The Twins did not speak for the duration of the trip. Hashtag did not know exactly how far they had traveled. As the road stretched out before them, the city gave way to the countryside. Houses were sparse. Waves of corn and grass undulated as far as he could see, punctuated by little oases of pine trees. Even inside the cruiser with the windows firmly shut, Hashtag could smell the pungent aroma of the livestock whipping on the wind.
He had wanted to stop to go to the bathroom hours ago but was too nervous to break the silence and ask. He hadn’t quite grown accustomed to his new temporary guardians, and the reality of the situation was settling into the back of his mind. They’re just going to help, he told himself over and over. He let the idea and stress and all of the questions just slip from his thoughts as he watched the vegetation whir past his vision.
The sun was setting in a massive display of reds and purples when the car began to slow. Hashtag was tired and thirsty and hungry and restless. He shifted in his uncomfortable seat and tried to stretch out his arms. The car slowed even more and then turned left onto a narrow dirt road that Hashtag had not even noticed.
The road cut straight through a field like a knife and then was engulfed by tall and menacing trees. The thick canopy of needles blocked out the gorgeous sunset display and left them lurching forward in the darkness. The Twin in the police uniform, the driver, did not turn on their headlights, did not even seem to notice the change in visibility.
Hashtag squinted and peered through the window closest to him, attempting to pierce the thickly laden forest. He saw nothing but shadows. They mesmerized him until he was lulled into an almost trancelike state. The rhythmic sound of the tires thumping over the uneven terrain sedated him further. Like watching the miles of field stretched out before him, time seemed to dissipate and his thoughts floated away into the woods.
It felt like hours or even days had slipped by him unnoticed until he heard a voice calling to him, “Do not lose yourself in the trees; you will be unable to return.” Hashtag blinked and shook his head. He turned his gaze to find the Twin in the passenger seat looking toward him with an expression Hashtag thought resembled someone mimicking the idea of sincerity without truly knowing what it meant.
“How long was I…” Hashtag started.
“Seconds,” the man said and turned around.
Hashtag needed out of the car. He knew how loaded the phrase was, how many times he had been scolded for asking it, but between the relentless drive, the lack of food, the lack of bathrooms, the stiff seat, the silence, and now a creepy forest filled with hypnotizing shadows, he could no longer contain himself.
“Are we there yet?” he asked quietly and then louder, “How much longer?”
Neither of the Twins shifted but merely pointed ahead where Hashtag saw a break in the trees and a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
“Oh thank god,” Hashtag mumbled under his breath. He saw something that resembled a scowl in the rearview mirror.
Hazy sunlight descended upon them as they crept out of the forest. Hashtag blinked several times. He did not realize that houses could be this big. He had seen movies and TV shows where some villain or crime boss or whatever operated out of or otherwise lived in a pearly white mansion, but he had never seen something so large up close and never something this old. It was more like a stone and wooden castle than anything else.
A gigantic wrought iron gate hung between a brick wall and between them and the house. The car stopped short of it and idled. The massive wooden front door swung open and a woman scurried out of the house and toward them. With more ease than Hashtag expected, she flung the gate wide and waved them in with a smile. She was missing the index and middle finger on her right hand.
They pulled the police cruiser into what had to have been at one point a stable. The building was lined with other vehicles: vans, sedans, coupes, a bus, and even an ambulance lay in rest, collecting dust. The engine cut and the car seemed to sink into its parking space. The Twins exited the vehicle and opened the door for Hashtag. He never knew that stretching could feel so good. Every ache and pain in his body was slowly lifted as he hobbled out of the stable and into the open air of the estate.
The forest surrounded them on all sides, like a chunk of the woods had been cleared out specifically for this building and the surrounding grounds.Off toward the setting sun, Hashtag noticed a herd of goats roaming about the yard. They were bleating and jumping and headbutting and up to general goat-like shenanigans. Hashtag really hoped he could go see them up close; he had never seen a goat in person. From somewhere, a rooster crowed.
The woman who had opened the gate appeared in front of Hashtag with his luggage. Her smile was infectious. “Hi!” she said cheerfully and extended her three fingered hand, “I’m Flower!”
Hashtag gingerly shook it, feeling both elated at meeting someone else with such an obvious disfigurement, but also a bit suspect of her bubbly demeanor.
“We’ve been waiting for you for a long time, Hashtag,” Flower continued. “Please, follow me and I’ll show you to your room.”
