The House on Elm Street

aged

the withering man, part 15

The unhallowed dead are like wine grapes. They have to be allowed to rot, if their juices are to run sweet. Only then can they be fermented, and harvested, again, and again, and again.
-The Annals of the Shivering Stone

“You’re up early,” my mom said as I staggered down the stairs Monday morning.

“Yeah,” I said. My voice only shook a little. “Mom, do I look pale to you?”

She walked over and squinted at me. “Why? Are you feeling sick? Trying to get out of going to school?”

“No, I just…when I looked in the mirror I thought I looked a little pale.”

“You look fine to me,” she said.

I nodded. That was something. An hour earlier, I woke up with a strange feeling in my leg. I pulled off my covers to find something clinging to my left thigh. I freaked out and leapt off the bed, and it scurried off before I could get a good look at it. If my mom was right, whatever it sucked out of me with those tiny slurps wasn’t blood. That wasn’t very comforting.

“Do you want a ride to school today?” Adam said as he walked into the room.

“What for?”

“They’re moving me to a different site today,” he said. “It’s not far from your school.”

Your school. Like he’d been out of there for more than a year himself.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d so hate to miss out on the time with my wonderful bus friends.” Adam grinned.

“Lunch on this job is late, so I should be able to give you a ride home, too.”

“No!” I blurted out.

Adam and Mom exchanged looks.

“Why so insistent?” Mom asked.

“It’s just that Mei and I were both going to stay late and go to the library,” I said. “We have a big history project coming up. Her dad is going to pick us up. He knows about it.”

“And if I call him,” said my mom, “he’ll confirm your story?”

“Yes,” I said. It was true. I set it up with Mei the day before. Sure, I left out the little detail that I planned to bail on her and get her to cover for me. But mom didn’t need to know that.

 

“What is that?” Adam said as we pulled into the parking lot.

“Oh Jesus,” I said.

A throng of people packed the lawn in front of the school. Many of them were adults; way too many to be teachers. A lot of them wore rain coats with hoods. Under the gray sky it made them look like some kind of weird cult. As we got closer I saw that some of them held signs.

NO CLARK SON NEAR MY SON

and

MURDERERS DON’T MAKE GOOD TEACHERS

Someone stepped onto a chair and stood above everyone else. It was Juanita. I saw now that behind her was a sea of students all wearing t-shirts, even though it was freezing out. T-shirts with the same words in large red letters.

STAND WITH CLARKSON

“You can’t prevent Mr. Clarkson from teaching,” Juanita’s voice rang out over the chatter of the crowd. “He is a good man. We, the students and community members of Vigil for the Innocent, believe in his innocence.”

“He’s a killer!” someone shouted. There were shouts of agreement, which launched the Stand with Clarkson people into an uproar.

“Maybe you should pull around back,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Adam, although he sounded reluctant. “Probably a good idea.”

But it was too late.

“There’s Jessica Kingsport!” Juanita called out. “In the white car. She saw the real killer. She’ll tell you.”

I groaned. I almost told Adam to floor it so I didn’t have to deal with this. But I’d probably feel like shit about it all day if I bailed.

“Better let me out,” I said. Adam stopped, and I opened the door and stepped onto the sidewalk.

All eyes turned to face me with varying degrees of hostility. My first instinct was to shrink in on myself. But I was too pissed off. I stood up straight. I’d be damned if I was going to let a bunch of ignorant assholes intimidate me.

“She doesn’t know shit!” one of the parents yelled.

“Tell them, Jessy,” said Juanita. “Tell them it wasn’t Mr. Clarkson.”

“It wasn’t Mr. Clarkson,” I said. “I saw him, and it wasn’t.”

“Bullshit,” said the guy who shouted before. “The other girl said it was too dark. She couldn’t see shit!”

“It was dark,” I said. My voice sounded firm in my ears. Good. “But the attacker was too tall. His shoulders were too broad. It wasn’t him.” It felt really good to say that. Even if I didn’t know if it was true.

Everyone in the crowd began to shout at one another. I heard some words parents really aren’t supposed to say hurled at me, and some even worse ones hurled right back at the parents. Someone screamed that she was a lawyer, and would sue. Someone else said “I know where you live.” I cringed. This was about to get very nasty.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Principal Harris’s loud voice cut through the cacophony.

Everyone turned and started to shout at him.

“These students need to get to class,” said Harris. “The teachers need to teach. The police have been notified, and they are on their way to make sure none of this gets out of hand.”

That did it. The Idiot Overprotective Parent Brigade might be able to stand up to a group of kids, but apparently they didn’t want to get arrested. The mob began to disperse, and I cut through towards the school.

“Thanks, Jessica,” said a voice as neared the door. “You didn’t need to say what you said. I appreciate that.”

“Mr. Clarkson?” I spun around, and there he was.

“I’m here,” he said, grinning. Damn. I’d kind of forgotten how cute that grin was.

“Were you back there? In that crowd? I didn’t see you.”

“The basketball team made a wall in front of me. They were afraid the crowd would throw things at me.”

“They weren’t wrong,” I said. He laughed. “Listen, can we talk later?”

“Talk?” a look shot through his eyes. Just for a second, but I caught it. “Um…yeah. Maybe. I’ll be awfully busy.”

“It’s important,” I said.

“Yes, I understand. I should get to first period. Stop by my room, later. I’ll see if I can’t fit you in.”

Fit me in? What happened to “stop by anytime?” Of course, that was before he was arrested, and all over the national news. But somehow I didn’t think that was it. Because that look in his eyes was terror. Total, absolute terror.

 

I thought Mr. Clarkson’s return might make my school situation better. I was wrong. Most of the students and teachers still avoided me like a diseased rat, but now some of them wanted to talk to me. Arthur Brandice asked me if I was banging Mr. Clarkson, and Jeremy Stitwell asked for my autograph “for when I was a famous serial killer and all.” Ugh.

Mei told me over and over to ignore it. Easy for her to say. She wasn’t the one being harassed every time she walked down the hall.

My attempts to further my investigations were fabulously unsuccessful. Jenna was still out of school, and hadn’t returned any of my emails. Juanita continued to evade me. She didn’t even thank me for helping, this morning. Mr. Clarkson rushed out of class as soon as it was over, so I couldn’t talk to him. And he didn’t post office house like he usually did. I finally cornered him outside of the biology lab when no one was around.

“Mr. Clarkson, wait up.”

“Oh, Jessica,” he said. “Hello. I’m sorry, I’m late for a meeting. The administration is walking me through damage control, after the incident.”

“Yeah, this’ll only take a second,” I said.

“I’d spare a second if I could,” he said. “You know I would.”

“We need to talk about…”

“I know, and I wish I could, but…”

“…the Spanish club trip.”

His eyes widened for a second, and then hardened. He dropped his briefcase on the ground and grabbed me by both shoulders.
“Listen, girl,” he said. “You will not bring that up ever again. Do you hear me?”

“I…”

“Do you hear me?” He shook me, roughly. His face twisted into a crazy expression. “Or else you’ll end up like the other girls. Like all the other girls. Do you understand?”

“Let go of me!” I wrenched myself from his grip.

“Jessica,” his face softened as I backed away. “Jessica, wait!”
I ran out of the hall and didn’t look back. What the hell was that?

I avoided Mr. Clarkson for the rest of the day. Maybe cornering him as he rushed off somewhere the day he came back to school after he got out of prison wasn’t the best move. But I would have to try again. There was something going on here. If I didn’t know it before, I knew it now.

All in all, a crappy day. I was happy when it ended.

“So,” Mei said when she found me after last period. “The library?”

I nodded, and followed her out the door and across the lawn towards the library building. I wanted to get away from listening ears before I said what I was about to say.

“Yeah,” I said. “Mei, listen. I need to talk to you.”

She paused, then turned to look at me. Her face fell when she saw my expression.

“Oh no,” she said.

“Listen. Do you trust me?”

“You’re about to do something crazy, aren’t you?”

“Do you trust me?”

“I worry about you,” she said. “We all do. Me and Dantre and Natasha and…everyone.”

“I know,” I said. “But do you trust me?”

“Of course I do. You know I do.”

“I need to do something.”

“Like another date?” she said.

I shook my head. “More serious than that. Much more serious.”

“I was afraid of that,” she said.

I sighed heavily, and forced myself to continue. I was sick of lying to her. To everyone.

“There is something going on. Something huge. Something…dangerous. And I have to take care of it. I have to take care of it, and I can’t tell you about it.”

She let that hang there, for a long moment, in the cold, damp air.

“It has to do with that man, doesn’t it?” she said at last. “The one in the photographs.”

I didn’t say anything.

“He has something to do with the murders, doesn’t he?”

I laughed. “You’re much smarter than me, you know that?”

“Why do you have to take care of it?” she asked. “What about the police, or the FBI? That agent Durant. You could go talk to her, you could…”

“Mei,” I said. “I can’t. You need to trust me. This is something I have to do. It just is.”

“But you won’t tell me about it.”

I shook my head.

“Because it’s too dangerous,” she said.

“If you had a videotape that killed anyone who watched it, would you show it to me?”

She smiled weakly at the reference. “No,” she said. “I guess I wouldn’t.”

“You’re the best person I know, Meizhen Lin.” I hugged her. “I have to go.”

She nodded. I could tell she was scared. I knew that all she wanted to do was grab me and drag me back to school and call my mom and call the FBI and do anything to stop me from leaving. But she didn’t.

“My dad’ll be here at 5,” she said. “Make sure you’re back by then, or your mom will be really angry.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll see you then.”

“Just be careful, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, and walked off into the overcast.

It wasn’t that far to the old house where Sofia hid her diary. A couple of miles through the back streets of Caldwell. There was no one on the roads, as I walked under the gray sky. No cars, no people. Some of the houses had lights. Some of them. I couldn’t fight the feeling that I was alone in the entire world. The other people were all gone. Never to come back.

Dread crept up my spine as I traveled. I hadn’t seen the creatures since this morning. No fanged worms in my sandwich, like yesterday. Nothing reaching out of the drain to strangle me, like the night before. They weren’t gone. They were around me, all the time. I knew they were. I could almost feel them, prickles on my skin. Scratches in my chest. There was a reason they were absent today. Maybe it was the sabbath, where they came from. Or maybe they hated Mondays. Or maybe they were planning something.

This is what I thought of, as I walked down the twisting, empty roads. Caldwell was full of these winding backstreets. No reason to ever go there if you didn’t live on one. I’d never been this way, until a few months ago.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Trust me,” said Sofia. “It’s neat.”

“If you say so,” I said. “This is just way too close to school for a Saturday. We’re not, like, going to school, are we?”

“Of course not!” She grinned and tilted her head in that way she did. “We’re going to Elm Street.”

“Elm Street?”

“Well, Elm Avenue. Close enough.”

“That’s not the same thing at all,” I said.

“Yes it is,” said Sofia. “It is because I say it is.”

“You’re weird,” I said.

“You’re weirder.”

“So’s your face!”

She grasped her chest as if struck in the heart. “You got me.” I laughed.

“You know if you ever tell anyone I said ‘so’s your face’ I’m going to have to kill you?” I said. “You know that, right?”

“Don’t worry,” she grinned. “I won’t tell anyone you’re secretly…silly.”

“Oh God. I can’t believe you said that. I don’t think we can be friends anymore.”

A while later we turned a corner, and I saw Elm Avenue.

“Wow,” I said. “Where did this place come from?”

“It’s spooky, right?”

I nodded. It looked like an entire street of abandoned houses. Not just abandoned. Derelict. Decrepit.

“It’s like there was a spectral earthquake,” said Sofia, “and a bunch of ghosts died. Someone used their remains to build these houses.”

“I want to sketch them. All of them.”

“I know what you mean. Come on. I’ll show you mine. 441 Elm Street.”

We walked forward.

“For a small town, Caldwell has an awful lot of abandoned houses.”

“A medium sized town,” I corrected. She laughed. She was from “the city,” so everything was a small town. Made it sound like I was from Hicksville.

“I heard it’s because there used to be a coal mining industry. When that dried up, so did the town.”

“A coal mining industry,” I said. She nodded. “And where, exactly, did they hide this huge coal mine once it ran out? Under the rug?”

Sofia looked embarrassed for exactly one second.

“Of course you can’t see it,” she said. “It’s a ghost mine.”

“A ghost mine?”

“Yes. It’s where they got the building materials. You know, for the ghost houses.”

I shot her a withering look, but I couldn’t keep a straight face. We both burst out laughing.

“Here we are,” she said, when we reached the end of the street. “My palace of darkness.”

It wasn’t the largest house, or the most decrepit. But it was beautiful. You could tell it had been elegant when it was in good repair. Age and wear somehow made it more elegant. The cracked windows looked like frost on a winter’s day. The sagging beams added gentle curves to what would have been an uptight rigidity. An exquisite corpse of a manor, rotted to a transcendence it had never known in life. Sofia’s words, but they stuck with me.

We went inside, and she showed me around. It was gorgeous and hideous and creepy and wonderful. All cobweb-covered wall sconces and elaborate molding with artfully chipped paint. There was an old, gaudy chandelier in the living room, whose ugliness was dimmed by a thick layer of dust. Sofia stood under it and twirled.

“This is where I come when life gets too, you know…”

“Boring?” I said.

“Mundane. Ordinary. It’s not an escape from the world. It’s a willful descent into madness. Does that make sense?”

“Yes!” I said. Nothing had ever made so much sense.

“I do my best writing here.”

“Is this where you’re writing Nightbound Prince?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve got a new chapter, by the way.”

“Ooo!” I said. “Tell me you have it on you.”

