Glimpses

XX: Yog-Sothoth

 

the withering man, part 8

Once your eyes are bloody and rent, and the delicate skin over your cheekbones is an innocent agony of beautiful desecration, you can look at the scarred and whispering place, but you cannot touch. The first snake dripped a paralytic venom into our willing, open mouths with its smile. Our bodies are useless, there. Unless, of course, we have another.
–Withertongue616

11/24/13 (still)

My declaration to kill the withering man put me in a weird mood. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. Or I knew what. I wanted to go to the crime scene. But it would feel too horrible not to keep at least that much of the promise. Also I suspected if Adam caught me sneaking out he would make good on his threat. He probably wouldn’t actually beat me, but he might lock me in my room. He might nail my window shut. And my mom would let him.

I wasn’t angry at them. Okay, maybe a little. But I didn’t blame them. Their concern made sense. They were just wrong. There were things going on here I couldn’t explain to them, even if I wanted to. Which I didn’t.

My body was one big font of nervous energy. I sat there and thought about the crime scene. And I thought about it, and I thought about it. I visualized jumping through the window. Or calling my mom and Adam on Skype and then walking through the front door when they were distracted. I tried to do research to get my mind off. I looked up WitherTongue616. I went over to Notes from Beneath, because I hadn’t read it all week. I couldn’t concentrate. I was hyper-focused on the crime scene. Eventually, I just sat on my computer chair and seethed.

The lights flickered. I tried to look around, but my neck and my body were stiff. The lights flickered again. Not like a brown-out. More like a candle in a breeze. Everything wavered. It only lasted a second, but when the light came back everything was dimmer. I stood up and walked over to my lamp.

It wasn’t there. Or it was, but it was different. My lamp is black and wavy and modern. I bought it with babysitting money to replace the hideous one my grandmother gave me. This thing in front of me was silver, and ornate. It looked old. Like an antique. It was covered in thick, greasy dust. And it had a face that stared back at me.

I had this strange sense that there were things inches in front of my eyes, that I couldn’t see. It’s like when you catch movement out of the corner of your eye. It freaks you out. You turn to look. There’s nothing there. Only all the space around me was the corner of my eye. And those things that flitted just out of sight? They were everywhere.

I turned to inspect the rest of my room. It wasn’t just the lamp. Everything was different. My Yog-Sothoth poster was blank, like a hole into outer space. My Spawn action figures were glommed together into one like they had all melted. The DVD case was replaced with a pile of books. They looked old, and they…dripped something. My bed was entirely gone. In its place was a pile of stuffed animals. Sadi my stuffed bat was there. But there was also a clown with huge eyes, and some kind of octopus, and a bunch of old dolls. In unison, every one of them blinked at me.

I yelped and leapt back. That’s when I noticed there was something wrong. It was my body. It felt…different. My shoulders were wider. The way the muscles flexed was unfamiliar. I looked down at my hands. My nails were long and ragged, like I hadn’t cut them in years. Hair grew on the back of my fingers. Those were not my hands.

I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. Even the air felt different. Thin, like at the top of the mountain, and full of sharpened dust. There was a weak but sharp pain in the center of my chest.

My hands darted up to my face. The terrifying thought struck me that I had someone else’s body. Someone else’s face. I had to look in the mirror. I knew I did, but at the thought a jagged thing twisted in my gut. But I had to know.

I opened my eyes slowly, and turned around. The mirror was on the inside door of my closet. I tried not think what else might be in my closet, as I took a step forward. Panic lanced into my mind. There was something terribly wrong with my legs. No, not with my legs. Between my legs. I reached down and…

I screamed. The door burst open.

“Jessica, are you alright?” It was Adam. He looked wonderfully, gloriously normal.

“Yes!” I said. I lunged forward and hugged him, just to feel his hard chest against my face. That sounds kind of wrong when I say it like that, but it was true.

“I take it you’re not mad at me, then?”

I pulled away and looked around. It was my room. It was our hallway. Everything was normal. “Of course not, you idiot. Now get out of my room.” He sighed and turned towards the stairs. “And close the door!”

I walked over to my bed and picked up Sadi. She looked at me with her cloth bat eyes. There was no malice anywhere in there. And she didn’t blink. That was something. I took a deep breath. The air felt normal. Everything was normal. It wouldn’t stay that way. This was the second time I’d shifted into crazy-world. Or it had come to me. I didn’t know what caused it. It could happen any second.

But the only way out was forward. I needed to figure all of this out. My best lead was WitherTongue. Whoever he was, he knew things. I was sure of that. So I walked over, sat on my computer chair, and opened my browser to begin my research.

Except I had an email. It was from Katim.

Re: Just checking in

I apologize if this is too forward. And you don’t have to answer, if you don’t want to. But that friend of yours, the one you said had died, it was Sofia Anastos, wasn’t it?

Katim Amirmoez
Atherton College

Suspicion bubbled up in my chest. How in the world had he guessed that? And the timing was suspect. His email came just a few seconds after I got back from alternate creepy world. Plus, I met him at the impossible flash mob that as far as I could tell was arranged by the withering man. I admit I laughed at the image of the withering man putting up a Craigslist ad, his arms poking through the copious folds his dress. Did he even have arms?

It was so stupid I hadn’t suspected Katim up to this point. I gave him every benefit just because he was tall. And had beautiful eyes. And his smile was sexy as hell. Deep breath, Jessica.

On the other hand, that way lie gibbering paranoia and chemical restraints. Was Derrick also working for the withering man, because he had found the body and also seemed inordinately interested in me? Was my mom? After all, she had been around more than half the times the withering man showed up, judging by the photographs. And she bought that box of Frosted Flakes.

I tried to look at it rationally. The first possibility was that Katim was a gorgeous college boy who was legitimately interested in me and with whom I had a million things in common. The second was that he was a gorgeous agent of darkness, who kept tabs on me to serve the withering man’s unknown agenda. In the first case, I should go out with him because duh. In the second case, I should go out with him because investigation.

Clearly, there was only one thing to do.

Re: Just checking in

Yeah, it was. Sofia was my best friend. It is really smart of you to figure that out. Last week was her funeral and it kind of messed me up. But I’m better now. At least, sorta 🙂 I felt like I wasn’t really me, and now I’m me again. Just a sadder me. But you have to live your life, you know?

Speeeeeaking of which, I’ve decided to take you up on your offer of going to horror night. Maybe getting my blood pumping will cause some of the bad blood in my veins to go away. Except, blood doesn’t really work that way. But I haven’t slept this week! What do you want out of me?

Don’t answer that. You’re a guy. I already know 😉

My cursor hovered over SEND for a long time after I wrote that. There were so many reasons this was a bad idea. All the reasons I ducked Katim’s previous hints that he wanted to go out with me were still there. He was too old. He was in college. He might flip out when he found out I was only 16. My mom would flip out if she discovered I was out with him. But on the other hand…

I clicked the mouse. A giddy thing happened in my stomach. It was sent. There was no going back. I sent a text to Mei and Dantre.

Agreed to go out with Katim. Doing horror movie night. Together 😉

Mei texted me back immediately.

Squeeeeeeeeeeeee! Tell me all about it tomorrow!

Then, a minute later.

I’m glad you’re feeling better enough to do this. I didn’t say anything, but I was kinda freaking out.

Shocking, Mei. Shocking. Still, I felt like kind of a bitch for putting her through that. Even though it so wasn’t my fault.

Dantre’s text came a few minutes later.

fabulous, girl! u let me know if u need help makin it HAPPEN, ifyouknowhatimean

I blushed. Dantre could make a stone blush. But I might need his help.

