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Too Loud in Here

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Feeling as if his whole body was a bruise, Wirt groaned as he opened his eyes, before quickly deciding against it and moving to shield them from the bright lights above. Or he would have, if his hand didn't stop only a couple inches from where it started. Groggy and squinting, he gave a soft "What?" as he tugged again. His eyes adjusted.

He was in a hospital bed, in a hospital gown, under a hospital blanket, limbs strapped down to the frame of the bed.

Suddenly very awake, panic coursed through him. How did he get here? Where was Greg? Why does everything hurt? What was that frantic beeping?

A male nurse peeked his head into the room's open door, walking in quickly when he saw Wirt emotional state.

"Relax, relax," the nurse cooed. He poked at a machine by Wirt's head, a heart rate monitor, and the beeping stopped. "You're in the Lakeville Medical Center and have been since around midnight. It's about 2:30 am now, same night. You and you brother were brought in after falling into the pond behind the cemetery."

"A-and the straps?"

"I'll explain that after you answer a few questions for me." Wirt opened his mouth to interrupt, but didn't get the chance. "What year is it?"

Slightly confused, Wirt replied, "Um, 2014?"

"What is your name?"

"Wirt. Wirt Palmer."

"And how old are you?"

"15."

"Okay," the nurse pulled a pen-like device out of his scrub pockets. "Follow the light with just your eyes." The device's tip lit up, and it was swiped across Wirt's field of vision, up-and-down and side-to-side. Wirt blinked as it was clicked off. "Alright, you should be fine to be in bed unrestrained."

The teen watched as his hands and feet were freed from their belt-like binds. "Wait, what happened to my leg?!" The white cast encasing half his right shin and most of his foot caught his attention as soon as the blanket was moved from his lower half. In fact, his legs were spotted with bruises.

The nurse pulled over a chair. Oh no, though Wirt, alarm bells blaring in his head, and he sat up.

Grabbing the yellow folder from the holder on the door, the man sat down and started to read the events of the previous night. "According to your brother Greg, who is fine by the way, so don't start worrying, you and him left the house around 6 pm to go trick-or-treating. He says you were acting oddly that afternoon, though he didn't elaborate. Shortly after leaving, you stopped responding to him, instead talking to yourself. You ignored the planned out route you two decided on and instead headed to the south side of town, Greg following your lead. Around 10:30, you made your way to a party at another high schooler's house, making a brief appearance. Your friend Sara says she saw you two there, Greg telling her that something was up with you. You and your brother left and made your way eventually to the cemetery, where Sara and some others were hanging out. You climbed the back wall and jumped down to the train tracks behind it. Greg followed. He heard the train coming and pushed you off rhe tracks before jumping off himself. The both of you fell down the hill and into the pond, him unconscious and you unresponsive to the outside world and with a broken ankle. Sara, having seen you jump off the wall, made her way behind the cemetery and saw you two go under. She had someone call for an ambulance and fished you out of the water. You all were brought here to be treated: Sara is fine and was sent home soon after you all arrived, Greg is in another room for observation to make sure he isn't sick, and your ankle was set and cast. While we had to sedate you to treat your ankle, we hoped you would tire yourself out or come back to reality on your own, but we had to restrain you because you kept trying to get up and walk on you bad leg, that's all."

Wirt let it sink in for a moment, face still puzzled. "B- but I thought… But 4 or 5 days passed since I last remember being…" he made a vague, circular hand gesture, "...here." He buried his face in his hands groaning. He spoke again, into his palms, "It's never been this bad before…"

"So this has been a previous issue?"

Wirt clammed up at the sound of a pen writing into his file, anxiety buzzing through him.

"Wirt?" The nurse continued to press, "We need to know if this has been an isolated incident or not. It's conducive to proper treatment." Wirt instead decided to continue hiding behind his hands. Sighing and shutting the folder, the nurse stood up. "Is there anything I can help you with right now?" Forgetting his aches in the adrenaline spike, Wirt shook his head, fingers still concealing trapping his face. "Alright then. If you need anything, press the nurse's button on the side of your bed." With that, the folder was dropped back into its holder on the door, the lights were clicked off, and the nurse was gone.

"Noooo," Wirt moaned lowly, falling back down onto the pillow. He grabbed at his hair. "No no nonono no." This was it. He was officially a basketcase. Not only a basketcase, but one who made a public display of his nuttery throughout the town, to his peers.To Sara! How was he going to explain this to his parent? How will Greg take it? What was even going say to Greg?

Resigning himself to a sleepless rest of the night, he dropped his hands above his head and stared at the tiles above him.

---

When Wirt's parent arrived that morning with Greg in tow, who was still wearing his borrowed hospital pajamas as he had just been released, he had been sitting up and writing studiously into a borrowed notepad despite his lack of sleep. He turned his writings over onto his lap as Greg bounded over.

"Wirt! You're awake!" The little one tried to jump up onto the bed, but there were plastic side railings in the way.

Wirt's mom chided Greg from just outside the door, "No climbing on him, his leg is still hurt!" Greg decided to push over the chair instead, wanting to sit as close to his brother as possible.

"Good to see you awake, too," Wirt grinned at the ball of energy.

Greg stood on the chair and leaned on the arm rest. "Are you done talking all weird? You were talking about a ton of weird stuff last night!"

"I- um, I don't-"

"Yee-up! Sounds like regular ol' Wirt to me!" Greg crossed his arms and nodded his head firmly. "Oh! What color is your cast?" he tugged at Wirt's blanket until he could see feet. "White? I told them they should make it polka dots!"

Wirt smirked. "I think that's a little too difficult to do with those colored strips, Greg."

"Nonsense! They could have at least tried."

Before Wirt could respond, Greg's dad came into the room. "Okay, tiger," he said, picking the little one up, "Mom and Wirt have to talk to the doctor about some things, so we're going to go get everyone breakfast."

"Breakfast? Do you think they have waffles?"

"I hope so!" He turned to the bed. "How are you feeling, champ?" His voice was calmer than when he spoke to Greg, tinged with worry.

Wirt fiddled with the hem of the blanket at his lap. "I'm doing okay," he gave his stepdad a small smile, hoping to soothe him.

His response was to ruffle Wirt's hair and state, "I'm glad. Me and Greg will be back in a bit."

His mom and a tall man in a lab coat replaced the other 2 visitors, the first sitting in the chair having just belonged to Greg. The doctor pulled over a wheeled stool from the corner of the room so he could sit by the foot of the bed, face the other two.

"Wirt," he began, "My name is Dr. Walters. I'm the resident psychiatrist at the LMC."

The teen bristled at the word 'psychiatrist'. Visions of white rooms and bottles of pills flashed in his head.

Dr. Walters continued, "You came in last night in a very troubling state. Were you updated on the general events of the past 14 or so hours?"

Wirt nodded, "I'm still trying to make sense of it…" He examined the notepad, skimming his writings.

"May I see?" Handed the pad, he flipped through the pages, hmming as he read. Wirt fidgeted his good foot, feeling scrutinized. The doctor handled the papers back. "So can you give up a general idea of what you were experiencing last night?"

Wirt worked the edge of the notepad in his lap with his hands, fidgeting doubling. "Well, I… I-it's kind of a blur. There was a ton of people, no one who was-" He didn't want to say 'real'. That would mean what he saw wasn't real, and not only would that make him crazy, but would contradict how real everything seemed. "No one from Lakeville. There was lot of wandering in the forest with Greg. We were trying to get home from wherever we were."

"And multiple days passed during this event."

"Yes, maybe 5 days."

Dr. Walters nodded and shifted on his stool, leaning forward. "Your brother mentioned that while you were having your experience yesterday, you repeatedly mentioned someone named Beatrice. Can you tell me about her?"

Wirt is staring at his hands now, notepad still. He quickly glanced at his mom and back down. "She's... a bluebird," he muttered. "Well, was a bluebird."

"Oh? What is she now?"

"Human. She was cursed to be a bluebird. Because she threw a rock at an actual bluebird. Her whole family was cursed, but I was able to get the scissors that would change them all back last night."

"And how long have you known Beatrice?"

Snapping his head up, he stared at the doctor. Wait, known? He looked back down at his knuckles. Not 'how long have you been plagued by this figment of your imagination'? Does he not think I'm crazy?

I'd say he's just trying to humor you. He pities you.

Wirt spun his torso to the left, away from the doctor and his mother, but nothing was there. He slowly turned back forward, seeing his mom startled slightly by the sudden movement. His attention returned to his hands, not wanting to answer.

Picking up on his reluctance, the psychiatrist offered, "I ask because an episode of this nature usually is not someone's first. Events tend to start out smaller and less intrusive."

He glanced at his mom again before answering, saying quietly, "I've know her since May… She's the one I've known longest."

Alarmed by this revelation, Wirt's mother interrupted, "You're saying that this has been going on for 6 months? And you never-"

"Don't worry, Mrs. Palmer," Dr. Walters stopped her. "We'll get to that part shortly." He turned his attention back to Wirt. "So you've known Beatrice the longest. There are others?"

"J-just one."

"Tell me about them."

Wirt took a breath. "He's… he's called The Beast."

"I see. And how long have you known him? Can you describe him?"

"Um, around July or late June. He's… He's not like Beatrice. She's just kind of a jerk. The Beast…" He paused, wrapping his arms around himself. "...he's terrifying. He isn't around much, but he talks a lot."

"Is he the one you turned toward earlier?"

Wirt nodded. "He said something, and I had to see if he was actually there. I can usually ignore him if he's just talking, but things… go south if he shows up."

"And how do things 'go south' when he appears?" Dr. Walters looked concerned.

Looking at his mother and back to the doctor, Wirt settled on looking down at the notepad on his lap. "I-I… I don't… not with…"

The doctor watched as Wirt glanced at his mother while he spoke, body starting to shake. "Mrs. Palmer," he said turn toward the parent, who was growing frazzled, "can I have a moment with Wirt alone?"

She nodded and stood, giving her son a squeeze on the shoulder before leaving the room.

"Now Wirt," the psychiatrist picked up conversation, "I understand that isn't something you want your parents to know. I do have to tell you, while Doctor-Patient Confidentiality does apply here, because you are a minor, your parents do have a legal right to see your file and my notes. If it is anything particularly worrisome, I will have to tell them. Is this alright with you?"

Still refusing to look up, Wirt responded quietly, "I just can't say it to her face…"

"Understandable. Now do you want to continue on? What happens when The Beast appears?"

He sighed, collecting his thoughts for a moment. "When he talks, it's always contradictory. L-like earlier, he said you were just pitying me. He tries to make me upset, bring me down, squish down my self-confidence." His shaking grew worse as he spoke. "But when he shows up, he doubles down, says things like how no one cares, that telling anyone about what I see will make me a burden, that I- I'll be locked up, that I'm worthless and alone." It was getting hard to breathe, his face growing pale. "He tells what people say behind my back, w-what my family says, even Greg! He keeps going and going, like he's trying to drown me! Un-...until…"

Wirt pushed the blanket to his knees and pulled his hospital gown and the legs of his boxers. Underneath was a crosshatching of lines in various sizes and shades of red. Two especially large gashes looked inflamed around their scabs, still fresh on his left leg. He doesn't see this however, his eyes shut tight as he whispers, "It's the only thing that makes him go away. I've tried everything. Ignoring him, talking over him, covering him up with music, throwing things are him, yelling at him, but they just make him angry."

Dr. Walters paused the writing he was doing on a notebook. "Then how did you figure this out?"

"He told me. He said that I could do th-this or let him drive me insane."

"And how often does he appear? When was the first instance?"

"He appeared to me in August, showing up twice that month, then every week in September, every couple days in October…"

"So its been getting progressively more frequent. When was the last time?"

"The 29th."

"And when does he usually show up?"

"It started out in the middle of the night, " Wirt straightened up, finally calming down some. "I'd wake up and he'd be there, staring at me. But lately, it's like he's showing up whenever there's a shadow for him to hide in. A couple of weeks ago, he appeared during 6th period algebra. I had to spend the rest of the school day with him because I didn't… I couldn't… It was agonizing."'

The psychiatrist took a breath. "You mentioned that Beatrice was a human turned bluebird and back. Can you tell me what The Beast looks like?"

Eyes wide, the teen answered, "The Beast is like a man made of the clouded night sky. Branches, like antlers sprout from his head. His eyes glow bright white, but if you look close, they reveal to be an acidic pastel of the primary hues."

Somewhat unnerved by the sudden change in tone, Dr. Walter finished his writings and shut the notebook. "Alright," he groaned a little as he stood from the stool. "I'm going to have a quick talk with your mother, as well as one of the nurses. You should be properly bandaged before any of your injuries become infected, especially after your time in the pond. Do you have any questions for me before I go for now?"

Covering his legs back up, Wirt shook his head. As the doctor turned toward the door, he stopped him. "Wait. Um," he paused, unsure of how to word his question, "what do I… what's wrong with me?"

Dr. Walters turned, hand on the doorframe. "I wouldn't worry about that for now. Focus on resting. Giving things a name can often make them more frightening."

---

Wirt was really starting to feel the lack of sleep, as well as the excessive walking he had done, when his mom came back into the room, accompanied by his brother and stepdad, holding 2 trays of food. All the anxiety-induced adrenaline drained from his system, refreshing his aches. Even so, he scooted over so Greg could sit beside him on the bed, next to their mom. His stepdad passed out the food and sat in the doctor's stool.

As they ate, or rather, everyone else ate while Wirt pushed around his eggs, as his mom gave a Greg-appropriate version of what the psychiatrist had told her. This meant that a large portion of the group conversation was left out, though Wirt was sure Greg's dad would get the rest of it at some other point that day. "-and because of… certain things, Dr. Walters would like for Wirt to stay at the hospital for another 3 days."

Sputtering, Wirt nearly shouted, "Three days? But why?"

His mother ran a hand through her hair, looking worn out. "They're worried you might have another episode or… or do something."

"I'm going to! Either of those things!"

"But how do you know, Wirt?"

"Because who's to say it'll happen again?" He wasn't staying here. They can't lock him up.

"Who's to say it won't?" It was his stepdad's turn to shout.

"Because… Because I'm not-!" Because I'm not crazy, and if you lock me up, it just proves that I am.

They have plenty of proof enough. Don't you think, Pilgrim?

Wirt's plate hit the wall before anyone could process, styrofoam peeling away to leave yellow blobs on the paint. "Shut up!" Wirt hollered at the empty air. "I don't need your bullshit opinion right now!"

The room froze. And now they have more. The Beast sounded downright cheerful in his comment.

The teen pressed his hands into his eyes and dropped backward on the pillows, moaning a weak, "shut uuuup…" Great. His family thinks he's crazy. He's not going to be here 3 days. They'll ship him somewhere far away where he'll stay the rest of his life and-

Suddenly, Wirt felt a heavy weight on his chest. He uncovered his eyes to see his brother looking down at him, face full of confusion and worry. "What's wrong, brother o' mine," asked the little one.

The older brother sighed. "My brain's sick." No point in beating around the bush at this point.

"Is that why you talk to yourself sometimes? And why you threw your breakfast?"

Oh geez… "Um… yeah. I'm actually talking to people that other people say aren't real."

"But are they real?" Greg's eyes got wide. "Are they invisible? Or like ninjas, super sneaky?"

The little one bounced slightly as Wirt chuckled. "No, they aren't ninjas or invisible. No one else can see them, but they're… they're real to me."

Greg nodded, seeming to accept the explanation. "When you get home in 3 days, can I give you chicken noodle soup to help your brain not be sick?"

Eyes growing a little misty, Wirt replied, "Of course, Greg. I'd love that."

Chapter Text

Wirt was moved down to the psychiatric wing to spend his 72 hours. His parents returned home with Greg, leaving the teen in the hands of a young female nurse, red curls in a ponytail, contrasting with her blue scrubs. As she pushed him down the hallway in a wheelchair, he can see only one other patient, a dark haired boy sitting in a lounge area, watching tv. The kid looked over and gave a short wave. Wirt could see a white bandage covering his forearm. He waved back slightly.

"With the town being so small, this wing doesn't see that many people," the nurse behind his wheelchair explained, seeing the interaction. "I'm sure Tam will be glad to have some company."

The two turned into his room, number 112, across from the nurse's station. Wirt switched to crutches and sat in his bed in the center of the room. To his left, the nurse folded the chair and set it against the wall, then turned to him.

"Alrighty, now starts your 72 hours. It's similar to a regular hospital stay, with some extra rules and procedures." She picked up and opened a packet from the table by his bed. "No weapons of any kind, no sharp implements such as knives or razor blades, no electronic devices of any kind including cellphones, no belts, no shoelaces, nothing with chains or long straps, no plastic bags, no lighters…" The list went on for several more seconds, a male nurse entering as she finished. She glanced at he coworker. "Great timing. I'm going to step out for a minute while Jon takes over. I'll be right back."

Jon looked up from the clipboard he was writing on as the redhead left and pulled a curtain across the doorway.

"No doors," Wirt remarked, clancing toward the room's bathroom, finding another curtain where a door would be.

Jon put his clipboard on the table and supplied, "Nope, no doors in this wing. I need you to stand up. You can lean on one of your crutches." Wirt scooted off the bed and put a crutch under his right arm. "Now I have to examine and catalogue previous self-harm injuries, as well as make sure your not carrying any prohibited items. Do you understand?" Wirt nodded. "Good, I'll need you to take off the gown, leave your underwear on."

As he pulled the cotton fabric over his head, Wirt decided to just put it all up front, "My sc-scars are on my legs, under the.. the legs of my boxers. There's some bandages on the l-left side." He laid the gown on the bed, hands shaking slightly, though not from the sudden chill on his skin.

The nurse made a note on his clipboard. "Thank you for cooperating, Wirt," he said kindly as he wrote. "I still have to inspect everything, okay? It's just procedure."

The process took about 5 minutes, Jon having Wirt move his limbs so that every bit of him can be inspected, minus the pelvic area, though he had to pull at his waistband so that any smuggled items inside would fall out. Even the edges of his cast was checked for stashed objects. Finally, Wirt was asked to lean his backside on the edge of the bed, so he had both of his hands.

Jon gave a sympathetic look as he kneeled down with his clipboard. "Alright, last thing. I need to see your thighs. Just for a moment."

Wirt turned his head as he pulled up the bottom hem of his boxers, not wanting to see whether or not he was being judged. He heard the nurse's pen scratching at the paper being filled out.

"About when was the last time you self-harmed?"

Eyes on the wall, he replied, "October 29th."

"And before that?

"The 21st."

More scratching on paper. "Okay, we're done, you can get dressed. You did great, Wirt."

Quickly getting dressed again, Wirt sat back down on the mattress, watching as the curtain was pulled back and the nurses switched places again. The red-haired nurse seemed to notice the discomfort on his face.

"We know it's intrusive," she explained. "We just need to make sure your as safe as possible."

Wirt nodded slightly. "No, I get it."

"Well now you have some free time, no more poking and prodding for now. Someone will be around every 15 minutes to make sure everything's okay."

He made a small hum in acknowledgment.

"Lunch will be about noon. Tv lounge is down the hall, where you saw Tam. Do you need anything right now?"

"No, thanks."

"Alrighty then. If you need me, hit the 'call nurse' button on the side of the bed. I'll be around. My name's Mary, by the way."

And with that he was left to himself, at least until checks in 15 minutes.

---

After about an hour or staring at the ceiling, laying on top of his sheets and waving lazily every time a nurse popped in, Wirt decided he was bored. Unable to focus his brain long enough to read one of the books his parents brought over that morning, he grabbed his crutches and made his way to the lounge area down the hall. The dark-haired boy was still there, though sitting in a different seat. Wirt sat down on the brown couch next to him, leaning the crutches on the armrest to his left.

"Hey," his companion grinned at him.

"Hi. Um, you're Tam right? I'm Wirt."

"My name precedes me, but does my reputation?" Tam snickered.

"N-no? I only know your name from Mary."

Tam smiled fully. "Don't worry, I'm just busting your balls. I've been here for a day already. It's just nice to have some company."

Wirt nodded. A moment of quiet passed, filled only with the sounds of the nature documentary on the tv in front of them.

"So whatcha in for?" the other patient's question cut through the hushed room and Wirt's fragile calmness.

He struggled to answer, struck with fear at trying to make himself seem as least crazy as possible, the response being more of a jumble of stuttered sounds and single syllables.

"Hey, hey, chill. I can go first." Tam lifted his bandaged arm, showing the low lump of gauze up the inside of his forearm. "I got mega depressed and tried to die. Sliced up my arm, didn't work. There, easy. Now your turn. Just say as little or as much as you want to say."

There was a moment while Wirt thought, mouth a thin line. Finally, he muttered, "I see and hear the unreal."

Tam quirked an eyebrow. "That how you broke your leg?"

"Yeah."

Shrugging, Tam turned back to the tv, feeling the nerves radiating off the other boy. "Not the craziest I've seen."

Wirt didn't know whether to be insulted or not. He chose to watch some tv instead.

---

The rest of the day passed without much incident. After dinner, Wirt discovered he'd be starting medication.

"An antipsychotic," his nurse explained, "for hallucinations and psychosis. "Dr. Walters said you'd start with a lower dose and he can increase it if needed."

The tiny white tablet sat intimidating in the paper cup he'd been handed. Wirt stared it down, trying to reason how a little pill could be so-

"I can't leave until you swallow it," the nurse interrupted his line of thought. Mary must have gone home, as he just noticed that this nurse was a blond.

Wirt sputtered, "Oh! Sorry, I was, uh, thinking." He popped it into his mouth and traded the little cup for a larger cup of water. Knocking it back and swallowing, he scrunched his nose. "Bitter."

The nurse hm'd, marking down something on her clipboard. She took the cups from him, gave him a quick, "thank you," before heading out the room.

Around 10, 'lights out' was announced to the 2 teens, and the wing became quiet. Sleep came easy enough for Wirt, even with the buzz of the fluorescent light outside his curtain-door.

---

The next morning followed the same dullness, breakfast, some tv, some reading, until a 'visitor' decided to show up.

His presence seemed to suck any warmth from Wirt's room, where he had been reading peacefully until then.

I see you've gotten yourself locked up, now haven't you?

Wirt glared The Beast down, though neither failed to notice how the teen's hands shook around his book.

"It's just a precaution," he replied. "I did break my leg after all."

And what's to say it won't happen again? You could be sitting in one of your classes and suddenly the everyday world is replaced by The Unknown. What would your peers say?

Wirt snapped his book shut. " Get out. I'm not dealing with your crap."

Now we both know that's not how it works.

"I'm not playing your game!"

Calling this a game would give the impression that you have a chance of beating me.

"Fine! Your puppeteering. Your pastime of mockery. Your prodding of my brain. Better?"

You forgotten the part where you run off to find a knife because you can handle how my truths hurt.

Turning on the bed, he swings his legs off, positioned so he doesn't have to look at The Beast directly. "It's not like you give me much of a choice."

You always have a choice, Pilgrim.

Wirt can almost hear the hollow space growing in his ribcage, the dread dripping down his back. "Stop it," he croaks out.

Well why not choose it? Everyone already knows you've gone mad. Do you think your life is going to get better now? You're going to be absent from school tomorrow. People will notice and connect the dots to the stunt you pulled. The whole town probably thinks something is wrong with your head, not that they're wrong.

"We both know I'm not doing that."

I wonder how your parents will explain this to Greg, because 'my brain is sick' is going to lead to a lot of questions. 'Oh don't worry, Wirt's just hiding in the hospital's loony bin because he lost his marbles on Halloween'. Oh, what will Sara say, seeing as she saved your crazed hide-

"Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!" Wirt's voice echoed off the walls of the room He was standing fully now, staring The Beast down.

The Beasts eyes narrowed slightly, like he was smiling. Don't get too loud now. The nurses might have to strap you down again.

Hit right where the shadow wanted, Wirt deflated, hands at his chest in tight fists, body starting to shake. Panicked, he grabbed for his crutches and wobbled toward the door.

And where do you think you're going?

Refusing to face him, he answered, "Somewhere I can hopefully drown you out." The Beast huffed an amused sound.

He turns through his doorway and nearly smacks into the nurse, Mary.

"Wirt! Are you okay? I heard you yelling."

Looking everywhere but her face, he motions a circle with his hand toward the top of his head. "Just- just talking. He's… don't worry about it." He moved around her, making his way down the hall.

"If you say so…" he heard her say after a few seconds.

Wirt plopped down next to Tam on the couch. Is this all he does? He dropped his crutches unceremoniously onto the floor, putting his head in his hands, huffing.

"You okay," Tam asks at his sudden appearance. "I heard you yell."

A shrug was his only response.

"They're bringing down lunch soon, at least."

"Anything good?" Wirt mumbled.

"Meh, it's hospital food." That earned a snort from his companion.

For a short while, the only sounds in the room are the noises of the show on the tv. To Wirt, however, is the continued barrage of commentary from The Beast, slowly chipping away at his willpower and self-control. After about 10 minutes, Wirt groans agitatedly and leans back, pressing the heels if his hands into his eyes, elbows point up.

"Dude, what's wrong. Talk to me."

Wirt can hear the concern in Tam's voice. He lifts his hands to respond, but he is instead greeted by the irradient hues of The Beast's eyes, hovering upside down right over his face from behind the couch. Wirt hollers, startled and nearly falls off the couch in his attempt to turn and flee. The eyes smiled at him in response.

