For the first forty-five minutes or so, they usually talk to you about your day (“Boring.”), what it’s like living with your brother (“Sweet. We’re tight.”), how you feel about school (“Also boring.”) – harmless shit that psychologists usually ask about on TV. Then, invariably, they start heading to dangerous waters.
“Why don’t you tell me more about these dreams of yours, David?” You level a glare at the shrink from behind your sunglasses. At least this one lets you keep your shades – the last one called them a defense mechanism and refused to allow you to wear them during your sessions.
“I’d rather not,” you respond coolly. She sighs and scribbles something on her clipboard, massaging her temple with her other hand.
“David – Dave. I know this is difficult for you, but you have to understand that this behavior is aberrant. Your brother is worried. He tells me that you’re having trouble distinguishing your dreams from reality.” You turn your gaze to the ceiling tiles and roll your shoulder to stretch it, ignoring the fishing comment.
“Do you think that perhaps you are dissatisfied with your situation and are using this fantasy world you’ve created in your mind to escape it? It can’t have been easy growing up without your parents.”
“You sound like my sister,” you mutter under your breath. The shrink catches it anyway.
“You don’t have a sister, Dave.”
“The fuck do you know.” The digital clock on her desk catches your eye – 4 PM – and you stand abruptly. “Looks like that’s it for this week, doc. See you next time.”
She watches you leave with a frustrated expression on her face, but doesn’t stop you, instead making another note on her clipboard as you shut the door behind you.
Dirk is waiting outside in his beat-up Crown Victoria – the police-car model is an ironic choice, obviously, considering Dirk’s propensity for speeding – and he takes off as soon as you shut the door. The silence between you two is usually understanding, but after your sessions it’s always tinged with awkwardness. You know he wants to ask you how this session went and God, Dave, do we need to find you another shrink already?
You ignore the unasked question and stare blankly out the window. It is stupid-hot in Houston at this time of year. You can see the heat rising from the pavement, and the glare of the sun off of the nearby office buildings makes you grateful for your shades – even if they’re the ironic triangular ones your brother gave you as a kid, and not your signature aviators, because apparently you’ve never worn a pair of aviators in your life. That’s what they tell you anyway.
You’ve never worn a pair of aviators in your life because John never sent them to you. John never sent them to you because apparently you and John have never met, either in person or online. You know this because when you woke up that first morning after winning the game, Pesterchum insisted that ectoBiologist didn’t exist. When you tried ghostyTrickster, you got a result, but it was not the one you expected.
-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] --
GT: uh… hi!
GT: what can I do for you?
TG: so is it just me or did the world turn crazy overnight
TG: i mean suddenly trolls and humans coexisting on the same planet is a thing
TG: weird right
GT: i’m not sure what you mean…
GT: maybe you’ve mistaken me for someone else? :B
GT: my name is john, by the way. what’s yours?
John didn’t remember. After a swift round of experimental pestering, you realized that no one did – not Rose, not Jade, not even Terezi.
Another weird thing – trolls and humans live on Earth, together. First Contact had apparently occurred a decade or so before you were born – long enough ago that the trolls are fully integrated with human society, and presumably humans who lived on Alternia are fully integrated with troll society.
That’s why they think you’re crazy – they think your mind has supplied you with a fantasy land wherein you and your imaginary friends are gods, where you are important, where you are loved. Sometimes you even believe them, but then you remember that it was hardly a fantasy – Sburb was traumatic. You wake from your nightmares screaming, the image of dead alternate Daves burned into your retinas, of dead Johns and Jades and Roses. Of Bro.
If anything, you need to create a fantasy land to get away from that – what they call the “real” world is cakewalk.
Dirk clears his throat and you glance at him from the corner of your eye. He’s looking straight ahead, expressionless.
“I got a job,” he says. You quirk an eyebrow. Dirk’s been looking for a job for a while now, but since he forwent college in order to raise you, his options are limited.
“And we have to move.” You turn your head to look at him, to see if maybe he’s pulling a fast one on you. “To Seattle.” You blink, a rare outward show of surprise. Seattle is in Washington. Washington is where John lives.
You viciously suppress that train of thought. John doesn’t know you, remember? Besides, you’re pretty sure he doesn’t live in Seattle. And if he did, he probably wouldn’t want to hang out with you. You might have been a coolkid once, but now you’re a crazyperson.
“Fine with me.”
“Don’t start thinking you’re getting out of therapy sessions. We’ll find you another shrink in Seattle.”