Katim’s reply came a few minutes later.

Re: Just checking in

I assure you, my lady, that I am a perfect gentlemen. I’m glad you accepted my offer. And picked up on my subtle hint. Dreams and Screams, the school horror movie night, is every Tuesday. So in two days. Are you sure you can make it? It is a school night, after all. It starts at 7 and goes as long as the movie goes. Usually people hang out and talk for awhile after. We don’t have to stay for that unless you want to, but it’s pretty fun. I can pick you up and drop you off, of course. Let me know.

Katim Amirmoez
Atherton College

Two days from now? My pulse raced. That was really soon. My mom definitely wouldn’t let me go. That was laughable. Usually I could pretend to go to Mei’s, but after the speech my mom just gave me she might pay closer attention. She might even call Mei’s parents, and then I’d be up the creek. But I could tell her I was at Dantre’s house. His parents were awesome old hippies and they would cover for us if we asked them to. Plus, my mom didn’t know them that well, so she probably wouldn’t see through it.

I had a plan.

I tried to research WitherTongue, but I couldn’t focus. I went over to Notes from Beneath, and read the post about the most recent murder that didn’t really say anything new, and a pretty neat article about blood sacrifice. It freaked me out more than it normally would have. Once I was no longer thinking about Katim, the creepiness of what happened in my room earlier crept back into my brain. It was hard to fall asleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I was gripped with the fear that when I opened them again I would be back there.

11/25/14

I had an email from Derrick waiting for me the next morning.

Re: The New Victim

Jessica

We put up a post detailing our findings at the crime scene. It would be in your best interests to read it.

Derrick Lee

I read it on the bus on the way to school.

The Casa de Ajo Crime Scene

Ben got into room 312 of the Casa de Ajo budget apartment complex last night, through means that will remain undisclosed. What he found sheds startling light on the Thousand Cut Killer case. Before I present the findings, I want to address a concern many of you will have. Ever since we broke the story on the Sofia Anastos murder, our daily numbers have skyrocketed. Most of the new readership is not made up of regulars, or the specific demographic that would normally frequent a blog like Notes. This counterargument is for you.

Shouldn’t we leave this to the police? Won’t revealing sensitive details hamper the investigation? That’s certainly what the police said, when they threatened to book us for obstruction and aiding and abetting after the fact. No charges have yet been filed. But the fact is, once I upload this blog post they might be. Ben or I or both of us might be arrested for presenting these facts. But we will do it anyway. We need to do it anyway. Because the police can’t handle this.

These brutal killings were not performed by a person. They were committed by some Thing. The evidence is strong, and anyone who pays enough attention will see it. But I’m not going to call you ignorant. I am not going to tell you to WAKE UP!!!! or call you a sheeple or any other nauseating thing. It’s good that you don’t believe. If too many people believed, it might open the door just a little too wide. It might let Them in. But know this: Those of us who do believe, who do know what’s out there, we need this information. We need it so we can stop this thing. Just like we stopped the Ripper. Just like we stopped Zodiac.

The police might find a human being, like they did with Green River. Sometimes a human is involved, if most certainly not in control. I hope they do. It’ll let you all sleep at night. We want you to sleep. But in those moments, and you all have them, when you see a spectral figure in the hallway that you later tell yourself you imagined. Or when you see something in the mirror, just for a second, that Isn’t You.

In the dead of night, when the rationalizing part of your brain is asleep, and you lie there in mortal dread because you cannot deny the truth of the horror littered between the cracks of the everyday world. In those moments, know that we are out there. We pay attention. And we are fighting. So put on your classical music, light your loganberry scented candle, and go back to sleep. We’ve got this.

For those of you that are like us, here is what Ben found. The woman’s name is Gabriella Sanchez, and she was the director of the Caldwell Office of Arts and Culture. She was also intimately involved with various extracurricular programs at Agatha Caldwell High School, though she had no children. The high school connection is part of an emerging pattern, the majority of which is still unknown.

Sanchez’s body did, indeed, have similar wounds to Sofia Anastos, but they were far more severe. Each wound was a deep gouge, as if performed using a dull instrument. As in the case of Sofia Anastos, these wounds were inflicted while the victim was alive, and were likely the cause of death. The autopsy is pending, so it is not yet confirmed whether all saliva and mucus were removed, as in the case of Anastos.

The apartment in which the body was found did not belong to Ms. Sanchez, but rather to one Maria Colina. As of this writing, no connection between the two is known. Ms. Colina found the body when she returned from her shift as a Wal-mart clerk. The body was found in the bathtub, and according to Colina the apartment was otherwise undisturbed. There was no evidence that the front door was forced, or that anyone passed through the apartment at all. The interior doors to the bedroom, through which the bathroom is accessed, and the bathroom itself are kept locked at all times, even when Colina is out, ever since a home invasion 9 months ago “made me paranoid.” Both doors were locked when the body was discovered.

Unlike Anastos, Sanchez was found with identification. She had her purse, full of cards, photographs, and receipts. On every piece of paper in her possession with white space, a single phrase was written.

Usted pertence al Hombre de muchas lenguas.

Translation: You belong to the man of many languages.

The meaning of this phrase is unclear, as is whether there is any connection to Anastos. We will report more as we find it.

I hadn’t know all of that about Sofia. About the saliva being drained from her body. I felt sick. I shot Derrick a quick response as the bus pulled up to the school.

Re: The New Victim

I read your post. The day before she died, Sofia dropped a drawing I did that she carried around with her. She wrote all over it, but there is something else that I think was written by someone else. It says THE MAN OF MANY TONGUES HAS YOU. The Spanish word lengua means tongue as well as language.

What do you think it means?

School started painfully. Usually I sleepwalk my way through the beginning of the day. Today I was wide awake. During chemistry I battled with whether or not to ask Mrs. Ennis if I could go to the bathroom, and then ditch the rest of the class to go to the library and look up WitherTongue. Chemistry was first period. It was going to be a long day.

By the time English came around I felt crappy and irritable. I asked Mr. Beef – his name is actually Mr. Booth but everyone calls him Mr. Beef because he’s sweaty like a cow – if I could go see the guidance counselor. He said yes. I got a couple of “she’s crazy” looks from some of the other people, but I didn’t care.

I walked over to Mr. Clarkson’s room. I’d given it a lot of thought and decided to give him another try. So what he if talked to Jenna? He probably didn’t know she was one of those Balinese entrail monsters that eats children. Even if he did know that and didn’t care, talking to him would still be more helpful than talking to Miss Anne.

When I got there the room was locked. There was a note on the door.

Mr. Clarkson’s Spanish and Latin classes will be held in room 408.

Ugh. The substitute room. It was used sometimes when a teacher was out. I don’t know why. It always smelled like feet. Most of the time, it was just empty. Fun fact: It was also the second most common place for students to have sex after the boy’s locker room. I guess Caldwell students were just really turned on by the smell of feet.

“Jessica?” I swiveled around to see Jenna at the end of the empty hallway. I scowled.

“What,” I said, “do you just hang out outside of Mr. Clarkson’s room?”

“Jessica,” she walked towards me. “I need to…”

Whatever.” I barged past her. I went to Mr. Clarkson so he could help me feel better. The last person I wanted to talk to was Jenna Lethbridge.

During lunch Dantre and Mei cornered me and barraged me with questions about Katim.

What does he even look like?” said Mei. “You’ve told me all about him but I don’t even know what he looks like.”

What you do,” said Dantre, “when you first meet up is lean forward and whisper something sexy in his ear. Something about panties or something. Then you can look down and scope his package. If there aint nothing there, you know you’re wasting your time.”