"What's your damage?!" Tam had jumped at Wirt's explosive movement, pressing into the arm of the couch.

"You did that on purpose!" Wirt yelled toward the shadow.

"Who are you talking to?"

Wirt turned to Tam, hand on his chest, having forgotten he was with someone else. He stared for a moment before muttering, "Just ignore me…" He rubbed his face and sat back again. "I've been trying to ignore him so he decided to appear right in front of my face. He just won't stop talking!"

"Who?"

He ran his hands through his hair. "He's… he's a jerk. He wants me miserable. Hes-

He's more right than you care to realize.

The Beast was now next to the couch, right beside Wirt, tall and imposing.

He turned to The Beast. "He's a nuisance and needs to back off!"

You know what I need, Pilgrim.

He sat forward again, sighing, then he looks toward the other teen.

Looking confused, Tam asks, "Were you just… it was like you were on the phone, how I couldn't hear the other side of the conversation."

Awkwardly, he replies, "Yeah, uh… yeah."

That's right. Divulge your insanity to strangers. Alienate yourself further from the world.

Wirt gave a hearty and desperate grumble. "And he's going to keep messing with me until I… until I do something I was put here specifically so I can't do."

"Ahhh, you mean..." Tam said as he tapped his own bandaged arm, asking the silent question.

Wirt nodded, hands moving to rub his upper thighs.

Well, isn't this cute. Connection through self-destruction.

As he turned to retort, Wirt is stopped by Tam's hand on his shoulder. "Try to ignore him," he says calmly. "Let's watch some TV, eat some shitty lunch, and I'll distract you for a while."

Wirt agreed, bringing his good knee to his chest as they settled into the sofa.

---

By the time the afternoon came around, it was like Wirt had gone deaf to the world. It was nearly impossible to hear anything other than The Beast's relentless attack, each comment, each sarcastic question like literal blows inside his skull. His head was pounding, as the longer the shadow was ignored, the louder he became.

Wirt retreated to his room after getting some ibuprofen from Mary. He needed to lay down, hoping that sleep would give him some respite. But The Beast was close behind, standing at the foot of the bed as Wirt hopped into it.

The teen grumbled, "Go away…" as he laid back.

You know I can't. You know what has to be done for me to leave.

"And you know I can't. Just buzz off for a couple more day and you'll get what you want when I go home. It's not like there's any feasible way to do it anyway."

You're a smart enough boy. I'm sure you can find something…

He scoffed. "Now you call me smart." Pulling a pillow out from under his head, he shoved it into his face.

You can't ignore me forever, Pilgrim. As much you hate to admit, you know all I say is true.

Wirt was silent, but the words hit their mark.

Do you know what else is true? The fact that you can give up on the girl you've been chasing. What's her name? Oh Sara. Wirt flinched, curling up on his side. Another hit. Now that she's seen your brand of crazy up close, she's never going to want anything to do with you! Half the school is going to be terrified of you when you return, I'm sure. I bet the whole town is afraid of you by now, with how fast word travels around here. Especially the residents of the area you were galavanting about, spewing gibberish and parading around like the undead. Another hit. I wonder if Sara is afraid, as well. Was it traumatic to pull you out of the pond, staring at nothing and speaking in tongues? Hit. And I hope Greg didn't catch his death falling in with you. Hit. All he wanted was to keep you safe, not see his dear brother crack like an egg-

Wirt shot up and pegged the pillow in The Beast's direction, watching it pass harmlessly through like a projection on smoke, his target laughing at his efforts. He threw the second and received the same reaction.

"Just leave me alone!" Desperately, he grabbed the notebook and pen from his bedside table, and lobbed them, but to no avail. Instead, the shadow bent down and retrieved the papers, studying their contents.

Oh, you been taking notes on me?

Fear ensnaring him, Wirt stammered out, "D-d- Dr. Walters asked me to- to…"

The light was sucked out of the room, leaving only the glowing pastel orbs in front of him.

Do you really think this two-bit quack can help you? Wirt didn't know how he could get any louder. He felt like is very core was shaking with the sound. You are never going to get rid of me! So just prepare for a life of padded walls and straightjackets! You are nothing. You are less than worthless. At least someone worthless would have just ended it when the voices started talking back!

As soon as he moved to scramble away, the darkness in the room dissolved, leaving just The Beast's tall form, grasping at the plastic railing at the edge of the bed. Wirt's cast thunked with each step as he rushed out of his room. The nurse's station is empty. They must be switching to the night shift, he thought. Good. He reached over the counter, fumbling to grab anything. His fingers brushed a cup of writing utensils and he snatched it, thunking back to his bed. He dumped everything on his sheets and sat back down, scanning the items. Pulling up the fabric covering his legs, he snapped up a freshly sharpened pencil. He stared at the scarring on his legs, pencil gripped tight in his hovering fist. His arm shook, yet still frozen. His breaths were fast and ragged.

The Beast goaded him on. You don't have the guts to-

One. The shadow's form convulsed. Two. He laughed, but his voice was static. Three. Four. It was as if he was never there.

The pencil bounced off Wirt's knee and clattered onto the floor, leaving specks of red on the linoleum. A single sob wracked through his body, blood beginning to run over his skin and into the white sheets. Time seemed to slow as panic rushed in to replace the hollowness in his chest.

What have I done? He knew exactly what he'd done. He'd given up. He'd taking everything The Beast said to him and just accepted it. A a second wave of fear rushed through him. How do I hide this?!

He jumped from his bed, adrenaline no longer dulling the pain that shot up his broken ankle with each step. In the time it took to get across the room to the paper towel dispenser by the sink, the blood had already made it down his leg to the top of the cast, staining the gauze under the plaster. He frantically ripped out several towels-

"Wirt? You know you're not supposed to be on that leg."

His arms shot to his sides while the paper towels were dropped and fluttered out of his hands. He didn't speak, starting to shake instead. He heard her come closer, just a few steps.

"Why do you have a mess of pens and-" she cut herself off. She must have spotted the pencil on the floor. "Wirt. Turn around please." Her voice was firm but wary.

The shaking intensified, and his shoulders hunched up to his ears. She came closer.

"Wirt, I need to see-" He jumped when he felt the nurse's hand land on his upper back, spinning and rushing backward the short distance to the sink. He slid down onto the floor, eyes never leaving the nurse's. Blonde ponytail, she'd been here before, last night.

"Stay there, I need to call for a kit," she rushed out her words and out the room. Seconds later, an announcement rang over the PA system, "Sucher kit to Psych, room 112," before she hurried back in, rubbing her hands with sanitizer and pulling on gloves. She opened one of the locked cabinets to Wirt's right, not that he noticed. He was too busy spiralling. His breath was quickening. His whole body was tense and nearly vibrating. He tried to curl his legs up to his face, but the nurse pushed them back down and crouched beside him.

"I need you to pull up your gown for me," she said as she pulled open a package of thick gauze squares. Wirt instead gasped for air and stared straight ahead.. Seeing him unresponsive, the woman did it herself, examining the wounds. Four punctures on his right upper thigh, in a tight cluster, one bleeding decidedly more than the others. "I believe you hit a blood vessel. I'm need you to hold this gauze down and press. I know you are not in a good place right now, but I need your help. Nod if you can do this for me."

After taking a stuttering breath and squeezing his eyes shut, Wirt nodded. The nurse placed his hand on top of a pad of gauze on his leg and pushed down on both. He hissed at the pain, but kept up most of the pressure when she lifted her arm away.

"I'm going to get some saline to rinse out the wounds."

Wirt's panic attack reached its peak and settled there, grounded only slightly by the ache in his leg. His mind was a running wheel of thoughts. What have I done? I'm going crazy. I'm going to be locked away because I can't stop hurting myself. Oh, what have I done? I'm definitely craz-

"Wirt!"

He flinched, staring at the nurse with wide eyes. He finally noticed the the other person in the room, a young woman in blue scrubs holding a shallow metal pan, a one legged cart by the bed. His sheets had been pushed to the footboard, sweeping aside the pens and pencils. One particular pencil had yet to been dealt with.

"Wirt," her voice brought back his attention, "we need you to get onto your bed, so you can lay flat. Can you walk if I help you?" Her face was gentle as he processed her question. After a moment, he nodded, and she helped him to his feet. "Keep a hand on the new gauze, okay?" He hadn't even realized that the pad was replaced, or that she even washed out his wounds.

Holding him under the arm and around the back, the two hobbled across the room, the other woman keeping out of the way. As he pulled himself onto the bed, the gauze falling to the floor, the nurse stepped back, letting her colleague take her place. Already in gloves, the doctor set up the cart, laying shiny, metallic things on a sterile, blue cloth.

"Now lay down," she ordered, muffled slightly by the paper mask on her face. Wirt obeyed, making sure his bloody gown and underwear were out of the way. A paper sheet was placed over him to cover his thighs and lower torso. "It looks like you punctured a vein, which isn't too serious. The bleeding has just about stopped. There is some tearing of the skin between the wounds, so I'm going to have to close everything up. I'm going to inject some novocaine around the area, one at each wound. You okay? You understand?"

Nodding, Wirt put an arm over his eyes. While he didn't figure himself squeamish, this was an event he'd prefer not to see. He tried keeping still as possible, even with his panicked state. After the minute waiting for the anesthetic to kick in, the procedure was fairly fast, taking only a few minutes. Though he was mostly numb, Wirt could still feel the tugging in his flesh as each stitch was pulled his skin shut. Another pad was placed on the now closed holes, held in place by the gauze strip looped around his thigh. He sat up slightly and inspected the wrappings. Even through the thin cotton, the bruising and swelling was visible and only going to get worse.

At least my legs are a matched set now, Wirt quipped miserably in his head.

The blonde nurse returned with a plastic tray, red stained gloves gone, as the other left with her supplies. On the tray sat several foil and plastic packets, holding single-dose quantities of medication. She started punching the pills out into a little paper cup.

"This is an anti-inflammatory, this is a mild pain killer, this is an antibiotic, which you will have to continue for a week even if no symptoms of infection occur…" she stopped at the last foil package, holding it up. "Has the panic attack slowed down? Are you still anxious?" Figuring by his shaking back, Wirt judged 'no' and shook his head in response to the first question. She seemed to pick up on his emotional state, popping the last tablet into a separate cup and handing it to him. "Sit up and take this one first. Let it dissolve under your tongue. It will help calm you down." He did as told and immediately scrunched his nose, confused by the sudden taste of powdery citrus.

The nurse threw out the pill packaging while they waited for the pill in Wirt's mouth to melt.

"That one will take about 5 minutes to take effect. Expect some drowsiness." The nurse filled a larger cup with water at the sink.

"What was it," asked Wirt taking the cup of water and smaller cup of pills from her.

"Alprazolam. Xanax. Anti-anxiety."

He took the pills one at a time, not wanting them to stick in his throat. She waited patiently for him to finish before tackling the elephant in the room.

"Wirt, you have to tell me what happened," she said as she leaned a hip on the bed. "Whether now, or later when I'm writing the report, or when Dr. Walters arrives tomorrow morning, but soon."

He stared at his empty cup, eyes growing wet. "I can't," he uttered, voice creaking, "not today a-atleast."

"We may not know each other at all, but I care about you. I literally when to school because I care too much."

That got him to look up.

She smiled sadly at him and changed stubjects. "If you have any pain, burning, or heat on the area, have one of us come help you. The 'call nurse' button is on the side of your bed." He nodded, returning his gaze to his hands as she took and tossed out his cup. She grabbed the bundle of bedspread and writing utensils by his feet and plopped it outside his door, before putting on a glove to pick the stained pencil from the floor. The clack click as it was dropped into the biohazard bin proclaiming 'SHARPS' attached to the wall echoed in Wirt's head.

"The psychiatrist will be back in the morning, but I'm guessing your parents will be here in a bit. We had to notify-" she paused briefly at Wirt's sudden terrified stare, "-I'm sorry, but it's procedure for minors to notify the parents in the case of an incident."

Wirt gave a puff of a laugh, "Pff, incident." His teenage sarcasm was coming back. The Xanax must be working. He could already feel his breathing slow and shaking ease up.

The nurse grinned, happy he was finally responding. "Yeah, hospital legal-ese isn't kind. I'm going to get you a new gown and blankets, and some cleaning supplies, so just lay back and relax until I return." She tossed her used glove in the red biohazard can by the door while Wirt got comfortable. "Do you need anything before I go?"

He peeked out from under his wrist. "Um, no," he muttered, looking away and back quickly, "...and… thank you."

She grinned warmly at him. "Not a problem. Now rest up, hun."

Wirt replaced his arm and listened to the nurse scoop up the old sheets and walk off. As the little pill worked it's magic, he started to feel like he could breathe again. He tested his lungs, stretching his ribs.

But as the panic drained away, nothing filled it's place. The hollow feeling ached in his chest. What have I done? The same question from earlier floated in his mind, still without an answer.

He curled up on his left side, his older scars complaining at the pressure, and wrapped his arms around his head. With the medication in his system, it took only the the slightest push for Wirt to start crying, and he didn't fight the flood that came.

Chapter Text

That Sunday morning, Wirt was woken up by a warm hand on his shoulder, shaking him insistently.

"Wirt, you gotta get up, " said Mary calmly, "Your parents are going to be here soon with Dr. Walters."

He sat up, his bed head earning a chuckle from the nurse.

"Quite the nest you have going there," she remarked.

Wirt rubbed his hands on his face. How can I be barely awake and already feel awful.

"I need to change your bandages. Can you move your gown?"

That would be why. He stayed silent as he pulled up his clothing and looked away.

She examined the older cuts first, stating that they were healing just fine. She hmmed when she unwrapped his right leg. "This one is swelling, but it's to be expected with this kind of injury. Some nice bruising, too. I'll give you another anti-inflammatory, and you'll be fine. How's the pain."

"Sore," he muttered, "but not awful."

"The anti-inflammatory will help with that." His legs were quickly wrapped up in new bandages. "Unfortunately, getting the wounds wet would irritate them further, so you'll have to skip the shower today. We have washcloths if you want to clean yourself manually."

Wirt hummed in acknowledgement. He didn't want to look at himself, let alone do it extensively to bathe.

"I'll go get you those meds," she said as she cleaned up her supplies and locked the cabinets. "You have about half an hour until your family gets here with the doctor." She zipped out of the room with a "be right back".

With her gone, Wirt finally looked down at himself. He could see the edges of the bruising peeking out from under the gauze.

"You're a real idiot, Wirt," he spat to himself. He glowered at his leg, as if he could reopen the holes in his skin with his mind. The bloodstain on the bunched up medical gown stared right back.

Mary popped back into the room, a cup in each hand. She handed them over and watched as he swallowed the pills and water. Once she left, he quickly brushed his teeth and got into new clothes. Looking at the boxers, he noticed the stain on the leg was bigger than the gown's, a 4 legged blob crawling down the blue fabric, a long tail reaching to the hem. He crumpled it all into a ball, discomforted by the stiffness of the stain, and shoved it into the trash can.

Turning to the table, he saw the clean sheets he would have slept on if the Xanax hadn't knocked him out. Last night's nurse must have thrown the blanket on me then. He set to making the bed and immediately flopped on top of it all when he finished, staring at the ceiling.

Wirt laid there for the full half hour, trying to enjoy his quiet mind, but his shame made sure to stick around enough to ruin that, so he stayed there chiding himself for the previous night. He didn't even bother to answer when the nurse popped in to check up on him. His anger at himself and fear of The Beast muddled together in his chest, burning the hollow space larger. He could feel his eyes begin to water as voices started to fill the hall. He sat up cross-legged and scrubbed at his eyes, still puffy from his crying spell before he fell asleep. He looked up as his curtain was pulled back.

Dr. Walters came in first with quick 'good morning', followed by his mom and step dad. While the doctor kept a professional face, his parents were a mix of worry and frustration. Wirt couldn't keep their eyes for long, and instead focused on his hands in his lap.

"What the hell, Wirt," his mom uttered into his hair as she hugged him around his shoulders, saying it more of a confused statement than a question.

His stepfather sat down in the rolling stool, rolling it next to the chair as his mother sat down in it. The doctor leaned against the doorframe across from the foot of the bed, flipping open a notebook.

"So how are you feeling today?" Dr. Walters asked, poised to write.

"About as well as I can be given the…" Wirt glanced in his parents' direction, "...circumstances. No visitors yet today.

"Is that what you tend to refer to The Beast and Beatrice as?"

"Yeah."

"And when did they last visit?"

"Beatrice did on the 30th. He was here most of the day yesterday."

The doctor nodded, writing in his notebook. "Now, your parents have expressed deep concern over what happened last night. Would you like to try explaining to them what led to injuring yourself, especially in such a violent manner? I did tell them about our discussion the other day, mind you."

Wirt picked at his fingers, head down, as he explained. "Well, he'd been talking on and off since I got here, but he actually appeared yesterday morning. I spent all of yesterday trying to ignore him, but he refused to leave. In retaliation, he got louder, more hateful with his words, until I… I couldn't take anymore. He turned the room pitch black so all I can see were his eyes, and he's so loud, it hurt. Then, I ran out of the room, and no one was at the nurses station, so I grabbed the first thing I could from over the counter. The pencil just happened to be sharp. Four just happened to be the number it took to get rid of him."

"Would you like to talk about what he said to you that lead to you being unable to ignore him any longer?"

Before the psychiatrist even finished the question, Wirt is shaking his head, eyes wide, voice shaky. "No. No way."

"At least something that could give us some insight to what you went through."

Wrapping his arms around his middle, he considered this. Anything he said would be terrifying to his parents, so he figured he might as well say the worst he had. "The last thing he said to me, when the room was black, just before I ran was... was that I am less than worthless, because someone worthless would have just killed themself when the voices started talking back."

He looked at Dr. Walters as he said this, wanting something to focus on, so he wouldn't see his parents' faces. Thankfully, the doctor remained stoick, eyes urging him to continue.

Wirt took a shaking breath. "But it wasn't what he said, it's that he's been drilling it all into my head for long enough that I started to think he's right. He usually says big things like that when he knows I'm about to break, but the more mild things, the insults, the constant commentary, they're all things I've said to my own self, like when I'm angry with myself or when my anxiety gets too strong. But when someone else is saying it to your face, it makes it true."

His stepfather butted in, "But you know he isn't real, right? No one's actually saying these things to you."

Wirt shot him an annoyed look, retorting, "Yes, I know The Beast isn't real. I've throw enough things at him to know he isn't real. But when you staring down a antlered humanoid with glowing eyes, arguing with him over whether everyone you know secretly hates you or not, that fact doesn't matter. Because it feels real." He was getting worked up again, he felt it in the quake of his back, but he didn't care. His mind was overflowing into his mouth. He bent his head down, twisting the bottom of his gown in his hands.

Sensing the change in tone, Dr. Walters said cooly, "Wirt, I think you need to calm down-"

"So you do what he wants. You cut so he'll leave you be. And he does, but only for a few days, maybe less. You're ashamed of your scars, but you c-can't stop. And as soon you stop the bleeding from his latest visit, you dread the moment when he starts talking to you again, because Beatrice i-isn't there as often anymore to pick you back up." He gasps for air, teeth chattering, but he can't stop the spiral now. "Th- the time between his v- visits are getting smaller and smaller, and his words are g- growing more vile, and you have to cut deeper to get rid of him," gasp "and you are terrified of the day w- when you're standing in your room, dizzy and bleeding all over yourself, but he's still there because blood i- i- isn't enough for him anymore and he's telling you to ch- choose between-" gasp " between-"

"Wirt, stop, drop the thought. Breathe."

"B- be...tween-" Wirt wheezed, folding over and hiding his head in his hands. The doctor was right in front of him then, beside the bed, pushing to sit up.

"Wirt, look at me. Breathe when I do." He took exaggerated breaths that Wirt tried to follow, stuttering and stalling throughout.

Letting Wirt go and pulling a bottle out of his lab coat, Dr. Walters took out one of the tablets, putting it into the teen's hand. "Under your tongue, please. And keep breathing for a minute."

That minute passed by agonizingly slow, but Wirt's breath did stop shuddering so much.

Back by the door, Dr. Walter decided to push the subject. "Now Wirt, I do have to admit that you were placed on 72-hour watch because I suspected it, but I have to ask you frankly - Do you have or have you in the past year had thoughts of suicide?"

Wirt didn't look up, but he did nod.

"Any in the past 6 months? Two weeks?"

Two small nods.

"Have you ever made plans to act on these thoughts or acted on them outright?"

He muttered, "Loose plans, no actions."

The psychiatrist then wrote into his notebook, as Wirt flicked his eyes toward his parents. His mother looked pale and obviously frazzled, his stepfather had his elbows on his knees, stuck in thought.

"I think we're making fine headway this meeting," the doctor continued the ball rolling. "Do you want to stop, Wirt, or keep talking? I don't want to overstress you."

Wirt replied, sarcastically cheery. "I've already thoroughly freaked everyone out by spiralling into a panic attack and admitting I'm suicidal, might as well keep going."

Dr. Walters cleared his throat. "How about a change of topic then? You mentioned Beatrice acting as a helping hand?"

He took a deep breath, glad for the change to a more pleasant talking point. "Yeah, she… she was visiting first, but since The Beast showed up, he's been eating into her time. They never show up with the other, so she's being pushed away the more he's around."

"Like opposing sides?" His mom asked.

"I guess? Now she usually shows up in the gap between his visits. She's…" He thought for a second, to find the right phrasing. "...She's the one who refutes what he says. Just in a sarcastic, realistic way. Not a sappy greeting card way. Mainly she just likes calling him an ass and we talk about life for a while. She'd usually sit on my shoulder, but she's not a bird anymore. I wonder what she'll look like now…" He furrowed his brow at the thought.

"It's not the first time I've heard of visitors changing appearance," the doctor offered.

"It isn't? Maybe if The Beast were a bluebird he wouldn't be so terrifying."

The doctor chuckles and Wirt smiles a little, imagining a tiny, black songbird with antlers and white eyes.

"But yeah, she's… she's…" Wirt trailed off, eye catching on the other side of the room.

Opposite his parents, leaned a tall, red-haired girl on the sink. Their eyes met and she waved him away with a small smile. "Finish up with them," she said in a stage whisper, voice instantly recognizable as Beatrice's, "We can talk after."

"Wirt, honey, you trailed off there," his mother interrupted.

"What? Oh!" He snapped his attention back to the 3 non-visitors, and scrubbed his face with his hands. "She, um… She actually is leaning on the sink right now. I'm just so glad to see her." Shoulder sagging, he let out a deep sigh.

"Pfft, as if you'd survive long without me," Beatrice quipped.

"Obviously not."

It was a little too late that he remembered that talking to the 'air' isn't something normal people do. His eyes shifted between the adults, lips shut tight.

"Mind telling us what she said?" Dr. Walters offered.

Feeling awkward, he answered, "Um, she said 'As if you'd survive long without me."

"And you said last time she was originally a bluebird, but is now a human. What does she look like then?"

"Well, she's…" he stalled, unsure where to start. "She's probably a bit taller than me, a little older maybe? She's a redhead, her hair in one of those romantic style up-dos, and, um… wearing a Regency era dress, something out of a Jane Austen novel, light blue, with brown boots. And she has a surprising amount of freckles."

The girl smirked. "Came free with the hair."

"Pfft, she said they came free with the hair." He looked over to his parents as he reiterated what the girl said, but, catching the looks of discomfort on their faces, cleared his throat and looked down at his hands.

Writing down notes, Dr. Walter remarked, "At least she seems to be better company than your other visitor."

"Um, yeah," was his mumbled reply.

The doctor gave the other two adults a look, beckoning them outside. "How about your parents and I talk in the hallway for a bit, so you can tend to your visitor, hm?" They filed out, leaving Wirt free to talk.

Beatrice walked over to the side of the bed, hands on her hips. "So, The Beast got you good this time, huh…"

Leaning over the other side of the bed to check for eavesdroppers, Wirt replied. "Judging by the freakout I just had, I'd say so." He sagged, finally feeling like he had someone to talk to.

"But really, Wirt, a pencil? You're going to have some ugly scars."

"I was desperate! You try finding anything to use in this place!"

"You best option would have been to not let him get to you in the first place, you bozo."

"Fine, you stand with me next time and you can see how you fare."

"Hey, hey, calm down. Just remember, he's a lying scumbag. Nothing he says is true." At Wirt's sigh, she offered, "I mean, you're parents obviously care if they're here listening to you ramble like this."

"Yeah, well, you saw them. Their faces." He gazed at his hands again. "I-I'm not right! I'm a freak show! And it's not just them. When I go back to school tomorrow, what's everyone going to think? What's everyone saying about me right now? 'What happened to Wirt, Jason? Oh, he's stuck in a hospital 'cause he cracked like an egg-"

"Hey!" She jabbed a finger at him, making him jump. "Do not say what The Beast said. If you do, you're just letting him win without him even being here!"

Wirt opened his mouth to say something, but the voice of his step dad caught him, "-this isn't normal!" and his words die in his mouth.

