t really know why. I’ve seen mine and it looks nothing like this.”
The Twins shuffled back a few feet, looked at each other and then at Hashtag.
“Hashtag,” the Twin in Blue said.
Hashtag winced at the sound of his name. It had been at least a month since anyone had uttered it.
“We have a mission for you,” the other Twin continued.
They leaned in close.
“We need you to visit Dr. Walls.”
“He has learned too much.”
“He may even know where we are now.”
“We have learned everything we need from him.”
Hashtag furrowed his brow, “And what am I to do with him when I get there?
The Twins spoke simultaneously, “Let your entity do what it does best.”
“How am I to find him? Where is he?” Hashtag asked.
They each put a hand on him and replied, “Like this” and Hashtag disappeared.
Hashtag didn’t like the missions at first. He had hoped to never witness that level of violence ever again. He never wanted to hurt anyone. At first he rationalized it by telling himself that he himself wasn’t committing the act itself. He merely acted as a vessel for his devil to exact its power. He knew that if he complied with the Twins’ wishes, he would be able to study more and in time maybe learn how to control it to the point where he wouldn’t need their books anymore.
The first one was not as clean as he had wished. He was nervous and accidentally revealed himself by kicking over a nightstand. Dr. Walls woke in a tizzy, hurled the blankets at the wall, and heaved himself out of bed. Hashtag fell over, lost control, and the swirl of dust shattered all of the windows and slowly cleaved Dr. Walls’ eyeballs from his skull. Hashtag groaned; he swore the hulking storm shrugged at him.
The second was quicker, more precise. She at least died in her sleep, albeit one fueled with nightmares of chasing an unrelenting voice through endless hallways only to find the horrific visage of red and blue orbs staring at her when she reached the end.
The third deserved it. Hashtag caught him in the act of taking photographs of a naked toddler. Hashtag’s devil kicked down the door and Hashtag flew into the room, levitating off the floor two inches. He screamed the incantation while glass hung suspended in the air, streams of blood wetting the walls and soaking into the cement.
Only after it was done, he had wished he hadn’t heaped more trauma onto the child. He had gotten carried away, let his anger get the best of him. He dialed 911 only to realize that he was not in America. He walked outside and found himself in a remote forest. He took the child, returned to the house, and gave him to Flower. He never saw the child again.
After that, each mission was a haze of darkness and blood. Hashtag stopped rationalizing, stopped thinking. He studied more every night and slept less. He brought books to the dining hall and ignored the others, secluding himself in a corner, nibbling on a piece of bread. The missions had become background noise, an act carried out who knows where on people who may or may not have deserved it by someone without a particular interest in finding out any possible detail.
Hashtag was studying in his room, poring over a particularly fascinating account of a devil that terrorized an entire town for five years. The only way to rid themselves of it was to all drown in swamp in the middle of the woods.
The door behind Hashtag creaked open.
“Not now,” he hadn’t slept in two days.
“They’re coming for you,” the girl with the wiry hair said, “right now.”
“Who cares?” Hashtag muttered, waving his hand, not turning around.
“They don’t look happy,” she said and ran away.
Hashtag turned around just as the Twins swept into the room, scowls upon their faces.
“We have a mission for you,” they started. “This one is not like the last ones. This one is different.”
Hashtag waited impatiently as silence hung between them.
“You know this one,” they said.
“But he’s been digging, looking for you.”
“He found out some things he should not know."
Hashtag stood and turned to face them. “Squeaky,” he stated. He was so tired, the words just fell from his mouth. “Fine. When?”
Hashtag watched as Squeaky tossed and turned in bed. He knew which nightmare he was having. He learned to identify them by the gestures people made. Cold sweats were different from talking in your sleep; sleep paralysis was different from night terrors. He was growing impatient. He mumbled under his breath until dust swirled and towered behind him.
“Wake him up,” Hashtag commanded.
Squeaky shot up and fell backward.
“Hashtag?” Squeaky whispered harshly, “What the hell?”
“Hi Squeaky,” Hashtag replied. He did not want to do this to Squeaky, wished that Squeaky had just forgotten about him, had let it go and not looked for him. But he was so happy to see him again that an awkward smile crept across his face.
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.”
Fear flashed in Squeaky’s eyes.
“Squeaky, I hate to do this to you.” Hashtag shuffled closer to Squeaky and the beast followed suit. “I really do, but I have no choice.”
Squeaky closed his eyes.
“I need your help, Squeaky. I need you to help me kill them.”
Hashtag reached out his hand and touched Squeaky’s arm.
Wind blew through the empty room.
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)