I made them buy me a feta salad from the snack bar before I would answer any of their questions. I couldn’t tell it was annoying or fun. Probably both.

During history, Leteisha in front of me reached behind her back and dropped a note on my desk. I grabbed it and had a look. It was written with green pen in perfect handwriting.

We need to talk.
Jenna

I spent the next ten minutes drawing a hand with an oversized middle finger and a diseased nail. I put some dripping blood along the wrist, to show that the hand was severed just for her. Then I passed it to Leteisha who passed it to Sara W. who passed it to E who passed it to Jenna. She shot me a look of disgust, and I grinned. Oh look. Jenna actually did make me feel better. Who knew?

Last period was Spanish in smelly-foot-room 408. It was taught by Mr. Morris, also known as the Dog Whistler, because when he wants the class to quiet down he actually blows on a whistle he wears around his neck. Also I don’t think he speaks three words of Spanish. At one point he said “Mee gustar sausages,” in his completely South Texas accent. By the time the final bell rang I wanted to claw my eyes out.

Do you want to come over tonight?” Mei asked as we waited in the parking lot for our respective busses. “My mom is making potstickers. And my dad is in San Diego.”

I shook my head. “I have stuff to do tonight.”

Okay.” She scratched her ear, which is something she did when she was nervous. “Natasha is still bugging me about the thing with the photographs.”

Is she? That’s annoying.”

Yeah.”

Maxwell walked by and stopped to stare obviously at my chest.

Keep walking, numb nuts,” I said.

Yes ma’am,” he gave me a salute. “Just wanted to pay tribute.” He walked off.

Asshole,” I said.

I think he’s funny,” said Mei.

Well yeah. He wasn’t staring at your boobs.” Mei blushed. “Oh, Mei, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

No, it’s fine.”

There was a minute of awkward silence.

Are you ever going to tell us what’s up with the weird guy?” said Mei.

You mean Maxwell?”

She gave me a withering stare. Or at least the Mei version. A slightly wilted stare.

The guy in the photographs,” I said. She nodded. “I told you, it’s nothing.”

We’re worried about you.”

I frowned. “I just have to deal with this in my own way, okay?”

Jess, if you have some kind of stalker, or something…”

It’s nothing like that,” I lied. “Just, don’t worry about it. Please.” She sighed. “Oh, listen. Do you have any idea why Jenna would want to talk to me?”

Mei furrowed her brow. “No. She didn’t say anything to me about it. Why?”

Because she cornered me outside of Mr. Clarkson’s office,” I said. “And then she passed me a note during history.”

You should talk to her.”

Like hell.”

It’s probably important. It might be about Sofia.”

Why would Jenna have anything to tell me about Sofia.”

Well, they were kind of friends, weren’t they?”

My jaw dropped open. “No they definitely were not.”

Well, I mean, they did Wanderings together.” Wanderings was the school poetry magazine. The editing was done in an art elective.

Sofia wasn’t in Wanderings,” I said.

Wasn’t she? I could have sworn I saw them coming out of the room together and talking.”

When was this?” My voice in my ears was very flat.

A few weeks ago. Not long before…”

I stared straight ahead of me and said nothing. My face hurt.

I could be wrong,” said Mei.

I didn’t respond.

That’s my bus,” I said a minute later.

Jessy…” I walked onto the bus. “Text me!”

The bus rides home are always full of loud and obnoxious people. Usually I have to crank my headphone volume to avoid going nuts. Today I didn’t bother. Every part of me was numb. Worse than that, I felt like an idiot. A sucker. Ever since the funeral I had changed the word I used in my head for Sofia. She went from my dead friend, to my dead best friend. But that was a delusion. She wasn’t my best friend. I barely knew this girl. We hung out a few times over the course of a couple of months. So what if she carried my stupid drawing around with her? It didn’t mean she was…

It didn’t mean she was in love with me. There. I said it. I’d been avoiding saying it in my head, but there it was. I knew she liked girls. I mean, I thought she did. She sort of told me, over poker at my birthday party. And some other things. The posters in her room. That Chrome browser window on her laptop she accidentally left open when she let me use it in the library. I knew she liked guys, too. She had a serious crush on Mr. Clarkson, because duh. And I know she thought Aaron Lichten was hot, because super-duh.

As I got off of the bus, horrible thoughts raked their claws against the inside of my skull. Maybe everything I thought about Sofia was wrong. Maybe Jenna was her secret best friend, and knew her better than I ever did. Maybe I was just someone to hang out with until she found sound real friends.

The front door of my house was locked. That was good. It mean no one was home, and I couldn’t deal with Adam just then. He’d probably grill me to make sure I hadn’t broken my promise and taken a shit in the wrong bathroom, or something. I threw my stuff on the floor and flopped down on the couch. I turned on the TV, and sat bolt upright.

…has been in police questioning for several hours, but so far no formal charges have been made,” said Lisa Reed, standing in front of the Caldwell Police station.

The camera cut to a severe-looking black woman with a bunch of microphones thrust in her face. The text at the bottom of the screen said Special Agent Durant. “We are speaking to persons of interest, but I cannot confirm that the individual in custody is a suspect. No further comment.”

I barely heard any of this. My attention was on the picture of the man the police had in custody in the upper right hand corner of the screen.

I now knew why Mr. Clarkson wasn’t at school today.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Thick, Grey, and Viscous

Depression.

the withering man, part 7

11/20/13-11/24/13

Nothing much happened for the rest of the week, freaky or otherwise. I went through school on auto-pilot. There was this burning spark inside of me, but it couldn’t reach my brain. I wanted to do what I promised Sofia I would do and catch her killer. I couldn’t make myself care. In chemistry, Mrs. Ennis told us how light is created through massive fusion explosions at the center of the sun, but it takes 50,000 years to reach the surface. That was me.

I barely slept Tuesday night. When I looked at myself in the mirror Wednesday morning I shrieked because I thought the withering man was in my bathroom. It was just my face.

Katim emailed me a few times during the week, but I didn’t respond. On Friday I realized how stupid that was, and I sent him a message saying a friend had died and I was a little messed up and that’s why I wasn’t responding. I got a reply back in fifteen minutes that said he was really sorry and to let him know if I needed help exacting my revenge. I laughed for the first time since the wake. Ten minutes later it was like it never happened.

I started to avoid my mom when I saw the way she looked at me. Mostly, she’s just a normal mom. She’s not around all that much because she works a lot, but she stands up for us when there’s a threat, and she always makes sure I get my homework done. And she trusts me to pretty much do what I want as long as I don’t get into too much trouble.

But sometimes she erupts into this weird state where she starts to tell me or Adam stuff that mom should not tell their children. The day I got my first period, she broke down and told me about all of the men she had ever had sex with. In great detail. She said that she had my sister Anwa so young because Anwa’s father was really turned on by unprotected sex, and that she’d only been with one man since my father Max. It was my fencing coach. Apparently he was “really good with a sword.” I stopped taking fencing, after that.

So when I noticed that look in her eyes Wednesday morning, I did my best to avoid her.

Later that day, I had my first counseling session with Miss Anne at school. She asked a bunch of dumb questions about my relationship with Sofia. I mentioned our webcomic, and somehow ended up spending most of the hour trying to explain what pixel art was. Even though Sofia and I weren’t doing pixel art. A really good use of taxpayer education funding, I think.

On Thursday, two police detectives showed up to ask me some questions about Sofia. I answered them as best as I could. I don’t think I told them anything they didn’t already know. They left their number. It would have made more sense if they left email address, too. They didn’t.