Beatrice saw the miserable look on his face, fighting back his against thought process with, "Wirt, that was out of context and you know it. They're just afraid-"

"-Yeah, of me-"

"-for you. You're their son, for heaven's sake. They both love you…"

Wirt offered no response.

"And I'm positive Greg does."

"And I pay him back by almost getting him killed."

"Hey, he was the one who followed you, even with his good intentions. Plus, he's okay now anyway. He didn't get hurt, unlike you, mister skinny-ankles." She hoped the remark would perk him up a smidge, but it fell flat. "Listen. It's in the past. Nothing bad happened. So just focus on the present, okay."

"...Okay."

There was a moment of silence, and Beatrice looked like she had something to add.

"What is it," he asked. "Spill it."

"You're not gonna like it."

"I feel awful already, so you might as well go for it."

She grimaced a little, then sighed. "I want you to tell them about your… uninfluenced cutting."

"No." Wirt answer was sharp and colored with fear.

"Wirt, hear me out here-"

"They already think I'm crazy enough, I don't need to add to the list."

Beatrice huffed. "And when would be a better time, hm? You have a doctor right here, to act as a buffer, and you've got me to help tell you what to say. You're in a safe place-"

"I can't do that to them. They're dealing with enough coming from me-"

"Wirt!" She grabbed him by the shoulders, staring him down. "For once in your life, stop thinking about what everyone else is thinking and be a little selfish! This has been going on since before we came along, so I think it's important to address!"

Before he can say anything, the adults came back into the room, not looking happy. Beatrice moved to stand next to him, opposite his mom.

"So," Dr. Walters got comfortable against the doorframe again and asked, "what did you and Beatrice talk about?"

Wirt grumbled, "Basically that I'm an idiot for listening to The Beast, and for stabbing myself, and that my anxieties are unfounded, and that Greg didn't get hurt, so to stop feeling guilty about it."

Beatrice nudged him, and he glared at her. When he looked back at them, his parents seem confused.

He cleared his throat, continuing, "And she wants me to… tell you something…"

"And what would that be?" the doctor questioned.

Wirt's eye travelled from his parents, to Beatrice, Dr. Walter, and finally his hands. "I, uh… I was hurting m-myself before The Beast. Before Beatrice, too."

There was a pregnant pause, but he refused to look up, so he couldn't see their aghast faces.

"Go on…" his visitor urged.

He sighed. "I don't really know how to explain it. I was anxious all the time. I was getting sad, too, for no reason it seemed, like there was this empty spot emerging in my chest. So I acted against it one night a year ago, but the spot kept growing, so I kept doing it. It wasn't making me feel better in general, but in the moment it did. But then Beatrice started talking to me and it slowed up a bit because I can finally talk to someone about it. Instead of cutting, I started going for walks around town to talk with her, pretending to be on my phone so I didn't look like a lunatic. I felt okay for a while, until The Beast appeared." Wirt paused, rubbing his neck. "So I start cutting again and he's making me do it on top of that. Now it's not even something that helps in the moment anymore, it just makes me feel awful and gives him more fuel for the fire against me. Saying I'm stealing his fun. But I keep doing it anyway because I don't know what else to do…"

Dr. Walters flips the page in his notebook. "So, Wirt, based on this past year, if you were to draw your general mood as a graph, what would it look like?"

"Um… probably a steady decline. Some ups and downs."

"And your anxiety levels?"

"Pretty consistent, maybe growing?"

"Do you feel you've lost interest in previously enjoyable activities? Loss of energy or motivation?"

"Yeah. I used to write, but I haven't been able to make anything for months."

"Do you find you are isolating yourself?" Wirt nods at him. "Are you having issues with sleep, either insomnia or excessive sleep?"

"I wake up a lot in the middle of the night and end up staying up until my alarm goes off."

"Loss of appetite? Weight loss?" Another nod. "Do you experience periods of paradoxically increased mood and energy, doing things you normally wouldn't?"

"No…?" That one confused him a little.

The doctor took a breath. "Now the fun ones. Do you find yourself strongly holding beliefs that others would find odd, even with evidence on the contrary?"

Glancing at his parents, Wirt answers, "Yes."

"Can you describe them for me?"

"Um, everyone at school i-is secretly against me and talk constantly about me behind my back, especially one specific student in my grade."

His step dad chimed in. "Jason? The one kid you complain about all the time?"

Wirt bristled. "Him, yeah."

"Alright, last one," the doctor stated. "Any thoughts of harming others."

"Absolutely not."

A few more notes, and Dr. Walters shuts the notebook. "I'm starting you on an antidepressant. We'll begin with 75 milligrams of Prozac and go up from there if your symptoms don't improve. We might have to change prescriptions if there's no improvement at a higher dose, but I'm sure we'll find the one that works. Results for antidepressants unfortunately take about a month to surface, as the compounds need to build up in the brain. If it does work, it should also help with your overall anxiety, though I'll still be prescribing you the oral dissolving Xanax for your panic attacks, which you may take as needed. You seem to do well on half a milligram, but you can take a second if you don't calm down after 15 minutes. You just started Thorazine, the antipsychotic, so we'll leave that as is for now. That should show results in 1 to 2 weeks. If not, we'll increase it. Is Beatrice still here?"

Wirt looked to his right. "Yeah, though I don't know for how long. Last time for about a day."

"While I believe Beatrice is a positive influence on you and is helping you to cope, it's my opinion that you should be seeing a professional therapist. Once a week would be best. There are a few in town, one I know who specializes in teens and young adults." He notice Wirt's sour look. "Talking to strangers about your problems doesn't seem appealing, but therapy is highly conducive to recovery from mental illness."

Wirt made a face at 'mental illness'.

"I know a lot of people tend to think that your brain just decides to mess with you, but it's a legitimate, biological, psychological problem. In depression, it's the lack of serotonin and norepinephrine. In anxiety, the overproduction of cortisol. In schizophrenia, the overabundance of dopamine."

Perking up at the last example, the teen asked, "Is that what I have then? Schizophrenia?"

"I'd say schizoaffective disorder. It's related to schizophrenia in that it has the same symptoms, the hallucinations, delusions, self-isolation, et cetera, but it also features symptoms of certain mood disorders. In your case, symptoms of major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder. The lack of interest in hobbies, low mood, constant worry, loss of appetite…"

"So I have 3 things wrong with me in a single package." Wirt's mouth became a hard line.

"I'd put more as one diagnosis that affects multiple aspects of your life. But this is something that you can work through."

Wirt's desire to be upset was promptly stopped by a punch in the arm by Beatrice. He yelped slightly and shot her a look.

"Knock it off, you sourpuss. That's a positive thing!" She put her hands on her hips and leaned down a but to glare back.

Wirt repeated for the room, "She said 'knock it off, sourpuss. It's a positive thing' And she punched my arm."

Dr. Walters gave a chuckle and said, "She does have a point. But this does lead me to a theory of sorts."

"Theory of what?" Wirt didn't know where this was going.

"I believe that Beatrice and The Beast are manifestations of opposite forces of your self-confidence, or are at least connected to it. As you said before, everything The Beast says to you, you in some form have said to yourself. Thus, acting aggressively toward The Beast may be making him more aggressive in turn, as it becomes a cycle of negativity within yourself. Beatrice could be your mind's way of trying to self-repair."

"Then what am I supposed to do? Ignoring him just makes him more incessant."

"I'll send your parents some information on practices you can try. To help you break the cycle. It's too lengthy to get into at the moment."

"Okay."

"For now, just enjoy your visit with Beatrice. She seems to be good company."

Wirt snorted at Beatrice's grin. "Careful, it'll go to her head."

"I'll put your prescription in with the pharmacy here. You'll get the Prozac tonight with your Thorazine, and the nurses will hold onto your Xanax for if you need it. I thank you for being honest with me, Wirt, and thank Beatrice for encouraging it."

Beatrice looked uncomfortable and remarked, "Oh, that's weird, being talked to."

Wirt agreed, nodding. "She said it's weird being talked to."

The psychiatrist gave a laugh. "Now this was a productive meeting. Does anyone have any questions for me?"

There was a pause, and then, "What can we do to help him stop cutting?" his mother asked.

"Wirt needs to find another means of dealing with those negative emotions. While his usual creative outlets are hampered because of the depressive aspect of his illness, I think he should continue was he was doing before, the walking. In this case, it acts as a distraction against the urge to self-harm."

His stepfather's turn for a question, "And how should be handle his- what did you call them, Wirt, visitors?" The teen nodded.

"Well, Wirt, would it be accurate to say that you've been self-isolating so that you can easily talk with your visitors?"

"Yeah, I have," he replies, "Easier to hide in your room and talk out loud that ignore them."

"So I think that, to reduce his isolation, which will help improve his depressive symptoms, I propose that Wirt be allowed to freely talk to his visitors at home."

Both Wirt and his parents are surprised.

"Um, won't that be kind of.... awkward?" Wirt supplied, wary of the idea.

His step dad responded as well, "I don't want him getting into the habit-"

Snapping at his parent, Wirt retorted, "Hey, I think I've been pretty damn good at not talking back around people this whole time, thank you very much."

His mother gave a warning, "Wirt…"

"It's more so that he has a place where he doesn't have to keep it in," The doctor interrupted. "At school or anywhere else, he has to work to manage an image of normalcy to his peers. At home, he'll be able to relax, not have to keep up the pretenses, and recharge mentally and emotionally."

"But what do I say to Greg?" Wirt asked quietly, "I don't want him thinking… I dunno. I don't want to worry him."

"I honestly think telling him a straightforward but simplified version of what you've been going through is your best bet. Young children are astonishingly understanding and perceptive."

"Yeah, I told him my brain was sick the other day and he offered me soup to make it feel better." He gave a small smile.

"I'd say that's a good sign then."

"Am I going to have to stay longer because of what happened last night?" He really want a fan of this place.

"No. While you did purposely harm yourself, you didn't make an attempt on your own life, so you're free to go tomorrow morning."

With no more questions, Dr. Walters said his goodbyes and headed out. An uneasy moment of quiet passed.

Beatrice broke Wirt's silence. "Well, this is sure going to be a hoot and a half."

Wirt turned to his parents. "Um, should I pass on what Beatrice says when she's here, or…?" He trailed off.

"If you want to, I guess," his mom offered.

"Then, she said, 'Well, this is sure going to be a hoot and a half.'"

His stepfather scoffed, "It sure is."

He was unsure of his step dad's tone, but he let it slide.

"Do y-you two have any questions for me?"

There was a pause before his mother said, "I just want to know why. Why did you hide this from us for so long? I mean, there were some signs, the hiding away in your room, the random walks, how tired you looked. But why did it take something this extreme happening for us to find out it was something this huge? And what sets you off? Are we going to have to walk in eggshells around you, afraid you're going to hurt yourself if we get into an argument?"

"I was afraid, mom!" he half-shouted. "I was afraid of everyone's reactions! I'm already thinking all the time that people secretly hate me, I don't want to do anything that might confirm that! I don't want to be the nutter that talks to people who aren't there, who hurts himself because he can't handle things, or because his head-voice makes him. I don't want to draw attention to myself, let alone make myself into a basketcase."

Beatrice muttered toward him, "All wanting to hide did was make you more miserable."

"You shush."

Sharply, his step dad asked, "No, what did she say?"

"That wanting to hide just made me more miserable."

"She has a point," his mom said, crossing her arms.

Wirt laughed to himself, "Don't you mean I have a point?" He smirked, but seeing no one else was amused, he looked down. "Well, I thought it was funny at least…"

"I don't think this is really something to laugh about," his stepfather replied.

"Uh, psych ward gallows humor?" Getting no reaction, he decided to change the subject. "How's Greg been. Is he sick at all?"

His mom said, "He's fine. Just a bit if a cough from the water, but it's going away fast."

"Good, good." Guilt sank into his chest anyway.

Beatrice tried to help him, saying, "It's not your fault. You couldn't have predicted this happening."

"Yeah, but what if it happens again?" He brought up his hands, wringing his fingers.

She shrugged. "We'll deal with it if it does. No use worrying about something you can't control beforehand."

"But what if it happens in school, and people-"

"Wirt, quit worrying! We'll deal with it if it does. That's all we can do."

"Fine, fine." He huffed and dropped his hands in his lap.

"That's going to take some getting used to," his momentarily forgotten mother noted.

Starting, he replied. "S-sorry, I, uh, I just-"

"Don't worry, hun. We'll manage."

There was a knock on the door frame, breaking the moment. Wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, Tam leaned into the room.

"Wirt! I'm going home!" he beamed. "No more hospital gown for me!"

"Oh, nice! Uh, this is Tam," Wirt offered to his parents. "He came in the day before me. We've been hanging out. Tam, these are my parents."

"Hello! Nice to meet you. I gotta steal Wirt for a sec, alright? I just wanna talk with him."

"Sure," his step dad answered.

Wirt grabbed his crutches and followed Tam out into the hall.

"So, dude," Tam begins, voice conspiratorial, "you gotta tell me what happened last night. I saw the nurse rushing all over and someone with a cart come in."

"I had to get stitches. He got to me again..."

"How the hell did you manage that? I've been itching to cut since I got here."

"Um, I, uh… I stole a pencil from the nurse's station and, um… stabbed my leg... f-four times."

Tam was taken aback. "Jesus, Wirt, you really were desperate."

"Yeah, I wouldn't recommend it…"

"Did he leave after?" Wirt nodded at him. "Well, that's good at least. But look, I gotta go, my folks are waiting out front. It was nice hanging with you."

"You, too." Wirt offered a smile. "Stay safe…?"

"Try my best. And you too, no pencils for you."

Wirt chuckled and watched the boy walk down the hall and around a corner, before returning back to his room.

Soon after some more awkward quiet, Wirt parents left as well. Beatrice, on the other hand, stuck around for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon.

It was late that afternoon when he got a flesh-and-blood visitor.

"Wirt?" Sara's upper half poked through the mostly open curtain-door.

"Sara? S- Sara! Oh! I- I wasn't expecting you to visit." Wirt quickly shut his book and tossed it onto the table.

"Oooo, two girls in your room? You're such a fox, Wirt," Beatrice teased from the chair to his left.

The black girl sat at the foot of his bed, dropping her backpack on the ground by her feet. "I wanted to see how you were doing. You didn't miss much in science today."

"O-oh, that's good." He tucked his crossed legs further in, hoping she wouldn't see the blood on his cast.

"I thought you'd be in the main part of the hospital." She looked around, noting all the locks on the cabinets. "What are you doing in the psychiatric wing?"

"Uhh…" Please don't make me answer…

"Something to do with what happened on Halloween?"

"You should tell her!" Beatrice chirped up. "She can be a confidante when I'm not there!"

Wirt tried to ignore Beatrice, but in turn, also ended up ignoring Sara.

"Uh, Wirt?" Sara pressed.

"What? Oh, sorry. Uh, yes, Halloween. It has to do with Halloween."

"Can you tell me? You really scared me back there, when I got you and Greg out of the pond. You were talking nonsense."

Bringing his fidgeting fingers to his chest, he replied with a squeaky whimper.

Beatrice sat forward in her chair. "Tell her! She can help you!"

"Wirt," Sara grabbed his hands, holding them tight. "I promise that if it is something so serious that you are afraid to tell me, I will tell no one and I will help you in whatever way I can." Her staring eyes shone with determination.

Wirt caved. "You won't tell a-anyone…?"

"I swear it."

Wirt sighed. "Halloween was the climax of a series of events that have been going for the past year."

"Okay…? I'm gonna need more to go on than that."

His hands shook inside hers. "I'm… I have schizophrenia. Well, schizoaffective disorder. It's like if depression and anxiety we're combined with schizophrenia." He looked at her, steeling himself for her reaction.

"Oh."

A moment passed between them. "You're… you're not freaking out…?"

"What? No! I'm not the one who has it, why would I be the one freaking out." She released his hands.

"Because I'm a freak who sees and hears things that aren't there?"

"Well, yeah, that's different, but it's no reason for me to run away screaming. It's not like you're going to randomly sock somebody in the face right?"

"No! Of course not!"

"Well, no worries then."

"See," said Beatrice gently, "that wasn't so bad."

Sara glanced between Wirt and where his eyes were looking. "Um, are you seeing something now?"

"Um I, she, uh…" He floundered.

"She?"

"Y- yeah…" He looked down at is hands. "Her name is Beatrice."

"That's a nice name. What's she look like?" Sara looked genuinely curious, to Wirt's relief.

Striking a pose in her chair, Beatrice said dramatically, "Tell her I'm like a Grecian goddess, pale like marble, with hair of fire."

"Um… she's a redhead. Lots of freckles. Wearing a blue dress. Think Of Pride and Prejudice. A little taller and older than me."

"Boo, you're no fun."

He pfffted a laugh.

Confused, Sara asked, "She talking to you? There was a big pause and then you laughed."

Wirt felt his face get red. "Yeah, um, she said to say that she was," he raised his hands for air quotes, "'like a Grecian goddess, pale like marble and hair of fire', and then called me no fun when I didn't.

Sara's laugh brightened his room.

His responding smile faded too quickly, though. "But she isn't the reason I'm in here. I guess I'll start from the beginning… Um, last year, November..."

Sara sat patiently as Wirt spin together the events of the past 12 months. The self-harm, Beatrice, The Beast, Halloween...

"-and then I could take it anymore so I hurt myself again. Beatrice came to visit this morning-"

Before he knew it, Sara had him wrapped in a solid hug, arms around his shoulders, holding tight.

"Oh Wirt, I'm so sorry!" she said into his neck as she squeezed. "You shouldn't have to go through all this- wait." She suddenly let go, but held onto his upper arms. "I have an idea! Do you have your phone?"

The pink faded from his face. "No, I think I left it at home when I… when I had my episode on Halloween."

"Okay, that's fine." She pulled a notebook and pen from her backpack, tearing out a hunk of a page.Pulling her phone from her pocket, she unlocked and handed it to Wirt. "Give me your number."

He typed it into the phone, making a new contact for himself. The piece of paper, now accompanied by writing, was shoved in front of the screen.

"And here's my number." Sara took back her phone and dropped it on the bed, and replaced her hands on Wirts arms, tone intense. "Wirt, I need you too make me a promise."

"Um...okay?"

"No, this is serious. I want you to swear to me. Swear that when things feel shitty, you are going to call me or text me, no matter what time of day. And I will swear to you in return that I will be there for you. When you get home, text me your address, in case I need to go over there and hug you or patch you up or just sit with you until the sun rises. You got me?"

Wirt replied, a little watery, "Yeah, I got you. I- I promise."

"And I promise." She gave his torso a small shake of affirmation.

"Well, good," Beatrice chimed in, "This makes my job easier."

Sara took away her hands as Wirt gave a wet laugh. "What?" she asked.

He sniffed. "Beatrice said, 'Well, this makes my job easier.'"

"I'm glad to help her. I'm glad to help you, Wirt."

"I really appreciate it, Sara." He rubbed his face with his hands.

"Never a problem."

A moment passed quietly, but not uncomfortably, until Wirt groaned, looking at the ceiling.

"What's wrong," Sara asked.

"I bet I'm the talk of the town, aren't I…"

"Not gonna lie, there are some rumors going around."

"Like what? That I was possessed by the devil or something? Maybe witches?"

"No, nothing that bad, though one girl said you might be taken over by a ghost. I'm surprised no one suggested witches, seeing as we're so close to Salem."

Wirt snorted.

"A lot of kids thought you had some kind of seizure. Your brother insists that your brain is just sick, but can't explain how."

"Yeah, that's what I told him yesterday, 'My brain is sick'. I'm gonna have to explain a 6 year old version when I go home tomorrow morning." He dreaded that very much, still with no ideas on what to say to his little brother."

"You coming to school?"

"No, my required 72 hours ends around 10, so I'd be late anyway. Plus, I'd like time back at home first. I need to figure out how I'm going to answer people's questions."

"You know you don't have to, right? Just be like," she brought up her hand to make a puppet, "'Yeah I was at the hospital for a few days, and it's none of your damn business why.'"

Wirt chuckled. "I don't have that kind of courage. I'll probably end up stuttering at them until they go away."

"Defense mechanism, I like it! Like a rattle snake's tail!"

Wirt gave a wholehearted laugh, and Sara beamed in return.

Beatrice laughed as well and said, "Looks like she's doing her job well already."

He looked her way, but only saw the chair she'd been sitting in. Dread dropped into his stomach.

Seeing the fear on his face, Sara leaned toward him. "What's wrong? What'd she say?"

"'Looks like she's doing her job well already', in reference to how you made me laugh. But when I looked, she was gone."

"Okay, well how long does she usually stick around? Does she have a pattern?" She figured that thinking logically would be the best solution.

"Yeah, she's usually visits soon after when the The Beast leaves She stays for around a day, and then I'm left with an empty house until The Beast comes again. But because he's been visiting more often, she's had less time. And if she's left already-"

"Wirt, Wirt, there no use freaking out yet! Just take a deep breath, you're okay right now. Focus on right now."

He took a shaky breath. "You and Beatrice has some oddly similar advice."

"Well good, maybe you'll listen to it."

"Pfft, and attitudes."

Sara laughed, but was halted by her cell phone ringing. She glanced at the screen and answered.

"Hey Dad… I'm visiting my friend at the hospital… Yeah, the one from Halloween, Wirt…" She turned to him. "Dad says he hopes you're feeling better." He gave her a weak thumbs-up, and she returned to her phone. "Yeah, he's doing better. He's going home tomorrow morning… Okay, I'll wrap up here and be home in like half and hour?... Okay… Alright, love you too… Bye." The phone booped as she hung up.

"Parents dragging you back?"

"Yep, so it's time to hit the trails again." Sara stood and grabbed her things. "You going to be okay? Without Beatrice?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine. Get some reading done for once, instead of having to read the same paragraph over and over because of someone interrupting." He offered a small laugh.

"And you okay without me? Seeing as you don't have your phone?"

"I think so," He said as he rubbed his neck. "If things get bad, I can use the nurse phone."

Pointing at him, she affirmed, "You swear?"

"I swear."

"Good." She hugged him again, even harder than the last time. "Text me as soon as you find your phone tomorrow. I can sneak-text you in class. And I'll keep the rumor mill quiet for you."

Wirt returned his gaze to his hands. "Really though, thank you, I really don't deserve-"

"Hey! You need a friend, you got one. Don't overanalyze it."

He looked up with half a smile. "It's my nature."

"Yeah well, your nature sucks and needs to chill out."

"Well, I literally have chill pills now so…" he said, with a smirk.

"There ya go." She snickered. "I'll see you in a couple days. Take it easy, and don't forget to text me."

"WIll do. See ya later."

"See ya."

As his new friend left, he took a deep breath, and flopped backwards in his bed.

He buried his face under his hands. "Please let my house stay empty…"

And thankfully, he was alone in his mind through the night.

Chapter Text

After packing his few things, signing paperwork, and picking up prescriptions, Wirt and his mother made it back home around 11 am. He collapsed face first into the couch he would have walked past on his way through the living room. His sigh reverberated through the springs under him.

 

“Nope, get up,” his mom said, interrupting his slow melt into the cushions. “First, up to your room.”

 

“‘hy?” he asked through the fabric.

 

“You have a few things to give me, before I can trust you alone in your room again.”

 

Oh… A moment passed as guilt nestled into the hollow of his chest. He pulled himself up. Grabbing his crutches, he let his mom lead the way upstairs.

 

She waited by the door while he pulled the shoebox from under his bed. Inside rattled bandages, medical tape, a pack of razors from the kitchen scraper, and a couple folded wads of toilet paper. He passed it to her as he sat on the bed, crutches on the comforter behind him.

She peeked inside. “Anything thing else sharp in here?”

 

He glanced at his table and spotted a flash of metal. “Scissors,” he monotoned.

 

She plucked them from the cup they’d been sitting in and held them on top of the shoebox. Passing her eyes around the room, and noting the state of mess it was in, she raised an eyebrow. “I want you to take it easy today, but maybe you should work on cleaning your room…?” She both suggested and commanded him in the way only mothers seemed to be able to do.

 

“Sure…”

 

“I’ll come check up on you in a bit. You want anything to eat?”

 

“I’m good for now, thanks.” He picked at his fingers, avoiding her eyes.

 

“Okay…” She turned to leave but hesitated. “...I love you, Wirt.”

 

“Love you, too, Mom.” He stilled refused to look up from his hands.

 

Pausing one last time, she walked away down the hallway, leaving the door open.

 

Wirt sighed as he heard her descend the staircase.

 

He wondered what his mom must be thinking, carrying a box of things she knew he son used to purposefully cause himself pain. Did she think she failed him? Or that he failed her? How much had his breakdown cost his parents in hospital bills? In shrinks and stitches? The guilt in his chest grew larger, pushing against his ribcage.

 

He sighed again, more forceful, and rubbed his face with his hands. Well, the least he could do was clean up his room.

 

It took him a couple hours, mainly due to maneuver the space with a bum leg, but he managed to clear off his floor and tidy his desk. He even dusted off his collection of clocks over his bed. Lastly, he plopped himself sideways next to the bed to pull any straggling items from under the wooden frame. A couple dust bunnies, a few of Greg’s building blocks, an old sock, but then his fingers brushed against a metal rod. He pulled it out. It was a craft knife, the kind with replaceable, triangular blades and a protective, plastic cap. He tossed a look over his shoulder. His mom was still downstairs. He popped off the cap and tested the knife’s edge on the side of his hand. The quick nick was small enough to be unnoticeable, but started to bead up with red immediately. Replacing the cap, he licked at the cut. With another look behind him, he stashed the knife under his mattress at the head of the bed.