We sat there for hours, reading and drawing and writing and laughing and talking, underneath the crumbling roof. She showed me all the hidden places in the house, where she kept things. Like some notebooks. And her diary.

Elm Avenue had been eerie then, under the orange and red leaves of early October. Now, under the dark November sky, lined with skeletal trees, it was terrifying.

I’ve already done haunted tunnels, a haunted park, and a haunted funeral home, I thought. I guess haunted house was next.

There’s something about old, empty homes that makes me ache on the inside. They’re always dark. No matter how bright the sunlight on a summer day, it can’t get inside. It can’t penetrate their secrets. But as I walked down the street I saw that one of the houses at the far end was lit. I swallowed. Bets on which one?

Orange light spilled out of every window of 441 Elm Street as I approached. It looked like a tall jack-o’-lantern, carved from a black and rotten pumpkin. And was there someone out front? No, that was ridiculous. No one had lived here in years. No humans, anyway.

As I neared the house, I saw that an old woman stood in the open front door, her eyes fixed on me. She had wrinkled olive skin, and dark gray hair tied into a ponytail. There was something familiar about her, but I couldn’t place it.

“Kalos, Jessy Kingsport,” she said. Έchoeme ethe sas perimenei.”

My stomach clenched. I took a deep breath and stepped closer.

The old woman tilted her head to the side. It shook violently for a moment, like she was having a seizure. Then it stopped.

“Welcome, Jessy Kingsport,” she said. “We’ve been expecting you.” Her voice sounded off. Like she had something wedged in her mouth.

“Uh…”

“Please, come in.”

The thing in my chest stretched its claws, but didn’t scratch. It just sat there, like a thorn lodged between my breasts. What the hell did that mean? That I wasn’t in danger, or that my defenses weren’t working? Or something else entirely? It didn’t matter. I had to do this.

“Okay,” I said. “Led the way.”

She smiled with too many teeth. Like a gorilla. Then she turned and walked into the house. I followed her in, with full knowledge that this was maybe the stupidest thing I had ever done. The door slammed shut behind us.

The house looked the same as I remembered, but with signs of life. Cracked saucers half-full of tea sat on the rotten coffee table. The chandelier was on, and its light struggled to shine through the coat of grime. A sweet, meaty scent hung in the air. Like boiled kidneys and fungus.

“Sit down,” said the old woman. “Have some tea. I’ll get the others.”

Others?

“I don’t think…”

“Sit down,” she barked. A wad of phlegm flew out of her mouth and splashed the door behind me. I sat down on the moldy couch, into something thick and wet. I couldn’t see it, even when I ran my fingers along the cushion. But I felt it.

A minute later the old woman returned with three other people. A man, a woman, and a small child whose gender I couldn’t determine. They all had the same look, with olive skin and dark hair. But it was more than that. The young woman looked like she could have been the old woman, forty years ago. She and the man looked like twins, and the child was the same.

“Hello,” said the man and woman in perfect unison. The child’s “hello” came less than a second later. Like an echo. It made my skin crawl. Their speech had the same garbled quality as the old woman’s.

“Um…hi,” I said. “Listen, I’d love to stay, but I’m just here to find…”

“Tomo un poco de té, chica, ” said the old woman. Her head jerked. “Have some tea, deary.”

“Uh, yeah. If it’s all the same, I think I’ll…”

“You’re in danger, Jessy,” said the man and woman, again with the child echo.

I stood up. “Yeah. I’m think I’m going to…”

“Sit,” said the old woman. I didn’t listen this time.

“We’re going to hurt you, Jessy,” the man-woman-child said again.

I stepped backwards and crawled over the couch, never taking my eyes off of them. All four of them tilted their heads and gazed at me.

“We have to hurt you, Jessy,” they all said together. I took a step back. They took a step forward.

“We don’t…” all of their heads jerked wildly, then they smiled. “We want to hurt you, Jessy.”

I backed up again, and then stepped towards me. They flowed around the couch, then rejoined as if they shared a single, fluid body. Or a single mind.

The basement door was behind me. At least, I thought it was.

Please let the basement door be behind me.

“She can’t…we can’t hold back much longer, Jessy. We’re going to taste you, Jessy.”

I reached behind me. A doorknob. I turned it. The door wouldn’t open. Jammed.

“We’re going to harvest you, Jessy. He wants us to harvest you, Jessy.” They stepped forward.

I spun around to face the door. I felt their breath on the back of my neck. I twisted the doorknob, then kicked the door. It flew open and crashed into the wall. I raced through, slammed the door shut, and locked it.

I let out a breath of relief. It didn’t last. As soon as my heart stopped pounding in my ears I heard a noise. From below. Whimpering. It sounded like Jenna had, in the tunnels. When she was on the slab. As the creature worked on her. I walked down the stairs.

It was dark, but I could see alright. The staircase was long. I remembered that from before. Long and narrow. It was hard to breathe, with the thick scent of dust in the air. As I descended the whimpering grew louder. The sound made my insides hurt. It was the sound of hopelessness.

The stairs opened into a medium sized room full of dusty furniture. There was an unfinished wall –just wooden scaffolding – in the middle of the room that divided the basement into two. One the other side, in the far room, was where Sofia hid her diary.

Pressed up against the scaffolding was the source of the whimpering. A girl. Her black hair was matted and filthy, and cuts covered the olive skin of her exposed face and arms. Some of the cuts looked old and scarred, and some of them were fresh, and still dripping.

I recognized her instantly.

“Oh my god,” I said. Tears stung my eyes. “Sofia.”

I realized why the people upstairs looked so familiar. And why they looked the same. They were all Sofia. Different ages, even different genders. But it was her.

“Oh god, Sofia. What have they done to you?”

She looked at me, her face filled with desperation, and flailed out with her loose arm. The wooden scaffolding behind her rattled. I saw that several pieces of metal were thrust through her left hand, and bound her to the wood. An industrial staple gun lay at her feet.

She tried to say something, but only a garbled moan came out. I saw why. A large gash ran up the right side of her face, extending her lips nearly to her ear. When she opened her mouth she had no tongue.

She pointed at the staple gun, then at her hand bolted to the scaffolding.

“You…did this to yourself?”

She nodded, then reached for me again.

“Oh Jesus, Sofia. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I wanted to help her. To do something. But what could I do? I was afraid to get any nearer. She mouthed a word, but her face was so mangled I couldn’t make it out.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. I kept my back pressed to the far wall, and inched past her. “I wish I could help. I’m so sorry.”

She stretched her fingers towards me as I moved by. They came two inches from my face. Along her arm, there were several red, slimy, writhing things. Tentacles. Just like I saw on her body, back at the funeral home. Tentacles, and the stumps of tentacles. It looked like some of them had been cut off.

Slowly, so slowly, I moved past her into the far room. She wailed as I stepped out of her reach. I ran to the wall on the other side of the room. There was a hole in the drywall. I took a deep breath and reached my arm in.

It was deep. That’s why she chose it. No sane person would reach into a deep hole in the dank basement of a decrepit house on Elm Street. I pawed around. My hand touched something wet and slimy. Then something with fur. I shuddered. Finally I felt something slick that crinkled, and pulled it out. This was it. A plastic shopping bag. Inside was a large gallon zip-lock, and inside of that was the diary.

I moved back towards Sofia, and crept past her towards the stairs. She mouthed that word again. Then again. I paused before going up. She wanted to tell me something. It might be important. I looked closely, as she formed the syllable with her mutilated lips.

“Run.”

The expression on her face changed. The desperation drained out of it, and her mouth twisted into a terrible smile. She ripped her arm out of the wall. Thick black fluid gushed from the wound. Pain lanced through me as the thing in my chest clawed viciously at my insides. I sprinted up the stars and ripped open the door.

The family sat at the couch and drank tea. Their faces jerked towards me as I spilled through the door entry way and slammed it shut behind me.

“Where are you going, deary?” said the old woman.

“You’ve only just arrived,” said the others.

They stood up.

I ran straight towards them, stepped on the back of the couch, and leapt over their heads. They spat thick gobs of saliva, which soared past my shoulder. A few flecks hit my arm, and it burned.

I crashed into the door to the outside. It flew open. I tumbled down the front stairs and ran out into the cold air.

I didn’t look behind me. I just ran, and ran, and ran. My veins filled with fire. I kept running, until Elm Avenue was far, far behind me.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Sizzle

Bacon Heart

 

Another short respite from the withering man. Flash-fiction horror about the tiny pleasures.

 

 

Sizzle

“Stop! Why are you doing this to me?”

I try to ignore the screams as I throw some bacon into the hot skillet and pour myself a glass of whiskey. There’s so much screaming, these days. I walk over and shut the window, even though that accomplishes exactly dick.

Sometimes it makes me so angry that I’m not bloody desensitized to it all already. Other times I’m just happy to still be rational. To still have some scraps of my humanity. Humanity is hard to cling to, lately.

All I can say is thank the Lord for bacon! The rich, savory scent fills the kitchen. I just sit there and drink it in. I don’t even need to eat it. I can just rest my weary-as-hell ass on my stool and let the aroma wash over me. Of course you can’t get good bacon anymore. Not like you used to. But I’ll take it. Nowadays, you take what you can get.

Bacon has always been there for me. No matter how shitty it got. I remember sitting in a shelter with my brother Elton. Every few seconds there was a loud bang outside, and we wondered. If it would be the last. If next time the walls would finally crumble. The Powers That Be in government thought bombing would solve the problem. Idiots. Even then, we all knew that wouldn’t work.

“Jeffrey,” said Elton as he crawled out from under a table, “I was going to save this, but this might be, you know, the last time we..”

“Yeah,” I said.

“So here we are. What the hell, right?” He reached into his bag, and pulled out a plastic package. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

“Oh you magnificent bastard,” I said. “Have I ever told you I love you?”

“Nah,” he said. “Probably because you’re a dude.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I bet you’re right. Let’s fry that shit up.”

We didn’t care that the portable gas burner gobbled up a good amount of our meager oxygen supply. I don’t reckon either of us expected to make it out of there.

“Jeffrey,” Elton said as we scarfed down the salty goodness. “If I don’t make it, tell my wife I love bacon.”

He didn’t make it. Neither did she. I chuckled whenever I think about it. That’s weird, right? But so many memories are all bad. At least that one has some good in it. The little things matter. Even now, when things have gotten much, much worse, the little things matter.

I remember back when folks used to joke about an upcoming zombie apocalypse. It’s not so funny, now. When it first started a lot of people thought it was a zombie apocalypse. We were conditioned by the media, I guess. Oh man, if only it was that simple. Shoot them in the head, light them on fire, hit them with a cricket bat. Zombies are easy. Zombies make sense. What we got instead…

I bite into the bacon, and close my eyes in ecstasy. The blend between the crisp on the outside and the still-tender fat was marvelous. One of the nice things about making your own bacon is that you can cut it  as thick as you like. I hated growing up on a ranch, but it turned out to be a Godsend. I’m still here, after all.

It’s gone too quickly. It always is. I fight the urge to heat the pan up and fry up another round. But who am I kidding? That’s a fight I never win.  What am I saving it for? I wait for the skillet to grow smoking hot, then toss a few slices in.

“Jeffrey!” it screams as it hits the hot steel, “what are you doing? Why are you doing this?”

I grit my teeth and stare out the window. It’s dumb, I know. Of course the neighbors will hear. The walls aren’t sound proof, and the screams are loud. Hopefully they didn’t hear my name. It would be a damn shame if they moved away.

Eventually the screams die. There’s nothing left but sizzle. I think it happens when it reaches a certain temperature, but that’s just a guess. Nothing bloody stays dead anymore.

I don’t figure I’ll last much longer. Something will get me. And then…who knows? Any number of things could happen. There’s no predicting it. I don’t know if what comes back will still be me. Some of them talk, but the things they say…I sure hope those aren’t still people in there. wouldn’t wish that on no one.

Maybe I’ll sprout wings. I’ve always wanted wings.

It’s going to happen. I’m resigned to that. Some of the other survivors have hope. Hope is for idiots. No, I might not have hope. But at least I have bacon. The little things matter.

Even now, the little things matter.

Prey

Scream

the withering man, part 14

You can only understand that which hunts you when you can smell the hunger in its breath. When you can lick the adrenaline-laced sweat off its forehead. When you can press the lens of your eye against theirs, firmly enough that the vitreous humor leaks out. They will only let you do this during a single moment. The moment their teeth are clamped around your throat.
–Annals of the Shivering Stone

After all the recent activity, the next few days felt useless and frustrating. Mr. Clarkson wasn’t back in school. The principal posted an announcement on the community forum that Mr. Clarkson was released from police custody and would resume his classes on the upcoming Monday. This caused a 500+-reply uproar from parents that I didn’t have the stomach to actually read, but people talked about it the next day. Apparently there was going to be a meeting. None of this helped me. I desperately needed to talk to him, but I couldn’t. I thought about calling him, but I had no idea what I would say.

“So…I heard you went on a trip. Did you have fun? Did you bond? Did you summon anything from the pits of hell?”

I figured I’d come up with something when he was in front of me, and he couldn’t just hang up.

Jenna was absent, too. No surprise there. She was in bad shape after the attack, and probably traumatized all to hell. I could probably talk my mom or Adam into driving me to Shallow Wells Medical Center to visit. But what was I going to do, interrogate her in her hospital bed? I did email her and say we needed to talk. She didn’t respond.

Juanita Menendez was at school, but I couldn’t get her alone. She was usually surrounded by people anyway, and these days even more so, still handing out t-shirts. I tried again and again to corner her, but she always ducked out. Eventually I realized it was more than just her popularity. She was avoiding me.