On Friday Dantre showed up after school with a couple of flatbreads he made himself.

“We’re going to knock you out of that funk you’re in, girl.”

The flatbreads were delicious. At least, that’s what everybody else said. I barely tasted them. We all sat at the table and ate together. Adam asked Dantre a few stupid questions about what it was like to be gay, and I got to punch him. It helped. Then Dantre and I sat in my bedroom and painted my toenails and talked about whatever until almost midnight. By the time he left, I felt a little better. But when I woke up the next morning the funk was still there, slimy and viscous against my exposed skin.

I spent all of Saturday in bed or on my computer. I never got out of my pajamas. Mei texted a dozen times me to try to get me to go out. When I didn’t respond, she called me. It went to voicemail.

“Jess, I’m worried about you. We all are. If you want to go out I at least want to come over. Can I come over?”

I texted her back: “I’m fine.”

At about 4 PM I sat nodding off to The Frighteners when there was a loud KNOCK. I leapt up and shrieked. Both my chair and I fell sideways and crashed onto the floor.

“Jessy?” Adam burst through the door. “Are you alright?”

“I fell over.”

“I can see that. Do you need help?”

I turned my aching body to look at him. He was trying not to laugh.

I groaned and got to my feet.

“I just got the Marvel Lego game,” he said. “You want to come downstairs and play co-op?”

“No,” I said as I righted the chair.

He shrugged and walked into the hall.

“Close the door!” I called after him, like I had a billion times before. He didn’t.

He walked down the stairs, and I heard him say, “I tried, but…yeah.”

My mom brought home fresh bread and good cheese and hot-smoked salmon for dinner. I choked it down, as she and Adam exchanged uneasy glances and tried to spark conversation. I escaped as soon as possible.

Just before bed I attempted to do research on the withering man or Sofia’s murder. But just like every time this week, I gave up almost immediately. This time I ended up watching a creepy Legend of Zelda web series I’d seen twenty times before.

Sleep that night danced four inches from my face. As soon as my hand closed around it, it sank its sharp teeth into my fingers and flited away laughing. I woke up six or seven times. Once I got out of bed, opened the window, and gazed into the cold darkness. I think I was hoping to see the withering man, or the three-child nightmare. I stared for almost 20 minutes, waiting for the icy fear to slice into my flesh and make me feel something. I stopped when my shivering started to piss me off.

Sunlight in my eyes woke me up Sunday morning. The sky had been overcast for weeks. As I pushed myself out of bed, it struck me that this should be a metaphor for hope or something. But the funk was still there. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t even disappointed. Of course it was there. This was my life, now.

Maybe I would have felt like that forever. I don’t know. It seems silly, now, but that’s what it’s like in the middle it of it, you know? Like when you’re sick and it lasts more than two days, and you think you are just going to have to live like this. My mom’s advice whenever that happens is “enjoy your health now, honey. It gets worse when you’re older.” Fantastic. At least she didn’t react to my post-funeral funk that way. That would have been awful.

Maybe it would have lasted forever, or blossomed into a deep depression that required pills and electro-shock therapy. But there were two things happened on Sunday that changed everything. The first was the photographs. The second was the news report.

Mei and Natasha rang the doorbell in the early afternoon.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“We’re here to cheer you up!” said Natasha.

“I don’t need cheering up. I’m fine.” Behind me, Adam scoffed.

“Jessy, we’re worried about you,” said Mei. “You’re not acting like yourself.”

“My friend is dead,” I said.

“She was our friend, too,” said Mei.

“Look,” said Natasha, “we expect you to be all tormented and emo, but the Jessica I know wouldn’t be mopey about it.”

I shifted my feet. “Listen. I appreciate it, but…”

“Let them in,” said Adam, “or I’ll put on One Direction and blast the volume.”

My mouth dropped open. “But…someone might hear it. The neighbors, or…” An image flashed into my head. Katim, walking up to the house to see me, a bouquet of black roses in his hand, and hearing boy band music. He would never speak to me again. Never mind that he didn’t know where I lived.

“Exactly.”

So they came in, and we spent the next couple of hours taking turns playing Lego Marvel Superheros. I skipped most of my turns. Everyone talked about movies and gossiped about people at school and generally laughed and had a good time. Except me. I wasn’t there. It was all happening to someone else. I sat in the corner of my brain, just behind my eyes, and watched.

At one point, Adam got up to go to the bathroom.

“Your brother is so hot,” said Natasha in a loud whisper when Adam was out of the room.

“Ew,” I said. Mei giggled. “You know he works in construction, right? You’re seeing him in a rare moment of being clean. Usually he’s covered in sweat.”

“He wouldn’t be by the time I was done with him,” said Natasha. Mei lost it. I sighed. How had sweet, quiet Natasha turned into this boy-crazy maniac? “Is that him?” She walked up to the purple shelf near the TV that had all of our photographs. She picked up the photograph of Adam in his football uniform.

I stood up and approached “Yeah,” I said. “That’s the year we won the regionals.”

“Yum. What position did he play?” said Natasha, grinning. “Tight end?” Mei giggled so hard she fell off the couch.

“What are you girls up to?” said Adam as he entered from the living room.

“Looking at the pictures,” said Natasha.

“Oh, yeah? That’s a good one of me,” he said.

“Well yeah,” I said. I looked down at the others. There was one of me, and my older sister Anwa, and Adam. There used to be one of my little sister Aimee, but my mom got too said whenever she had to explain to guests why she wasn’t around anymore. We made her take it down. They were all good pictures. Mom let us each pick out our favorite for public display.

I picked mine up and looked at it. I was eleven, dressed up like a female Sandman from the Neil Gaiman comic. I stuck my tongue out at the camera, even though it was really out of character. The picture depicted my eleventh birthday party. My birthdays are always costume parties. This one took place in our backyard. Behind me, you could see a Wolverine, and someone dressed as a ninja vampire, and…

“Oh my god,” I put my hand over my mouth.

“What’s wrong?” said Natasha. I pointed at the upper left hand corner of the photo. “What? I don’t… Wait. What, that woman dressed as Elvira, or something?”

I held it up to my face and looked closer. I’d seen this picture fifty thousand times before, but I’d never noticed anyone standing in that exact spot. Let alone a tall, thin man with no hair. I dropped the picture on the shelf and ran up the stairs.

“Where are you going?” I heard Natasha say.

When I got to my room I hunched down and pulled out the photo album from under my bed. I opened it. A year ago, my mom was going through old photos and trying to decide which ones to put in storage. She bought Adam and Anwa and me each a small photo album. We picked out our favorite photos of ourselves and put them in the album. It was kind of cheesy, but fun.

“What are you doing?” said Natasha as she entered.

“Are you alright?” said Mei.

I remained silent as I turned the pages of the album. Memories flared up in my brain. Things I had forgotten.

If you see Him, it is because He has chosen you to see Him.

A picture of me on a train. I was 9. My mom and were on a trip. We flew to Jacksonville, and then took the train down to Miami to see my Aunt Sara. I spent the entire ride with my eyes glued to the window. The rain on the palm and mango trees was so beautiful. We the train arrived, I didn’t want to get out. I wanted to stay there, and stare. It was dark by that point, and rain pounded on the window. Lightning flashed, and for a moment I saw a face outside, two inches away from mine. That was the moment my mother snapped the photo. Me, and the window, and the face. It was bald, and pale, and its oversized eyes had no lids.

A shot of me half-way up a climbing wall for my 10th birthday. We had to drive to Willemstad to find a climbing gym that would let a bunch of kids come and climb in their Halloween costumes. I saw myself, and Adam, and Richo, and Natasha. And a tall figure in a flowing black dress.