 

---

 

When Wirt came down to the living room at around 2 pm that afternoon, his mother informed him of the afternoon’s events.

“You’ve got your first appointment with with Dr. Simon at 4 today. While you’re there, I’m going to grab something up for dinner and pick you up at 5.”

 

“Wait, who’s Dr. Simon?”

 

“Your therapist. You’ll be seeing her once a week after school.”

 

He sat heavily into the couch, his mom on the armchair next to him. His face turned sour.

 

“You might like her,” she offered. “Dr. Walters recommended her.”

 

“We’ll see.” His tone didn’t lend much to actually seeing, though.

 

An uneasy silence floated in, only somewhat filled by the tv in front of them.

 

The quiet was broken by his mother. “...so, any… visitors today?”

 

He kept his eyes on the screen. “Nope.” He popped the ‘p’.

 

“Well that’s good, at least…”

 

“Depends on who you’re thinking of.” His response was a little to curt.

 

Wirt wasn’t angry at his mother. He was angry at his situation. He’d been doing perfectly well… maybe ‘well’ isn’t the best word? He’d been doing just fine by himself, hiding his condition from everyone and trying desperately to blend into the background as much as possible. If Halloween hadn’t have happened, he’d be sitting in class right now, alright with pretending everything was normal, without a broken ankle, without possibly thousands of dollars in debt being pushed onto his parents shoulders, with her having to babysit him and losing out on making money at work. Instead, now, he was going to have to handle the fallout at school and in town. Everyone already hated him, he knew it, but it was going to be a whole other level of toxicity tomorrow. He wasn’t even sure if he could trust Sara- wait...

 

“Hey, mom? Have you seen my cell phone?”

 

“Oh,” she looked over to him. “It’s in the kitchen, in a jar of rice. You had it in your pocket when…”

 

“Um, I got… Wonder if it works.” He pushed himself up and took a crutch with him to the next room. The device seemed dry enough when he pulled it out of the rice, along with the battery and SIM card. The water detection sticker was bright red now. He prayed that it would work as he reassembled it. Miracuously, the screen lit up, displaying the manufacturer. Wirt let out a whispered “Yes!” and he hobbled back to the couch.

 

“Still work?” his mother asked.

 

“Surprisingly.”

 

As his phone finished loading, he noticed 3 new texts from an unknown number. He opened the message thread.

 

November 1 - 5:07 pm

Hey Wirt its Sara, just testing the number. Text me when you get this :)

 

November 2 - 9:23 am

When did you say you were getting out again?

 

12:17 pm

Don’t forget to text me when you get home and find your phone ya butt

 

Wirt quickly added Sara’s number as a contact before typing out a reply.

 

1:37 pm

Hey, Sara! I’m home and settled now. My phone managed to survive my swim in the pond, thank goodness. You don’t have to text me back right away if you’re in class. I don’t want you getting in trouble.

 

He barely had any time between putting down his phone and it bzztbzzt ing at him.

 

1:38 pm

Nah class is boring anyways. Hows the brain feeling

 

1:38 pm

I’m doing okay. No visitors yet today. I have therapy, apparently, at 4. Not really looking forward to it.

 

1:39 pm

A lot of people go to therapy so it must do something right

 

1:40 pm

I guess. I’m just not looking forward to talking to a stranger about all of my ‘deep, dark secrets’.

 

1:41 pm

Gotta let those closet skeletons breath man

 

The back and forth went on until Sara was in 8th period, where the teacher had a very strict ‘no phones’ policy. He stayed with his mother, looking at but not watching the tv for a while until his stepfather and brother came home together around 3:00.

 

Greg burst into the house first with a shout, “Brother o’ mine!” He ran to Wirt at full tilt, dropping his backpack along the way, and jumped onto his older brother’s lap.

 

Wirt bit back a curse as he felt his stitches tug and tear the skin under his jeans. “Off off off !” He bit his bottom lip and his hands pressed onto his thigh.

 

“I’m sorry! What did I do?!” Greg scrambled off as fast as he could. “I was just excited to see you! Did I hurt you?”

 

“Honey, are you okay?” His mother asked as she go up from her seat.

 

“Just- Just give me a second.” He took a couple of breaths before pulling himself onto a crutch. “I’m just going to see if I pulled a stitch out or anything,” he explained as he made his way to the bathroom and shut the door, clicking the lock.

 

He gently pulled down his jeans to his knees and sat on top of the toilet seat. Blood spotted the gauze, but nothing too bad, it seemed. Undoing the wrapping, he got a full look of the injury for the first time since he caused it. A blue, fist-size bruise surrounded the cluster of stitches, raised with inflammation. Each puncture was topped with a black ‘X’, with more pulling together the rips in between. Blood oozed out of the most bulging area, probably the deepest hole in his flesh.

 

He slapped on a new gauze pad and wrapped his leg with paper medical tape. Looking at the stabbed skin was made him nauseated, his chest a mix of hot shame and anger. Righting his clothes, he exited the bathroom.

 

Greg was waiting right outside the door so ambush him with an apology.

 

“Wirt! I’m so sorry! I didn’t know you were hurt! Did you get hurt when we fell in the pond? I’m sorry I jumped on you! I won’t do it agai-”

 

“Greg, Greg,” Wirt soothed, “It’s okay. I’m okay. You didn’t know, and I should have told you earlier. It-” Well, it’s now or… or I’m going to be wigging out about it until I actually tell him. He sighed for what felt like the billionth time today. “It’s not from when we fell in the pond.”

 

Greg looked confused. “Then when did you get it?”

 

One more sigh. “Come over to the couch so I can sit down with you. I’ll explain everything.”

 

Their parents stayed quiet as the two sat next to each other on the couch. Wirt tucked his legs up to his chest, leaning against the sofa’s back to face his brother. He took a minute to collect his thoughts.

 

“So, Greg,” he began, “what do you remember from Halloween?”

 

“Um, well, we walked a lot, and you talked a lot, but not to me. We saw Sara at the party. She was a skeleton clown. We didn’t stay at the party though, cuz we walked some more. Then we got to the cemetery and climbed the wall and fell down the hill cuz a train came. And then we fell in the pond.”

 

“Do you know why I wouldn’t talk to you?” Greg shook his head. “It’s because I wasn’t seeing this world. I was seeing a place called The Unknown. It was like I was visiting it, but only my mind could go. My body just followed my mind along.”

 

“But if only your mind went to The Unknown, how did it get there? How did it come back?”

 

Wirt took a breath. “You know how I said my brain was sick? Well, the kind of illness my brain has makes me see things or hear things that aren’t there. It also makes me really sad or scared at times. On Halloween, it made me visit The Unknown, but that was the first time I ever went there. Usually, I have two people who visit me instead who are from The Unknown.”

 

Greg looked a little confused. “Then how come I’ve never met them?”

 

“Only I can see them, Greg. But I know you’d like Beatrice. She was a bluebird, but I helped turn her back into a human.”

 

“Being a bird sounds fun! Why didn’t she want to be a bird?”

 

“She and her family were cursed to be birds because she made a magical bluebird angry.”

 

“And what about the other one?”

 

Wirt hesitated. “He’s... called The Beast. You wouldn’t like him. I really don’t like him.”

 

“Well if you don’t like him, he must be a bad guy. Why don’t you like him?”

 

“He, um… He says really mean things to me, about myself and other people, and he makes me do things that I don’t want to do.”

 

“Like what?”

 

He hugged his knees. “...He gets me to hurt myself,” he muttered. “When I was in the hospital, he got me to hurt myself pretty bad on my leg. That’s why it hurt a lot when you jumped on me. I had to get stitches, and they’re still healing.”

 

“I know Mom says that violence is wrong, you should hurt him instead. Give him the ol’ one-two!”

 

Wirt chuckled. “Oh, I’ve tried hitting him, but because he’s from The Unknown, I can’t touch him.”

 

“Why don’t you just ignore him then? You can stuff up your ears or try hiding somewhere.”

 

“I’ve tried, but the more I ignore him, the louder he gets and the meaner he gets. The only way he’ll leave me alone is if I hurt myself.”

 

His little brother hmm ed. “Well, I’m sure we’ll some way to beat The Beast! Beatrice can stay, though. She seems nicer.”

 

“My new doctor, Dr. Walters, is having me take some medicine everyday to see if it will make The Beast go away. And it will hopefully stop me from visiting The Unknown again and getting hurt. Dr. Walters is the one who trying to fix my illness.”

 

“What’s it called? I wanna look it up on the computer and learn some stuff about it! To see if I can help!”

 

“If… If Mom says that’s okay… its called schizoaffective disorder.”

 

“Skips-oh-reflective disorder.”

 

“Skih-tzoh-uh-fek-tiv.”

 

His brother tried again and gave up halfway. “I’m sure Mom or Dad know it, so they can type it into the computer for me.”

 

“I’m sure they’ll help you look things up. I can tell you some things, too.”

 

Wirt looked up as someone cleared their throat from the doorway.

 

“We have to get going, hun,” his mom said.

 

“Where ya going?” Greg bounced as he asked. “Can I come?”

 

Their mom ruffled the younger one’s hair. “Sorry, but this a special appointment for Wirt. I’ll be grabbing dinner while he’s there. Any suggestions, boys?”

 

“Pizza!” Greg jumped off the couch and threw his tiny fists in the air.

 

Wirt got up with less enthusiasm. “I’m good with whatever,” he muttered as he grabbed his crutches. He wasn’t feeling hungry, even after skipping lunch.

 

The car ride to the the therapist was a short one, but just long enough for things to get uneasy between him and his mother.

 

“Y’know,” his mother tried to start a conversation, “I did get a chance to talk to Dr. Simon on the phone. She seems nice.”

 

Wirt continued his silent staring out of the passenger window.

 

She sighed. “I know this is going to seem weird at first, but once you get to know each other a bit, it’ll be more comfortable.”

 

It wasn’t the fact that he was uncomfortable with talking to a random stranger about his ‘problems’ - well, he was uncomfortable, but that wasn’t the main issue. It was that he didn’t need another person to worry about whether he was crazy. The whole school thought he was already, he made sure of that on Halloween. He wanted to mitigate the situation as much as he could, meaning the less people that knew, the better.

 

He decided to at least offer some kind of response. “I don’t want to talk to anybody about this.”

 

“Well, don’t you talk to Beatrice about these kinds of things.”

 

“That’s because she’s already in on everything. I don’t need to out myself to her.”

 

“I believe Dr. Walters has been in touch with Dr. Simon, at least enough to give her some background on you.”

 

Great, so she already knows I’m crazy. Wirt didn’t reply out loud.

 

The car pulled up to a small, brick office building just off of Main Street. His mom put it in park.

 

“At least give it a wholehearted try, okay? I’ll be back in an hour to pick you up.”

 

Wirt nodded and gathered up his crutches, exiting the car. The window rolled down as he shut the door.

 

His mom leaned over to see him out of the window. “Love you, Wirt. See you soon.”

 

“Love you, too.” He turned and made his way into the building.

 

A large directory greeted him on the wall of the foyer. Scanning the list, he found Dr. Simon’s office was room 204. He headed to the elevator.

 

The sitting area was empty when he entered. To Wirt, the room seemed like a strange combination for a doctor’s waiting room and someone’s living room. Personal, but still too clinical. He sat down in one of the chairs edging the room in clusters. Each periwinkle wall had a short bookcase, filled with everything from children’s stories to clinical textbooks. He held his crutches between his knees, wiggling his feet in a fidget. He glanced at the clock on the bookcase across from him. 3:56 pm.

 

Jumping at the sound of a door opening, Wirt turned to see a mother and preteen exit the conjoining room, trading goodbyes with a middle-aged woman. The two clients left through the door he had come in from.

 

The apparent therapist beckoned him in. “You’re my new 4 o’clock, right? I’m Dr. Simon.”

 

He stood up. “Hi, uh, I’m Wirt Palmer.”

 

“Nice to meet you Wirt. Come on in.”

 

The session room was much more personable compared to the larger waiting area. It was split in half by a coffee table, one side having a 3 cushion couch for the patients, and a computer desk and padded swivel chair for the practitioner. The teen sat half on two cushions, crutches leaning on the other half of the couch. Is she going to psychoanalyze on where I sit on the sofa?

 

Dr. Simon sat in the swivel chair a non-claustrophobic distance from him, notepad and pen in hand. She pulled a file from her desk and opened it.

 

“So, how have you been lately, Wirt? Seems you’ve had an exciting few days.”

 

Wirt looked down and fiddled with his hands. “...I guess.”

 

“Dr. Walters has told me some things about you, but I’d like to get your perspective on things first.” She replaced the file. “What do you think is the biggest problem you’re facing right now?”

 

Okay, getting right into it, I see. “Um… Probably the schizophrenic stuff…”

 

“What specifically about it?”

 

Ughhhh… “My one visitor.”

 

“And what about them do you find hardest to deal with?”

 

“...His...rules.” I really don’t want to talk about this right off the bat.

 

“You mean what he says you have to do to get him to leave.”

 

Wirt nodded.

 

“And what happens when you ignore his demands? Have you tried that in the past?”

 

“Of course I’ve tri-” He snapped off his snide remark with a huff. “Yes, I’ve tried ignoring him. But he just gets louder to the point that I can’t hear anything else. The things he says get more hateful. I tend to avoid doing what he wants for as long as I can, but it just gets to a point that my head feels like it's gonna explode and my heart's being strangled.”

 

She took down some notes. “And what of Beatrice? How do you feel about her?”

 

Wirt relaxed a little at the topic change. “I like her. She helps me out after The Beast visits. Dr. Walters said she might be some part of my mind trying to self-repair. Makes sense, I guess.”

 

“Do you agree with Dr. Walters?”

 

“I don't know. She's such a different person from me that I can't really see her coming from me. Same with The Beast.”

 

“You did mention to Dr. Walters that what The Beast has said to you during his visits, you’ve said to yourself in the past…”

 

“But he's got a different motive, a different tone. I say it out of frustration. He says it out of pure malice.”

 

The therapist hmm ed. “Let's shift gears for a minute. You were hiding this from everyone for a while before the episode on Halloween, correct?”

 

“Yeah…”

 

“Can you explain why?”

 

Wirt hugged himself. “Because I didn't want people to know. Because people would react poorly.”

 

“Poorly how?

 

“Like, they might think I'm dangerous. Or that don't belong in general society anymore.”

 

“So you're afraid of the stigma your illness faces currently?”

 

“Yeah, but it's more than that. I mean, I already think people are faking liking me. Like, Sara pulled me and Greg out of the pond, visited me in the hospital, and made me promise to contact her when things got bad, but I still can't believe that she isn't out to get me! That she’s not  just getting close to hurt me worse later. Part of me knows that's absurd, but it can't stop feeling it. I'm dreading going to school tomorrow because I don't want to face what rumors are going around or have to answer people's questions. The stigma is just fuel for the train of thought.”

 

“Unfortunately, you’re illness is what's driving that line of thinking. You're just going to have to trust that people are better than that.”

 

He grumbled in response.

 

“Sara seems like a nice girl, though. Does she go to school with you?”

 

“Yeah, she's in my grade.”

 

“What brought on her having you make that promise you mentioned?”

 

“When she visited me in the hospital, she didn't know why I was in the psych ward. She must have thought I was recovering from nearly drowning. I explained everything and… instead of freaking out, she hugged me and made me promise to talk to her. Said she wanted to help…”

 

“Are you surprised by her reaction?”

 

Wirt leaned back into the sofa. “Yeah, I am. I mean, I don't know her that well, only a bit from shared classes. Just someone spontaneously deciding to help out someone like me doesn't make much sense.”

 

“Someone like you? What do you mean but that?” She continued to write on her pad.

 

He froze, feeling like a whitetail in headlights. What did he mean by that? “I guess I mean… th- the only thing special about me is what wrong with me. So, is it just that she pities me, or does she actually care? My head wants to say the first, but I really hope it's the second. But when I run through it in my head, it feels like she just has an obligation. She saved me from drowning, now she has to keep cleaning up the mess. She-” The phone in is pocket vibrated. A quick look said who the text was from. “-she actually just texted me. Speak of the devil…”

 

“Well, she appeared, so what does it say?”

 

His eyes scanned the screen.

 

“Just a continuation of an early conversation. And checking in on me. I mentioned I had my first therapy session today.”

 

“Well, I'd say that's pretty kind of her.”

 

He looked at the screen again and gave a small smile.

 

The rest of the session continued in a similar fashion, bouncing around topics as they came up. Wirt left the building in better spirits than when he entered.

 

Until he saw The Beast stalking him from across the street.

 

He didn't talk first. He always talks first. Wirt's heart leapt into his throat.

 

His mom’s car pulled up to the curb, and he couldn’t get in fast enough. She noticed the too tight grip on his crutches and the too wide eyes decidedly staring straight ahead.

 

“Wirt, you okay, honey?” she asked. “You look pale.”

 

“Ye a h,” his voice cracked in his reply, so he cleared his throat. “Yeah. Th- The Beast just showed up and startled me. I- I’ll be okay.”

 

His mother shifted the car into drive. “If you say so…”

 

As they drove off, Wirt looked over his shoulder, happy to find only a couple of pizza boxes in the backseat.

 

“One with cheese, one with sausage,” she commented. His mother must have thought he had looked back because of the smell of the food. Even with only eating a small bit of breakfast, his stomach didn’t seem to care.

 

It’s a shame. I really like sausage pizza… He turned back to face front again.

 

“So, how was your first session with Dr. Simon? I don’t need to know specifics, that’s between you and her.”

 

“Um, she was nice. We talked about a lot of different things. We didn’t stay on one topic for long. I think she didn’t want to upset me on the first session.”

 

“To ease you into it, I guess.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

There was a minute of quiet. The radio played some hit from the mid-2000s in the background.

 

As they pulled up to a red light, his mom looked his way. “So… would you be against seeing her again next week? We can change the time or day if you want.”

 

He met her eye. “I, um, I wouldn’t be against it. I know Dr. Walters wants me to see a therapist, and she seems alright…”

 

“Good, I’m glad.” The light changed and they drove off.

 

The rest of the drive was spent in mostly comfortable silence. When they pulled into the driveway, his mom shut off the car and turned to him. “Remember, If you need to talk to your ‘visitor’, you don’t need to hide somewhere to do it. We want you to feel comfortable.”

 

The air quotes he could hear around ‘visitor’ created the opposite of comfort. “Umm, we’ll see. Depends on what he talk about, at least.”

 

She seemed to accept that, leaving the car and grabbing the food from the backseat. The were met inside by Greg’s eager bouncing. “Woohoo! Pizza!” he shouted, before speeding to the kitchen.

 

“Greg,” their mother called to the bundle of energy, “go get your father first!”

 

The child zipped out of the kitchen and up the stairs, leaving the other two to prep the table. Wirt pulled plates out of the cabinet and set them on the counter, next to where his mom left the pizza boxes. He then grabbed the red pepper flakes from the spice rack by the stove for his step dad. His mom cut a slice of cheese pizza in half longways from Greg before grabbing two slices of her own and heading to the table. Wirt leaned his crutches in the corner by the doorway and got himself a piece of sausage, making his way gently to the table. Greg and his step dad followed in shortly.

 

Wirt knew his stomach was empty. He knew that he hadn’t eaten nearly enough that day for Greg , let alone a teenager. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to do much more than pick the crumbles of meat of his meal.

 

“Oh, Wirt, you should take your medication after dinner. I know the antibiotic needs to be taken with food,” his mom said before taking another bite of pizza.

 

He popped a piece of sausage in his mouth in response. Were the medications even going to do anything? Why even bother if he didn’t know if they were effective? Dr. Walters did say that they might have to try different doses, so why bother with the small ones? But what if the larger doses don’t work? What if The Beast becomes a permanent visitor, pushing Beatrice out? What if The Beast wants him to-

 

“You okay there?” his stepfather asked as Wirt started shaking.

 

“I- I- I-” Wirt stopped himself and huffed out his nose. “I’m okay. Just… Just thinking too much.”

 

Oh, but I was enjoying that train of thought.

 

He froze, squeezing his eyes shut, succeeding in not jumping out of his skin. He relaxed and tore off a chunk of his food, chewing it so he didn’t have to talk to his visitor. He blinked, and The Beast appeared by the dishwasher. Wirt forced himself not to look toward the glowing eyes.

 

Are you going to ignore me now that your family knows? Our little ‘arguments’ are always such fun.

 

Another mouthful of bread and cheese. He tried to listen to his brother chatting about school that day.

 

How was your chat today with the new doctor? Think you’re the most insane kid she’s ever had the displeasure of treating?

 

Wirt rubbed his eyes.

 

Just talk to me, Wirt. They already know you’re mad…

 

The Beast’s voice was getting loud enough that he covered up anyone else who was talking, so the teen didn’t catch his brother’s worried question. Wirt felt a poke in his side, and his head snapped over.

 

“Are you listening?” Greg poked him again. “I asked you if you’re excited to go back to school tomorrow.”

 

Wirt just shrugged. He really didn’t want to think about going back tomorr-

 

But just imagine how people are going to say about you. Do you think Sara has told any-

 

He stood up suddenly, the scrape of his chair drawing his family’s attention.

 

“Sorry, I just- I n-need a minute. There’s just… too much talking happening right now.” He made his way to the living room as quick as his healing leg would allow, before anyone had a chance to ask questions. The Beast followed as he flopped onto the couch, curling up his legs.

 

While unwanted, his visitor did remind him of Sara’s earlier message. He pulled out his phone.

 

5:33 pm

I need a distraction. I have an unwanted visitor.



5:33 pm

He just show up?

 

5:34 pm

Yeah, right after I finished therapy. He was waiting outside.

 

5:34 pm

What a creep >.>

How was therapy?

 

5:35 pm

Fine. She seems nice enough. I’ll see her again next week.

 

5:36pm

Thats great!

 

The Beast continued to prattle on, but texting Sara seemed to be a well enough way to shut him out.

 

His mother leaned against the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. “Do you want the rest of your pizza, hun?”

 

Wirt shook his head.

 

She frowned a little. “Well… make sure you take your medication soon.”

 

He nodded and his phone buzzed at him.

 

“Who’re you talking to?” His mother usually didn’t see him actively using his phone.

 

“Sara. She’s in my grade.”

 

This piqued her interest. “You mean the Sara from Halloween? We need to seriously send her family something. I still can’t believe what she did for you two boys.”

 

Wirt stared at the screen in his hand. “...yeah, me either.”

 

Quite the mistake, I’d say.

 

Wirt flinched as the The Beast struck his heart. A quake rolled up his back.

 

He looked back at home phone. A new text.

 

5:49 pm

Ill be happy to have you back in class. It’s been weird without you here.

 

5:50 pm

I’m not exactly thrilled to be coming back after such an… event, but it’ll be nice to have a routine again. Spending all day sitting around is tremendously boring.

 

5:50 pm

Youll be alright, especially once this all dies down. Need someone to hang out with during lunch?

 

5:51 pm

I usually eat alone, so I’ll be okay. I don’t want to pull you from your friends, really.

 

5:51 pm

NOPE TOO BAD ITS HAPPENING ;)

At least just your first day back. I can beat up anyone who asks too many questions

 

5:52 pm

You are not beating people up in my my name! I can cower in a corner on my own, thank you very much.

 

5:52 pm

Think of me as your knight, sworn to protect you physically and emotionally, as well as protect your honor

 

5:53 pm

Please tell me you haven’t already been “protecting my honor”.

 

5:54 pm

...uhhhhhhhhh

I may have cursed someone out for saying you were possessed by a demon during homeroom today……..

^u^’

 

5:55pm

I’m just going to melt into the couch so I never have to face the world again. Goodbye forever. I am now one with the polyester.

 

5:55 pm

Noooooooo you can’t leave meeeeeeee, fight the fabric! OnO

 

5:56 pm

Youre such a drama queen!!

 

5:57 pm

Wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrt!

 

5:58 pm

Okay, you’ve suffered enough. I’m done being furniture.

 

5:59 pm

Thank goodness, I thought id have to fight ikea to get your soul back

 

After a few more minutes of texting, Sara had to bow out to work on homework. He decided to get up in the meantime and take his medication. He hobbled to the bathroom, regretting leaving his crutches in the kitchen. The three orange bottles stood my the sink, waiting for him. He skimmed their labels.

 

Once a day in the morning, twice a day, twice a day… 20 mg, 125 mg , 50 mg… blue cap, white tab, orange tab… fluoxetine, penicillin, chlorpromazine...

 

Seems like such an awful lot of work just to make you normal again...

 

“Shut it.” Wirt knocked back his pills and stuck his face under the faucet to get a mouthful of water.

 

You’re talking to me again? Couldn’t bare to do it around the family?

 

“Yes, actually. It would be awkward as hell.”

 

Or is it you don’t want to see their faces again when you start talking to the air? Your mother looked so afraid when you did it in the hospital.

 

“Nope. The first one. Go away.” He left the bathroom, heading to the kitchen to retrieve his crutches. Maybe if he just shut him down as quickly as possible, he’ll talk less.