No real surprise, I guess. Everyone knew about what happened at Atherton with me and Jenna. They didn’t know the details, of course. But they knew I was there, and that Jenna and I were attacked by someone who was probably the Thousand Cut Killer. Lisa Reed of Channel 7 broke the story. She tried to interview me as I waited for the bus on Thursday; I told her to get bent.

But the damage was done. The student body of Caldwell is 98% idiot, but apparently that’s all the brains it takes to work out that I had a connection to two of the attacks. Worse, someone found a picture of me and Mrs. Sanchez at the Teen Arts Festival last year, and it made the rounds on everybody’s Facebook walls. I had connections to all three of the victims. Add in the fact that most people thought I was a freak anyway, and everybody in the school began whisper and shift to the other side the hall when I walked by.

Even the teachers treated me differently. During classes they acted like I wasn’t there, and in the halls they avoided catching my eye. Miss Van Sutton made the mistake of calling on me in history, to ask about, of all things, Joseph Smith and the founding of the Mormon church. An eerie silence fell over the class, which leaked into hushed whispers. I mumbled that I didn’t know, even though I did. She let it drop.

Without Mei and Dantre I would have gone totally nuts. Dantre walked with me from class to class whenever he could, and loudly announced, “Make way for the Heir of Slytherin! Seriously evil wizard coming through!” It made me laugh. And Mei was Mei. I felt better knowing she’d stick with me no matter what. But I got a sick feeling whenever we were alone together.

I had already given her the same explanation of the events in the tunnel I had given mom and Adam. But she knew there was more. She didn’t ask, but the fact of it hovered like coal dust, poisoning the air between us. I wanted to tell her. Desperately. Nothing would have made me feel better than let it all out to the most accepting person I knew. Maybe she’d even believe me. I almost told her, at least five times. But every time I was on the verge I heard a sickening crunch, as the metal door slammed on Katim’s fingers. And his scream. His horrible scream. I couldn’t infect Mei with this awfulness. Better to have her hate me. Better to die.

The moments of relief I got from my friends were short and scattered. Since my mom had confiscated my phone as punishment I was cut off almost all the time. Surrounded by just my classmates, and their stares.

Special Agent Durant came to school specifically to interrogate me. It took a lot longer this time. I told her the same thing I told the cop at the hospital. But she asked again, and again. She didn’t out-and-out accuse me of hiding something, or being involved. She didn’t have to. By the time it was done I was nearly in tears. But I didn’t cry. I was too pissed off, and I’d be damned if I gave her the satisfaction.

They were two of the worst days of school in my entire life. Worse than the time Robert broke up with me in front of everyone. Worse than the time I peed my pants on stage during a spelling bee.

I hope that puts it into perspective when I explain that school was the easy part. It was the fun part. School was just awful and unpleasant.

The other stuff was terrifying.

The first thing happened on the bus ride to school Thursday morning. The assholes on the bus whispered and shot me looks, just like I expected them to. At one point Sweater Hole looked like he was going to try to sit next to me again, but I gave him such a nasty look that he threw his arms up and backed off. I wore my headphones and tried to ignore all of it.

But after awhile I noticed I could hear the whispers through the music. That was odd. I turned off the music to try to hear them better. They stopped. I shrugged and put my headphones back on. The whispers returned.

I realized with horror and confusion that the whispers were in the music. I could barely make them out. So I concentrated. Once I heard it, it was clear. Low, chattering voices, woven into Neko Case baseline.

lick and taste and lap and drink and suck and lick and penetrate the flesh

lick and taste and lap and drink and suck and lick and penetrate the flesh

I tore my headphones off my head and held them at arms length. That’s when I saw them. All along the inside of the over-ear headphone cups were dozens of tiny green and red things. Like ticks, only with human eyes. And huge, bulbous tongues. I shrieked and threw my headphones across the bus. I flailed at my ears and head. Some of them could still be on me, in my hair, in my ear canal, up inside my brain. Everyone stared. I didn’t care.

We we pulled up to school a few minutes later, I left the headphones – the expensive headphones I got for my birthday – on the bus.

During math class I went to the bathroom. I could hear two girls just outside my stall, chatting while they used the sink.

“Do you think Brandon is cute?” said one of them.

“Brandon?” said the other. “I guess. If you like hairy guys.”

“I guess he’s sort of hairy. You know what I love about bathrooms?”

“Yeah. There are always delicious things in the stalls, stuck with their naked asses hanging out. Helpless.”

The lights dimmed, and all of my muscles tensed.

“Yeah,” said the other girl. “And there’s nowhere to run.”

Footsteps came towards me. I saw feet, under the stall door. The designer shoes looked worn and tattered, and they leaked something thick and black and greasy.

“Don’t worry,” said one of the girls. Her voice was scratchier, and deeper. “It’ll be over before you know it. Before your throat has time to dry out, from all of your screams.”

I jumped to my feet and yanked open the stall door. The things were gone. The light was back to normal. It was just Britney and Carmella. They stared at me with contempt as I stood there, my pants around my ankles.

This shit continued throughout both school days, and throughout the weekend. I tried to tell myself that maybe I was going insane, from all of the stress in my life. But that was laughable. This was real. It was happening. The thing in the tunnels said it would come after me, if I interfered. That it would send its slaves after me. This had to be them. They were relentless, and they were everywhere. The scratching in my chest was constant, now. It never really stopped since the hospital. It was probably the only reason I wasn’t dead.

But how long could its protection last? These nightmare-things would wear me down. Or catch me when I wasn’t ready. Or else the thing inside of me would finally burst out of my chest. An image kept sneaking into my head, of me on an autopsy table, my internal organs slashed to ribbons and my sternum worn down to tissue paper.

I wish I could say all of this spurred me into glorious action. It didn’t. The weekend was nearly as useless as the school days. I had three leads, and I couldn’t follow any of them. The first was Sofia’s journal. I couldn’t go to the old house to get it until Monday. Not without sneaking out, and I had enough to worry about without getting grounded for another week. Plus I didn’t want to hurt mom and Adam like that. Not again.

The second was the letters. I thought I could probably read them, if I could go back into crazy land again. The scarred and whispering place, if that’s what it was. But…wasn’t that where they were? If the creatures could get me on the bus, surrounded by people, then it was idiotic to step willingly into their lair. I tried force myself to do it. Maybe there were answers in the letters. Or maybe it was a way to lure me in, so they could feast.

The third lead was what Joseph Smith said. She wanted me to come find her, after I could “see.” And the way to see?

FIND HIM. LET HIM IN.

Right. That sounded like a great idea. I thought I knew where to look. Oaklawn Park. That was where this started. But the last time I went there the crawling and hidden things tried to eat me. And that was before they were fully after me. Plus I’d have to sneak out to do it.

So I couldn’t do any of these things. But I had to. Or I was going to die. Or go insane. Or both.

Even Derrick was no help. I emailed him Thursday and told him what was going on, all about my talk with Joseph and the crazy shit that was happening to me. He emailed me back within five minutes.

Re: Help Me

This is serious. I think it’s time we meet face to face. We need to trade information, and it’s too sensitive to deal with over an unsecured connection. But I need you to do something for me. Write everything down. Everything that has happened to you, since Sofia Anastos died. Or before that. Anything you think is relevant. Print it out, and bring it to our meeting. Or put it on a portable drive. Either way.

Let me know when you can meet.

Derrick Lee

A few emails later we settled on Tuesday after school, in a coffee shop in downtown Caldwell.

Then I sat down, and I started to write. About Brianna. And the first time I saw the withering man. Everything about that moment flooded back into my brain. I relived what it felt like to be seven years old, and have a friend I could pee in the bushes with. I felt the sick fear at the sadness and confusion on her face as she was sucked into that bush and disappeared from my life forever. With those words. Those crazy, ridiculous words.

“Frosted Flakes.”

Something bloomed in my mind as I wrote. Something that had been staring me in the face, but I missed it. I had been thinking of all of this, all of this madness, as just some crazy shit that was happening to me. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t some random and awful occurrence in my life. It was my life. It had been for over ten years. No, longer than that. Since the day I was born, and the doctor declared me a boy, and cursed me with two names. Two selves.

My entire life, forces and entities watched me and influenced me, as surely as my parents, or the sun, or the air. And I never knew they were there. There was something different about me. As deep as my blood, or deeper. I never accepted it. I never understood any of it.

But I would. I swore that, as I sat on my computer chair, the carved words right above my head. Very soon, even if it killed me, I would understand everything.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Consequences

Hospital

the withering man, part 12

Shallow Wells Medical Center looked different than I remembered it. It had been a long time since I’d been here, but there were a lot of people here for this time of night. Some of them wore strange clothes. I tried not to think about it. And to ignore the tiniest, almost imperceptible scratching in the center of my chest.

I hate hospitals. You can’t watch your little sister waste away in a tiny hospital gown with tubes shoved in her arms and not grow to loathe the places.

Time dragged on as the too-skinny nurse took vial after vial of blood out of my arm. The thought crossed my mind that she might keep taking my blood until I shriveled, and if I protested she’d smile too broadly and jab me with something out of the creepy vials on the shelf. She didn’t. She just told me to “wait.” They’re always telling you to wait in hospitals. Everything takes forever. At least they let charge my phone. I texted Dantre some instructions.

The police came in and asked me what happened. I said that a man attacked us in the tunnels and then ran away, but I didn’t really remember it because I was in pain and shock. What was I supposed to say? I didn’t think the phrase “teleporting slime-beast” would win me any points. The cop was skeptical. He said they’d probably want to speak to me again, and an officer would patrol past my house regularly in case the person who attacked me came after me.

After a while my mom and brother showed up. They made a big fuss and hugged me, which hurt a lot. They asked me how I was and what had happened. I gave them a censored version without the crazier parts. I left out the movie entirely, or any explanation as to why I was at Atherton College. Neither of them said anything the whole time I talked.

“So I’m in pain,” I concluded, “but not as bad as Jenna or Katim.”

“And who exactly is Katim?” said Adam. My mom shot him a look.

“Not now, Adam,” she said. He clamped up. “We’ll have that talk. Extensively. But not now.”

My insides squirmed. That was my mom. Nine seconds of sympathy and then judgment.

The doctors finally ran the tests. Nothing was broken, but I had a “minor anterior dislocation.” They snapped it back in place, put me in a sling, and told me to go home. I tried to visit Jenna and Katim before we left, but they were both asleep. I thought I saw someone standing over Jenna through the curtain around her bed, but when I opened it there was nothing there.

Adam came to the hospital in his car, so the drive home was just me and mom. Oh boy. I expected her to start yelling as soon as I closed the passenger door. Instead, she pulled out of the parking spot in silence. She said nothing as she drove around the lanes of the dimly lit hospital garage and out into the open air. I counted the seconds as I waited for her questions. I had my story all worked out. I had Dantre to back me up. The silence thickened. I could barely breathe. Finally I couldn’t stand it.

“Mom, the reason I was at Atherton was…”

“You’ve been through a traumatic experience.” Her voice was low and even as she cut me off. “It seems like life lately has been nothing but traumatic experiences. I don’t know where your head is right now. I don’t pretend to know how to deal with this. I don’t really know how to be a mother at the best of times, and it seems like it’s never the best of times.”

“Mom, I…”

“Let me finish. Maybe you can’t tell me what happened right now. I’m not going to force you. But whatever lie you were about to feed me, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t have the patience for that right now.”

“I went to Atherton to see a movie with Katim,” I blurted out. “Like, with him. I met him on the internet. In a park, but we’ve been talking on the internet.”

There was a long, dry moment where neither of us spoke.

“Go on,” she said.

“And I know it was a messed up thing to do, but…” I didn’t know what else to say. “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you for being honest.”

That’s all she said. She just looked straight ahead and drove. Her face was blank. Was she angry, or scared, or confused? She was supposed to explode and rant about something uncomfortable, like sex, or suicide, or anything. Anything but this damned silence. So I sat there, unsure about everything, as we drove down the dark streets towards home.

A phone call shook me out of my reverie. It was an unknown number.

“You should answer that,” mom said. I looked at her, puzzled. “It’s probably your father.”

What?”

“He called earlier and I gave him your cell phone number.”

“Why did you…” I stopped at the look on her face. I gritted my teeth and answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“Jessy?” said a familiar accent. “It’s me.”

“Hello Max,” I said to my father. “Why are you calling?”

“It’s your birthday,” he said. “Can’t a fellow call his daughter on her birthday?”

“My birthday is in October,” I said.

He laughed. “Well, I’m close enough to be going on with, right? Anyway, fifteen is a big year.”

“I’m sixteen, Max,” I said. “You didn’t call last year.” Best year ever. I didn’t say that.

“Well I’m calling this year, aren’t I? I called the house earlier. Your mother told me you were in hospital. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. Isn’t it, like, dangerous for you to be calling?”

“Nah, I reckon I’m safe enough. For the minute. Are you sure this isn’t your birthday? November 27th?”

I sighed. “That was Alex’s birthday.”

“Who the hell is…”

“My due date. The boy I was supposed to be.”

“Right. That’s quite an honest mistake, really. Well, happy birthday anyway.”

“Yeah, thanks. Is that all? Because it’s late and, you know, I have school.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I suppose it is. Just wanted to make sure you’re safe, and all. Are you safe?”

I almost laughed. No, I’m not remotely safe. “Yes, Max. I’m safe and all.”

“Alright then. I’m off then.”

“Bye.”

I sighed with relief. He didn’t say the three terrible words. I’m coming home.

When we got home my mom told me she didn’t think I should go to school the next day. Adam was on the couch playing Xbox when I walked through the door. He asked me if we could talk. I said “no,” and went up to my room. I just couldn’t deal with whatever threat he wanted to make right now.