Me and Richo and Jenna playing by Caldwell River. Back when Jenna and I were still friends, sort of. The picture showed me on top of a large, dead tree-branch laid out on the riverbank, a vague human shape in the distance behind me. My arms were thrust out above my head in triumph. Jenna and I were playing right under the tree when I heard a squirrel or something above my head. I looked up to see the branch swaying in the wind.

I pushed Jenna out of the way, and the branch crashed down right where we stood a moment before. As I stood up and brushed myself off, I noticed a strange man, standing over behind a clump of bushes. I got a funny feeling in my chest. I ran straight at him while Jenna and Richo yelled after me. When I got there he was gone. There were two dolls, laying in the mud. A branch lay over to them. Their heads were caved in. The message was clear. I did this. And I want you to know.

I forgot about these moments, until now. Just like I had forgotten about Briana.

“Oh my,” said Mei. She bent down to look over my shoulder. “Is that…the man from the crime scene photo?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Huh?” said Natasha. I ignored her.

I chose these fourteen photos out of several hundred in my mom’s boxes. I chose these moments because meant something. They were important to me. The withering man was in them. Every. Single. One.

I went back downstairs, and the my two friends followed. Adam was still there, still flying through the Lego landscape and smashing heads as The Mighty Thor. I picked up the other control and started to play.

“Jessica,” said Natasha, “I demand an explanation!”

As I ignored Natasha and blasted smiley-faced enemies as Storm, I felt the funk settling in over me again. It pissed me off. The resurgence of the withering man in my life after over a week should have done something. It should have filled me with the kind of excitement it had before. It didn’t. It just made me tired.

Natasha begged me over the next hour to explain about the photos, but I didn’t. Mei told her about the image from the Notes from Beneath blog, but it wasn’t much.

“It’s nothing,” I said over and over. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I am worried about,” she said.

Maybe she would have continued to nag until I went off to bed, and then followed me to my room and nagged me in my sleep. But my mom showed up with two giant pizzas.

“I brought enough for everyone,” she said as she squeezed through the door with the two boxes, her briefcase, and her handbag. “Nobody help me. I’m fine.” Mei rushed forward to take the pizzas.

I furrowed my eyebrows. “How did you know Mei and Natasha were…”

“I texted her,” said Adam.

I grimaced. “The amount of responsibility in this dysfunctional household lately is making me sick.”

Everyone laughed. Usually, my mom didn’t like when I used the D word. I guess this time she was just happy to hear me make a joke. It felt good, to make everyone laugh. I knew it wouldn’t last.

“Turn off the Playstation,” mom said to Adam. “I want to watch the news.”

“It’s not a Playstation,” said Adam, for the five billionth time. “It’s an Xbox.” It would have been a running joke, except my mom didn’t realize she did it. Adam shut off the console and put on channel 7. It was a toothpaste commercial.

“Does anyone actually pick their toothpaste because a talking toothbrush told them to?” said Natasha.

“Adam dressed up as a talking toothbrush once,” I said.

“Seriously?” asked Mei. Then she clasped her hands over her mouth.

“Yes he did,” said my mom, “for a school play. And he was adorable.”

“A whole generation of Caldwell students have proper dental hygiene, thanks to me,” said Adam. I scowled at him, and he grinned. You just can’t embarrass Adam; he has no shame.

“Oh, there’s Lisa,” said my mom.

Sure enough, Lisa Reed stood there with her perfect hair in front of a ratty-looking apartment building surrounded by cops. “I am standing outside the Casa de Ajo apartments in west Caldwell. I can now confirm that the body of another woman has been found, in a similar condition to that of Sofia Anastos, within the complex. Lt. Venderbak,” the camera panned out to show the police lieutenant standing next to Lisa, “do the police believe this is the work of a serial killer?”

“I can’t comment on that at this moment, Ms. Reed,” said Venderbak. “You know that. However, I will state that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has committed additional resources to this case.”

“Thank you, lieutenant,” said Lisa. The camera panned back to her. “As you heard, few details at this time are known, and the identity of the victim has not been released.”

All of us sat is silence as the news report continued.

“Holy shitstorm,” said Adam when it finally cut away.

“Another one?” said Mei under her breath.

“Do you think…” said Natasha, “do you think it’s someone else from school?”

“Now, there’s no reason to think that,” said my mom. She didn’t sound convinced.

Mei’s phone rang. She stepped into the dining room.

“A serial killer,” I said. “In Caldwell.”

“It might not be,” said Natasha. “You heard the lieutenant. It might not be.”

“Please, Natasha,” I said. “They said ‘similar condition to the Sofia,’ that means the same wound pattern. What do you think, they both got mugged by a meat grinder?”

“Jessica,” said my mother in a weak voice. “That’s not necessary.”

“We all saw the pictures,” I said. Everyone was silent.

“That was my dad,” said Mei when she returned. “They saw the news. They want me to come home.”

“Yeah,” said Natasha. “I should probably get home, too. My parents will find out pretty soon if they don’t know already.”

“I’ll give you a ride,” said Adam. Mei and Natasha gave him very appreciative looks.

“I’m coming, too,” I said.

My mom looked at me. “Jessica, I don’t think…”

“They’re my friends. I want to make sure they’re safe. I don’t want to lose another…” I let my voice trail off. My mom bit her lower lip, and nodded. That was a dirty trick of mine. Dirty, but effective.

The four of us piled into Adam’s busted up Chrysler and drove off. Right after we dropped Mei off, my phone vibrated. I had an email. Adam and Natasha talked in low voices about the murder, while I read.

The New Victim

Jessica,

I’m sure you’ve heard the news by now. There’s been another victim, mutilated just like the first. Ben has a source at the police station, so we know the identity of the victim. Who knows how long it will be until it is released to the press. You are ankle-deep in this thing, so we thought you should know. You might see a connection that we miss. Plus, you deserve the full truth. The body belongs to one Gabriella Sanchez. Let us know if that means anything to you. We haven’t had a chance to look into her, yet, but I know she was 32. I wanted to email you before I did anything else. We’re going to the crime scene tonight to see what we can dig up. We’ll keep you updated.

Derrick Lee

I responded right away.

Re: The New Victim

Yes, I know that name! Miss Sanchez does stuff at the school. I don’t know her exact position or anything, but she does spirit week, and helps organizes school dances, and stuff like that. And I know she works at city hall, as a secretary or something.

We dropped Natasha off, and I got out and hugged her.

She looked me squarely in the eye. “Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

“Like what?” She rolled her eyes at me. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She nodded, and walked off. When I got back into the car, Derrick had already responded.

Re: The New Victim

Jessica,

It all fits. I thought the next victim would be a high school student, and I was thrown off when it wasn’t. There’s not much of a pattern here yet, but Agatha Caldwell High School is definitely involved. Be careful. I said it before, but now it is absolutely crucial. This is life or death. Literally.

Derrick Lee

I read both of the emails a few times, as a plan formed in my head. I didn’t know if it would work, but I had to try.

“I want you to drive me to the crime scene,” I said to Adam.

Adam’s head jerked in my direction. “What?”

“I want you to drive me to the crime scene.”

“What on God’s green earth possesses you to think I would do that?”

“I need to see it. Just drive me there.”

He laughed. “That is not going to happen. Drive you to the crime scene. Seriously.”

“If you don’t drive me there, I’ll jump out of the car. Or I’ll sneak out in the middle of the night and walk there. So you might as well do it.”

He slammed on the brakes. My elbow smacked into the dashboard.