 

Wirt spotted Greg and his step dad at the kitchen table, working on math homework.

 

Best leave them be. You may distract them with your muttering.

 

Wirt paused, then quietly grabbed his crutches and left before he could catch anyone's attention. Once he made his way back to the couch, he replied, “I don't have to answer you all the time, you know.”

 

Your previous actions must have had me mistaken then.

 

He shot a look at the shadow across the room, making a point to not respond.

 

My, you are cute when you're trying to be petty.

 

Unlocking his phone, he ignored The Beast by checking his messages. Nothing from Sara yet.

 

Waiting for your pen pal to write back? You know she’s only giving you attention out of pity. Or because she finds your illness hilarious.

 

“She isn't that cruel… and that's way too much effort to get a couple laughs out of someone's problems.”

 

How would you know what she's like? You've admitted yourself that you barely know her. A few virtual messages a platonic relationship does not make.

 

“We'll just have to disagree, treehead.”

 

The Beast was getting agitated. His form flickered for a moment. You don't talk to me that way, Pilgrim.

 

“I can talk to you however I damn well please. You make me miserable, so I will give as much attitude as I want. So bite me!”

 

Has your little gab session with the good doctor made you forget the nature of our relationship? You are the only one who makes yourself miserable. I just offer the choice. I don't seem to recall myself hiding a certain something under your mattress for later. Stop trying to pretend what always happens won't this time. You copping an attitude won't stop it.

 

The time on his phone said around 7:30. He wondered how early he could force himself to fall asleep.

 

You know that you'll just wake up in the middle of the night like always, and I'll be waiting and ready.

 

Wirt groaned. “You know as well as I do that I can't do that . Everyone is to on alert. They know you're here and what it means when you disappear.

 

I would think they would want their son to stop speaking to nothing as soon as possible, even with the required payment of-sorts.

 

Wirt blanched. “The only person who wants me to hurt myself is you .”

 

And you .

 

Another blow to the heart.

 

The white eyes narrowed with an unseen grin. Sore topic, is it?

 

Wirt rubbed softly on the top of his thighs. “Th- that's different.”

 

Is it really? Either by my influence or your own hand, you still end up bleeding. I'm going to love seeing what your skin looks like in a couple of months. Want to bet on who will cause the most scars?

 

Wirt laid across the couch, covering his face with his arm. Just ignore him, Wirt.

 

Soon, you’ll run out of unmarked skin on your legs, and you’ll have to cut somewhere else. How do you like long sleeved shirts?

 

The air of the breath he took rattled in the empty space of his chest, failing to ease the hurt of The Beast’s words. Thankfully, the bzztbzzt of the phone in his pocket caught his attention.

 

7:40 pm

Homeworks all done, I may freely annoy you now. Dinner was halfway through, thats why it took so long.

 

7:40 pm

What did you have? Greg got his wish for pizza here.

 

7:41 pm

Mom made a casserole and such

How’s the visitor?

 

7:41 pm

Still talking, still being a total nuisance.

 

7:42 pm

Tell him I said he’s a tool

 

Ah, but who’s the one using who, Pilgrim?

 

7:42 pm

He said, “But who’s using who, Pilgrim?”

But that was directed at me. I don’t think I’ve heard him talk directly toward anyone else.

 

7:43 pm

Pilgrim? A nickname for you or something?

 

7:43 pm

Yea, I’m not sure where it came from. He’s only ever calls me that, never my name.

Maybe he thinks on a journey to my own destruction or something.

Don’t want to think about that…

 

7:44 pm

How about we say you’re now on a pilgrimage of recovery :)

 

The girl is as foolish as you are.

 

Wirt shot The Beast an icy glare. “Back off, Beast.”

 

Oh, I can insult you all I want, but as soon as your little friend is involved, you cough up some courage. Maybe I should take aim at her now-

 

He sat up. “I said back off!”

 

Oh, are you going to start throwing things again? Because that always is so effective…

 

As Wirt flopped back down, he received a new message.

 

7:45 pm

Wirt? Ya there?

 

7:46 pm

Sorry, we were having a bit of back and forth. He called you ‘as foolish as [me]’. I got pissed. He threatened to start taking aim at you, and I got more pissed.

 

7:46 pm

Well I cant hear him so he cant bother me :p

Tell him I said he can suck an egg

 

7:47 pm

He’s just kind of staring at me right now, looking annoyed. Not used to 2 vs 1, I guess.

 

The two continued to text into the evening. At some point, Wirt noticed his brother had joined him to watch some pre-bed cartoons, until their mother a told the little one it was time to sleep. Once his brother was settled in, Wirt was joined by his parents, who booted him to the arm chair so they could share the couch. The tv was switched to the nighttime news cycle.

 

Around 11, his parents left for bed and told him to do the same. At 11:30, Sara announced that she’d be going to sleep. At 11:31, Wirt was left to stare at the white orbs floating in his dark room until he fell asleep.

 

---

 

Waking up at 2:15 in the morning hadn’t done anything for the purple under Wirt’s eyes. He turned away from the bathroom mirror and pulled off his pajamas, moving to stand on the scale in the corner. Now 114 pounds, definitely edging the line between ‘lanky teenager’ and ‘that boy needs a sandwich asap’. From this far from the sink, he could see himself from his hipbones up. Too much collarbone, too many ribs. He tugged at his boxers, the waistband a little loose. He made a face of displeasure and tossed them off and into the pile on the floor. He set to work covering his cast with a trash bag and an array of rubber bands. The Beast made a remark about his thinness, but Wirt refused to reply.

 

After having his shower, taking his pills, and getting dressed, he sat at the kitchen table, picking at toast and staring into space while his visitor continued to pester him from the side of his vision. Wirt barely noticed when his brother and parents entered the room.

 

“Good morning, big bro!” Greg’s cheerful tone clashed with Wirt’s exhaustion.

 

The teen gave a small grunt in return.

 

“How’d you sleep, Wirt?” his mother asked from the counter, where she was packing the younger brother’s lunch.

 

“Like crap…” Wirt rubbed his eyes, dry from zoning out. “I’ve been awake since about two.”

 

“Yeesh, are you alright? Are you going to be okay at school?”

 

“Yeah, it just tends to happen when I have a certain visitor. Nothing new for me.”

 

As if I’m the only source of your misery, Pilgrim.

 

“Is he still around today?”

 

Wirt knew exactly what she was insinuating, 'Did you cut again?'. “Yes, he’s still around. He hasn’t left yet.”

 

A fine catch-22. Do you upset your mother by getting rid of me, or do you keep her good favor but have to deal with my company?

 

“Wirt, did you hear me?”

 

He snapped his focus back to his mother. “Sorry, no, um, w- what did you say?”

 

“I asked if he was still talking with you, but I guess that just answered it for you. What’d he just say to you?”

 

“I- I’d rather not say...” He shoved the last hunk of toast in his mouth to prevent further questions.

 

---

 

After the bus ride and walk through the hall, Wirt felt like he was going to collapse under the weight of the other students’ stares. He just knew that everyone was talking about him, whispering about what happened on Halloween. ‘Did you hear he went crazy?’ ‘I heard he’s possessed.’ ‘Do you think he might freak out one day and completely lose it?’ ‘Is he contagious?’ ‘Is he safe to be around?’

 

If your reputation doesn’t draw enough attention, your aimless staring will.

 

Wirt shook his head, realizing that he had been staring, unmoving, at his open locker for who knew how long. He picked up the textbooks he needed and shoved them into his backpack, kicking his locker shut as he moved toward his homeroom.

 

Are you ready to face you peers, Pilgrim?

 

He paused outside the classroom, steeled himself as best he could, and crossed through the entrance. He sat by the door, wanting to leave before anyone else, so he didn’t have to fight the river of teenagers while on his crutches. He leaned the metal contraptions on the side of his desk.

 

“Glad to have you back, Mr. Palmer.” His homeroom teacher gave a small smile. Wirt gave a small wave in return.

 

For the rest of the morning, Wirt floated class to class, not really paying attention to his teachers, too preoccupied by his peers. He just knew they talking about him. How could they not with all of the whispering happening around him. By the time lunch came around, his back ached from his anxious shaking. He planned on finding somewhere to hide, skipping lunch entirely, until a friendly voice called out to him in the hall.

 

“Wirt!” Sara bounded up to him. “Where are you going? I told you I’m sitting with you in the caf’ today.”

 

He sagged on his crutches. “I- I don’t know, I just don’t- ...There’s so many people in there…”

 

“Come on, no one’s going to bother you. If they do, hit ‘em with a crutch!”

 

“Sara, I’m not going to-”

 

She grabbed him by the front of his sweater. “Let’s goooo!”

 

Wirt tried to convince her to let him not buy a lunch once they arrived at the huge, loud room on the other side of the school. “Really, Sara, I’m not hungry. It’d just be a waste,” but she would have none of it.

 

“Your skinny-boy clothes are starting to look big on you, you noodle. Buy your food, I’ll hold your tray.”

 

He rolled his eyes as he passed the lunch aide the lunch money his mom had given him, as well as Sara’s. “Noodle?”

 

“Yeah, you’re skinny like a spaghetti noodle. I should start calling you Noodle Boy.”

 

Wirt pfft ed, and they made their way to the end of one of the long tables spanning the room. He tucked the crutches underneath and sat across from his friend.

 

Are you sure you can denote her as a ‘friend’?

 

He looked toward The Beast. They stared each other down, students passing harmlessly through the body of the creature looming over them. Sara’s head broke the glaring match.

 

She opened her carton of strawberry milk. “How’s your first day back been so far?”

 

Looking down to poke at his food with a fork, he replied, “Honestly, I don’t remember much of it. Between ignoring him and trying not to notice people talking about me, I’ve been kind of a zombie.”

 

“Wirt, I promise no one is talking about you. It’s been, like, half a week. That’s eternity in vapid teenager time.”

 

“No, you don’t get it. I know everyone’s talking about Halloween, about me . I’m just waiting for someone to come up and start pushing me for answers to questions I don’t want to answer-”

 

“Hey. Chill. You don’t have to answer anyone’s questions, if they ask at all.”

 

She ate in silence for a few minutes, while he pushed his food around his tray. Wirt then noticed the lack of comment from his visitor.

 

“I don’t think The Beast likes us hanging out,” he said, “because he hasn’t said anything since we sat down.”

 

“Well, good, that just gives me an excuse to do it more.” She grinned at him. “Now, at least drink your milk for me, Noodle Boy.”

 

The rest of the school day passed without incident or with much to remember. As Wirt traded around books in his locker, he leaned heavily on his crutches, his mind drained of all energy.

 

Maybe I can get a nap in when I get home-

 

“Hey, Wirt.”

 

He froze at the croaky greeting from behind him, forcing out a reply, “H- hi, Jason…”

 

Managing to turn around, Wirt saw he was boxed in by Jason Funderberker and a handful of the other sophomores. He shut his locker and put on his backpack and set to leaning against the metal door.

 

“We just wanted to know what happened,” Jason explained casually. “You act all weird on Halloween and then no one sees you until today? What gives?”

 

If Wirt hadn’t already been so high strung, he might have figured that Jason and his friends were genuinely curious. But at that moment, his delusion gripped him tight, convincing him that their only motive was pure malice. Wirt’s body started to shake.

 

“And what happened to your leg?” another kid asked.

 

Wirt's bag pressed into his spine as he pushed himself farther away from the group. “I- I- I really don't want to t- talk about it.”

 

Jason crossed his arms. “Oh, come on! You can't pull a stunt like that and not give an explanation.”

 

“N- no, really. I don't want to talk about. I won't talk about it.”

 

“But you told Sara, and she won't dish either.”

 

“This isn't something dish , Funderberker.” Wirt couldn't tell what was winning, his anxiety or anger.

 

“Then what is it?

 

“None of your damn business, you jerks!” The black girl pushed Jason to the side, parting the crowd, and wrapped an arm around Wirt's back protectively. “Let's go, Wirt. We're gonna miss the bus.”

 

Jason huffed at they turned their backs, but didn't say anything else.

 

---

 

After an unhelpful nap and and a picked-at dinner, Wirt headed to his room to try to force himself to go to bed early. What happened instead was The Beast obtaining the perfect opportunity to drill into Wirt's head how pathetic he was over the confrontation with Jason Funderburker. The teen didn't even bother refuting any of it.

 

“Yeah yeah, that could have gone better…” he said, laying on his back on his bed. “Now just shut up and let me sleep.”

 

Getting cranky, are we?

 

“Less than 3 hours of sleep does not make you cranky. It makes you dog-tired and your head throb.”

 

You can't sleep just yet. You still have a decision to make.

 

“And what would that be?

 

The one I mentioned this morning. Do you want a full night's sleep and a quiet mind? Or do you want to not disappoint your family because you just can't keep a blade from your skin, suffering through another day of my chatter?

 

Wirt didn't move, let alone respond.

 

I was merciful to you today, Pilgrim. I chose not to speak when your little friend was around. But imagine how it would feel to have to reply to me while she's around. I'd love to see her face when you start yelling at my like a child or when you start throwing things at me. She tolerates you because she hasn't seen the real insanity you can muster. I wonder how long it will be until you visit The Unknown during school, or while she were at this house. What if she were to see your scars , knowing that not all were my doing?

 

The pills in Wirt's stomach churned uncomfortably with the comments. “She might understand…”

 

She might understand? Not sounding so confident compared to last night, now are we?

 

His hand twitched beside him. He wanted to just get it over with. But then what would he do in the morning, when his mom asked about his visitor?

 

You could always lie.

 

“I don't want you here to begin with, why would I say you were there when you weren't?”

 

To protect them from knowing the truth. That you're a sniveling coward who wants to fix his problems with his own blood.

 

Wirt shot upright. “Do NOT put this on me, asshole! You are the one who wants me to-”

 

You were doing this to yourself long before I came along. Where do you think I got the idea, hm?

 

His heart dropped from his chest and into his gut.

 

You suspected it, haven't you? After all, I am you. Or so your doctor thinks…

 

Wirt glanced at his wall of clocks, 10:20 pm. Too late to go for a walk without raising suspicions. If he did, they'd be more likely to ask questions tomorrow.

 

No, stop. Don't even think about it. You can do that to Mom.

 

And why not? It never stopped you before.

 

Shit, they're still awake. What if they come in to check on me. I can't do this now- No! Don't even humor him with this!

 

With the way you talk to me on two days of barely any sleep, I wonder how you'll handle 3. I hear your brain starts to hallucinate after that point. I'd love to see what that would do to a schizoid like you.

 

“No, I can't. I can't.”

 

The entire world will know you've split entirely from reality. There will be no hope for you but a soft, white room.

 

“No no no nonono no!”

 

Just let your emotions out, Pilgrim. Let them drain out through your skin.

 

“I can't let you do this to me again…”

 

But Pilgrim, I am a part if you.

 

Before he could properly think about it any farther, the craft knife was pulled from under the mattress and aimed over his exposed legs. The shadowy figure sputtered and faded as he sliced across his thigh, the cut several inches long. A second cut followed on his other leg, creating a twin, for his own mental duress, not The Beast's command. Wirt stood and swayed, his panicked heart unable to keep up with the demand. He steadied himself on the wall moved to his desk to find something to clean himself up with. It was then he caught sight of himself in the mirror.

 

He had cut low enough that his boxers did not cover the glistening wounds. Streaks of red already were traveling down his knees. He caught his own eyes in the glass, and felt like he could barely recognize himself, even after seeing himself earlier that morning. Wirt sighed, and grabbed some tissues as the blood dripped into his cast, his right leg bleeding more heavily.

 

At least he'd get some proper sleep now before having to confront his parents in the morning.

Chapter Text

When Wirt woke up the next morning, at about 4 am, he was greeted by a blessedly empty room. Just after that realization, however, his attention was forcefully turned to the wounds of last night. Even laying on his back, they throbbed. As he pulled back his sheets, he saw exactly why. At some point during the night, the medical tape he used to close the cuts pulled away, letting his skin reopen and bleed. Large, wet blotches stained his pajama pants, one on each leg.

 

Wirt's heart jumped in his throat and he jumped out of bed. Slowly, he peeled off his pants, the dried blood on the edge of the dark red shape gluing the fabric to his skin.

 

He stared at this legs. He really didn't remember cutting that deep, pressing that hard. As quietly as he could manage without using his crutches, he crept to the upstairs bathroom to patch himself up.

 

After 10 minutes and a large amount of medical tape, Wirt made it back to his room to get dressed, not wanting to wake up the house or ruin the tape job by taking a shower. Soon, he crept downstairs with his backpack and crutches and passed silently out the front door. Yeah, it wasn't even 5 yet, and yeah, the school was several miles away, but if leaving now meant he could avoid talking to his parents about the absence of his visitor, he was glad for the exercise.

 

At 6, while he was sitting on the high school front steps, Wirt felt his phone buzz in his pocket.

 

November 5 6:03 am

Hun where did you run off to? Did you leave early?

 

6:04 am

Yeah, I did. Wanted to move around a bit before I headed to the bus. I've been feeling cooped up lately.

 

6:04 am

Alright just give me a heads up next time. I nearly had a heart attack!

Enjoy your walk. Love you.

 

6:05 am

Love you, too.

 

Wirt looked toward the rising sun, relief and guilt fighting for the space in his chest.

 

---

 

“Jeeze! You walked here? Your armpits must be sore.” Sara gave him a sympathetic smile.

 

“Don't remind me,” Wirt replied, “but there was no way I could face my family this morning.”

 

“Did something happen?”

 

He paused, thinking of how to say it without being obvious to any eavesdropping ears. “...My visitor left last night.”

 

Sara looks confused for a second, but then her eyebrows shot up. “Oh.”

 

“And, um… it wasn't just to get him to leave.”

 

“Are you okay? How are you feeling now?”

 

Wirt fiddled with his shirt hem. “I'm alright for the moment, thanks.”

 

Suddenly, Sara's eyes lit up. “Ooh! You know what you need? Someone to go home with you after school and watch lame movies with! And guess who's freeeee?” She held onto the last vowel, leaning on her friend's shoulder.

 

“Oh, um, sure, if you'd like to. If you don't have any plans or-”

 

“Just ask your mom already, Noodle Boy!”

 

---

 

The school day passed without event, another blur of droning teachers. Wirt dreaded the minute the final bell rang and freed him to go home, and he briefly considered making an excuse to stay until the later buses, but he knew that it would seem suspicious. Thankfully, with Sara okay to come over, if anything happened, he'd have a buffer.

 

“You know, Wirt,” said buffer began, “You're lucky you have those crutches right now.”

 

He looked at her, somewhat aghast. “Wha- ...why do you say that?”

 

“Because you are the perfect height for me to just leap onto your back and cling on like a piggyback koala, and I can't do that when you have a lame leg! How tall are you anyway?”

 

Chuckling, he replied, “I'm five-eight right now, but I'm still growing. My birth father was six foot five, so mom thinks I'll 'keep growing like a beanstalk’, as she says.”

 

As they boarded the bus and took the first seat, Sara hmf ed. “I'm, like, five-two on a good day, and I'm not getting much taller it seems. Mom’s a shorty, too. Lucky…”

 

“Try buying me pants. My kind of lanky doesn't usually also come in my kind of skinny’s sizes. I own a fair amount of belts.”

 

They bantered throughout the ride to Wirt's neighborhood, keeping his nerves in check until the exited the bus. That reversed, however, in the short walk back to his house.

 

Sara sensed his apprehension in entering his front door. She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I can always be a distraction, Wirt. I gotchu.” With a wink and a smile, Sara shoved him gently forward.

 

Thankfully, neither of his parents were home yet. He sighed and flopped into his usual spot on the couch, crutches clattering to the floor in front of him. “You want a drink or something?”

 

She snorted at him, it obvious that he didn't want to get back up. Pulling a water bottle and a couple of granola bars from her bag and sitting in the armchair adjacent to him, she replied, “Nah, I'm good. You , however…” She pegged him in the chest with a foil wrapped bar. “... You need to eat something. Don't think I didn't noticed how much you ate at lunch.”

 

“Only because you refuse to eat anywhere else.”

 

“Eat your granola and let me mother hen you, Noodle Boy.” She stuck out her tongue at him.

 

He returned the gesture before opening his bar and nibbling on it.

 

By the time his parents arrived home from work with Greg, the two teens were halfway through A Nightmare Before Christmas , the perfect in-between-fall-and-winter movie as Sara had declared. Greg sat next to his brother, not caring that he’d missed the bulk of the plot.

 

During the final act, Wirt got up to get himself a drink. He hobbled to the kitchen, not bothering with his crutches, failing to notice the hand towel that hung from the oven door had slipped off onto the floor. His plastered foot stepped directly on it, and shot out from under him, forcing him to fall sideways. He caught himself on the counter before it could crack against his head. His lower body continued to move to the side, stretching out before stopping, his hip floating above the ground. Through all this, Wirt felt the medical tape on his right thigh rip away from his skin and any fragile scabs split apart. He bit his tongue to keep from shouting as he eased his body to the floor. Taking a steadying breath, he stood back up, dusted off, grabbed his water, and left.

 

He couldn't ignore the ache in his leg as he returned to his seat on the couch, but if he got up again now, it would raise suspicions. Sitting back, he tried to enjoy the rest of the movie.

 

The credits had begun to roll when Greg caught his attention. “Hey, Wirt, did you spill something on your pants?”

 

Absentmindedly, the teen wiped a hand on his leg but froze when it came back wet and sticky. Turning his hand over, he saw his palm was smudged with red.

 

“Oh, shit!” Wirt shot up and rushed toward the downstairs bathroom. “Shit shit shit!”

 

“Wirt, what's-” The slam of the door cut Sara off.

 

In the bathroom, Wirt pulled off his pants as quick as he could, wrestling the denim off his cast before tossing them into the sink. He ripped the tape off his leg, too roughly in his panic, wincing as he sat on top of the toilet seat. He pulled a wad’s worth of toilet paper from the roll and pressed it into the wound.

 

From behind the door, Sara shouted at him, “Wirt! If you don't open this door in 5 seconds, I'm coming in.”

 

Crap, I didn't lock the door! He couldn't reach the doorknob from his seat, so he yelled back, “No, I'm fine, really! You don't need to-”

 

She let herself in anyway. “Bullshit, Wirt. If you were fine, you wouldn't have freaked out about it.” He was about to protest, but she cut him off. “Lemme see it. You're just as clothed as when I saw you at the hospital, so zip it. I gotta see the damage.” She must have figured out what was wrong on her own.

 

Wirt hesitated then lifted the now red blotched toilet paper. It immediately started welling up again with red, skin gaping open.

 

“Jesus, how deep did you go?” Sara examined the long cut, fingers gently prodding his skin. “This from last night? How's the other one?”

 

He honestly hadn't bothered to check. He sat back so she would look for herself.

 

“Can I pull off the tape?” she asked. After he nodded, she slowly peeled back the medical tape, finding the wound less deep but still refusing to shut. She stood. “Keep pressure your right leg. I'll be right back.”

 

As Sara left the small room, she left the door open in her rush to get her backpack. Both teens had forgotten about their younger companion, who was now standing in the bathroom doorway, staring at his older brother’s blood-smeared leg. As Wirt looked up and caught Greg's eye, both paled. Greg because his brother was hurt and bleeding, Wirt because his gruesome habit was out in the open for his brother to see.

 

Before Wirt could say anything, Greg bolted away and upstairs, because you get an adult if someone is bleeding. Almost immediately, Sara enter the bathroom, backpack dragging behind her. From inside, she pulled out a metal cookie tin stuffed with medical supplies.

 

“Greg saw. He's telling Mom, I'm sure,” Wirt mentioned, voice unsteady.

 

Sara’s reply was stern but still collected as she rubbed sanitizer on her hands. “You can freak out about it after I fix your legs. Now scoot forward a bit and clean your hands.”

 

She set to work, wiping the area with alcohol pads. She had Wirt push the cut closed while she applied the numerous butterfly bandages need to keep it that way.

 

“You really need stitches,” she remarked, “but this will have to do for now.”

 

Just as Sara was finishing closing the cut, Wirt's mother entered the open doorway. She and her son stared at each other, silent, until Sara spoke up. “Wirt, move your leg over this way. I need to wrap your leg.”

 

Wirt obeyed, but watched as his mother’s gaze focused on the row of little, white bandages holding his skin together.

 

Sara crossed over to his other side once this right thigh was thoroughly wrapped in gauze. She started the process again for his left. “Wirt, I need you to hold the cut closed, please.”

 

At that order, Wirt's mother gave him a fearful look and fled. He began to shake, his heart breaking. “I shouldn't h- have done this,” he muttered.

 

Sara finished wrapping his leg and sat back on her haunches. “Alright, how do your legs feel?”

 

“I- I shouldn't have done this. How could do this?”

 

“Wirt… breathe…”

 

“I could- I sh- should have waited, held out longer. And now I'm hurting everyone else because I can't st- stop. Because I'm so frickin’ sick in the head-”

 

“Hey,” Sara placed a comforting hand on his knee, “none of this is your fault. You couldn't-”

 

“-I could have h- held on, at least another day! But instead, Greg's seen e- everything. Mom's seen everything. You've seen everything!”