Hashtag watched as she bounced her way toward the house. He inhaled deeply. The sweet smell of the grass mixed with the syrupy pine aroma of the trees and the acrid odor of the goats and chickens and whatever else lingered on the estate somehow all melded together to form a picturesque portrait in Hashtag’s mind. For the first time since, well, since Brad’s eyes went missing, since before that, maybe even for the first time in his life, his heart felt light and free. He rolled his shoulders back and strutted into the house.
The house was like a maze. Rooms and hallways all looked identical and generally unadorned. Flower navigated the twists and turns deftly and Hashtag pitter-pattered along, trying to keep up with her quick steps. He’d almost hate to get lost in here as much as out in the surrounding trees.
“Dinner is in one hour,” Flower had not stopped speaking since they entered the abode. “You’ll hear a bell. It sort of echoes into each of the rooms. Oh, and there are a lot of rooms, so remember which one is yours. We don’t have a lot of guests at the moment, but we do have a few, and you can’t just go barging into their rooms now can you?”
Hashtag attempted to peer between an ajar door but then Flower turned the corner and he quickened his pace to meet her.
“It will be a pretty strict regimen,” she was saying. “Breakfast at first light, then you hit the books until lunch, practicum in the afternoon, dinner, free time, and then lights out by ten. Most choose to use their free time to study more. There’s not a lot of socializing here.”
She stopped in the middle of the hallway and swung around on her heel. She furrowed her brow and leaned down. “Hashtag, I know your name. You know mine. The others mustn't learn yours. The Twins are very stern about this. Names have power, you know.”
Hashtag caught his breath for a second and asked, “Who are the others? Other people living here?”
Flower spun and began marching forward again, “Others the Twins have deemed, uh,” she wove her three fingers in the air, “worthy sounds so harsh and haughty. Potential! Yes that’s the word. Those with potential. Some are like you, where deals have been struck. Others show promise naturally, without the presence of a contract. That’s rare though. Most of them are kids, around your age. That seems to be when this works the best.”
“What works?” Hashtag was getting more confused the more she spoke. When they first started traversing the hallways, he was attempting to keep track of all the lefts and rights so he could trace his way back to the entrance, but now he had lost count.
Flower had stopped again. She did not turn around. Her voice was suddenly quieter, deeper, more serious. “Summoning,” she whispered. “Summoning and control, of course. But you’re the first to do it, Hashtag. You’re the first with results in I don’t even know how long. The Twins won’t show it, but they’re very excited.”
The room was bare and impersonal, just a bed, a dresser, a desk, a chair, and a window that overlooked the front of the estate. Hashtag plopped down on the bed after Flower strode out. He suddenly wished he had brought more than his clothes, perhaps a picture or two of his family. This felt more like a hotel room than a home.
And yet, despite the drab appearance, despite the maze that led him here, the uncertainty that surrounded him, Hashtag smiled. He was the first, the first in a long time. He knew there was a reason that the Twins had brought him here but he didn’t realize that he was so much further ahead. Hell, he hadn’t even thought about the possibility of there being others.
The road that led him here was paved with death and blood and destruction, but here, here he could learn to control it, to hone it, to ensure that no one else would be hurt by this devil. Did the others have devils too? His head swam with possibilities and questions and an endless stream of impossible dreams. He was lost but now was found. All of his questions would be answered and he could turn his life around, maybe even, dare he think it, help people. He couldn’t think of particular applications at the moment but he knew they would come to him the more he learned and studied.
His door creaked open and two big blue eyes peered from around the corner.
“Are you new?” a tiny voice asked from behind the wall.
“Just got here today!” Hashtag beamed. “Don’t be shy, come in.”
A girl a few years younger than Hashtag shuffled into the room. She held her arms close to her chest and her gaze was focused on the window that overlooked the road. Her curly dark hair was wiry and dry and her face was bruised.
She did not turn her eyes toward him when she spoke. “They’re not always nice, you know. Even if you do everything they say, sometimes you get hurt. Sometimes it hurts you too.”
Hashtag looked down at her arms where a network of scars etched out from her wrist. She noticed.
“Blood sacrifice. The goats weren’t cutting it.” She choked back a laugh. “We haven’t seen mine yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do things. You’ll see things here you would never believe. Good luck. Most don’t make it the night.”
She turned and sauntered out of the room, shutting the door behind her and leaving Hashtag in his new home, his empty room, alone, his mind spinning mercilessly.
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)