“If you step out of this car, I will beat your ass down.” I could hear the clench in his jaw. “If I hear you crawling out of your window later tonight, I will drag you back into the house, and I will beat your ass down.”

I stayed silent. Why the hell had I told Adam? I should have just done it.

When we got home he pulled mom into the kitchen and they talked for a few minutes. Probably about how crazy I was. When they were done, he walked past me and up the stairs. He didn’t make eye contact.

“Jessica, can you come in here,” my mother’s voice was very flat. I walked into the kitchen. Slowly.

“Sit down,” she said. I did.

“Mom, I…”

“We need to talk.”

I sighed heavily, and rolled my eyes. “Here we go.”

“Jessica Alexandra Kingsport!”I bolted upright. “Listen. To. Me. Are you listening? Do I have your attention?” I nodded. She closed her eyes, and squeezed out tears. When she opened them the look she gave me was like steel. “You have seen so much death in your life. So much. More than any little girl should…”

I almost said “I’m not a little girl.”

“With Briana, and Aimee, and…what happened with your father. And now Sofia. I understand this must be affecting you very deeply.”

“Mom, I’m okay. I’m just…”

“You’re not okay! Of course you’re not okay. Your best friend is dead. She was murdered. Someone cut her hundreds of times, while she screamed at the top of her lungs for him to stop.”

I swallowed heavily.

“But I want you to think about this. All of that death you’ve seen? All of that shit you’ve gone through? I’ve been going through it too.”

“Mom, I…” Tears burned my eyes.

“Your brother has been going through it too. What do you think would happen if something happened to you? What do you think that would do to me? If you went out and got yourself killed by some psychopath, what do you think I would do?” She went silent. “What do you think I would do? Tell me.”

“I don’t know.”

“I would slit my wrists. I would take a knife, probably the good bread knife your grandfather game me, because the serrations would ensure a better cut even if the blade was dull. God knows it’s been a long time since I had our knives sharpened. I’d take that knife, and I’d slice along each of my wrists lengthwise, and then go back and slice down my arms, along the length of the long veins. I’d feel like a total shit about it. About leaving your brother and your sister without a mother. About make your grandmother go through the torment of losing a child. Hell, even about leaving my coworkers to pick up my slack. But I’d do it. Because that would surpass the limit of my strength. I’ve already lost one daughter. Losing another one would shatter my mind.”

“Mom, don’t do that,” I sobbed. Tears gushed down my face. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She stood up, pressed my face to her chest. “Shh. You don’t have to be sorry. Just promise me. Promise me you won’t put yourself in danger. Promise me you won’t do anything crazy.”

“I promise,” I said. “I promise I promise I promise!”

“Good. Do you want some ice cream?”

I walked upstairs with a sick feeling in my stomach. I sat on my bed, and pulled out the photo album. If I was a heroine in a novel, I’d say that my heart was breaking because this was the first time I ever broke a promise to my mother. The truth is that I’d broken hundreds of promises. Making promises is easy. It shuts people up. But this one stung. This one stung like none of the others ever had. Maybe this was the first truly important promise I had ever made. The first adult promise.

But I couldn’t keep it. I held up the picture of myself at the train, and looked at it. I couldn’t keep my promise to stay out of danger, because I was already in danger. I stared into the withering man’s warped, lidless eyes. The face in the picture shifted, and stared back into mine. I didn’t blink. I didn’t move. And I didn’t scream.

“This is your fault. All of this. I am going to find you. And, somehow, I am going to fucking end you.”

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Three Empty Memorials

St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Churchdeath

the withering man, part 6.

When you die, wish your useless wishes and pray your useless prayers that you are killed by the hand of man, or the uncaring caprices of chance. If one of Them takes you, your death belongs to them, and it will serve them until their infected designs are sated.
–Withertongue616

“Do you still want to go to the memorial?” my mom asked from across the table.

“Yeah, definitely,” I said.

“I’ll come, too,” said Adam.

My eyes widened. “You don’t have to.”

“I know.”

I didn’t have the energy to argue. When the hell did my brother get so mature? I wasn’t sure whether or not it should piss me off. So I had another bite of my black bean soup.

After dinner I went upstairs to get dressed for the memorial. A memorial at school. How lame. Probably no one was going to be there. What should I wear? “Black” didn’t narrow my wardrobe down. As I laid a few skirts on the bed that were all ugly and inappropriate, an idea started to spawn in the back of my brain. No, not an idea. A Wish. It was desperate and ridiculous. I pushed it down. It crawled back out.

My phone beeped. It was another email from Katim. I had asked him “vampire vs. werewolf,” and he actually said werewolf. I responded with one sentence. “I thought I was the only one.” It drove the Wish down into my mental recesses.

There was a knock on my door. I opened it. Mei burst in and threw her arms around me me. I tried to pull away. She didn’t let me.

“Mei, this is getting awkward.”

“I don’t care.”

I shrugged, which is kind of hard when your entire is wrapped in your friend’s tiny arms. After what I think was an hour, she let me go.

“Thanks,” I said. I wiped a few tears off my face. “I take it we’re giving you a ride?”

“Your mom texted me to offer.”

“What’s with moms texting your friends? When did that become a thing?”

“I know, right?” I laughed, and she giggled. For a second I got annoyed at her. It was impossible to feel too messed up when Mei was in the room. Right now, I wanted to feel messed up. I got over it.

“Tell me,” I said. “Does my hair look horrendous?”

“No! It’s fine.”

“Is it really, or are you just being Mei?” She gave me a guilty look. I sighed. “I haven’t showered in a few days.”

“Sit down,” she said. “I’m sure we can do something about it.”

“If you say so,” I said. “You can help me pick out a skirt, too.”

The school parking lot was stuffed with cars.

“No way all these people are here for Sofia,” I said. “There’s probably a PTA meeting,” I said. Adam laughed. Mei gave me a scandalized look.

There were people milling all over. We walked up the hill towards the cafeteria, everyone either looked right at me or turned to avoid my gaze. There was a small camera crew near the entrance to the office, talking to Britney Fuller. She pointed over at me. As we passed by them they darted over towards us.

“Hello,” said a tall blond in a pants-suit that I recognized from TV. “My name is Lisa Reed. I’m with KTLA 7. Would it be alright if I asked you a few questions?”

“No,” I said. We kept walking.

“That was wicked,” I looked over to see Maxwell, one of my classmates. “That deserves a fist bump.” He held out his fist. I rolled my eyes and moved on. When no one could see my face, I grinned.

The cafeteria was arranged so the tables were all turned the same way, and there was a podium at the far end.

“Why didn’t they just use the auditorium?” I said to Mei as we walked in. She nodded.

I saw Sofia’s parents and her sister, Tula at the front of the room. Someone tapped Tula and pointed back at us. Tula stood up and caught my eye.

“Why she coming over here?” I asked with gritted teeth.

“Hi, Jessica,” she said when she arrived. Her voice was weak. “Hi Meizhang. We saved you a couple of seats up front.”

I tensed and looked up at my mom. She mouthed “go!” Mei and I followed.

“I know you were Sofi’s friends,” said Tula. She looked straight ahead of her as we walked. When we were almost to the front, she stopped and turned to me. She looked at me for a long moment. Her eyes were teary, but she still looked amazing with her elegant dress and her perfect hair. “Listen. I know I wasn’t always the nicest, when you came over or talked to me in the hall. I’m sorry if I…”

“Don’t,” I cut her off. “It’s fine.”

She nodded and her eyes swelled with moisture. I think she was about to hug me, but I stiffened up, and she didn’t. She took Mei and I by the hands and walked us to our seats.