Sleep was difficult. I tried to watch Netflix for awhile. I went onto the Annals of the Shivering Stone and attempted to read some of the articles. I had solid evidence now that the information in that website was real. The thing in my chest really was a weapon, and it did scare off…whatever that thing was. Even though it seemed just as dangerous to me as it was to anything else. I needed answers, and I was sure that they were in there, hidden underneath all the crazy.

But I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t think of anything but the car ride home. It’s funny how the silent treatment from your mom can make you forget you were just attacked by a slime-covered horror-beast.

I got up from my bed in the middle of the night. I retrieved a bottle of India ink from my calligraphy set, went downstairs, and took a needle from my mom’s sewing kit. I thrust the needle into the end of a pencil. I bound it tightly with a piece of string. I wrapped the ink and needle in a kitchen towel and shoved it into the pocket of my silk nightgown. Then I opened the front door and stepped outside.

 

The freezing rain soaked through my gown. A drop hit my arm and ripped through my skin like a sharpened stone, drawing blood. The pain jolted me awake. For a fragmented moment I saw the rain in totality, like it was frozen in the air. Some of the droplets had teeth. I screamed and ran inside. I put a bandage on the cut, got some orange juice, and stumbled back to my bed. As I lay there trying to slow my pulse back to normal I wondered how my sleepwalking self intended to get me and my home-tattoo kit all the way to the hospital.

 

It was nearly noon when I woke up the next morning. I never set my alarm from the day before. The words MY EYES stared down at me from the ceiling.

I went downstairs. Adam and my mother were there on the couch, sandwiches in their hands.

“There she is,” said Adam. “We thought you were going to sleep until spring.”

“How is your arm?” my mom asked.

I rotated it in its sling. “It’s fine.”

“Good,” she said. “Sit down. Have a sandwich. We need to talk to you.”

I sat on the chair, picked up a sandwich, and tried to force the nervous down.

“Smoked turkey,” I said in a forced-even tone. I really hoped they wanted to talk about sandwiches. “What did you want to talk about?”

The two of them exchanged a look.

“You betrayed us,” said my mom.

I dropped the sandwich onto the table.

“I…”

“Mom is talking,” said Adam. “You’ll have your chance. But you’re not getting out of this.” I bit my lower lip and shut up.

“I told you how much it would hurt me if something happened to you,” said my mom. “Do you remember that?” I didn’t say anything. They stared at me.

“Do you remember that?” mom repeated after a drawn-out moment. I nodded. “Good. I thought maybe you’d forgotten.”

“Mom…”

“And Adam made his feelings on your safety clear, yes? He expressed the fact that he was terrified that you were in danger?” I nodded again. “I’ve never been a strict mother. Do you agree?” I nodded again, feeling sick. “I’ve always trusted you to take care of yourself. I’ve always given you your space. And yet here we are. At the moment when your brother and I expressed the most serious worry we’ve ever had for you in your entire life, you sneak out behind our backs for…what reason was it again? I can’t quite remember.”

“To go to a movie,” I mumbled.

“With who?” said my mom. “With Mei, under her parents’ supervision? Was it with Dantre, at his house, where you said you’d be?”

“With Katim,” I said. Tears burned my eyes.

“A college guy,” said Adam. “A college guy you met on the internet.”

“It was at a park,” I said. He glared at me like he wanted to punch me. Why the hell did I say that?

“Why did you do this?” my mom asked.

“I…I don’t know. I just wanted to…after Sofia. I wanted something good, I guess.”

“And you thought going to Atherton College to meet a strange man you barely know,” she said, “on a school night, while a serial killer who killed your friend was loose, and lying about it was the only way to achieve this?”

“I didn’t…I mean, I didn’t think,” I said.

“Yes, that’s obvious,” said my mom. “You were attacked last night. Someone attacked you and broke your arm. Do you have any idea how gut-wrenchingly terrified we were? How terrified we still are?”

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed.

“Yes,” she said, “I imagine you are. You are also grounded.”

“I’m grounded?”

“Didn’t I say that?” my mom said. “Was I not loud enough?”

“I heard you just fine,” said Adam.

“But you’ve never grounded me,” I said, “that’s…not a thing. You don’t do that!”

“And you don’t do what you did,” my mom said. “We’re both evolving, I suppose. You will go to school tomorrow, and then come straight home. You will not go out for the rest of the week, or this upcoming weekend. Hand me your phone.”

I handed it to her. My body felt numb.

“You’ll get it back next Monday,” she said. I started to protest, then gave up. “Adam and I will both monitor your progress. If you violate these rules I will change the wifi password, and you will not receive the new one until January.”

I mouthed the word “January.”

“Are we clear?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now finish your lunch. I contacted Mei and she’ll be emailing you any homework you missed from today.”

I choked down my sandwich without tasting it. When it was gone I didn’t get up. I just sat there on the chair. The two of them talked about other things, and watched TV, and I sat there, paralyzed and unfeeling. I wanted to get up. I wanted to go to my room. There were things to do. Important things. They didn’t go away just because of this. I couldn’t move.

Why had I gone out with Katim? It was selfish and stupid. I had no reason at all to do it except for my own self-centered satisfaction. Ugh.

If I hadn’t gone, Jenna would have died.

But would she? Maybe she was only attacked under those tunnels because I was there. Maybe all of this was my fault. The withering man was after me. He always had been. Sofia was my friend. Jenna used to be, and she had come to me for help. Maybe these girls were being targeted because they knew me. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t handle any of this.

I sat in that chair for hours. Adam and my mother ignored me, for the most part. I didn’t think I’d ever have the energy to move again. I felt drained and shitty and useless. The television droned on and the sky outside grew dark and I sat there and atrophied.

Maybe I never would have gotten out of that seat. Maybe I would have sat there until my muscles disintegrated and I died. Except for something my mother said.

“What do you guys think of pizza?” she said as it neared dinner time. “I’m in the mood for anchovies.”

“Anchovies?” said Adam. “Since when do you eat anchovies?”

Mom smiled. “I suppose it’s been awhile. I used to eat them all the time with your father. They were his favorite.”

Adam choked on a sip of Coke. “What?”

“Sorry. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought him up. He called Jessy last night. I guess I’ve got him on the brain.”

“He called?”

They started to talk about it, but I wasn’t listening. Something lit up inside my head. My father called because he thought it was my birthday. November 27th. How hadn’t I thought of it before?

“Mom,” I interrupted. “Can I go check the mail?”

“Are you expecting something?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. She and Adam exchanged another look.

“Fine,” she said. “Go ahead.”

I walked outside to the mailbox. It was freezing, and I still wore my nightgown. I didn’t care. I grabbed the stack of letters and looked at them as I walked back in. An electric bill, two credit card offers, a shoe catalog, the new National Geographic which nobody would actually read. And a letter addressed to Alex Kingsport.

“I’m going to my room,” I said.

I put the rest of the mail on the desk and ran up the stairs. In all the craziness of the last few weeks I forgot today was November 27th. The day I would have been born if I hadn’t come out prematurely. The day that, every year since I was five, I get a letter from no one addressed to the name I would have had if I was a boy.

I pulled the box of unopened letters from under my bed. Was this connected, somehow? Were these letters from WitherTongue? Or from Him? For the first time since last night I felt sort of like a person. My mom could ground me for sneaking out and lying–I probably deserved it. But that didn’t make any of this any less real. The withering man was still out there. Jenna was still in danger, and maybe others, too. I didn’t know if I could do anything about it, but I had to try.

I pulled out the very first letter. It looked old, now. Too old. Yellowed, like it was made of aged parchment. I hadn’t looked at it in years. My hands shook as I grabbed the corner. I didn’t want to open it. Why didn’t I want to open it?

Because I knew it was dangerous.

You can understand, or you can be safe.

I ripped open the letter. It looked like a credit card offer from a company called Name Services. Right under the top someone scrawled a line in pen.

a single letter for Jessica

The rest of the text was printed, and entirely gibberish.

Ya vubupin do. Ota ubet renu melet vapece. Uitohi sofanih rusie. Hi neg piliro. Ionirag sitiba tatit dem raca bosene yunele. Dgog eni itomap wajex, agepeno. Eaninu salu niedasi nil. Weranet ceguhi cebo erib Iietelal. Tureni atarero rime. Hifadop yar teca. Yomed ipiba, fecieve. Otunugu tutole: Ueya sure rone. Reti yip wemasi. Noberie atitel ihanow! Airurik site atenula. May yali qoceri piyi hibesog! Eo modeteh sutedo!

I read it again. And again. And again. It didn’t take long for me to see the pattern. It wasn’t that subtle. The first letter of every sentence spelled out a phrase. Hadn’t I seen something like that before? I sat down on my computer chair and opened up Withertongue’s website. I clicked on “Hidden Names.”

They say he had a name, once. But he opened his skull with a dull blade and ripped it out. Then he squeezed it by the neck until it coughed out its last breath. He plucked out its feathers. He tore out its innards. He skinned and boiled the carcass, then sucked the meat off the bones, one by one. Now he has no name, and nothing, not death, or loss, or sanity, can ever find him again.

Names are barriers. Walls around us that block out the sharp, jagged noises of the hidden screamers. He cannot speak to us, through the wall of our names. But some of us have names hidden behind our names. Hidden in dark, bloody cavities, scarred and whispering. Sometimes he plunges a sharpened finger into those cavities, and excretes exquisitely tainted nectars on which we may sip. To taste them is to know truth.

Did tainted nectars mean letters in the mail? Maybe it did. Because I did have a secret name, hidden behind my name. Alex Kingsport.

I tore open the letters one by one. There were twenty-two in all. One for each year since I was five, and ten more. The first one I opened was covered in jagged lines of different colors. The second was a solid wall of nonsensical text, like over-complicated legalese. Another was a printout of static, like on an old TV set, and another looked like a page from a screen play in at least seven different languages. Every letter I looked at  was gibberish, without any obvious pattern.

Maybe I could decipher them in time, like I had with the first. But I didn’t think so. They weren’t meant for me. They were meant for Alex. But I had been Alex, hadn’t I? For a few minutes, right here in this room just a couple of days ago, when my poster was a hole in the world and my stuffed animals blinked at me. I tried to remember how I had done that, and if I wanted to go back. The idea gave me chills. Then I opened the last letter.

It was a photograph. A perfectly normal, ordinary photograph. It showed five people standing in front of a large building in the sunlight. Two adults and three students. The adults were James Clarkson and Gabriella Sanchez. The students were Jenna Lethbridge, Sofia Anastos, and Juanita Menendez. Two victims of the killer, one almost victim, and the FBI’s prime suspect. I’d never seen this picture before, but I’d seen something like it.

I pulled last year’s school yearbook down from the shelf and opened it to a spot near the end. And there it was. There was a page spread of photos from the Latin American Cultural Festival. Every year the Spanish Club took a four day trip up to Willemstad to attend the festival. There was a picture nearly identical to the one in the envelope. It listed Mr. Clarkson and Ms. Sanchez as the adult proctors. Sofia wasn’t there, and there were a couple of different students, including Jenna and Juanita.

Here I was, trying to play detective with my internet searches, and someone had been sending me clues for years. But why? Clues to what, exactly? I remembered how Jenna said everything changed after “the trip.” This had to be the trip she meant. This year’s trip was in September. I had no idea that Sofia had gone, even though I knew she was in the Spanish Club. What happened on that trip? Had it started all of this? The Man of Many Tongues? The killings?

I had to speak to Jenna. I had to speak to Mr. Clarkson. I had to find Sofia’s diary. That wouldn’t be easy, in my grounded state. And I had to talk to Juanita Menendez. If that picture meant what I thought it did, she was in terrible danger, and she might not even realize it.

I sat down at my computer. Without my phone it was my only means of contact with the world. I had several emails. One was from Katim.

Last Night

Jessica,

I am so sorry I got you involved in whatever that was. I should never have taken you down into those tunnels. What I remember doesn’t make any sense, but the doctors tell me I lost quite a bit of blood and underwent oxygen deprivation and head trauma. I believe I am suffering from hallucinations or fabricated memories, or both. It is the only explanation that makes sense. I remember you saving my life. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then I cannot express my gratitude. I also understand if you never want to speak with me again. I hope that’s not true. But if it is, then there will be no ill feelings.

Katim Amirmoez

Atherton College

He didn’t blame me for what happened. That was a surprise and a relief. He should blame me. If he knew what was really going on… Then again, I didn’t know what was really going on. It was probably best he think it was all a hallucination. Safer. I should stay away from him. For his own protection.

I emailed him back even though I didn’t know what to say. I told him I didn’t blame him, and that I wanted to see him again but I didn’t know when that would be because my mom was very angry.

The next email was from Derrick.

Re: The New Victim

Thank you for informing us of your research. All of this is connected. I’m sure of it. Ben and I have done some digging in that direction, but before I reveal the results there are a few other data points you need to know about.

If you haven’t heard, Mr. Clarkson has been released. No formal charges have been filed. The feds don’t appear to have another suspect, so chances are they still think it was Clarkson. Ben and I aren’t so sure.

Word from those who know says a girl from your school named Jenna Lethbridge was attacked by the Thousand Cut Killer last night on the Atherton College campus but interrupted before he could finish her work. Do you know Lethbridge? Did she know Anastos or Sanchez? Ben and I are pursuing this lead, but you go to Caldwell High School with her and have information we might not. Anything might be important.

Now on to Withertongue616. Ben was able to isolate the IP address of the server used to host Fragments of the Annals of the Shivering Stone. With a little leg work he dug up a street address and phone number for Joseph Smith, which does appear to be Withertongue616′s legal name. Just like the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The next step is to contact him. I’ll do it if you want me to. But this is your lead to follow. It’s your call.