You offer a shrug – a token response. If Dirk wants to think that was where your thoughts were drifting, you’re not about to set him straight.
“When?” you ask.
“Two weeks.” Short notice, then. You can deal with that. It’s not like there’s much tying you to this place, anyway. Only memories of dead crows and strifing on rooftops.
“Found a place already?”
“Couple options.” You’re pretty sure that these “options” are shitty, run-down hovels in dangerous parts of town. Dirk catches your resigned expression. “Don’t write it off, kid, it’ll be better than here. Better pay, better digs. You dig?”
“Pretty much sorted. You gotta pick some electives. Semester starts August 29.” You’ll miss the first week, but you’re lucky to be moving so close to the start of the year. You nod your assent and spend the rest of the car ride in silence.
Intellectually, you were aware that Washington was on the more tolerant side of the socio-political spectrum when compared with Texas, but you certainly weren’t prepared to attend a school integrated with trolls. It gave you a jolt to see grey skin and red-orange horns against the soft pink-tan-brown tones as students of both species mingled in the hallways.
Prospit High (you succeed in not making for the nearest bridge to throw yourself off, but it’s a near thing) boasts an almost-equal ratio of trolls to humans, and offers several classes on inter-species diplomacy and culture. One of these classes, Human-Troll Relations, is slotted in your fourth period class, right before lunch. You walk down the hall to your first period (AP Lit) with your head down and your hood up, ostensibly examining your time-table but actually scanning the student body for –
What, exactly? Imps? Nakodiles? You’re not sure.
Being around so many trolls is making you forget that you’re not in the game anymore. The Game That Doesn’t Exist. (Right.)
You find room 204 easily enough. The 200s building is right next to Administration, where the nice little lady at the front desk handed you your welcome packet. You introduce yourself to the teacher, a middle-aged man whose name you’ve already forgotten, and then turn to find a seat before the bell rings to signal the start of class, and holy shit you could have sworn Lalonde lived in New York.
But no, there she is, nose buried in a ragged copy of A Wizard of Earthsea, gothically elegant and self-assured. And right beside her is a jade-blooded troll with unusually keen fashion sense, who you also happen to recognize: Kanaya Maryam and Rose Lalonde, together again.
You try to swallow around the lump in your throat, moving to an empty seat at the back of the classroom. You tear your eyes away from the girls. You may consider them your friends – Rose is your sister – but that’s now the stuff of dreams. They don’t know you here.
The appearance of both Rose and Kanaya invite more speculation about who might be waiting around the corner. Who you might uncover at this school, waltzing back into your life as if it’s no big deal.
You’re not sure you can handle that. Bad enough not reaching out to them online. The fact that they’re right in front of you and don’t know what you all mean to each other is going to kill you.
You make it through first period in a daze, and second period – Xenobiology – isn’t so bad, except you share a workstation with Kanaya, who gives you a look like she’s not sure if she’s met you before. True to your rising dread, you also notice the juggalo troll – Gamzee, you remind yourself – and Karkat Vantas have also decided to reside in your own personal hell; they share the workstation two rows up and to your left.
Third period Home Ec is a brief respite. You only share it with one familiar face – well, familiar screenname. The wheelchair-bound troll who rapped with you sometimes. He was already dead by the time you joined up with the trolls, but here he’s very much alive, and everyone’s darling.
Fourth period is torture. Rose, Karkat, and Gamzee again, with the addition of Terezi and the male fish troll you also didn’t get the chance to meet in the game. By the time fourth period is over, you’re close to a mental breakdown. You decide to spend lunch in the nurse’s office, curled up on the corner cot in a fetal position, facing the wall and focusing on the rhythm of your breathing.
After lunch is Music Theory. The coast is clear as you walk into the classroom and take a seat at the back. There’s no one in here you know. You take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, sinking in your chair and going limp as you release it.
“One of those days, huh?” the boy who’s just sat down next to you commiserates. “I know the feeling. Lunchline was so long they were out of cookies by the time I got up there!” You immediately tense, and don’t look over, staring at your desk with wide eyes. This can’t be happening. Not him. Your neighbor doesn’t seem to notice your discomfort. If he does, he ignores it.
“You’re new here, aren’t you? You must be. I’ve lived here most of my life, and I never forget a face!” You can’t deal with this. You can’t deal with all of these people who should know you but don’t. And you especially can’t deal with –
“I’m John! John Egbert. What’s your name?” You look up and are trapped in earnest blue eyes that don’t recognize you.
Your voice doesn’t seem to be working anymore.