 

“Wirt, you're getting too riled up about this. You're gonna-”

 

“He s- said this would happen! The B- Beast warned me that everyone w- was going to find out, that I'd end up hurting people! H- he told me…”

 

Wirt swayed dangerously on his seat, breath erratic. Sara pulled him off the toilet and into the floor, leaning him against the under-sink cabinet. Once he was situated, she stood. “I'll be right back. I need to get your medication.”

 

Stretching out his legs and burying his face in his hands, Wirt tried hard to gulp down a few full breaths. His shaking limbs were going numb at the extremities, his back ached from shivering, and all of his muscles felt they were fighting against his bones.

 

Both Sara and his mom entered the room, the younger with an orange pill bottle in hand. Taking the pill handed to him, Wirt crunched down on it before letting it dissolve, hoping it would start working faster. He tilted his head back against the cabinet door, eyes shut tight, and pressed this quivering hands on the cold tile floor.

 

“I n- never wanted it to get th- this bad…” he said quietly. To Sara, his mom, or to himself, he wasn't sure.

 

Someone sat down next to him, his mother, it turned out. She asked him, “I have to know… which are because of him and which… which are your own.”

 

“Right are for The Beast, left are for m- myself.” He didn't even need to look down to know. He started cutting on his left because he was left-handed, and stayed on that side until his visitor  started to show up. “Probably w- why this time was so bad. I- it's harder to use my right hand.”

 

Wirt's shaking seemed to double in intensity. “He t-told me this w- would happen,” he said, voice strained, as he brought his head back down. “He said I- I’d have to choose between d- disappointing you or having him s- stay. I c- could have held on l- longer. He’s just a v- voice, right? How bad can h- he get? What's a bit of f- fear and depression compared to w- what you're making other people go though? But you chose wr- wrong. You chose wrong again . All you do is fuck everything up! Right, Pilgrim!?”

 

Sara was next to in an instant, hands on the sides of his face, forcing their eyes to meet. “I never want you to call yourself that ever again. You hear me? You are Wirt. Not Pilgrim. Calling yourself that is just helping him win. Got it?” As Wirt nodded, Sara released is face and explained to Mrs. Palmer, “Pilgrim is what The Beast calls him. Never his name, only Pilgrim. Wirt doesn't know why.”

 

“Journey of self-destruction,” he mumbled. Wirt started to slump, medication taking hold.

 

“Hush, you!” Raising from her squat, she turned to Wirt's mother. “I'll be right back. I'm going to grab him some new pants. Then we can get him on the couch or something. Upstairs, right?”

 

Silence fell when Sara left. Wirt was looking at his hands again, tremor mostly stilled by the Xanax. His mother stared forward in thought, until she heard her son sniff. Looking over in surprise, she saw tears falling freely, though he didn't make any noise as he cried. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close.

 

Wiping his face, he told her, “I think the Xanax makes me cry. This happened in the hospital, too, the quiet crying. Because, like, when I'm depressed, I feel like I'm about to cry all the time, but it never comes. So getting to actually cry is kind of nice, in a way…”

 

She began to stroke his hair in reply.

 

A moment later, Sara returned with a new pair of jeans and a cylindrical container of salt. “I really hate to break up the mother-son bonding, but I'm pretty sure the sofa is more comfortable.”

 

Wirt glanced at the container in her hand. “What's the salt for?”

 

She tossed him the clean pants. “It's good for getting out fresh blood stains.”

 

He snorted. “That didn't sound ominous at all…”

 

Women tend to know how to get blood out of clothing, doofus.”

 

He sat up, confused, and then it hit him. “Oh! Um…” He cleared his throat in an effort to distract from the pink on his cheeks.

 

His mom chuckled at the display.

 

As he stood, wobbled, and pulled on the pants, Wirt asked, “So, how did you get so good at patching people up?”

 

Turning on the sink and pushing the stained pant leg under the water, she explained, “I was an adventurous and bored only child. I'd always come home with cuts and scrapes. My folks got tired of buying Band-Aids and taking me to the hospital, so they told me that I’d get in trouble the next time I came home hurt. So I started caring for my own injuries to avoid that.” She pulled up her long sleeve, showing a long scar on her elbow. “That's from falling out of a tree when I was 11. Quite the bleeder.” She then poured a small mound of salt over the underwater blotch.

 

Wirt leaned against the doorframe. “At least your scars are accidental.”

 

“But yours are for a medical reason. Brain stuff is still medical.” She smoothed the salt across the stain and left it to soak, turning and flicking the water on her fingers are the other teen. “Leave that for a while and give it a good scrub.”

 

Wirt's mother rose from the floor, knees popping. “Let's go back to the living room then.” As her son left the bathroom, she stopped his friend. “Hey, I'm really grateful for what you did today. You handled that all much better than I did.”

 

Sara gave an embarrassed grin. “Thanks, Mrs. Palmer. He's a really good guy. I hate to see him suffer like this.”

 

The three returned to the living room, deciding another animated movie would be best, settling on ParaNorman.

 

“To keep with the stop-motion theme,” Sara had quipped. “And the seeing things theme, too.” that got Wirt to snicker.

 

As the movie began, Wirt turned to his mother, who was seated next to him. “Is Greg okay? He isn't, like, scarred for life or anything?”

 

His mom patted his knee. “His father talked to him. He said Greg's alright now. They're up in playing in your brother’s room now.”

 

Relieved, Wirt sank a little more into the cushions.

 

---

 

After the movie and dinner, Sara thanked them and left for home, living an easy 15 minute walk away.

 

Wirt sat alone in the living room, staring at the ceiling, l enjoying his 'empty house’, but not the empty ache in his chest.

 

A step creaked as someone descended the steps. He turned his head lazily to face whoever was to enter.

 

His stepfather came to stand at the other side of the room. “We need to talk.”

 

“What about?” His body still felt heavy from his previous medicating, so he didn't bother turning his body to face his parent.

 

“About all…” his step dad gestured vaguely at him. “About all this.”

 

This caught Wirt's attention. He sat up.

 

His stepfather continued. “Your brother freaking out because he saw all of your scars and the bleeding. Your mother freaking out because she doesn't know what to do with you. And now you've got another person pulled into this mess, that girl!”

 

“I didn't ask Sara to get 'pulled into this mess’. She forced herself in because she just wants to help.”

 

“Well, force her back out then, because if you keep breaking down around other people, this is all going to be thrown into the open.”

 

Wirt glared at the older man. “I don't choose when I 'break down’, thank you. I never wanted Greg or Mom seeing me like this, let alone you, but it happened and is going to continue to happen. It was happening before , too, but I'm not allowed to hide in my room and pretend I don't exist anymore.”

 

“Still, we want as few people knowing about this as possible. How do you know Sara isn't going to tell anyone.”

 

The exact sentiment conveyed by The Beast echoed in Wirt's mind. He wasn't a fan of the parallel. “I- I trust her. She knows I don't want people finding out, and she promised me to keep quiet. I need someone to talk to about this stuff. About my illness.”

 

His stepfather crossed his arms. “That's what your therapist is for. You need to start keeping your head down about your 'seeing things’ and whatnot, or people are going to start asking questions.”

 

“Do you think I can control this or something? That I want to be wigging the hell out around the people I care about? Believe me, if I could, I'd go back to being the same shy kid I was last year, before everything started going to shit. But that's not how this works.” He stood up and grabbed his crutches from their spot against the wall, next to the couch. “Now, I'm sorry about Greg and Mom, but I am not sorry for the schizoaffective stuff because that isn't something I can control.” Turning away from the other man, he quickly made his way to the door.

 

His stepfather was flabbergasted. “And where do you think you're going, young man?”

 

Wirt pulled the door open, standing in the doorway as he answered. “I'm going to sit out front and enjoy some of the time left where I don't have some intangible, demonic creature screaming at me nonstop, David.

 

Slamming the door, he spun around at the edge of the lawn and fell backwards onto the yellowed grass, crutches clambering to the ground by his feet. Above, the November clouds floated by, gray and hiding the later afternoon sky.

 

As Wirt breathed in deep and sighed, the empty cavern in his ribs stretched and ached.

 

Beatrice, you better arrive soon...

 

---

 

That night, after an uncomfortable dinner of leftovers, Wirt loitered outside of his brother's room. How do you explain self-harm to a 6 year old who just saw your legs covered in blood and scars? Without further traumatization?

 

Leaving his crutches leaned on the hall wall, he quietly opened the door and walked inside.

 

“Greg?” Wirt said lowly. “You still up?”

 

Sitting on the floor, the little one was reading aloud a picture book about amphibians, surrounded by an audience of stuffed animals.

 

“Hi, Wirt! I'm practicing my reading!” Greg raised the book over his head like a trophy.

 

Wirt sat down in front of him, grinning. “I see that. But who's going to help you pronounce the really hard words?”

 

His little brother pointed to a stuffed turtle next to him. “Theodore Roosevelt will help me. He's very good with words.”

 

Wirt snickered. He could never keep track of the animals’ constantly changing names.

 

Suddenly serious, Greg looked up at him.

“Wirt, are you okay?” he asked quietly.

 

Swallowing the lump forming in his throat, Wirt instead turned the question around, not wanting to answer. “Are you okay? I… I never meant for you to see that.”

 

“It was scary. You were bleeding and you looked really scared. How did it happen?”

 

“I… do you remember what I told you about my one visitor, The Beast? Well, he'd been around for a couple days, a- and the longer he's around, the meaner he gets. The meaner he gets, the harder I have to work against him. The harder I have to work, the harder I snap back when I can't handle it anymore. L- like when you pull a rubber band. The harder you pull, the harder it is to pull, the more it hurts when you let go.”

 

“So you snapped back worse because he was around longer. Why was he here longer? I thought you could get rid of him…?”

 

“I can… but the way is-” The lump jumped back up into his throat. “The only way to get rid of him is the hurt myself. To cut myself. That's what all the scars on my right leg were from. The left… the left are just from me. Cutting without The Beast tell me to.”

 

Greg looked very worried and confused. “But why would you do that? It must hurt a lot.”

 

He took a few seconds to collect his thoughts. “Because… because about a year ago, I started to get really sad. I was anxious all the time, too. I still am. I needed something to… I don't know, distract me? I started cutting on my leg because it gave me something different to focus on that wasn't my anxiety or depression. And then, The Beast came along and took that idea and twisted it against me.” He swallowed, stalling. “Th- the problem is… cutting only helps right in the moment you do it. After that, you feel worse, but you just accept that because you just so relieved in that one short moment. But the longer you do it, the worse your cuts get, because it doesn't help as much as before. That same thing is happening with The Beast. I have to hurt more and more each time to get rid of him. Last night's cuts were bad enough that they couldn't stay closed on their own, and they opened when I fell in the kitchen during the movie. The tape ripped off. So I bled… a lot.”

 

Greg seemed to think for a minute. “So… he's gone now? You're safe now?”

 

“Yeah… for now.”

 

“How long until he comes back?”

 

“A day or two. He was gone today already.”

 

Pushing the animals in his way, Greg crawled over and clamped his arms around his brother's neck, sitting on the other's cross-legged lap. He nuzzled into Wirt’s shoulder.

 

Wiping an eye, Wirt ruffled Greg's hair. “It's not all bad, though. Some things I see are kind of fun, like some of the things I saw on Halloween. Want me to tell you some stories?”

 

Greg leapt from his brother's lap and scurried to his bed. “Bedtime stories!” He jumped under the covers and looked up with wide eyes, patting the spot on the mattress right beside him.

 

Wirt gave a surprised smile. He rose and limped to the bed, laying down on top of the sheets, scooting in close.

 

“Well, the first thing that happened was you and I met The Woodsman…”

 

When Greg's father came to check up on the little one later that night, he was surprised to find Wirt's crutches by the door. He was even more surprised to discover his stepson snoring softly next Greg, who was curled up and cuddled in close to the older brother's chest.

Chapter Text

The week passed with the usual pattern: Beatrice visited and left, The Beast visited and left. Thankfully for Wirt, everyone else was just as uncomfortable with talking about why The Beast had gone as he was, so when his mother asked Sunday morning if he was still around, Wirt's soft 'no’ was answered with anxious silence. He had managed two and a half days with the shadow, so it was almost a win in his book, especially considering that Beatrice had only been around for a few hours.

 

Monday was different.

 

Sara showed up at the Palmer's doorstep right after school let out, looking worried, grip tight on her backpack straps. “Hi, Mrs. Palmer,” she said to the woman who answered the door. “Did Wirt come home early or something? I haven't seen him since before lunch and he's not answering his phone.”

 

Ice dropped into Mrs. Palmer's stomach. “No, I was expecting him home from school soon.” She pulled out her cellphone and rang up her son. After a few seconds of ringing, it connected to the voicemail. She hung up without leaving a message. “Are you sure he wasn't at school?”

 

“Yeah. None of my friends had seen him either, and he wasn't at our science class.”

 

Wirt's mother then called her husband. He hadn't heard from their son either.

 

Sara ran a hand through her straightened hair. “What if he's having another vision-thingy? An episode?”

 

“Let's go make a drive around town and see if we can find him.” Grabbing her keys and purse, Mrs. Palmer lead Sara to her car.

 

After nearly an hour, both women were a bundle of nerves. They had driven back to the school, around the main town, and the residential areas without seeing hide or hair of the missing teenager. Finally, just as Mrs. Palmer was ready to call the police, her phone started ringing. She quickly pulled the car over to answer. Her son's name lit up on the screen.

 

“Wirt, honey, where are you? We've been trying to find you for ages!”

 

Sara could just make out his reply. “Um, I- I’m actually at the p- police station. I, uh… I had an episode. I visited The Unknown again.”

 

“Wait, the police station?!”

 

“I- I- I'm not in trouble or anything! Don't worry. I'll e- explain when you get here. And, uh, so will the officer…”

 

His mom pinched her nose in exasperation. “Alright, be there in 10 minutes, bye.”

 

“Bye.”

 

The teen in the passenger seat looked forward, confused. “How the heck did he end up at the police station?”

 

The older woman sighed. “We're about to find out.”

 

When the two walked into the station, Wirt was bouncing a leg at his seat next to an empty officer's desk, crutches stashed under his seat. He looked a bit pale, but otherwise unharmed. He jumped in his chair as he noticed his mom walking towards him.

 

“Oh, thank goodness you're okay,” his mother cooed as she held either side of his face. “What happened? Are you hurt?”

 

He pulled her hands away, keeping thumbs in his own hands instead. “I'm alright. Just tired.”

 

“What happened,” Sara cut in, “and why weren't you at school? I was wigging out, man!”

 

Before Wirt could answer, a woman in uniform strode up to his mother. “Mrs. Palmer? I'm Officer Richards.” The two shook hands. “Your son isn't in any trouble. There's no charges and he wasn't arrested.”

 

“Then what is he doing here?” Wirt's mother asked.

 

“We received a call around 11 am this morning that someone was creating a disturbance near the bank on Main Street. When we arrived, we found your son there, unresponsive, so he was brought here. He only just regained his senses when he called you. Unfortunately, because he had a lock on his phone, we couldn't access his contacts, and because he couldn't answer our questions, we couldn't ask anything about his identity. Since coming to, he's been perfectly helpful.”

 

“'Creating a disturbance’?”

 

Wirt chimed in. “Apparently, normal people don't like it when the mentally ill stand around bank entrances and talk to themselves about giant crows attacking people made of produce.” He looked away, embarrassed.

 

“I wouldn't put it in those terms, but it's essentially what happened.” The officer explained. “He was standing outside of the bank, unresponsive and talking nonsensically, and someone called us because it made them nervous-”

 

“-because the crazy kid might hurt somebody.” Wirt's face, looking straight ahead, was a mix of perturbed and fearful.

 

Sara put a hand on his shoulder, saying quietly, “Wirt, you're not crazy.”

 

A puff of air out his nose was his response.

 

“Someone was just being a little jumpy, is all,” the policewoman said. “We just need a couple of forms signed and we can release him to you. And now that we know who Wirt is, someone will be able to contact you more quickly if something like this happens again.”

 

Mrs. Palmer nodded and followed the officer to another desk. Wirt and Sara stayed behind, the former putting his head in his hands, elbows on his knees.

 

He groaned. “This is so… I don't know. Is there a word for simultaneously being embarrassing and anxiety-inducing?”

 

“Not that I know of. You're the literary nerd, so you'd know more than me.”

 

Wirt gripped his hair. “The police! I got the police called on me! Do you know I was handcuffed to the desk until I left The Unknown? I kept trying to walk away! My step dad is going to have a field day about this.”

 

Sara furrowed her brows. “Why him specifically?”

 

He huffed. “We had an argument last week, after you and I hung out, saying basically that you shouldn't be involved in all-” he gestured with his hands vaguely near his head, “- this stuff. He says that I need to 'keep my head low’, keep this under wraps because it's not something that people should know about.”

 

She made a face. “Ew.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well, I ain't leaving you alone, whether he likes it or not.” Giving a smug grin, she crossed her arms. Wirt gave a small smile in return.

 

After paperwork and some questions, the 3 gathered into the car and headed off, stopping to drop Sara off at her home along the way. Greg and Mr. Palmer greeted them at the door when they made it home, though the latter was gruffly silent for the most part.

 

Greg jumped up at his older brother, demanding answers. “What happened? Are you okay? Why were you at the police place and not at school?”

 

Wirt ruffled his hair and sunk a little into his crutches. “I wandered off when I was visiting The Unknown, so a nice policewoman kept me at the station until I came back.” He didn't feel the need to mention the creeping out of random strangers part.

 

“What did you see this time? Was it neato?”

 

“How about I save it for a bedtime story tonight, okay?”

 

The little one whooped before running off, leaving Wirt with the adults.

 

The teen’s stepfather gave him a stern look. “What the hell...”

 

“What?” Wirt frowned angrily at him. “I'm just as displeased as you are, if not more. That was mortifying, coming to in a police station, not knowing how I got there or even what time it was.”

 

His step dad turned to his mom. “I think we should give Dr. Walters a call. He said we should’ve seen a change in a week or two, right?”

 

“I was going to call him anyway,” his mother replied, “about other things.”

 

Wirt looked cross. “Don't I get any input in this?” I'm literally right next to you, for Pete's sake.

 

“When we don't have to worry about you leaving school to wander around in traffic, you can give input,” The older man shut him down and turned to get the kitchen phone.

 

His mom came to his defense. “It's not like he can control it, David.” She turned to her son. “Is there anything you'd like us to mention to Dr. Walters?”

 

Wirt nodded. “Yeah, that the last couple of times Beatrice has visited, it's been for less time than normal. Usually only a few hours, instead of half a day or so. something must be happening then, right?”

 

His mom gave a short hm in agreement. His stepfather stated, “I'll be sure to tell him that during call, then.”

 

Giving a half smile, Wirt moved past them to sit on the couch. At least that was a bit if a win for him in what felt like a total loss of a day.

 

Snuggled next to his brother that night, he spoke of lonely musician made of fruits and vegetables, their travel to 'the big city’, facing off giant crows, and the taste of cucumber wheels until they both fell asleep.

 

---

 

His mom drove him to school the next morning, making sure to get them there a bit early, so that she could have a talk with the principal about Wirt's disappearance.

 

“So, would you care to explain where you ran off to instead of going to your classes, Wirt?” The principal sat back in his chair, arms crossed.

 

Wirt's bouncing leg picked up pace. The administration didn't know anything about his mental illness yet. How could he frame this without making him seem like a total nutter? “I- I, um, lost awareness and left school.”

 

“You 'lost awareness’? Explain.”

 

He felt intensely uncomfortable. His heart was beating too fast. Don't make me say it.

 

Thankfully, his mother elaborated for him. “He has developed a disorder that makes him lose touch with reality. He has episodes where he forgets where and when he is, and he experiences some other place. He had one of those episodes yesterday from around 10 to 4.”

 

The principal looked displeased. “This seems like something we should have been informed of ahead of time.”

 

“He's only had one episode before, on Halloween, so we didn't know yet if it was going to be a reoccurring issue.”

 

“Oh,” the man looked at Wirt, “so you were the boy on Halloween.”

 

The teen froze. “Wha- wha- what's that s- supposed to mean?”

 

“You've been quite the talk about the town, is all. Nothing serious, though.”

 

He felt like he was going to throw up. Good thing he skipped his usual 3 bites of breakfast.

 

Mrs. Palmer placed a hand at the top of her son's back. “Yes, he had an episode on Halloween. But right now, we are working to get his disorder under control with medication. Until that point comes, however, this does appear to be something that with be a repeating event.”

 

“Then I'll have meet with his teachers and make sure they keep an extra eye on him.” He pulled something up on his computer and poised himself to type. “What specifically do we need to keep a look out for? Do these episodes have any warning signs?”

 

His mom sighed. “That's the issue. I haven't seen Wirt during an episode, so I only know what others have said. According to the hospital, when he was brought in on Halloween, he was unresponsive to the outside world. He wouldn't hear or see anything not from his own mind. He was talking, but not to anyone there. It seemed nonsensical to other people, but from what Wirt has said about what he experienced, there's a distinct series of events.”

 

The principal typed quickly. “Okay, so, unresponsiveness, talking to no one…”

 

“He also spends a fair amount of the episodes walking, according to those I've talked to.”

 

“So something like walking out of a classroom for no reason?” More typing.

 

His mother nodded. “There are some other issues as well. He's been having panic attacks, which he has medication for.”

 

“The nurse can hold onto any as needed medications. If you leave them with the front desk, they can get them there for you. Is there anything else I need to know about?”

 

Wirt swallowed. “Um, My friend h- has been helping me through this. Sh- she knows what to do during situational things, like m- my panic attacks. I don't want her getting in trouble b- because she ends up late to class from helping me out.”

 

The principal gave him an unreadable look. “I will make a note of it, but she isn't a health care professional, so I can't guarantee anything. What's her name and grade?”

 

“Sara Freeman, sophomore.”

 

“I'll mention her, too, then.”

 

Nodding, Wirt looked down at his bouncing knee as the principal typed and spoke to his mother.

 

' -quite the talk about town -’

 

A quake spread through his back, pausing his fidgeting leg. The adults continued to talk, something about panic attacks, as a actual attack latched into his ribs, gripping tight.

 

The Palmers were dismissed and left the room. With a quick goodbye, his mom dropped off his Xanax with the secretary and headed off to work, leaving him to handle his building anxiety, unbeknownst to her.

 

---

 

By lunch, Wirt was a shaking mess. Sara stared at him as his breath hitched for the fifth time.

 

“Wirt, what's wrong? You're freaking out, I can tell.”

 

“N- no, no, I'm o- okay.” He took a breath in, more to convince himself than the girl across from him.

 

She gave him a suspicious look, but dropped it. “You mentioned a meeting with the principal this morning. How'd that go? Was it about yesterday?” And she unknowingly picked it right back up.

 

Wirt's heart clenched in his chest, and his breath caught again.

 

“Hey, what's going-” She was interrupted by the end-of-lunch bell. As she gathered her trash onto her tray, she caught Wirt's paling face as he rushed off into the crowd, crutches clicking against the linoleum floor. She dropped the tray on the table, chasing after him. “Wirt!”

 

She nearly had caught up with his as he zipped into a stairwell. He slid under the staircase and she followed just after.

 

Wirt's crutches clattered on the floor, echoing through the enclosed space. His gasping breath echoed with it. Curling into a ball, knees at his chest, he hid his face in his knees and tried to quiet himself. He spasmed as a dry-heave rocked through his body.

 

Sara sat down close and put a hand on his shoulder blade, skin warm against his cold-sweat. “Wirt, please, tell me what's got you so freaked out.”

 

He gazed at her with wide eyes. “‘Oh, so y- you were the boy on Halloween.’ 'You’ve been q- quite the talk about town’. That's what Principal Lancer said to me this morning. Everyone knows , Sara!”

 

“Just because people are talking about you doesn't mean they know anything. No one knows ab-”

 

“They'll connect the dots, I know they will. We d- didn't specifically say 'Wirt’s a sch- schizophrenic’, but I know the principal w- will figure it out, and so will anyone he tells.” He suddenly covered his face and moaned in realization. “Shit, he's going to tell all the teachers, so they can keep watch on me, so I don't run off again. A- all my teachers will know.” His fingers tugged at his hair.

 

Sara decided to try switching tactics. “Well, who cares if they figure it out? It doesn't mat-”

 

“It doesn't m- matter? Were you about to s- say that it doesn't m a tter?!” He coughed at his throat squeaking. “Sara, if w- word about this gets out, everything is going to change. No one is going to treat me the same e- ever again! I'll become the f- freak who's lost connection to the world, who doesn't know what's r- real. People w- will think I'm dangerous .” He paused to gasp for air, clutching at his shirt collar. “S- Sara… w- what if I hurt somebody during an episode. I- I don't w- want to spend m- my life in mental hospital…” His face crumpled, hands still in his hair.

 

His friend grabbed him around the torso and pulled him in tight. “ Shh , shhh , it's okay, it's okay. No one will figure it out. You're not going to hurt anyone. You're not going to a mental hospital forever. You're staying right here, and you'll graduate, and go to college, and kick ass at whatever you choose to do with your life.”