Derrick Lee

I took a deep breath. I was deep in this. I couldn’t stop now. I emailed Derrick back three words.

I’ll do it.

Joseph Smith’s phone number had a Willemstad area code, so it wasn’t that far away. My mom had my phone, but she didn’t take away my computer. Would she be angry if I made a phone call? This was new territory; I didn’t know the rules. I locked my bedroom door, just in case. Then I put on a headset and dialed the number. It rang six times, then someone picked up.

“Hello?” The voice was female. She sounded about two hundred years old.

“Hello?” I said.

“Yes? Hello? Is there someone on the telephone?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking for Joseph Smith. Does he live here?”

“Does he…” said the woman. “Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.”

“I’m sorry. Does Joseph Smith live here?”

“Are you one of Joseph’s friends?” said the woman.

“Yes,” I said. “Sort of. My name is Jessica.” Dammit. Why did I give my real name? “I’d like to talk to Joseph if that’s not too much trouble. Is he available.”

“One of Joseph’s friends,” said the old woman. “One of Joseph’s friends. How sweet.”

“Yes. Is Joseph available?”

“Oh dear. Oh my, oh dear.”

“Is Joseph…”

“Joseph never told me about any friends,” said the woman. “Not in a long, long time.”

“Listen, I just need to speak to him. Is he…”

“Oh, I’ve been so worried about Joseph,” said the woman. “Always a troubled child. Yes. Troubled. And a troubled adult, now, too, I suppose. If Joseph ever really grew up. I’ve been so worried.”

“Worried?” I said. “Why, is something wrong?”

“Joseph has always been special, you know,” the woman said. “Always been special. That’s why we chose the name, you know. Chosen by God. Able to see things. Well, perhaps not see.” She chuckled.

“Yes,” I said. “Can I speak to Joseph. It really is important.”

“Oh. You wish to speak to Joseph?”

“Yes!”

“Oh dear, oh dear. I’m afraid that’s not possible. They took my Joseph away. Always been trouble. Tried to do it years ago, they did, but I wouldn’t let them. But it got bad. It got very bad.”

“They took him away? Where?”

“Ashfall,” said the woman.

“Oh.” I guess I wasn’t really surprised.

“Do you want to visit my Joseph? I could phone ahead.”

“Yes,” I said. “That would be great appreciated. Thank you, Mrs. Smith.”

“Oh you are very welcome. It’s no trouble at all. Such a polite young man.”

I bit my tongue. “I’m going to go now. Thank you again for your help.”

“Oh yes. I will make that phone call.”

I hung up. I looked at the clock, sure that call must have taken at least four hours. It didn’t. I looked up Ashfall to get their phone number and kill time. I’d heard of it before. I did a report on it last year for history. It was a mental institution. I waited as long as I could stand before making the call. Every minute raked against the inside of my skull.

I had no idea if the old woman would actually contact the asylum and tell them to expect me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she forgot me the moment she hung up the phone. Finally, after a grueling half hour, I called.

“Ashfall Psychiatric Hospital,” said a young man. “How may I direct your call?”

“Hi. I’m trying to get in touch with a patient I think is there.”

“Can I have the name of the patient?”

“Joseph Smith.”

“One moment please.”

Music filled my ear. It took me a minute to realize it was “Sympathy for the Devil,” remixed as elevator music. Definitely a good sign.

“Ashfall, Sanford speaking,” a woman said.

“Um…hello?”

“Yes, this is Sanford. How can I help you?”

“I’m trying to speak to a patient. Joseph Smith.”

“Ah. Yes. Joseph’s mother called. Is this Jason Carr?”

“Um…yes.”

“Joseph isn’t in group, so should available to accept your call,” said Sanford.

“Great,” I said. “Can I talk to him?”

“I’m afraid that particular patient isn’t capable of using a telephone.”

“Oh. Damn. That sucks. Do you think…”

“Do you have Skype?”

That’s how I found myself, ten minutes later, patiently waiting for a video-call from a psychotic would-be profit. I almost didn’t want it to happen. As I sat there I got more and more nervous. Then the call came in, and I was staring at Withertongue’s face.

I gasped. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. I didn’t know what to expect, but this was not it. First off, Joseph Smith was a woman. I thought back to the picture on the website. Soft features, no facial hair, shrouded in shadow.

And she had no eyes. Just half-open, caved-in lids over hollow sockets. I’d seen pictures like this on the internet. It was hard to look at, but I couldn’t look away. If my guess was worth anything, she was born blind.

She wore normal clothing, not a hospital gown or a straight jacket or anything. In her right hand she clutched what looked like a large plastic water bottle. Only it was filthy. Full of dust, or cobwebs. In her left hand she clutched several pieces of yellow notebook paper.

“Hello?” I said.

Joseph looked straight at the screen. She shook her hand at me and mumbled something I couldn’t understand. Like her mouth was full of cotton.

“Joseph Smith? Is that you?”

She banged her water bottle against the screen. I jumped.

“Withertongue? Withertongue616?”

She tilted her head. Her mouth spread slowly into a gigantic smile. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. She put the pieces of paper down in front of her. She picked one up and pressed it against the screen.

JESSICA

“Y…yes,” I stammered. “It’s me. What’s wrong? Can’t you talk?”

She tilted her head the other way and opened her mouth. Then she gagged like someone just shoved something down her throat. She coughed and sputtered. I saw her tongue, pressed against the bottom of her teeth. It was like she was struggled to talk, but couldn’t.

“I need to talk to you,” I said. “I need answers.”

She picked up another piece of paper and pressed it to the screen.

WHEN YOU FINALLY LEARN TO SEE, COME FIND ME. BRING A BLADE THAT HAS TAKEN A HUMAN LIFE.

“What? What are you talking about?”

She pulled the piece of paper, and held up her left pinky. The nail was long and sharp. She ran it along her mouth.

“What are you…”

She pressed the paper against the screen again.

WHEN YOU FINALLY LEARN TO SEE, COME FIND ME. BRING A BLADE THAT HAS TAKEN A HUMAN LIFE.

“How?” I cried. “How do I learn to see?”

She smiled more broadly. She picked up the final piece of paper, and covered the screen.

FIND HIM. LET HIM IN.

“Find him?” My stomach dropped as I thought about what that might mean. “Find the withering man? How do I…”

Joseph lurched forward like she was about to throw up. Her left arm twitched. Then she began to convulse. I looked at her in horror. There was something wrong with her face. It was bubbling. Pieces of her flesh distended out, like there were bugs between her skin and her muscle tissue. Her whole body started to thrash wildly.

“She’s having a seizure,” said a voice.

“Code red,” said another. I heard footsteps. I saw arms reach down and grab Joseph, and the image went black.

She was gone.

 

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Precocious Little Scorpion

Scorpion Robot

I’ve taken a brief break from writing my horror novel to write something very different.

A horror short story! Well, sort of.

You know, just for fun. Apparently this is the kind of thing I find fun these days. Should I be worried? This is new for me. Trigger Warning: little kids and excessive violence.

Precocious Little Scorpion

Jocelyn Andrews was very intelligent. “Precocious,” was the word her teachers used, which just a way to say “smart for a little kid” and not sound condescending. At six years old she had a fifth grade reading level, could do long-division in her head, and understood why “All in the Family” was subversive in the seventies but dated nowadays.

But that was only the start. Jocelyn hid the true fathoms of her intelligence from the adults. They didn’t know she had started to translate The Iliad from the original Greek. They didn’t know she had discovered a flaw in General Relativity. It was only the version from Dongle the Dino Does Astrophysics, but it still counted. And most special of all, they didn’t know that she recognized the precise moment she went completely and irrevocably insane.

It was while her mother read her The Scorpion and the Frog.

“And the frog cried out, ‘why did you sting me?’” said Mrs. Andrews. “’Because it’s my nature,’ said the scorpion.” And they both sank into the river and drowned.”

“That scorpion was dumb,” said Jocelyn. “Mommy, why was the scorpion so dumb?”

“It was it’s nature,” said Mrs. Andrews. “It could only act according to its nature. Just like all of us.”

“It was it’s nature to be dumb?”

“Perhaps.”

“Oh,” Jocelyn furrowed her brow, and wondered what her own nature was like. Other than not dumb. Then she noticed something. “And mommy?”

“Yes dear?”

“Why is there a scorpion on your head?”

“What?” Mrs. Andrews stood up and swiped at her head. “There’s nothing on my head.”

“It is! I see it! Your skull opened up and I saw your brain and the scorpion walked out.”

Mrs. Andrews smiled down at her daughter. “You’re just making that up. Oh Jos. You’re so silly.”

Jocelyn frowned. She wasn’t making it up. And her mother couldn’t see or feel the scorpion. That could only mean one thing. Jocelyn had gone insane.

Oh goody! she thought. She’d always wanted to be insane. Insane people got to do all sorts of fun things regular people couldn’t.

“I’m going to go play at José’s house!” Jocelyn called to her mother as she walked out the door.

“Hi José!” said Jocelyn when he opened his front door.

“Hey Jocelyn!” said José. “Come on in.”

She walked in, said hi to Mrs. Rodriguez, and followed José up to his room.

“What do you want to do?” asked José. He was ten years old, but he always let Jocelyn run the playtime show. She had much better ideas.

“I want to play house,” said Jocelyn.

“Oh,” said José. “Um…okay. You mean, like you’re the mommy and I’m the daddy?”

Jocelyn shook her head. “No, silly. Like, building a house. Do you have any power tools?”

A little while later, Mrs. Rodriquez went to her son’s room to check on the two children. When she opened the door, she saw José was gagged with a sock and tied up with duct tape. Meanwhile, Jocelyn say at the edge of his bed and nailed each of his fingers to the wooden frame, one by one, with Mr. Rodriguez’s nail gun.

“Dios mio!” cried Mrs. Rodriguez. “Jocelyn! What are you doing!”

“Building a house!” said Jocelyn. “I know I’m doing it wrong. But it’s okay. I’m crazy.”

The police came and took Jocelyn into custody away a little while later. She was very disappointed that she hadn’t even gotten away with one insane criminal act. Perhaps she wasn’t as smart a she thought she was. She resolved to try harder in the future.

They tried to contact her mother, but found that she was dead. So they contacted her father. The terrified man wanted nothing to do with his insane six year old. So Jocelyn was sent to the DeMichaels Center for Criminally Insane Children.

The center was great fun, at first. The doctors gave her all sorts of funky drugs. Her parents had told her not to take drugs, but she supposed that was another fun rule you got to break when you were crazy. When she mixed her drugs with some drugs she stole from other kids it made really neat things happen. One of them let Jocelyn feel like she could turn invisible.

Jocelyn got a lot of fun books to read. When those books grew dull she started to sneak into the doctors’ offices and read their medical journals. She used the invisible drug, and they never caught on.

The other kids were crazy, too, so they were never boring. There was one boy named Adam who thought he was a juice box. He was fun to talk to as long as Jocelyn was in the mood to talk about juice. He had a fascinating perspective.

There was another kid named Beauregard who was full of snakes. Jocelyn could see them crawling in and out of him. No one else realized it, even the kid himself. They all thought he just had “acute focal seizures.” One day, one of the snakes bit the kid and he died. Everyone tried to blame Jocelyn! Just because she was in the room when it happened and she wasn’t supposed to be. Of course it was possible that she had done it. She was crazy, after all. How could she be sure?

Eventually the kids and the drugs and the books and everything became so boring that Jocelyn decided to escape. Luckily, she had a way out. Her friend Annie lived in the building’s plumbing and was always offering to take Jocelyn away from here. She was a mermaid. So one day Jocelyn followed Annie down into the toilet and through the pipes.

As she did this, Jocelyn reflected that this probably wouldn’t actually work, given that Annie was a hallucination brought on by her insanity. But then the two of them emerged in a public reservoir some miles away, and Jocelyn decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. She was very appreciative of Annie’s help. But she was crazy, and a scorpion can’t change her nature. So she cut Annie open to see what she looked like on the inside. Then she swam towards shore, to disappear into the great wide world.

A municipal worker found Annie’s body less than an hour later and reported it to the authorities. They police showed up and quickly determined that the fingerprints all over the dead girl’s body belonged to Jocelyn. The reports arrived soon after, and the police knew there would be no hushing this up. They wondered what would be worse once the media of the event circulated. The fact that there was a brilliant 6 year old psycho-killer on the loose, or incontrovertible proof of the existence of mermaids.

Beneath the Skin

1. Casa Loma Tunnel

the withering man, part 12

He is the wasp that lays Her eggs in the spider’s thorax. You can be the spider, or you can be the egg.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone

“Should we go back and get help or something?” I asked Jason a minute later.

He shook his head. “We don’t know what kind of help is required. Should we get campus security? Or an EMT? Or an exorcist?”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “So I guess we should…”

“Follow Katim,” said Jason.

I swallowed. “I thought you’d probably say that. Let’s go, then.”

We walked forward down the hall. Our footsteps echoed against the hard floor. I noticed it was dry and dusty. When Katim ran down this same corridor his feet squished into something. Hadn’t it?

The hall had a gentle curve, and extended several hundred feet before we reached a door on the right.

“Is where Katim went through?” I said.

“I think so,” said Jason. “There doesn’t seem to be another door nearby.”

“He definitely didn’t go much further than this,” I said.

“I’m surprised the sound of that scream carried so far,” said Jason. “These halls must act like reverberation chambers.”

“Or something.”

I opened the flimsy wooden door and walked through. On the other side the hall extended a short distance, then branched out into three different directions.

“Dammit,” I said. “Which way did he go?”

“It’s hard to say.” Jason wasn’t looking at the hallway. He was looking at me. “You should pick one.”