The memorial was what you would expect, I guess. Mr. Harris, the principal, gave a speech. Some teachers said things. Miss Anne the guidance councilor told everyone they could come to her if they needed to talk, “especially those who were close to Sofia.” She looked at the front row, but I think she was actually looking at me. Sofia’s mom stepped to the podium. and thanked the community for being so supportive. Gag. I guessed she didn’t know how that same “community” shunned her daughter because she wore metal t-shirts instead of pom-poms. Or she didn’t care.

“Any student who wishes to speak should come up now,” Mr. Harris said eventually. I thought about it. I almost did it a few times. I’d been thinking about what I would say all day. But I didn’t, because fuck all of these people. I didn’t even know why they were here. Sofia dies and now all of a sudden they all liked her? I nearly got up and said that. It made me grin and I had to fight to keep it down. I’d be a school legend. I’d get in trouble, too. But whatever. It’d give the news lady something to report.

Tula stood up and spoke. And a few other people. Jenna stood up and talked about the poetry Sofia submitted to the school magazine, and how there was real talent there, and when she read it she knew deep down that this girl was special. Her voice broke near the end.

Her exact words were something like, “I’m an attention whore, I’m an attention whore. A girl is dead, but everyone pay attention to me, because I’m an attention whore.” Sofia’s mom hugged Jenna as she came down from the podium. Gag.

I didn’t know Sofia had submitted poetry.

Juanita Menendez stood up and said how as the president of the Spanish Club, she had gotten to know Sofia a little, and was impressed by her real gift with languages.

So much fake praise. I glanced over at Mr and Mrs Anastos to see if phoniness of it all bugged them as much as it bugged me. From the way Mrs Anastos clutched her hand to her chest at Jenna’s speech, I guessed not.

After the speeches everyone stood up and hugged a lot. There was a lot of crying. I was mostly just annoyed. Natasha and Dantre both came up to me afterward, so that was nice.

“Keep your Sunday open, girls,” said Dantre to Mei and I. “I got plans.”

After awhile the atmosphere in there got too nauseating, so I went outside and sat on a bench.

“That was pretty lame,” I heard from behind me a few minutes later. I turned around. It was Mr. Clarkson.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

He gestured to the bench I was sitting on. “Do you mind?” I shrugged. He sat down. “Schools always try to do these big shenanigans, to make it look like they care so deeply.” He pressed his hands against his chest and fluttered his eyelids. I laughed. “They don’t want to look bad to the media.”

“Yeah,” I said again. Wow. I was so articulate. “I wanted to punch Jenna in the face.”

Mr. Clarkson chuckled. “You’re not supposed to say that in front of me. I’m a teacher.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his blazer, and put one in his mouth. He held the pack out to me. “You want one?”

My eyes nearly popped out. “Seriously?”

“This is the only time you’ll ever be able to smoke at school and get away with it. What are people going to say?” I smiled. I almost took a cigarette. I really did.

“I don’t smoke.”

“That’s good,” he said as he lit up. “It’s a terrible habit.”

We sat there for a few minutes, in silence, as the smoke from his cigarette washed over me. I didn’t mind.

“I was serious about what I said the other day. If you want to talk. I don’t have a degree in psychology, or anything, but I’m a good listener.” I nodded.

A few minutes later everyone else came out, and we drove home.

“Did that help?” Adam asked me and Mei.

Mei said, “a little, maybe. It was nice to see so much support.”

It took longer for me to answer. I thought about what everyone said. I thought about the Wish. “Not really. There was something I wanted. I didn’t get it.”

I stayed at Mei’s house for real that evening, even though it meant dealing with her parents. Her mom is pretty cool, and she made these amazing pot stickers for dinner. Her dad is a different story. Mei and I stayed up late talking about whatever and drinking tea. I only like tea when I’m at Mei’s house. They drink it out of these neat ceramic cups. It tastes better.

I got an email from Derrick, but I didn’t read it. I couldn’t think about that, right now. I got another email from Katim, which casually mentioned his school’s upcoming indie-horror movie night and how he had no one to go with because his friends weren’t into horror. My face lit up. Mei noticed. She made me tell her about Katim. We drank more tea, and I told her. There was a lot of giggling.

11/16/13

The next day Natasha and Mei dragged me to the mall and to the movies. We saw Gravity. It was okay, but I couldn’t concentrate. And I sort of wanted Sandra Bullock to die because she is so whiny. I went home after that, and finally read Derrick’s email.

Re: A photograph at the Sofia Anastos Crime Scene

Jessica,

I can’t blame you for wanting to get involved. You sound like me at your age. Promise me you know what you are in for. I can’t stress that enough. I suggest you read the Case Studies section of the blog before you do anything rash. It will give you a better handle on the potential risks. If after all that you still want to do this, let me know immediately, and we can figure out how to proceed.

Ben and I haven’t been able to find much on your withering man, or the Withered Lady as others know the entity. It doesn’t seem to have left much trace on the internet. I have a theory as to why. Did you notice that the image of him on our website won’t load? It isn’t coincidence. The copy of the image on my hard drive and the one on my camera are both corrupted. Whatever this being is, it covers its tracks.

There’s something here. I can feel it, and the evidence is piling up. We’ll keep you updated.

Derrick Lee

I didn’t respond, because I didn’t have anything to say.

1/17/13

Dantre’s “plans” turned out to be a makeover party. All part of his quest to be the gayest person in the universe. So Mei and I went over to his place where there were five other guys of all different ages and some professional hairdressing equipment. I didn’t know there were so many gay black guys in Caldwell, but Dantre managed to find them.

One of them was white. It made me wonder. If you see a group of black “thugs” hanging out with one white guy, then you know that white guy must be some kind of crazy badass to hang with that group. If you see one white guy in a group of gay black guys, does that mean he has the power to make random people break out into choreographed dance numbers, or something?

Normally I would run screaming from the words “makeover party.” With just girls it would have been too much. But these guys were hilarious and cool. The oldest man there was named Steve, and he must have been at least 50. It turned out he had been a gaffer in Hollywood. Gaffers did stuff with the lights, so now I knew that. He’d worked with John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. Very cool.

So we sat around in the middle of the day and drank cheap vodka and did our hair and nails and other girly shit. We talked about men. Mei hinted at my flirtations with Katim, so I had to tell the story. Dantre teased me about the “college boy,” but everyone was impressed that I was at the Flash Mob of Faces and Eyes. I guess the videos had gone pretty viral. I hadn’t seen them yet, so we watched them.

There was a video of my sad attempt to climb the tree. I went as red as Dantre’s shoes. Fortunately you couldn’t really see my face because the camera was so shaky. I didn’t tell anyone it was me, but Dantre figured it out. “I’d know those boobs anywhere,” he said. Bastard.

I don’t drink that much, because it makes my stomach hurt and because those kinds of parties are usually fully of lame people. But I must have gotten kind of hammered, because otherwise what I did doesn’t make sense. They died my hair black, in honor of Sofia. I got a few colored streaks in it, too, because why not? I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t until I got home, and my mom saw it that I realized what I had done.

“Whoa,” she said. “That’s different.”

“Do you like it?” I twirled. I guess I was still a little drunk. I don’t twirl. If my mom noticed she didn’t say anything.

“Why those colors?”

I shrugged. “Because…” then it struck me. I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door. I looked in the mirror. My hair was midnight-black, streaked with scarlet. It looked very, very familiar.

11/18/13

I didn’t realize until my alarm went the next morning that I actually had to go to school. I thought I was done with school. It was canceled forever. It was the only thing that made sense. I hit the snooze bar.