 

They stayed there together for a while, until Wirt was calm enough to get up without falling right over. Sara guided him to the nurse's office to get his newly housed medication, before they parted ways to different classes.

 

---

 

The Beast was standing there as he shut his locker that afternoon, startling Wirt enough to draw Sara's attention.

 

“It's just him ,” he explained to her, hand on his chest. “Just him.”

 

She gave him a sympathetic look. “Don't forget, you can always reach out to me if things get bad.”

 

“I know,” he sighed before turning toward the front doors. The shadow followed.

 

You rely on her so much already, though.

 

Wirt frowned, annoyed. He picked up his moving pace. Sara gave a shout as she was nearly left behind. “Hey, slow up, lanky! What did he just say to you?”

 

He eased up, letting her get back to him. “He said that I rely on you enough already.”

 

Not quite, Pilgrim. Are you mixing my thoughts and yours?

 

“I thought you said your thoughts were my thoughts. Now you're just twisting things again.”

 

“I'm surprised he's even talking to you,” Sara said. “Last time, he refused to speak because I was around.”

 

I talk when I please. My voice is not ruled by the presence of a mere child.

 

Wirt huffed. “He says he isn't 'ruled by the presence of a mere child’.”

 

It was Sara's turn to huff. “Yeah, well, screw you, too.”

 

She has an impressive temper. I'm starting to see why you are with her so much. Has she seen you try to throw things at me yet?

 

Ignoring him, Wirt said his goodbye to his friend, earning a thumbs up in return as the headed to different buses. As his ride home pulled away, he sneered through the window at the creature being left behind in the dust. The Beast only watched him leave.

 

His visitor reappeared as he opened the front door of his home, the shadow taking up the corner of the living room. Wirt passed him by to sit at the kitchen table, wanting to get some homework done before therapy in an hour.

 

This semester so far hadn't been go to him. His grades were firmly in a ditch, seeing as he was usually too distracted to start his homework, let alone finish it.

 

Or maybe you're too slow to understand it.

 

“This is exactly the problem,” Wirt muttered as he turned a page in his science textbook. “Your constant talk when you visit. And I'm sure the lack of sleep doesn't help either.”

 

I merely exist. Any impact on you is only the fault of your character.

 

“Yeah, I call BS.”

 

Oh?

 

“Like, Beatrice never has any negative effects on me.”

 

We are unconnected.

 

“More like you have different motives.”

 

Now, how can one's mind have conflicting motives against itself.

 

Wirt frowned but said nothing.

 

By the time his mother called for him so they could leave, he had only finished a third of his homework, and he doubted he would finish the rest before tomorrow. Even if The Beast kept him awake, the extra hours were never productive. Usually, he would be laying on the bed, staring into nothing, as his visitor spun speeches of his faults. He'd fight at first, but his willpower never lasted long. Most of the night, he just let the running tap of dialogue wash over him, eroding him like a river stone.

 

He mentioned his tiredness to his mom during the car ride to therapy, only saying that his insomnia was getting worse.

 

“Well, you see Dr. Walters on Saturday,” his mom offered, “so maybe he can give you something to help you sleep.”

 

“I hope so.” He really wasn't looking forward to tonight.

 

She stopped at the curb outside of the building that housed the therapist's office, saying she'd pick him up in an hour. He nodded and headed up, noting tiredly that his visitor was following. In the waiting are, the same parent-child duo exited the session room while he waited for his appointment, looking marginally happier this time. Wirt was stuck between feeling congratulatory and envious.

 

Jealous of strangers now?

 

“Your turn, Wirt,” Dr. Simon said before he could reply, the woman peeking out from the doorway.

 

He leaned his crutches against the wall next to the couch and sat heavily on the center cushion. His therapist took up her swivel chair. The Beast stood in front of the door, head near reaching the ceiling.

 

“Judging by that flop, things have been on the harder end of the scale?” Dr. Simon half-asked, starting to write in her notes.

 

Wirt leaned his head back, looking upward. “Hard is a word for it.”

 

“How would you describe the past week, then?”

 

“Trying.”

 

“Trying… and what was trying about it? What happened?”

 

He rubbed his thighs lightly. “Last week, my brother… my little brother and our mom freaked out because they saw my cuts and scars. I'd cut too deep the previous night, a- and they opened up after I tripped in the kitchen. I bled through my jeans, and when Greg pointed it out, I ran to the bathroom to try and stop the blood. I didn't lock the door, so Sara came in to help and left the door open and Greg saw and ran to get Mom and then she saw and-” he stopped, letting out a groan.

 

“Where the cuts because of The Beast? Or were they your own?”

 

“B- both. One each. Mom actually asked about that, which were his.”

 

“And what did you say?”

 

“That the left are mine, the right are his. Because I'm left handed and mine started first.”

 

Dr. Simon seemed to write that down. “So what happened afterward? How did you handle the situation?”

 

By breaking down and throwing a hissy fit.

 

“I had a panic attack while Sara patched me up. My step dad confronted me after because of how I freaked out my brother, and he thinks I shouldn't have Sara involved because I need to 'keep my head low’ about my disorder. I basically told him that Sara got into this on her own and to piss off. I walked out of the argument to go lay in the grass out front. Later, I talked to Greg about what happened, explained why I was bleeding. I'd told him already about hurting myself, so that wasn't too bad. To make him feel better, I told him what I saw when I visited The Unknown on Halloween, like a surreal bedtime story.”

 

“The Unknown?”

 

“Oh, um, that's what I call it when I have an episode. It's also where The Beast and Beatrice come from. I visit The Unknown and they visit me.”

 

“Any visitors this past week?”

 

“Yeah, the usual pattern. The Beast, I cut, then Beatrice, and The Beast, and so on.” He paused, thinking for a moment. “But I'm worried about Beatrice.”

 

“Oh?” More writing.

 

“She was only here for around 3 hours last time, a couple days ago. It's drastically shorter than her usually visits of 6-12 hours. I… I’m worried it's the meds.”

 

“Well, that would mean the meds are working, right?”

 

“Yes, but The Beast is here just as much, if not more so. I don't- ...I actually like her, so I was hoping The Beast would leave first. If she disappears and he ends up taking up her spot, all I'm left with-”

 

-is to waste away in madness with me .

 

Wirt sat stock still, staring at the white orbs above him. They seemed to smile at The Beast's own comment.

 

“Wirt,” the therapist spoke gently, “you trailed off there.” She glanced in the direction of the door. “Do you have a visitor? What did they say?”

 

He swallowed. “That all I'm left with is to 'waste away in madness with him .”

 

She shifted in her seat. “Well, neither of you know that. If the medication is working, he may not be around for much longer either. While it's unfortunate that you're losing your positive influence first, you just have to hold on to her optimism.”

 

“You say that like it's easy…”

 

“I believe in you, Wirt.”

 

The Beast let out a harsh laugh. She's as naïve as your 'friend’ Sara!

 

The two talked for a while longer, the visitor chiming in when he thought necessary. Wirt spoke of his episode the previous day and his encounter with the police and his worries about his grades.

 

“I mean, it's hard to focus when you have 2 people fighting for your attention. Most of the time, when I'm writing notes, they just turn into my writing down what The Beast is saying to me, and I don't notice until I look at it when I want to review.”

 

“Has your school talked to you or your parents about setting up an IEP?”

 

Wirt gave her a confused look. “No?”

 

“An IEP is and individualized education plan. It's used for those who have some kind of ailment or disability that prevents them from learning in a standard setting.”

 

“Disability…? I don't…”

 

“Disabilities are often not outwardly obvious. Yeah, there's the ones like wheelchairs and other physical impairments, but mental illness is also a part of that. Major depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia… if it negatively impacts you daily life, it is considered a disability. Now, a disability isn't something to be ashamed about-”

 

-in your case, I beg to differ-

 

“-but if it means you can get the extra help you need, then…” she ended the speech with a shrug. “Getting you an IEP would make it easier for you to keep up. You can get someone to take notes for you, or extra time in tests, things like that. Your parents would have to request it with the school, they'd have someone come to evaluate you, and the IEP would be written from there.”

 

Wirt made a face at 'evaluate’. More people involved. More people who know.

 

A larger audience to watch you crash and burn.

 

“Just bring it up with your parents, and think on it. Remember, it's to help you, not hurt you.”

 

---

 

That night, Wirt stared up at his visitor from his seat on his bed. Resolve shone in his face.

 

I don’t need to cut to get him to leave. When he’s around, he purposefully keeps me awake, so I bet that if I stay awake for long enough, he’ll leave.

 

I’ll take that bet, Pilgrim.

 

He frowned and narrowed his eyes at the shadow. Grabbing a book from the shelf by the foot of his bed, he settled in for a night of being pestered.

 

One night of lost sleep was alright, nothing unusual for him at this point. At two nights, things became more troublesome, as a persistent ache set into his back and it became hard for him to focus. After 3 nights without sleep, Wirt deeply regretted his idea.

 

As that Friday of school inched on, his grip on reality began to loosen steadily. If he stayed still for any length of time, he would find edelwood branches crawling up his legs, trying to tie him to the ground. The ceilings of his classes and the hallways all became dense canopies of blood red leaves, that which occasionally fluttered down to the linoleum. When he looked at his hands, black oil oozed from his pores and dripped down, speckling the floor like ink.

 

Sara noticed his strange behavior, kicking at the air, staring at his hands, reactions he was having to his new hallucinations, and asked him about it. He explained his experiment to her, but both teens failed to realize that Wirt’s sporadic staring into space or at his hands has caught the attention of one of peers.

 

The two were together before 6th period, standing by Sara’s locker as she picked up her textbook. She was talking animatedly while Wirt gazed exhaustedly at the leaves floating down onto the student populous around him. From across the hall, another student approached.

 

“Yo, weirdo, I have a couple questions for you!”

 

Wirt blinked and slowly turned his head, almost glowering at the other boy. What a way to start a conversation… “What do you want, Ryan?”

 

The blonde boy crossed his arms. “I've noticed some things you've been doing, and it's not normal.”

 

“Okay…?”

 

“And my little brother has said some things.”

 

Sara slammed shut her locker, butting in. “You might want to try getting to the point soon. We all have to get to class.”

 

Ryan shot her a retort before turning back to Wirt. “I'm not talking to you. He says that your brother said you have some kind of ‘brain sickness’. You've been talking to yourself all semester and staring at nothing all the time. And just now, I watched you for a solid minute staring at the air. I think I've finally figured out what's up with you…”

 

A bit of a crowd had formed at this point, brought in the accusatory tone in Ryan’s words. With tens of eyes on him, Wirt’s anxiety finally broke through the tired fog in his head. He suddenly realized what was about to happen.

 

“Uh, w- what's up with me i- is my business, not-”

 

“You're a schizoid, aren't you!”

 

A wave of whispers coursed through the semicircle of onlookers. Struggling against his shaking body, Wirt affirmed with a wavering voice, “I- I said it's my business, Ryan.”

 

Not anymore, Pilgrim...

 

The other boy pushed on. “You’re a fucking schizoid freak, right, Wirt? It explains what happened on Halloween, running around yelling about bluebirds and shit, and why you disappeared on Monday. So, what kind of shit are you seeing today? Demons or something?”

 

“Ryan, j- just drop it. I'm n- not talking about this.”

 

“Why should I? Are people talking to you, too? Are they telling you to hurt people? Are you going to hurt me if I don’t leave you alone?” Ryan smirked and gave Wirt a shove, the smaller teen smacking into the lockers behind him.

 

“No! They don’t- I mean, I would never-”

 

“Oh, but I thought you schizoids all ended up hurting people. You get the voices whispering constantly in your head and eventually, you can't take it and go postal. Then, you’re shipped off to the loony bin.”

 

You know it’s true. Why bother arguing?

 

“Ryan, back off. Now.” Sara spoke through gritted teeth as she took a step toward the boys.

 

The blonde’s grin widened. “Why? Is it because he'll go nuts? Is that why you've been so zoned out lately? Are you about to lose it? Why don't you just do us all a favor and lock yourself up somewhere already before you kill somebody ?”

 

Wirt felt sick in his mounting panic. His heart felt like it was about to burst out of his ribcage. “I… I'm not…”

 

But how can you be sure?

 

“How do you know? If you can't even-” Ryan stopped as he saw Wirt’s eyes travel, watching another leaf break away from the canopy. “See?! He can't even talk to someone right in his own face!” Another shove from the bigger teen. “How about you take that messed up head of yours and have some doctor send a few thousand volts through it. If it doesn't make you not want to kill people, maybe it'll fry your brain and save everyone else before you shoot up the It’s school only when a the matter head-voices of finally time get before- to-”

 

One of Wirt’s crutches dropped to the floor, the other he gripped like a baseball bat by the foot and swung . The aluminum impacted with the side of the blonde boy’s head, before immediately being tossed away. Wirt dry-heaved and nearly collapsed under his own quaking body.

 

“N-no!” He sputtered out. “I hear this enough in my own head. I can’t have it on the outside, too!” His voice was shrill. Everyone knows. Everyone knows!

 

So much for not wanting to be the stereotype. I bet it's all everyone is thinking about, the crazy kid just bashed-

 

Spinning to face the shadow beside him, Wirt nearly screamed out, “I am NOT dealing with you right now, Beast. Piss off!” He just as quickly turned back to the boy on the floor. “I want you to know something, Ryan. I wouldn't wish this illness on my worst enemy. This is literal hell.  I've lost over 20 pounds in the past few months because I can barely eat. I haven't had a full night of sleep since summer or even slept at all in over 3 days because of the asshole next me that you can't even fucking see or hear. And that's just the start of it! I hope, I really do hope, that you will never learn what this is like.” He took a step toward Ryan so he could look down on him. “And just so you and everyone else is sure, I hit you not because ‘Ohh, my head-voice told me to!’. I hit you because I can't take anymore of this! And it's called schizoaffective disorder, not ‘fucking schizoid freak’, you asshole!”

 

Just giving it all away, aren't you-

 

He about-faced to The Beast. “I said shut up! Just leave me alone for once, you miserable piece of-”

 

Any anger for his visitor was instantly replaced by cold fear as every set of eyes pierced under his skull, wanting to get a look into his head. Scrambling, Wirt grabbed his crutches and pushed through the crowd, speeding as fast as he could away from the spectators of his seemingly one-sided screaming match with The Beast. He can hear Sara’s quick footsteps as he turned a corner, as well as the shadow-creature’s bass-toned laugh.

 

Not two minutes after they reached their science class, the announcement speaker crackled to life, ordering Wirt Palmer and Sara Freeman to the office. Wirt can barely hear the joking ‘oooohh!’s of his and Sara’s classmates past the rushing blood in his ears. He let out a stuttered breath as the two of them left the classroom. I could really use a Xanax right now.

 

Are you going to be a drug addict now?

 

“That is literally what they’re prescri- You know what? No. I’m not talking to you right now.”

 

You did that enough already in the hallway, in front of everyone .

 

He grumbled in reply. Sara gave him a reassuring look.

 

Ryan was already there in the principal’s office when they arrived, an instant cold pack on his head. When Wirt sat down next to Sara, it was obvious neither his fear or adrenaline had yet to dissipate from the altercation. As soon as he was in the chair, his good leg set to bouncing rapidly.

 

“Both of you boys’ parents will be here soon,” their principal said. “Sara, you are here because you supposedly witnessed the entire interaction, according to Ryan.”

 

Sara nodded. Wirt bounced his leg. Ryan glared toward Wirt.

 

The adult continued. “Now Wirt, Ryan has already told me his side of events, would you like to tell me your side?”

 

Wirt swallowed and gripped the sides of his chair. “He said some things, pushed me twice, said more things. I panicked and hit him… with one of my crutches, I said some things, and I left.”

 

“Care to elaborate?”

 

“I really… I don't want to say it…”

 

Such a coward.

 

Wirt shot a look to his left at the shadow. Sara, on his right, pulled out her phone.

 

“Don't worry, Wirt,” she grinned at him. “I got this.”

 

“Wait, did you record it?”

 

“I can delete it later if you want.”

 

Unlocking the device and making a few swipes on the screen, she passed it to the principal, saying, “Before the video starts, Wirt and I were talking by my locker. Ryan came over and said that he had some questions for Wirt and that he had figured out ‘what was wrong with him’.”

 

The man pulled a pair of glasses from his shirt, perched them on his nose, and tapped the screen.

 

Ryan’s voice sounded from the phone’s speaker. Flinching as ‘schizoid freak!’ rang out, Wirt set to blocking out the noise as best he could without directly covering his ears. Instead, he focused on the edelwood spiralling slowly up his still leg, kicking it away once it reached his knee. He caught Ryan’s face from the corner of his eye, looking weirded out by his action toward the unseen plant, as the video continued on.

 

The whack cut through the muttering crowd in the video, and Wirt wrapped his arms around himself as his desperate voice emanated from the speaker. He hated how he sounded like a terrified, exhausted, crazed child.

 

That because it’s all you are, a terrified child lost in your own head.

 

The video ended as Wirt yelled at nothing, paused, then pushed through the surrounding crowd. The principal placed the phone on the desk and slid it back to Sara. “If you could, please send this to me via email, so that I can have it for the record and to show to Wirt and Ryan’s parents when they arrive.”

 

The next 15 minutes were of quiet agony and anxiety for Wirt. No one spoke, but Sara did rub a hand on his upper back once she had sent out the requested email. It didn’t do anything to quell his shaking, but he appreciated the thought behind it. His visitor filled the empty air with snide comments and jabs about his declassified diagnosis. Wirt outright ignored him.

 

When both Wirt and Ryan’s mothers arrived, the older man pulled up the video on his desktop, spinning the display around for everyone to see.

 

The principal set to catching the parents up. ‘I called you here today because there was an incident between Wirt and Ryan. Sara who witness the event, recorded just about all of it on her cell phone, which I have here on my computer. Once we all watch, we will discuss. Alright?”

 

The two women nodded from their seats beside their children. The video started.

 

Seeing himself leaning heavily against his crutches on the screen, Wirt couldn’t help commenting. “Jeez, I look like crap…” Not only could hear that he was like a terrified, exhausted, crazed child, but now he could see it. This face was pale, more so than usual, and the dark skin under his eyes stood out in stark contrast. Even from the blown up video, the shaking of his body was clearly visible and only grew worse as the recording progressed. He started when his own voice yelled at The Beast, visitor unseen in the video.

 

The principal turned his computer screen back around once the recording ended. Wirt’s mom turned to her son, face full of worry. “What do you mean you’ve been awake for 3 days? Is something wrong? Is your insomnia getting worse?”

 

Wirt looked down at his oil-coated hands. “I’ll talk to you about it later, Mom.”

 

“Well if it caused you to attack my boy here,” Ryan’s mom said snidely, “I’d greatly appreciate an explanation for it.”

 

“It… it has something to do with my illness, and I really don't want to talk about it. It’s between me and my mom.”

 

“You mean the schzio-whatever-it-was?”

 

He really didn’t like her dismissive tone. “Yes, my schizo affective disorder.”

 

She frowned angrily at him. “So what your saying is, you bashed my son in the head because of your schizoaffective disorder.”

 

No , I'm not saying that! Your son said I was going to go crazy and shoot up the school , and was refusing to let up. I panicked because I saw no other way out of the situation. I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't listen. Yes, I did hit him, but he was the one who shoved me first, twice mind you, and he was the one who said I was going to murder people because of my illness!”

 

His mother chimed in, on his side. “Your son did say some dreadful things about Wirt.”

 

The other mom shot right back, “That does not give your son the right to hit him over the head with a metal crutch.”

 

“If I may interrupt... ”Sara leaned forward and looked to Ryan’s mother to break the parent’s line of sight on each other. “What Ryan said to Wirt is clearly discrimination against a medical disability and a case could easily be made against him, especially because I and several others have the encounter on video. Wirt hadn't even been on the same side of the hallway, let alone talking to him, before Ryan came over and started harassing him. Ryan instigated the entire thing, including making it physical.”.

 

Ryan's mom looked disgruntled but said nothing, crossing her arms instead.

 

The principal finally spoke up. “While I do think Sara has a point, I don't think Wirt should have hit another student, especially with a blunt object. You're both getting 5 days after school detention, starting Monday. Because of Thanksgiving and the early-out on Wednesday next week, the rest of your punishment will carry over to the following week.” He looked at the two parents. “I suggest you take your children home, Ryan to rest his injury, and Wirt to deal with whatever is going on currently with his condition. Sara, thank you for your help in this matter. You can go back to class. The secretary will give you a pass. Unless anyone has any other points to make or questions to ask, you are all dismissed.”

 

As everyone involved left the principal’s office, Sara pulled Wirt aside and gave him a tight, reassuring hug, pinning his crutches under his arms. “If you need anything or if things get bad, text me, okay?”

 

Wirt nodded, not meeting her eyes. After a quick checking out at the front desk and an eerily silent car ride home, Mrs. Palmer herded her son to the kitchen, sitting him down and taking the spot across from him.

 

She sighed heavily. “Wirt, sweetie, what is going on? You look like you’re about to drop.”

 

Might as well be frank. He rubbed his eyes and set to talking. “I haven’t slept since Monday night. When Then Beast visits, he purposefully keeps me awake. Usually, I only miss a night of sleep, maybe two, but I wanted to see if I would wait him out somehow. If he wants me awake, maybe if I suffer enough from it, he’ll leave. He showed up on Tuesday and I’ve been awake since.”

 

His mom was obviously uncomfortable with the idea of her son having to suffer for his visitor to leave. “While forcing yourself or being forced to stay awake doesn’t seem as bad as hurting yourself directly, not sleeping still is really awful for you. I’m not saying you should be hurting yourself inst-” She stopped herself and rubbed her temples, groaning. “I’m going to call Dr. Walters, see what he thinks about this before you see him tomorrow. Is there anything else I need to know?”

 

Her son hesitated. She looked at him pointedly. Relenting, he let out a breath and admitted, “I’m... seeing new things.” With his mom’s gaze still on him, he continued. “I- I don't know if it's just because I haven't slept, or… it's harmless, just distracting. Red leaves falling from the ceiling. Tree branches trying to crawl up my legs. Black oil coming from the skin on my hands.” Bringing them up, he saw his fingers were still coated in the stuff. He shook his left hand and droplets flew off, but his hand came back just as wet.

 

“Anything else?” At Wirt’s shaking head, she went on. “Then I want you to take two Xanax and lay down on the couch, to see if you can get some sleep with the meds. I'll be doing some chores around the house, so feel free to talk to your visitor if you’d like. If you do fall asleep, I’ll wake you up for dinner and so you can take your medication, okay?”

 

He nodded, still watching the thick liquid travel over his skin.

 

“Are you hungry or anything now?”

 

He shook his head. Of course he wasn’t. He never was anymore.

 

Sighing, she stood up and ruffled his hair. ‘The Xanax is in my purse by the door. Try to get some sleep, alright?”

 

He did as he was told, but sleep still refused to come. Instead, the Xanax turned his bones to lead, trapping him on the couch. He watched the red canopy shift in an unfelt breeze, kicking the edelwood away every few minutes.

 

When his stepfather came home, Wirt was ready to get an earful over what had happened that day. But, after seeing what a sorry state his son was in, the older man just gave a heavy sigh and walked away. Wirt wasn’t sure if he liked that outcome more than a yelling match, or what his step dad’s emotion behind the action were..

 

That night, after his parents left the living room to go to bed, Wirt moved quietly to his mother’s bag. If two pills didn’t knock him out, surely four would, right?

 

But by 4 am that night, it was obvious that wasn’t the case. He was wide awake as his mind would allow, The Beast as loud as ever, the leaves still falling, branches still grabbing at his body, oil soaking into his sheets. For a short moment, Wirt considered texting Sara, but brushed the idea away, not wanting to bother her sleep. His low mood settled in his chest like a stone.

 

“Beast. Did you know that you can die if you force yourself to stay awake long enough? It takes something like 10 days. I’m already at 4.”

 

The Beast’s eyes brightened, and he leaned toward the teen. Are you insinuating something, Pilgrim? Or just delivering factoids?

 

Wirt just blinked, staring at the red ceiling. If he let his eyes unfocus, the leaves looked almost like slowly dripping blood. He sat up while knocking away the edelwood. Leaning his elbows on his knees, he stared at the opposite wall. The hollow sensation in his ribs pushed outward and upward, forcing its way into his throat and behind his eyeballs. He wanted to cry, contrary to what most teenage boys seemed to say, but the hollowness stopped him before he could get more than a prickling behind his eyes. He scrubbed at his face, sniffling. “Or what about the pond? Drown in the water that nearly drowned me the night I went crazy. Certainly be faster than 6 more days of this.”

 

The room darkened, but his visitor offered no reply.

 

Wirt pulled the knife out from under his mattress and uncapped it.”Or I read somewhere that bleeding out is like falling asleep…” The air grew tense as he stared at the blade, scratching a few small brown spots off the tip with a fingernail. The hollow feeling pushed against his skull, trying to force its way in.