“I should pick one? Why should I be the one that…oh God. What is that?”

I walked towards the left-branching hallway. Nailed to the arch over the doorway was a rubber mask. It was a full head mask, like the one Michael Myers wore in Halloween. Only the eye holes were too large, like they’d been roughly widened with a knife. The mask was white, but it had been drawn-on all over with a red marker in tight parallel lines.

“Muscle tissue,” I said.

“Hmm?”

“Someone drew muscle tissue on this mask,” I said as I reached up and grabbed it. The rubber was cool like the air, but it wasn’t dusty. Some of the marker rubbed off on my fingers. This mask had not been here long. I spun around to face Jason. “Did you do this?”

“What?” he said. “Put a flayed head mask on a nail in some old tunnels?”

“Is this some kind of joke?” I said. “It’s just like your stupid flash mob. The skin of the face has been ripped off. The skin and the eyes.”

Jason didn’t react.

“So your plan was, what?” I took a large step toward him. “Lure Katim and me down here, and scare the piss out of us with your mask and your staged scream? Or was it just me? Are both of you in on this? Jesus Christ, are you filming this or something?”

Jason shook his head. “I had nothing to do with the mask. Or the scream.” I scoffed at this. Jason brought his face level with mine and looked into my eyes. “Do you really think this is just some kind of practical joke? Or is that what you are telling yourself?”

I took a step back. “I don’t…”

“If that is all it is, what are you doing with your hand?”

I felt it. How had I missed this? My left hand was upside down, and my fingers were pressed against my jawline. The fingernails dug into my skin. Like I was trying to tear the flesh off.

“Oh my God,” I said. “What the hell am I…”

A loud yell resounded from down the hallway. A man’s voice.

“Katim!” I cried. I dropped the mask and ran down the hall in the direction of the sound. My footsteps squelched under my feet as I ran. After a hundred feet the hallway split into a T. Which way did he go?

“Katim!” I called. “Where are you?”

“Jessy!” he called. There was so much echo, the sound seemed to come from everywhere. But I thought it came from the right. I dashed off. He screamed. A short, panicked sound that was quickly muffled. Like something covered his mouth. I sped up, ignoring the stitch in my side and the growing sharpness in my chest.

The corridor ended in a door. I burst through. The room on the other side was huge, and pitch black except for the dim light from the hall. It was enough to see the rough shapes of two people in the center of the room, at least fifty feet from the where I stood. One of them was suspended off the ground, and writhing. From the choked noises he made I could tell it was Katim.

The other person was huge. Like a bodybuilder, or a pro-wrestler. Or bigger. He held Katim by the throat. No, that wasn’t right. His arm was thrust inside Katim’s mouth. Except it looked too narrow to be an arm. And his shape was wrong.

“Katim!” I yelled out.

The man, the thing, dropped Katim to the ground with a thud, and turned to face me. It let out a noise; the most awful noise I’ve never heard. Like the death scream of a wounded cougar as it was torn apart by a flock of ravenous birds. My gut twisted up, and the scratches in my chest became sharp stabs. I didn’t fight it. I took a breath

“Get away from him, you fucker!” I yelled, and I sprinted straight at them. The thing bent lower, then leapt into the air in the opposite direction. It landed with a loud squish, and ran for the far end of the room. A second later it was gone. The thing in my chest eased, and then stopped.

The door swung closed and bathed the room in darkness. I could still see Katim, barely, splayed out on the floor.

“Katim!” I bent down when I reached him. He was curled in on himself and groaning loudly. “Are you okay?”

“J…Jessy?” He dry heaved as he said it.

“Yeah, it’s me. I’m here. Are you hurt?”

“I don’t…I’m not…”

“Can you stand up?”

“I…think so.”

“Let me help you,” I said. I hunched down and took him by the arm. As he stood, his face pressed against my shoulder, and I felt that it was wet.

“Thanks,” said Katim. He let go of me and stumbled for a moment before finding his feet. He retched again.

The room filled with light. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them slowly.

“There you are,” Jason said from the door. “I found the light switch. What happened? I heard screams.”

“Katim was attacked,” I said. “By…someone.”

Something.

I looked around the room. It was the size of the gymnasium at school, and had high ceilings plastered in enormous cobwebs. There were chairs against the two far ends of the room, but nothing else. A thick layer of dust coated the floor, marked with wet, uneven footprints where Katim’s attacker ran off.

“Where are we?” said Katim. He grimaced and wiped something thick and slimy off his face.

“We’re in the tunnels under Haskins,” said Jason as he walked towards us.

“No, I realize that,” said Katim. “This room. How did I…”

“Calm down,” I said. “Take a deep breath.” He did. He appeared to relax. “Now, what do you remember?”

“We heard the screams,” said Katim. He stared off ahead of him, his eyes unfocused. I wondered if he was in shock. Couldn’t people die of shock? He continued. “In the hall. The screams. I ran off after them. I got to a door. I didn’t know where to go, so I went through. I heard voices. A girl, and a man. She sounded scared. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. He sounded angry. I followed them.”

“Did you see a mask?” I asked. “Nailed to a wall?”

He nodded.

“And you went down that hallway?”

“No, not that one. Straight ahead. Towards the voices. The passage twisted. I took several turns,” an edge of panic crept into his voice. “There was a door. I walked through it. I saw her. It was dark but I saw her. Laid out on a table. And there was a man, and, and…” his eyes widened. “He…he wasn’t normal. He walked towards me, and grabbed me, and…” Katim’s hands shook. I put my arms around him, because I didn’t know what else to do. His whole body was shaking.

“Shh. It’s okay,” I said, because that’s what a cop on TV would say. “You’re safe. You’re perfectly safe. Just tell us what happened.”

“Everything went dark. I screamed. Then I heard your voice, and…did I call out for you?”

I nodded.

“That’s when his mouth opened, and… something forced its way down my throat.” He rubbed his jaw with a quivering hand. “I couldn’t breathe. I thought…I thought I was going to die. There was a flash of light, and then…”

“I came in,” I finished. It was hard for him to talk.

“And he ran away,” he looked at me, like he’d never seen me before. “He ran away from you.”

“I’m just glad you are okay.”

“Wait,” said Jason. “Are you saying after he grabbed you, you somehow moved to a different room?”

“I…” said Katim. “I think so. It sounds so insane.”

“All of this is insane,” said Jason. “But it’s happening.”

“Oh my god,” said Katim.

“What?” I said.

“The girl,” he rubbed his hair with both of his hands. “She’s still back there.”

If she’s still alive.

“Jessica’s friend,” said Jason.

Katim looked at me. “You know the girl?”

I almost said “I think so.” But who the hell was I fooling? This was happening. This was real. No matter how many times I told myself that, I needed to say it again.

“Yes,” I said. I dug my fingernails into my palm and forced myself to say what I said next. “She’s in danger, and she asked for my help. We have to go find her.”

I waited for one of them to say something sensible, like “we need to get the god damned hell out of here.” I wouldn’t have blamed them. Neither of them did. I sighed, with relief or resignation. I couldn’t tell.

“Katim, can you lead us back?” I said.

“I…”

“Katim,” I grabbed him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Can you lead us back there?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded firmer. “I can.”

That’s when the lights went out.

“Shit,” I said, as Katim cried out.

“It heard us,” said Jason, his words thick in the darkness. “Whatever attacked you, it heard us. It knows we’re coming.”

I wanted to argue. But there was nothing to say.

“Does anyone have a light?” I said.

“My phone,” said Katim. I heard him fumble in his pockets. “Dammit. It’s gone. I must have dropped it back…there.”

I pulled mine out of my pocket. “Mine’s dead.”

“I have a flashlight,” said Jason. He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket, and tried to turn it on. He banged his hands against it. “I did have a flashlight.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I can see.”

“You can?” said Katim.

“Yeah,” I said. “A little.”

“It’s pitch black,” said Jason. “And the light was just on. Your photoreceptors should be conditioned for bright light.”

“I have good night vision,” I snapped. “Now stay close. We’ll hold hands, and move slowly.”

“Okay,” said Katim, and Jason said “fine.”

I led them through the door, and back down the hallway. I hoped to God I was going in the right direction. No one spoke as we eased our way down the passage. The only noise in my ears was our breathing, and the echo of our footsteps. I thought about what I said earlier, about hearing footsteps that weren’t ours, and shuddered.

In full light the hallways had felt narrow. Now they were claustrophobic. I wanted to speed up, but Katim and Jason both tripped several times as the hallway curved. If either of them fell and hurt themselves it would slow us down to a crawl. That thing, whatever it was, tried to kill Katim. It would have, if I had been just a few seconds later. And it had Jenna. I tried not to think about it.

My heart pounded, and I felt my pulse in my throat. Every muscle in my body was tense. My breathing was too shallow. I tried to slow it down, and failed. The thing in my chest wasn’t scratching, but I could feel it. It was in there, sleeping, ready to awaken. I didn’t know whether to be comforted or terrified. My feet ached from running in these shoes. At least they weren’t long heels. It would be ridiculous if Katim had died because I was wearing stilettos. I almost laughed at that. Almost.

Something strange happens to the mind when you are wandering through tunnels in the dark. My great grandfather told stories about the sewers under Paris. The cold, and the loneliness. It felt like the world was nothing but blackness and passageways and rot. And we’d be trapped down here forever. I felt Katim’s ragged breath on the back of my neck. But was it really his? The person behind me could be anyone. Or anything.

I stepped on something and jumped with shock.

“What’s wrong?” said Katim in panic.

“The mask,” I said. “The rubber mask. It’s under my feet. We’re at the intersection.” No one responded. I turned left. A little ways ahead the passage curved, and then branched. “Okay, Katim. This is the way you came before, right?”

“I…yes.”

“Which way did it go?”

“Uh…”

“You need to focus,” I said, more confidently than I felt. “You can do this.”

“I…”

The lights went on. Just for a second. Just long enough to see what was written on the walls. On every wall. Hundreds and hundreds of times, in the same large block letters.

SHE BELONGS TO ME

Then they flickered off, and we were once again in darkness.

“Um, guys,” said Katim. “Did you just see…”

“Yes,” said Jason. “Writing. She belongs to me.”

“That means she’s alive,” I said. Something flooded my brain that might have been relief. “It means we have to find her, and we have to hurry. Katim, which way did you go?”

“Left,” he said.

“Are you sure.”

“Yes.” He didn’t sound sure. But what choice did we have? We went left.

Katim continued to give instructions. We went right, then left, then right again. I hoped desperately we were getting closer.

A bright light flashed in front of my eyes. I groaned.

“What?” said Jason. “Why did you stop? Did you see something?”

“I…” when the darkness returned there was an image burned into my vision. Words. Like I had stared too long at neon and then closed my eyes.

LEAVE. OR I WILL VIOLATE THE INTEGRITY OF YOUR FLESH, AND DRINK OF YOUR THOUGHTS AND YOUR FLUIDS.

Neither of them saw it.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Let’s go.”

We continued. Our footsteps sounded different, now. I thought the hall had narrowed, but it was harder to see. The words were still in my eyes. I kept blinking. We kept walking.

“Wait,” said Katim a few minutes later, “do you hear that?”

I stopped moving. Jason’s foot kicked the back of my shin, and then he stopped. I listened. It was faint, but there. Whimpering.

“Jenna!” I called. “We’re coming Jenna!” The whimper grew louder. We kept walking. The thing in my chest began to scratch.

Another neon flash burst in front of me.

MY SLAVES WILL THRUST THEIR SHARPENED RAVAGES INTO THE SOFT PLACES OF YOUR TISSUES AND YOUR MIND, AND YOU WILL BE A DESICCATED HUSK OF CEASELESS AGONY.

The survival part of my brain screamed at me to run away. This wasn’t some distant watcher who would disappear as soon as I approached. This was a monster. A killer. A hungry demon from a festering hell.

But it’s afraid, I thought. It is doing what bullies and cowards do. It is threatening me, because it is scared. But why? Why would it be afraid of me? Because of this thing in my chest? I dug my fingernails into my palms, and kept walking.

“There’s a door ahead,” I said, a minute later.

“That has to be the door,” said Katim. He swallowed heavily. “We’re there.”

“Are you all ready?”

“Yes,” said Jason. Katim squeezed my shoulder.

“Then let’s go.”

I stepped forward and opened the door. It was different than the other doors. Metal, and heavy. As soon as I opened it I heard Jenna’s desperate noises, much louder now. I stepped through, and felt Katim take the weight of the door from behind me. I walked into the room.

There was almost no light, but I could just barely see. At the far end, laid out on a table, was Jenna. And right next to her, its thick body pressed against hers, stood the creature. It turned to face us. It was closer, now, than when I glimpsed it before. In the darkness, I saw its outline was bumpy. Like it was covered in tumors. My chest felt like it would burst open. The creature pulled away from Jenna, and bent close to the ground. Like a cat about to strike. It screeched, louder and more terrible than the last one. Then it charged.

But something else happened. It was so fast, and so subtle, that I almost didn’t catch it. Something flew towards me through the air. Something tiny that I couldn’t quite see. It flew at my hand. Panic lanced through my brain. I knew, somehow, if this thing touched me, it would bring pain.

No, I screamed in my head, go away!

The thing in my chest scratched at the flying thing. I heard the thing scream, bounced off of nothing. It buzzed past my ear behind me. Straight for Katim.

Then the huge man-creature crashed into me with a sickening squelch. It swung its massive arm as it ran knocked me aside. I flew across the room and crashed into the wall, shoulder first, with a crunch. Katim and Jason yelled in shock and fear. There was a sickening snap like a breaking bone, then the heavy metal door slammed shut, and Katim screamed.