 

He exhaled, shoving up the sleeves of his pajamas roughly. He was running out of space on his legs, so why not be stereotypical? He was already a stereotypical schizoid freak. Holding the craft knife in his right hand, he muttered, “See you in a couple days, Beast…”

 

The Beast said nothing as he flickered into smoke, but his smiling eyes left an afterglow in Wirt’s vision. The crooked twin line on his upper forearm quickly welled up and spilled over, and the dark blood smeared against his skin as he pulled the sleeve back down. What was one more set of bloodstained pajamas? His mother knew, his family knew, everyone knew, why be timid? The depressed ache pulsed through his ribs and back. and he swapped the knife to his dominant hand, slicing a brash, slanted line from the inner elbow to halfway down his arm. He didn’t even bother looking at how much it bled before he ripped down the sleeve and threw the knife against the wall. It smacked against the green paint with hollow thump , leaving a small, gory starburst.

 

Like a truck, the exhaustion of the past several days collided with Wirt’s brain, and he dropped unceremoniously onto his pillow. Any relief he felt from his self-harm disappeared as his head hit the cotton. He was just so tired of this cycle, tired of everything, tired of being tired of everything.

 

Nearly silent, he mumbled the words of a song he had heard on Halloween, soon before waking up, strapped to a hospital bed. The lyrics echoed in his mind and reflected off his destructive ideations. ”Sorrow and fear are easily forgotten when you submit to the soil of the earth…”

 

Soon enough, he fell asleep to the sound if creaking tree branches and rustling leaves.

Chapter Text

“Wirt… Wirt…! Time to get up, Mom says so…!”

 

Greg's hands went pap pap pap gently against his brother's face. Groaning, the older boy rubbed at his eyes, asking groggily, “What time is it?”

 

Looking at the collection of clocks above the bed, Greg offered, “The little hand is on the one. Big hand is at 11.”

 

It was already 12:55 pm, but he felt like he could sleep another whole day.

 

“Mom says you have a doctor's appointment today and that you have to leave with her at 2,” the little one recited for him. “She also says she tried to wake you up earlier, but you were reeeally asleep. Oh, and to make sure you eat something.” With a pat on the head in affirmation for his brother, Greg skipped out of the room.

 

Wirt sat up and collected himself. No Beast, new cuts, hooray. So, the staying awake didn't work. They're had to be something else beside self-harm that could get rid of the visitor. Hopefully, he'd have a couple days to think of another solution. Making his way to the shower, he pulled off his night clothes. The sleeves had to be peeled slowly off the fresh wounds, popping out any scabbing as well. He frowned at the blood oozing to the surface, starting at the 3 cuts. Another night of letting people down.

 

After he bathed, Wirt wrapped the cuts tightly in gauze, trying to ignore how quickly the bandages were staining, the course of the knife clear in the thick, red lines coming through. A dark-colored sweater will cover it up

 

He dressed in the sweater and a pair of jeans before heading down to the kitchen on his crutches, taking his morning set of pills along the way. He found his stepfather at the dishwasher, putting away a clean load.

 

He gave a brief wave as he passed the older man, who replied with, “Hey, Wirt. How did you sleep?”

 

Wirt groaned and grimaced in response as he grabbed a nutritional shake from the fridge and sat in his usual chair.

 

“That bad?”

 

He cracked the drink's safety seal. “Didn't actually get to sleep until around 4.”

 

“I'm honestly surprised you're even standing at all, based on what your mother told me.”

 

“You and I both…” He sipped at the thick liquid as dishes clinked. Looking up, down, and at his hands, he noted the plain ceiling, lack of aggressive plant life, and normal skin. Just the lack of sleep then, I hope.

 

His step dad interrupted his examination. “Any visitors today? One was here yesterday, right?”

 

“He was here yesterday, yes.”

 

“But not anymore.”

 

The question-turned-statement stung at the empty space in his chest. “No, not anymore…”

 

Forcing down the drink, he got out of the tense atmosphere of the kitchen as fast as possible. Just more people he was disappointing.

 

In the living room, he found his half-brother and their mom, cartoon playing on the tv. While his brother was engrossed in the episode on screen, his mom was occupying herself folding towels on the sofa. Wirt dropped into the empty armchair, dropping his crutches on the floor in front of him. He brought up his knees and curled in on himself.

 

“Before you ask,” he mumbled into his jeans, "I fell asleep around 4, and he isn't here anymore.”

 

His mom froze in her folding for a second before resuming. “They clean and covered?” Her voice was strained just barely enough for him to notice.

 

“Yeah…”

 

“Alright, then.”

 

The empty feeling inside pushed down from his ribcage. His stomach ached. Eating was a bad Idea.

 

His mom let out a breath, putting the now folded towels in the basket by her feet. “You have an appointment at 2:30. We'll be leaving at 2.”

 

“Yeah, Greg told me.”

 

“I sure did!” Greg piped up, oblivious to the tension in the conversation. Their mom ruffled his hair.

 

Standing up, his mother held the basket at her hip and said, “I want you to make a list of things to talk with Dr. Walters before we see him. I have my own already, but you know your… situation more than your stepfather and I do. I just want us to be sure we cover everything we can before Thanksgiving.”

 

Thanksgiving meant more family around, more questions to be asked of him, more prying eyes…

 

He nodded. She turned and headed upstairs. Pulling out his phone, he opened his notes app and set to work… or tried to. He stared at the blinking line for a solid 5 minutes before he gave up. Where was he supposed to even start?

 

The most glaring problem was The Beast. He typed the two words into his phone. The Beast made him think of his cutting. That went onto the list. Cutting led to his depression, which wasn't improving. And he’d still been thinking about killing himself, particularly last night. He stalled before typing in ‘suicidal thoughts’ below 'still depressed’. New train of thought, He didn’t want to think about that last one too much…

 

He typed until his mom came down and grabbed her coat from the rack by the door. “Time to go, Wirt,” she said. “We'll be back soon, Greg.” She gave the little one a smooch on top of his head as she pulled on her coat. Wirt slid his phone back into his back pocket, collected his crutches and jacket, and left the house with his mom.

 

After a quiet ride, they pulled up to the hospital. Returning to that place didn't sit well with Wirt, but they we're at least in a different section of the building. A sign overhead declaring “behavioral health” pointed them in the direction to Dr. Walters office. A couple of chairs sat outside of the room, but the door was open, so they went inside.

 

Dr. Walters sat behind an L-shaped desk, typing on a computer. He smiled as the pair entered. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Palmer, Wirt.” He gestured for them to sit at the desk, across from him. Pulling Wirt’s file and a notepad and pen from the drawers under his desk, the doctor settled into his chair, readying himself to write. “So, where would you two like to begin? A few things have happened since we last met with each other…”

 

“We might as well start with the earlier things and move toward yesterday,” Wirt’s mother offered.

 

Dr. Walters nodded. “Alright. Well, last week, we had the incident with your self-harm wounds, Wirt. I talked to your parents over the phone about it after it occured, but do you have anything to say or any questions?”

 

Wirt shrugged. “There’s nothing to really say about it at this point…”

 

“Everything looking okay? And inflammation or other signs of infection?”

 

“No, just a little itchy.”

 

“Well, that’s good. Means it’s healing.” He wrote some things down as he continued, “How about Monday? He had another episode.”

 

Huffing, Wirt replied, “It happened. That’s it.”

 

“Wirt…” his mom said in a warning tone.

 

“What do you want me to say? I was in school, then The Unknown, then in the police station, handcuffed to a chair because I creeped people out at the bank. It’s humiliating and its probably going to happen again.”

 

“I did increase your Thorazine dose,” the psychiatrist mentioned, “so I’m hoping this won’t be a continuing issue. Have you noticed any side effects this past week?”

 

“Some nausea right after I take it, but that’s probably because I don’t eat much beforehand.”

 

“I agree. Though, as the antidepressant takes effect in the next couple of weeks, this will hopefully solve itself when your appetite improves. For now, drinking more water when you take your medication will help.”

 

“We’ve been trying those meal replacement shakes,” Mrs. Palmer said. “He doesn’t seem to mind them too much, but I still don’t think he’s eating nearly enough.”

 

“Any ideas on his Calorie intake?”

 

She did some quick math in her head. “Usually 3 shakes, when he’s home, so around 600 Calories, plus a bit of solid food at dinner.”

 

Dr. Walters wrote this down. “And how much are you eating at lunch, Wirt?”

 

“A shake,” he admitted. “Sara’s been trying to get me to eat more, though. She can usually get me to eat some fries or drink a milk or something.”

 

“Alright,” the doctor turned to Mrs. Palmer. “If you’re worried about nutrition, I suggest a multivitamin. Again, I’m hoping this will work itself out once the Prozac starts to work.”

 

“It doesn’t seem to be doing anything,” Wirt said, a little bitter, “Can’t you increase the dose yet?”

 

“Unfortunately, no. We have to wait the full 4 weeks to see if its working. Antidepressants just take that long to build up in the brain.” Pausing, Dr. Walters asked, “Wirt, are you still having suicidal thoughts?”

 

The question seemed to come out of left field, creating echos of last night’s conversation with his visitor. Rubbing a thumb over his right forearm, he gave a quiet “yeah”.

 

“I ask because antidepressants and some antipsychotics carry what is called a ‘black box warning’. In those who already are dealing with suicidal ideation, these medications, seemingly paradoxically, can increase suicide attempts. This is because that, as the medication starts to work, you can get an initial increase in energy without an uplift in mood. Someone who did not have the energy to make good on their plans before suddenly can. Because you are a suicide risk, we have to make sure to monitor you carefully to prevent this from occurring.”

 

Wirt nodded, looking down. His left leg started to bounce.

 

The doctor caught his unease. “How about we move on to what happened yesterday. Your mother and the school had gotten in touch with me, but I’d like to hear about it from your mouth.“

 

Making a face, Wirt asked, “Have you seen the video?”

 

“I have. I’m fairly certain that isn’t the intended use for crutches.”

 

He gave a half-smile. “I didn’t really say much right after it happened, to the principal at least. I was too busy still freaking out about what Ryan said.”

 

“And why did what Ryan said affect you that way, do you think?”

 

“Um, well, I think about that kind of stuff a- a lot.”

 

“The hurting people part or the hospitalization part?”

 

“...b- both.”

 

Dr. Walters leaned back a bit in his chair. “I can assure you, Wirt, that people with schizophrenia and similar disorders are no more likely to hurt someone than anyone else. And in your current state, as far as I can tell, you are in no need for the help of a psychiatric facility.”

 

“Oh…” Wirt’s voice was small, but hopeful.

 

“If you keep up with your therapy and medications, once we find the proper dosages for you, there’s a high chance of your life returning to a ‘normal’ state. Many schizophrenics live happy and meaningful lives. I suggest you look up Dr. Elyn Saks. She’s written a book you might enjoy.”

 

With a small nod, Wirt gave an “okay”.

 

“Now, I hate to ruin the brighter mood, but I do have to ask you something.” The psychiatrist sat back up in his seat to look at Wirt directly. “Have you been cutting on your arms?”

 

The teen’s stomach dropped, and he wrapped his arms protectively around himself. “How- How did you…”

 

“Last time I saw you, you rubbed at your legs whenever self-injurious behavior was mentioned. Today, you rubbed at your arm. Cutting there can be particularly dangerous, so it worries me. May I see?”

 

Wirt looked toward his mother. She glanced back at him, mouth in a hard line, nervousness marked in her face. He sighed and started to push up his sleeves. Well, she’s seen everything else at this point…

 

Taking Wirt’s left arm, the doctor examined the two brown, parallel lines on the gauze. “You’re left-handed, right? So these are for The Beast?”

 

Leg bouncing harder, Wirt half-asked, “Mom tell you about that, too?”

 

Dr. Walters hmm ed in agreement, releasing the boy’s wrist. “The other…?”

 

Though he hesitated, Wirt held out his right arm. The stain on the gauze was noticeably wider.

 

The older man gently traced over the diagonal line and looked at his finger. No blood. “Wirt, I know that this is a difficult thing to stop, but I have to tell you this. Cutting on your wrists is extremely dangerous. Not because of infection or something along those lines, but because there is a good amount of delicate tissues just under the skin. There is no muscles to cover them up. This is especially true if you cut down your arm. You can cause irreparable damage. Understand?”

 

Bringing back his arm and pulling down his sleeve, the teen nodded, fidgeting with his fingers, leg still moving.

 

“Have you looked at the resources I sent via you mother?”

 

The short stack of papers were sitting on his bedroom desk, right where his mom had left them nearly 2 weeks ago. “...not yet.”

 

“I suggest you look into them. I know you were looking for a way to get your visitor to leave by not sleeping, but replacing one self-destructive action with another isn’t a smart idea. How about we try something more advantageous, okay?”

 

Wirt mumbled, “Okay…”

 

“Good. Now,” Dr. Walters glanced at the clock on his computer screen, “we have a bit of time left. Is there anything else you two wanted to cover?”

 

As if on cue, Wirt’s lungs decided it was the opportune time to yawn. His mother pointed to him, saying, “That. His insomnia isn’t getting any better, even without his visitors. Would he be able to go onto some kind of sleep aid?”

 

The psychiatrist sighed. “Unfortunately, I don’t think it would be a good idea. Not only are many sleep medications habit-forming, but they can also cause negative side effects if the person taking can’t fall asleep after taking them. They can cause mood and personality changes until the medication wears off, along with other psychological effects. I’d rather we wait to see if the antidepressant helps first. If sleep doesn’t improve by the end of the month, I can prescribe Seroquel. It’s another antipsychotic, but it also makes for a good sleep aid for those with mental illness. How about that?”

 

The teen nodded. He’d survived this long with an awful sleep schedule, a couple more weeks wouldn’t hurt. He rubbed his tired eyes.

 

“Anything else?” Dr. Walters asked.

 

“Not from me,” his mother said. “Anything on your list, Wirt?”

 

He looked at his phone and shook his head.

 

The doctor put away Wirt’s file and the notepad. “Alrighty. I’ll see you both in 2 weeks then?”

 

---

 

Wirt made a beeline for his bedroom as soon as they’d returned from the appointment with his psychiatrist. He barely had the sense of mind to take off his shoes and put down his crutches  before he flopped face first onto his bed, falling asleep faster than he had in months. He slept dreamlessly for 16 blissful hours.

 

Even though he regretted sleeping in his street clothes, his jeans having dug marks into his hips, he felt magnitudes better than he had all week. He even almost felt hungry for once.

 

He maneuvered down the stairs with his crutches and headed toward the kitchen. But something stopped him at the edge of the living room. He stood up straight and let the metal walking aids fall to the ground behind him. A room away, someone said his name, but he barely heard.

 

Good morning, Pilgrim.

 

His response was first quiet and then shockingly loud. “No… NO! You aren’t supposed to be here!”

 

I come and go as I please, you-

 

“What did you do to Beatrice?!”

 

The owner of the voice from the other room, his stepfather, appeared next to him. “Wirt, what’s wrong? What’s going on?”

 

Wirt ignored him in favor of accosting his visitor. “You did something to her, didn’t you!”

 

“I’m getting your mother,” the man said as he took the stair two at a time.

 

I did no such thing. We merely exist together. We aren’t connected.

 

“Bullshit. There’s been a pattern ever since you started showing up. It was always you, then her, then you, then her. So where is she?”

 

Wirt jumped and spun as a hand landed on his shoulder. His mother stood in front of him, obviously very worried. “What’s going on, Wirt? What’s this about Beatrice?”

 

“She- she always shows up after he does! But she hasn’t- ....he must have done something to her!”

 

I said we are not connected! I have never even seen her other than that one short time in The Unknown. Am I so untrustworthy?

 

He opened his mouth to shoot back at the shadow, but his mom stopped him, having noticed the gap in the conversation, asking “What did he say? We can’t help if we don’t have some context.”

 

Wirt reiterated his visitor’s response, replying with, “And yes, you are that untrustworthy! When have you ever given me any reason to trust you?”

 

The teen continued to speak for The Beast. “You know I only speak the truth, Pilgrim. Now think, what could have caused your bluebird friend’s disappearance?

 

“You are literally her antithesis! If anything caused her to leave, it would have been you-”

 

-I said think! I have no power over your mind, but something does!

 

“... I- I don’t…”

 

It’s the pills, you imbecile! The-

 

Wirt froze. “My medication. The Thorazine. No... No no nononono. Why didn’t it take you , Beast?!”

 

I guess you’re just lucky, Pilgrim.

 

Fumbling to pull his phone from his back pocket, Wirt’s shaking hands could barely hold it as he tried to type.

 

November 23 8:24 am

i need help the beast is here beatrice never showed up shes gone im freaking out

 

He tossed is phone on the couch and sat down next to it, putting his head in his hands. His spine shook with abandon as his mind raced faster than he could comprehend.

 

His phone buzzed. When he didn’t move to pick it up, his mother did instead, reading the message aloud from the lock screen. “In church right now, give me 40 minutes. Dad would kill me if I tried to leave.”

 

“What are we supposed to do? What is she even going to do?” His stepfather asked, eyes moving back and forth from Wirt to the empty space he had been yelling at.

 

Wirt didn’t reply, saying instead, “Forty minutes, a little more than half an hour. I can h- handle that.”

 

Judging by your current breakdown, I’d say otherwise.

 

“Eff off, n- no one asked your opinion.”

 

The next 40 minutes were spent with Wirt frantically bouncing his leg, barely able to contain his anxiety and his desire to pace the room. His parent tried to console him but were out of their league. They barely knew how to handle his smaller panic attacks, let alone an event of this scale. On top of that, hearing their son talk out loud to The Beast was unsettling, and the continued conversation shook their wits from them. How can someone be so hurtful against themselves like this?

 

At 9:05, a fevered knocking came from the front door. Mrs. Palmer answered, finding Sara, hands in determined fists. The girl gave a determined grin as she was let inside.

 

“Thanks for coming over, Sara,” the older woman said. “You look very nice, by the way.”

 

Sara’s usual jeans and NASA jacket was replaced with a blue skater dress and black cardigan, hair pulled tightly back into a bun. “Thanks, Mrs. P.” She moved to the couch and crouch down in front of Wirt. “Slowly, tell me what’s going on. Something about Beatrice?”

 

Hands still over his face, muffling him, Wirt replied, “She’s gone… My medication took her a- away, and now all I- I’m left with is him and I c- can’t do this without her.”

 

Placing both her hands on his knees, stopping the bouncing, Sara tried to refute his line of thought. “I know Beatrice was a huge help, but you can do this without her-”

 

I’ve changed my mind, she’s more foolish than you, Pilgrim.

 

Sara looked at Wirt, confused. “Oh, sorry,” he went on to explain, motioning his head in the direction of his parents. “They asked me to say what The Beast is saying. Context or something…”

 

“Alright,” she said. “Well, did you take any medication yet? For the panic?” When Wirt shook his head, she asked, “Why not?”

 

“I makes my b- body feel heavy. Like I’ll be trapped with h- him.”

 

“Umm… how about this, you and me go for a walk around town, get some of that energy out, ‘cause if he’s gonna be here uninvited, he’s going to have to walk, too.”

 

Rubbing his face, he hummed in agreement. “Just let me change first, wash my face and such. I slept in yesterday’s clothes. Like three quarters of a day.”

 

Pulling her friend up, Sara said, “You do that. I’ll follow you up in a minute.” When Wirt had grabbed his crutches and made his way back up the stairs, Sara turned to his parents. “So what all happened?”

 

“Apparently, his current visitor broke the usual pattern,” Mrs. Palmer explained, “and Beatrice has been around for shorter periods of time since he started the antipsychotic, so it must mean Beatrice is gone. Wirt had just woken up when this started an hour ago. He’d come downstairs, saw him and started yelling at him, accusing him of doing something to her. Then he told Wirt that it must be the medication that did it. That was when he texted you. Then he just sat there until you showed up. He wouldn’t talk to us. He was just staring at the floor.”

 

“Dr. Walters gave us some tips on how to handle this,” Wirt’s stepfather added, “but Wirt’s just completely shutting us out.”

 

Sara nodded. “Hopefully, I can get him to calm down some, even without his Xanax.”

 

She turned to head up the stairs, but was stopped by Mr. Palmer. “Wait, how do you know what to do? That it’ll even work?”

 

“I..” She paused, hand on the railing and one foot on the bottom step. “I’d rather not talk about it....” She ran up the stairs, before the adults’ reactions could reach her.

 

Wirt was standing in the bathroom when Sara found him, scrubbing the sleep off his face. He toweled off and looked at his reflection. The dark shapes under his eyes seemed as big as ever.

 

“You ready?” She peeked at him through the mirror.

 

Tucking his crutches under his arm, he gave a quiet “yeah” and followed the other teen out of the house and into the chilly November air.

 

The two spent an hour or so wandering from the residential area to the larger shopping area and back. Sara tried as hard as she could to get him to talk, but, like his parents, she seemed totally shut out. He wouldn’t even speak for The Beast when she asked him to, after seeing him look angrily to the side opposite her for the third time. He only gave her short, mumbled answers, or just clammed up completely. It was making her nervous.

 

But then, they made their way across the cemetery’s entrance. Sara turned to ask Wirt a question, but realized he wasn’t next to her. Looking behind her, she saw him. He was standing just inside of the Eternal Garden, crutches both against his chest, wrapped inside his arms. Walking back toward the other teen, she could see he was staring at the stone wall on the other side, muttering to himself. Just as she reached him, she caught the last bit of whatever he’s been saying. “-soil of the earth…”

 

“Wirt? What are you doing?” She placed a hand on his shoulder and he started, jumping away from her. “You’re weirding me out a bit, man…”

 

Wirt replaced his crutches and stammered nonsensically for a second, before finally getting out, “I- It’s nothing. L- Let’s just g- go.”

 

Sara watched him for a moment as he passed by her and under the iron archway. She decided to keep her worries to herself for now.

 

By the time the two kids returned to the Palmer household, Wirt’s mood hadn’t seemed to simmer down much. Sara had wanted to stay longer, but was pulled away by multiple text messages from her parents, wondering if everything was okay and asking her to come home. She begrudgingly complied, but not before first talking to Wirt’s parents in the kitchen.

 

“I’m worried about him,” she said to them when Wirt left to go to the bathroom. “Like, worried worried. He’s not even talking to me, everything is just one word answers, if I get one at all. And when we passed the graveyard, he stopped and was staring at the wall, the one he jumped over on Halloween. He was just standing there, talking to himself. I think he was reciting a poem or a song, it had a rhythm. So just, like, don’t let him be alone. Have him hang out with Greg or something.” She rubbed at the back of her neck with both her hands, huffing out her nerves.

 

Wirt’s mother pulled the girl into a hug. “Thank you for helping Wirt out, dear. You do too much for us.” She gave a short squeeze before releasing Sara.

 

“It’s no problem, I’m just worried about him. I’ve never seen him this depressed.”

 

There was the sound of crutches against carpet and a body flopping onto the couch a room away. A sharp shout of “Shut up!” followed soon after.

 

“I better head out,” Sara said. “Have him text me if things get worse.” She walked into the the living room and squatted down to Wirt’s face, the boy draped across the sofa, on his stomach. “Hey, my parents are making me come home, but you can text me all you want. I’m sure I can come over after school tomorrow, too.”

 

Wirt met her eyes, looking no particular emotion, and hmm ed in acknowledgement.

 

The girl squeezed his shoulder. “See ya later, Noodle Boy.”

 

---

 

Wirt spent the majority of the day on the couch, staring at nothing, barely noticing the other people in the room. He just couldn’t be bothered. Even existing was completely exhausting. He would have been happy to just melt into the padding below him and simply stop being for a while.

 

How was he supposed to do all this ? How was he supposed to handle The Beast without Beatrice? He could barely manage with her there. But ever since everything came to light on Halloween, the situation was continuing down, down, downhill. Not only did everyone at school know for certain, but now they were going to think of him as the crazy kid who try to knock another student out with his crutches. His parents probably thought he was just as crazy, as they’d not only seen and heard about what happened at school, but also got the exclusive close-up experience that was ‘living with Wirt’.

 

And poor Sara. She just wanted to help. She didn’t deserve all the shit he’d been putting her through. He shouldn’t need this much help. He should be able to take care of himself, not go crying to someone he’s been friends with for barely two weeks. She was too kind. He didn’t deserve her. He did deserve any of the help he was getting, the doctors or the pills.

 

And if those pills were supposed to be helping him, why would they take away Beatrice? She was the one good thing he had against all of the shit The Beast was throwing at him.

The Beast was right… he’d always been right, he was just too stubborn to see it…

 

Standing above him, he smiled. I’m so glad you’re starting to see things my way, Pilgrim.

 

The shadow had been oddly silent during his internal monologue, thoughts swimming around in the hollow expanse in his chest that now expanded through most of his body. Wirt looked up toward him, the after-image of the pale wall casting The Beast in a deep, hazy gray.

 

No need for me to speak when you are just thinking what I want to say.

 

Moving to stand by the teen’s feet at the end of the couch, his visitor passed a hand over Wirt’s head. His scalp tingled in response, though his hair did not move.

 

Other than a couple of bathroom breaks and position changes, Wirt stayed there on the sofa for the rest of the day, not even bothering to get up for dinner. At 10 pm, his step dad sent him up to his room to “try and get some sleep”. Wirt was fairly certain they both knew they were fooling themselves.

 

Later that night, when his mind became too tired to keep the day-long train of thought rolling, his visitor picked it up for him, scathing words washing over him like all the other nights spent with the shadow. But unlike all the other nights, instead of arguing, Wirt couldn’t help but agree.