I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. It felt like the wind was permanently knocked out of me, and my shoulder was a ball of pain. A thick layer of slime covered my arm and my torso and the side of my face. So I lay there on the ground, unable to breathe, awash with agony, as Jenna whimpered, and Katim screamed and screamed and screamed.

I don’t know how long this went on. Trapped in the moment, it felt like hours. Days. Years. I was going to die. I was already dead. It felt like I was in hell, and I had been here forever, reliving this moment over and over and over. I had done something unutterably terrible, and this room was my punishment. I remembered Briana. I remember Sofia. I remembered my little sister Aimee. They were all dead. And the devil put his rusty hooks in my soul and dragged me down to join them.

Then the lights came on. It burned some of the fog out of my mind. Katim’s screams softened to groans. My breathing evened out, and I slowly pulled myself to my feet.

“Is everyone okay?” I said in a whisper. I took a deep breath, which caught in my throat, then tried again. “Is everyone okay?”

“Jessy?” Jenna’s voice was weak. “Is…is that you?”

“Yeah, Jenna. I’m here.”

“How did you…”

“One second,” I turned to look at Katim. I already knew what was wrong with him, but it still made me gasp to see it. When the door slammed, it severed three of his fingers. And it was my fault. He sat on the floor and clutched them. Blood gushed out and soaked his clothes. He stared straight ahead, unblinking.

“Katim,” I snapped my fingers in front of his eyes. “Katim, look at me.” His eyes caught mine. “I’ve seen this kind of injury before. I’m going to wrap your hand and apply pressure. It’s going to hurt, but I need to do it. Is that okay? Nod if that’s okay.” He nodded.

I’d seen worse amputations than this. Katim’s fingers were only severed just above the middle knuckles, so it was easy to wrap a torn-off piece of his shirt around them even though my hands were shaking. I cursed myself for never taking first aid lessons. But it surprised me how calm I was with all of this. As weird as it sounds, I think Katim’s injuries helped center me. It was familiar. In my crazy life, this was familiar.

I don’t remember the next period of time very well. I must have opened the door, because I saw that there was no sign of the creature. It must have felt when it ran past us. Or it disappeared. And Jason was nowhere in sight.

I managed to at least slow Katim’s bleeding, if not stop it completely. And I talked to Jenna. She was in a lot of pain. She was naked, and had several gouges across the front of her body. I think I managed to calm her down, or at least convince her the threat was over. If she didn’t bleed to death. I didn’t tell her that part.

I had no doubt that if we had not come down this into these passages, right when we did, Jenna would have ended up exactly like the other two victims. Exactly like Sofia. It couldn’t be coincidence. Was Jenna here because I was? Did the withering man somehow transport her? Or was Jason behind this? Maybe he worked for the withering man, or against him. Katim might still have been involved. It made sense. But I couldn’t think that. Not with him helpless and bleeding right next to me.

The EMTs showed up twenty minutes later, led by Jason. He had left so he could call them. They led us out of the tunnels, and into an ambulance. There were two policemen, as well, who said they’d need to speak with us as soon as we were able, and that they’d need to contact our parents. Ugh. As if things couldn’t get any worse.

I sat up in the ambulance, between Katim and Jenna. None of us said anything while the EMTs did their thing. Maybe they were in shock. Maybe they were trying to forget. But I held both of their hands. Neither of them would let me go.

I thought about Katim. Would he blame me for this? Would he ever want to speak to me again? I thought about Jenna. What did she remember? Was the danger past, or would that thing come after her again, the minute I left her alone? Most of all, I thought about the messages the creature had sent, just to me. I will violate the integrity of your flesh. Maybe it was bluffing. Somehow I didn’t think so. I had to prepare myself.

Thus ended my first date with a college guy. But at least everyone was still alive, right? All in all, it could have gone worse.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Connections

Stairs to the Unknown

the withering man, part 11

The world is full of veins, running just underneath its diseased skin. The most delicate of all surgeons, He cuts them, and sews them back together, without puncturing the skin at all. It happens beneath our feet, as we crawl over the hairs and the sweat ducts, and we are unaware. But our blood knows. It always knows.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone

To her credit, Mei didn’t try to talk me out of seeing Katim the whole time she did my hair. Even though I could tell she wanted to. But I appreciated that she didn’t nag me about it, and we managed to have a really good time. She used an iron curled the ends of my hair towards towards my face. It looked both cute and badass with my black and red streaks. Then she did my makeup, because she’s way better at it than I am. At least, if I wasn’t trying to look like a zombie or a skeleton or something.

“You look gorgeous,” she said as she applied my mascara. I tried not to blink too much. “You must really want to floor this guy.”

“He’s in college,” I said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Plus, I may have told him I was eighteen.”

“You didn’t tell me that!”

“Well he asked,” I said, shrugging. “When a college guy asks your age, there’s a right answer and a wrong answer.”

“You’re terrible.”

“I know.” I grinned. “Now, which sexy dress should I wear?”

“I think…the black one,” Mei said. I giggled. They were all black. At least, all the ones I kept at Mei’s house. Which I guess means it’s confession time. This was not the first time I ever snuck out without my mom’s permission to see a boy.

It started the summer before last, a week after eighth grade graduation. Jenna had an invite to an Amber Lessing party. Amber Lessing was this girl at Caldwell High School who threw these legendary parties. We weren’t even ninth graders yet, but Jenna worked her magic and got herself and a few friends invited. Natasha and I went with her.

It was a crazy night. Natasha got wasted, someone dropped a TV into the hot tub, and eventually the cops came. There was some weirdness involving an old grandfather clock, which I had kind of forgotten about until just now. That should probably have made the “strange stuff” list I made earlier, but whatever. It was also the night Jenna showed her true colors. Or at least, it was the night I couldn’t ignore the signs any longer.

Anyway, I wound up in the billiard room alone with this guy named Stephan. It was my first kiss, unless you count fifth grade with Jamal. Jamal, also known as Dantre. I don’t think that really counts, though. It was pretty obvious he was gay even back then. If only from the way he used to pose his father’s collectible He-man action figures.

I saw Stephan a few times that summer. We kissed a lot, and quickly graduated to other things. Then he had to go back to Minnesota and I never saw him again. That was okay. I had a taste for boyflesh. I…might have gone a little crazy. The first half of ninth grade was a blur of climbing out of windows, midnight hookups, and boys in the backseats of cars, until some bad stuff happened and I got a hold of myself again.

When it was all over, I had learned three things. The first was when you take your bra off before they try to do it for you it melts guys’ brains. The second was that all high school boys are awful. I’m sorry, but they just are. Some of them are just a little awful. Some of them are Hannibal Lecter stuffed with hormones awful.

The third was that Mei is a really good friend.

So yeah, this wasn’t the first time I snuck out without telling my mom. It was the first time I’d done it in almost eight months. And it was the first time I ever felt bad about it. It was one thing to violate my mom’s trust to go after the withering man. It was another to do it to go hang out with some college guy. But he still might be involved, somehow. It would be irresponsible not to investigate.

Right, Jessica. Keep telling yourself that.

I said goodbye to Mei and walked towards Oaklawn Park, where I told Katim to pick me up. I didn’t want him to know where I lived, in case he did turn out to be a psycho. I’m not totally reckless. I am totally stupid, though. I forgot it had rained the whole day. It was only drizzle at this point, but the world was now made out of mud and fog.

My dress wasn’t long enough to drag on the ground, but I had to wear leggings because it was November. And I had to wear the hood of my jacket, because otherwise my hair would get wet. By the time I got to the park my legs were splashed with flecks of mud and my carefully arranged hair looked like I just got out of a haunted hay ride. Oh well. Last time Katim saw me my I was wearing ratty jeans, and my ass was covered in dirt and dead leaves from trying to scramble up a tree like a lunatic. So he’d seen me at my worst. He probably didn’t even care how I looked.

Right, Jessica. Keep telling yourself that.

Almost two weeks had passed since I was last at Oaklawn Park. All evidence of a crime was gone. The park looked normal, like no teenage girls were ever murdered underneath its skeletal trees. Looking at it gave me chills. I glanced at my phone. It was 5:48. Katim said he’d be here at 6, so I still had a few minutes to kill. I cursed myself for being so early. Now I had to wait for almost fifteen minutes, with the stinging November air, and the fog, and the darkness. And the memories.

My phone was almost dead. I forgot to charge it at Mei’s. What a fantastic start to the evening! That meant it could only get better from here, right? That sounded like something Mei would say. It made me laugh. The sound spread out into the empty park without even an echo.

I checked my phone again. 5:50. Time crawled by like a slug. My arms were freezing. I walked deeper into the park just for something to do, carefully staying on the concrete so I wouldn’t muddy my dress even more. The only illumination was from the nearby streetlights, so the park was dark and eerie and beautiful. I used to walk here all the time, at night or twilight. It was spooky, with the empty swings and the gnarled trees. It always made me feel strange, and alive.

Was it because of Him? I’d seen the withering man twice, in this park. Was this where He lived, when he wasn’t following little girls? Maybe he had observed me a thousand times. Maybe every time I came into this park He was there, watching with His shriveled eyes.

“Are you in here?” I called out into the fog. “Are you watching me? Are you listening? If you are, stay the hell away from me tonight. I’ve got plans, and they don’t involve you. You can go back to haunting me tomorrow.” There was no answer. Nothing stirred. Had I really expected it to? “Are we clear?”

That’s when everything changed.

Have you ever had that feeling like you are being watched? Of course you haven’t. That feeling doesn’t really exist. It’s just something writers like to say because it sounds ominous. I’ve known that for years. I was sure of it. Until that moment.

I couldn’t see anything. They were in every crack and angle that was hidden from my eyes. I couldn’t hear anything. Just outside of the range of my hearing, they snarled and whispered.

“I know you’re there,” I said. My voice sounded shaky in my ears. “Don’t come any closer.” But they were coming closer. I couldn’t feel their warm breath, or smell the sharp scent that rose when they were on the hunt. But I felt their hunger. I could almost taste it on my tongue. Thick and syrupy, sweet with decay, like blood and mold and honey.

I closed my eyes. I took a breath, and concentrated on that spot just behind my sternum. Are you there, scratchy thing? I could sure use your help right about now.

Footsteps I couldn’t hear squelched through mud I couldn’t see. They licked cracked, bulbous lips with sharpened tongues. They came closer.
Then I felt it. A sharp, sick feeling in my chest. Like I was full of insects trying to chew their way out. I didn’t fight it. I let the pain seep through my body. My heart beat, and pumped the scratches through my blood. I was full of needles. The things all around me hesitated.

A loud honk burst my eardrums and blasted me back into my senses. The pain disappeared. So did everything else. I opened my eyes and saw headlights shining at me. I walked towards them, and found a car with a laughing college boy inside whose was in desperate need of a seriously dirty look.

“What in the world were you doing?” said Katim as I slid into the passenger seat.

“Being scared half to death by a honking horn,” I said. “Also, you’re late.”

“I am not,” he pointed to the clock. It was 6 PM exactly.

“Well, I was early,” I said. “That means you’re late.” He looked at me, I think to see if I was serious. I grinned, and so did he. I really hoped I sounded “confident and together” rather than “raving and insane”. I talk too much when I’m nervous.

“Are you ready to go?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“We’re off,” he said, and he pulled out of the parking spot. “You look great, by the way. I love the hair.”

Firland, the town where Atherton College is located, is about fifteen minutes from Caldwell. You would think that wasn’t enough time for things to get awkward. There’s nothing like a first outing with a guy to suck every drop of interesting out of you. Mostly I sat in the seat and told my inner critic to shut the hell up. Katim and I tried a couple of times to make conversation.

“What movie are they playing?”

“I’m not sure. It’s more fun that way.”

“Cool.”

That was the best one.

It was a huge relief when the car pulled into the parking lot and I saw a group of people standing there. Maybe some other humans would pull the spotlight off of me.

“Wait here a second,” said Katim when he turned the engine off.

“Okay.”

He got out of the car, walked around, and opened the door for me.

“My lady,” he said. I giggled and took his hand.

“Dude, that is so lame,” said a voice behind Katim. I recognized him as the other guy with Katim from the Flash Mob.

“I think it’s sweet,” said a girl next to him. “Katim is deliberately being extremely lame so this girl won’t be intimidated. Awfully kind of him.”

“Just ignore them,” said Katim. I couldn’t stop laughing as I got out of the car.

“She’s got a good sense of humor, though,” said the girl. “I admit I had doubts about her taste. Aren’t you going to introduce us, Katim?”

I followed Katim as he walked over to the others. “This is Fuller,” Katim said, pointing to the guy, “and Tanya.” The girl did a curtsy, and I laughed again. “And that’s Jason.” He pointed to a guy with leaning up against a tree with a book in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. I hadn’t even noticed him there. “Say hello, Jason!”

Jason looked up from his book, startled. He walked towards us.

“This must be the famous Jessy with the intense eyes,” he said. He held out his hand. I shook it.

“Yeah, I am,” I said. I realized this was the very first thing I had said, and felt like an idiot.

Tanya laughed. “Immodesty. I like it.”

“Katim won’t shut up about you,” said Fuller.

“I thought you must have sent him naked pictures,” said Tanya. “Did you? Please say you did. I’ve got five bucks on it.”

I blushed furiously.

“Settle down guys,” said Katim. “Settle down.”

“Are all of you going to the movie?” I asked, to change the subject.

Fuller nodded, and Tanya said, “yup.”

“I’m not,” said Jason.

“What the hell?” asked Tanya.

“I have things to do,” said Jason.

“You always have things to do. What about us? What about me?” She said this in a very dramatic voice. I couldn’t tell if she was serious, but Fuller and Katim both laughed.

“That’s fine, Jason,” said Katim. “You can abandon us. But we are going to tell you the ending. You know that, right?”

“And all of the character resolutions,” Fuller added.

Jason sniffed. “That is acceptable.”

We headed off in the direction of the campus theater. Katim and I walked together, and Fuller and Tanya followed a little bit behind. I wondered if they were a couple.

“What’s with him?” I asked Katim a minute later.

“Who, Jason?” Katim asked, and I nodded. “He’s just very busy.” “He’s involved with a lot of campus groups and activities. Actually, he’s the facilitator of the improv group I told you about.”

“Wait,” I raised my eyebrows, “you mean he’s the one that organized the flash mob?”

“He didn’t organize from the ground up,” said Katim. “He wasn’t the person who placed the Craigslist add. But he got us involved, yes.”

“I see.” I filed that under “things to think about.”

“Hey,” I said a couple of minutes later, “I thought you said you didn’t have anyone to go with to horror movie night.” He laughed. “The whole reason I came with you was because I thought you’d be lonely. Have you deceived me, good sir?”

“Of course not, my lady,” he said in mock offense. “I believe a transcription of my previous sentiment would indicate that my precise words were that I had no friends to accompany me on this endeavor. I don’t count those three assholes back there.”

I laughed. “Only two assholes.”

He looked behind him. “Of course.” I looked back. Tanya had her hand in Fuller’s pocket, and he was laughing at something. Definitely a couple.

“That’s Metron Hall,” said Katim. “The screening room is in there.”

“Wow,” I said, as the building loomed into view. And I do mean loomed. It was amazing. It looked kind of like a church, if the church was also a school building designed by a version of Dante who was a 21st century architect. It was all jutting turrets and weirdly-placed arches. I remembered that Atherton College was supposed to have really interesting architecture, but I had no idea.

“It’s neat, right?” said Tanya from behind us. “Would you believe it’s the biology building? I have organic chem lab in there.” She pointed to the top of the largest turret.

“It looks more like an oubliette than a chemistry lab,” I said. “Are there even any windows?”

“Just one,” say Tanya. “Right at the top.”

“Creepy.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Katim.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“That’s where it happened.”

“Where what happened?”

“Are you sure you should tell her this story?” said Fuller. “It’s pretty intense.”

“I can handle it,” I said. Katim and Fuller exchanged uneasy looks, but Katim continued.

“It happened in the 70s,” Katim said, in a low, even voice. “There was a promising young biology student. Come to think of it, her name was Jessica, too. One day she told the teacher she was sick, that the fumes were getting to her. ‘What fumes?’ asked the teacher. ‘Don’t you smell them?’ asked Jessica, but no one did. The teacher told her to go to the nurse and get checked out, and she did.”

We all stopped walking and listened. I leaned against a tree and watched Katim as he spoke.

“Next class, Jessica was back, saying she felt fine. Half the period went by before she said anything. Again, she complained about the fumes, that she felt sick. But this time, a few other students felt, too. So class was dismissed. The next class it happened again, and it was nearly everyone. The school administrators got worried, so they closed down the building and brought people in to investigate. But people were getting sick, all over campus now. And they were having dreams.

“In the dreams, there was a door in the biology lab. A hidden door, under the floorboards, covered in strange symbols. As they approached, the smell was gut wrenching. They tried to open it, but it was locked. It didn’t matter. Each of them had a key in their pocket. When they opened the door, they woke up screaming. After a couple of days people started to talk. They realized they were all having it. The same exact dream.

“The administrators didn’t want to take the dreams seriously, but what could they do? So they called in a team. They dug up the floorboards, and sure enough, there was the door. In the same place, with the strange symbols. But it was locked. They were about to call in a locksmith, when Jessica walked in. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I have the key.’ And she pulled it out of her pocket.

“They all watched, as this young girl walked over to the door, a strange smile on her face. She put the key in the lock. She turned it. There was a click. She reached out, grabbed the handle, and…”

“Aaaa!” Tanya yelled, and grabbed me from behind. I didn’t jump, or scream. I just turned around.

“Did you want something?” I said.

“Damn, girl!” said Fuller. “You do not scare easily.”

I shrugged. “Too many horror movies.”

“You’d better watch out for this one, Katim,” said Tanya. She turned towards the theater. “Shall we?”

“You two go ahead,” said Katim. “We’ll catch up.”

Tanya nodded and walked towards the building, followed closely by Fuller.

“I’m sorry,” Katim said sheepishly. “Was that just really lame?”

“Nah,” I said. “I thought it was cute. Besides, if you didn’t try to scare me, how would I know if you liked me?” He laughed.

“Fair enough.”

“Is any of that true?”

“It’s an old campus legend,” he said. “But it’s told about at least three different locations around campus. And I invented the part about the fumes. And there was no Jessica.”

“Shocking.”

“We should get to the movie,” he said. “It’s starting soon, and it’s an old building. Only some of the seats are comfortable.”

The screening room was small and felt very collegy. It made me really want to be in college instead of stupid high school. It was pretty full, too. Just after 7 o’clock a guy got up front and talked about the group and their plans and their upcoming horror RPG night. It sounded fun, even though I’d never done anything like that before. I wanted to ask Katim if he was interested, but it seemed pushy. And I didn’t want to look like a huge nerd.

The lights dimmed, and I pulled out my phone to turn it off. It was almost dead, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t turn back on. But I didn’t really need it anyway. I saw that I had a text message. From Jenna.

Uiapwejdmsnaucsdahuieioafh28370 ijai8s8y 093709378a 3kdjajkhea65630 28jcabn;239

My stomach turned. It was probably a pocket text. But after our conversation earlier today it made me nervous. I wrote back.

Are you okay?

No immediate response. I turned the phone off.

Katim turned to me as the lights went out completely.

“See you in two hours,” he said.

The movie turned out to be The Woman, based on a Jack Ketchum novel. I was excited because I heard it was scary and had wanted to see it for years. It was about a feral woman taken in by a family, and the terrible stuff they did to her. It started out really good. A third of the way in it started to make me very uncomfortable. I squirmed in my seat, and almost got up and left twice which I have never done in my life.

“Are you okay?” Katim whispered to me half-way through. I nodded, and clutched his arm. He didn’t seem to mind.

I’m glad I saw it with other people, because the ending was very satisfying. If I was watching it at home I would have turned it off.

“Man, I thought Jessy was going to flip out,” said Fuller as we walked out of the screening room.

“I guess that was a little worse than your ghost story,” said Tanya to Katim. He nodded.

“It’s not that,” I said, “it’s just…” They all looked at me expectantly. “It just hit me in that way, you know?” It sounded weak to my ears. But Katim nodded.

“Yeah,” said Tanya. “I was like that with Cast Away.” We all laughed. “I’m serious! Something about Tom Hanks’s relationship with that volley ball really freaked me out. Seriously creepy. I wish I was joking. I really do.”

I sighed with relief. I didn’t know these people that well. It would be weird to tell them that things about violent fathers get to me. It’s not my favorite subject.

“That way,” Katim pointed through a different set of doors out of Metron Hall than where we entered.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“The Zombie Den,” said Katim. “It’s the student run cafe. We pretty much take it over after Dreams and Screams. Unless you want to go home now?”

“No!” I said. Probably too enthusiastically, because Tanya looked at me with a huge grin on her face.

“Alright,” said Katim.

The Zombie Den was pretty cool. There was a live band playing 80s songs, and they weren’t too bad. Katim bought me a delicious mocha, and the four of us sat on leather chairs with a bunch of other people and talked about the movie. It was really fun. I kept expecting Katim to take my hand or put his arm around me, but he never did. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. After about an hour I remembered my phone, and turned it back on. It came on just fine even though it was still almost dead. I didn’t have any new text messages.

“I’m going to get more coffee,” said Katim announced. “Do you want another mocha?”

“No thanks,” I said. “I do have to sleep at some point tonight.”

“They have decaf.” I made a face, and he laughed.

“So you really think Michael Myers is scarier than Freddy Krueger?” Fuller said to me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Freddy is just…”

The doors to the cafe burst open and cut me off. I looked over to see Jason walk in. He saw our group and headed straight over.

“Jason,” said Tanya. “Are you actually condescending to joining us this evening?”

“No,” said Jason. “I’m here to invite you to come with me. I want to show you what I’ve been doing tonight.”

“Why would we want to do that?” said Katim as he walked back with his coffee.

Jason smiled. “You will if you want to see something creepy.” He paused. “Do you?”

Katim turned to me. “What do you think, Jessy? Are you feeling adventurous?”

“Always,” I said.

“How about you two,” Katim said to Fuller and Tanya.

“Nah, bro,” said Fuller. “I think we’re good. I think I’m going to score tonight.”

“Oh, are you?” said Tanya.

“Yeah, I think so. Unless, I mean, you’re not a lesbian, right?”

“I might be, after tonight,” said Tanya. She turned to us. “Have fun!”

Katim and I followed Jason out of the cafe. As soon as we walked through the doors into the cold air Jason streaked off towards the middle of campus.

“Any idea where we’re going?” I asked, as Katim and I marched quickly to keep up with Jason.

“It could be the moon, for all I know. Jason does this kind of thing all the time. It’s usually interesting.”

“Uh huh.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll be safe.”

“I wasn’t worried,” I said.

Katim grinned at me.

If I was a smart person, I would have backed out then and there. Two college guys, one I barely knew and one I didn’t know at all, leading me to somewhere “creepy.” If I said I lost track of time and needed to go home, Katim probably would have understood. I felt like I was walking into a horror movie. Last time I felt that I was surrounded by strangers who ripped each others faces off. And someone lost two fingers. And I saw the withering man.

“You know how I assist with the film department, right?” Jason said once we caught up with him. Katim nodded. “Well Erin Sellers asked me to find her a good location for the dream eating alien to chase people down. It’s for her senior project.”

“And you found one,” said Katim.

“Oh, I found one.”

Soon enough we approached a large, square building.

“We’re going to Haskins?” Katim said, his voice tinged with disappointment.

“What’s Haskins?” I asked.

“One of the underclassman dorms,” said Katim.

“Trust me,” said Jason. “This is good.” Katim shrugged, and we followed Jason inside the building and up some stairs, and down a hallway.

“Is this where you live?” I asked Katim.

He shook his head. “I lived here last year. Just one hall down that way. Jason, where are we going? Someone’s dorm room?”

“No,” said Jason. “Here we are.”

Katim and I both turned to look.

“A maintenance closet?” said Katim.

“Just wait.” Jason opened the door. He stepped in, pulled out a ladder and stood it up against the side of the hall way. Then he reached next to a shelf against the back wall, and fiddled with something for a minute.

“What are you…” said Katim.

“There!” said Jason. “Got it.” He slid a wooden panel aside with a thunk, to reveal…

“A door,” said Katim, his eyes wide.

“Indeed,” said Jason.

“I don’t see any strange symbols,” I said. Katim glanced sideways at me and smiled.

“Where does it go?” Katim asked.

“See for yourself,” said Jason. He opened the door. There was a staircase. It looked steep, and led down.

“Aren’t we on the second floor?” I asked.

“The third,” said Jason. “I noticed the discrepancy by looking at the floor plans of various school buildings. There’s extra space right in the middle of Haskins. You don’t notice when you walk around because of how the hallways are laid out.”

“This is too bizarre,” said Katim. “It’s like something out of…”

“A horror movie,” I said. We exchanged an uneasy glance. I looked over at Jason. I half expected to see a malevolent grin, or fire dancing in his eyes. But his expression was neutral.

“After you,” he said.

Katim looked at me, and stepped into the doorway and down the steps. I followed, and Jason came after me.

“How far down does this go?” I asked.

“Below ground level,” said Jason. “Far below.”

I went quiet. Our footsteps echoed in the cramped stairwell. After a hundred feet or so the ceiling lowered, and Katim had to hunch down to fit. The light behind us grew dimmer and dimmer. Katim pulled out his phone and turned on the flashlight.

“This is the point where we all stop,” I said, “and we can still hear footsteps.”

Katim laughed nervously. “Or a voice that isn’t ours.”

“Or a mysterious light up ahead,” said Jason.

“Wait, what the hell?” said Katim.

“What?” I said as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“There is a light up ahead.”

Behind me Jason laughed. “Yes there is. The corridor at the bottom has track lighting. I found it earlier and left it on.”

“Very funny,” said Katim.

“Yes. I thought so.”

After a while the stairs ended. They opened directly into a corridor. The lighting was dim and yellow, but I could see that it stretched ahead of us further than I could see. The air was rich and musty. Like rot.

My phone buzzed and I gasped. Katim laughed.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I need to get this,” I said. “One second.”

“I’m surprised you have service this far down,” said Jason.

It was a text from an unknown sender.

i dont no were i am i’m scared

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. “Guys, I think I have to…”

A scream pierced the musty silence.

“Oh shit!” Katim said. “There’s someone else down here. Someone in trouble.”

“No,” I said under my breath. “This ridiculous.”

“What?” Katim stared at me. “Nevermind. We have to find her.”

There was another scream. It was loud and high and desperate.

“We have to find her!” said Katim. He spun around and looked into my eyes. “Wait here.” He sped off in the direction of the sound. His footsteps squelched against something that covered the ground.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” I said again.

“You recognize it.” At the sound of Jason’s voice I turned. His face was absolutely neutral in the amber light. “The voice of the screamer. You recognize it.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” I said. “No. I mean, it’s impossible. It doesn’t make any sense.”

A third scream cut through the air. There was no denying it this time. I had heard that voice before. I couldn’t explain it, but I absolutely recognized the person who screamed.

It was Jenna.

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