Once I actually got there, it was just school. It felt weird and wrong without Sofia. But I guess it felt weird and wrong with her, too. It was high school. It sucked. I tried to avoid Sofia’s locker, but it was right near my Mrs. Schwartz’s classroom and I had math 4th period.

When I got there, I saw that some kids had turned the locker into a shrine. They put up pictures and poems and notes. There was a banner hung over it that said, “We’ll Miss You.” I got choked up. Then I got pissed at myself for falling for this foul-weather friendship crap. As I stared at the locker, I couldn’t make the warm, nice feeling in my chest go away. Screw that.

I walked into the classroom. “Mrs. Schwartz?”

“Yes, Jessica?”

“I’m not…I’m not doing so well. I think I need to go see the guidance councilor.”

Mrs. Schwartz gave a skeptical little huff. Bitch. But she nodded. She didn’t really have a choice. Inwardly I did a Loki grin. As I walked away, a few of the guys standing outside of the room laughed as I walked pass. I dug my fingernails into my palms. I was angry, but it was sort of nice to know that not all the assholes in this school were pretending to be nice.

I didn’t go to the guidance councilor. Miss Anne is one of those inoffensive people that you know is just useless in every way. I used to have to go to her every week. Dozens of sessions, and it accomplished exactly dick. I walked straight to Mr. Clarkson’s room. I knew he had a prep period because he kept his schedule on the door. When I got there and opened the door, I saw there was someone with him.

It was Jenna. Mascara ran down her face. At the sound of the door she looked up. She shot me a nasty glance and barged past me into the hall.

“Jenna!” Mr. Clarkson called, “wait.” She didn’t stop. He turned back to me and sighed heavily.

“Jessica. How can I help you?”

“What was that all about?”

“You are not the only person to whom I offered my listening services,” said Mr. Clarkson. “I made myself available to others who were close to Sofia.”

“But…Jenna?”

“You might be surprised,” he said. “I take it you came here to talk?”

“No,” I lied. Of course I did, but now it felt weird. “I never got the weekend assignment. For Spanish. On Friday. So…I didn’t do it.”

He raised his eyebrow at me. “That’s perfectly fine. I think you can be excused from that assignment, under the circumstances.”

“Thanks,” I said. I backed towards the door. “Um…I should…”

“Are you sure there’s nothing else?”

“No. I’m good.”

Later that day, Tula found me on the way to chemistry. Apparently she was already back at school. Good for her, I guess?

“Jessica, do you have a second?”

“Yeah. What’s up?”

“We’re having the wake tonight,” she said. “We’re keeping it only to family and members of the church, but you and Mei are invited. That’s what…that’s what we decided.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say. “Thanks.” She handed me a card with a picture and address of a funeral home on it.

“The funeral is tomorrow night. But tonight is the wake. Have you ever been to a Greek Orthodox funeral service?” I shook my head. “It might be different than you expect.” She turned and walked off.

The funeral was tomorrow? That seemed fast to me. I went and found Mei, and told her.

“We should definitely go,” she said.

“Definitely. Listen, does it seem weird to you that the medical examiner is done with the body already?”

She squirmed at talk of “the body.” “I don’t know much about it. Doesn’t your cousin work at the coroner’s office, or something?”

I scoffed. “Yeah. He does.” The fact is, I had considered going the Nancy Drew route and trying to get a copy of the medical examiner’s report. The Stonehill County medical examiner’s office was located in Caldwell. And my cousin Miles did work there. But I knew what he would say if I asked him for it.

“Blow me, and maybe we’ll talk.” That was his answer to everything. Can I borrow the new Assassin’s Creed when you’re done with it? Blow me, then we’ll see. Can I get a ride to the library? If you ride in the front seat and blow me while I’m driving, yeah. The first time he said it to me I was 8, and he was 16. I asked him for some more of his dad’s awesome fudge, because I knew he kept a secret stash somewhere.

“If you blow me, I’ll show you where it was.” I didn’t know what it meant. So I asked Adam.

“Where did you hear that?”

“Miles said it to me.” So Adam, who was 11 at the time, went and found Miles and beat the shit out of him. Now that I think about it, that’s my best memory of Miles.

It was unlikely the coroner’s report would tell me anything useful, anyway.

That evening, as I got ready for the wake, I felt the Wish uncurl in my skull. Was it so crazy? I don’t know. It seemed like everything was going crazy, recently. Maybe I was going crazy.

Mei and my family and I were among the first people to get to the funeral home. I’d been to both of the funeral homes in Caldwell, but this was in Windon, the next town over. It was a large white building that looked like a church. Usually churches make me uneasy, but this was peaceful.

We went inside and sat in the chairs. No one said anything. The quiet was eerie, but like I said, peaceful. Once people started to come in, I saw what Tula meant when she said it was “a little different.” She wasn’t lying. A few people in different colored robes walked in. Some of them sat down. Then a group of very large women in purple suits entered the room, and walked around the edge. Next there was man wrapped in bright red bandages, or maybe Christmas ribbon.

I leaned over to Mei. “This is really weird,” I whispered in her ear. “Did you know about this?” She gave me a look like I had just ripped my shirt off and started to tap dance. “Sorry.” I guess I shouldn’t say anything.

The room filled up with people, each stranger than the last. Maybe it’s weird how long it took me to realize that someone was not right. I was in a strange head space. I think it struck me when I saw the man in the clown suit. Or the three children standing on each other’s shoulders. When I looked closely, I saw that the one on top’s head floated a few inches above his neck. I took a closer look at the other people in the room. A lizard thing clung to the chandelier. A man with knifes for fingers darted out his tongue, and it was a knife, too. These people were impossible. And they were everywhere.

I shut my eyes. This isn’t real. They aren’t there. This isn’t real. I opened my eyes. Nothing changed. I squeezed them shut again. They. Aren’t. Real. There was a sharp pain in my chest. I opened my eyes slowly. They were all still there. Only now, every single one of them stared right at me. Into me. Something clawed at my chest from inside. I dug my fingernails into my palm, and stood up.

And they were all gone. I didn’t see it happen. I didn’t blink. They were just gone. My mom looked at me, puzzled. I shook my head and sat back down.

The rest of the service didn’t seem so weird, after that. The priest came in wearing a black robe and a cylindrical hat-cape. He chanted for awhile, in both English and what I assume was Greek. People said “May her memory be eternal,” a lot. I guess that’s a thing. When it was time for the viewing, everyone lined up. Some people kissed the cross on the casket. A an hour earlier, that probably would have seemed weird.

Then it was my turn. I knew there’d be another viewing tomorrow, so this wasn’t my last chance to say goodbye. But this was the first time I’d seen her since she died. The mortician had done a really good job. That’s what everyone kept saying, under their breath. “They did a really good job!” You couldn’t tell she’d been cut up by some maniac, that was for sure. But you couldn’t tell she had ever lived, either. She was made of wax. I barely recognized her. I tried to say something. Anything. But I couldn’t. I went back to my chair. My eyes burned, but I couldn’t cry.

That night I had another sleepwalking episode. I walked out to the garage, unlocked it, and walked inside. I squeezed pasty the dusty ban saw and got out the old toolbox which had belonged to Max, my father. I pulled out and exacto knife and sliced into the side of my face along the jawline. The pain of the blade as it punctured my flesh jolted me awake. I stood hunched there, in the freezing cold, for almost 20 minutes with the knife clutched in my hand. Whatever I was trying to do, I wanted to finish it.

11/19/13

When I looked in the mirror the next morning, the cut was three inches long and clearly visible. I put on foundation which I rarely do. The first one I tried matched my skin tone, but it looked so stupid that I removed it and used the palest shade I had. Then I put on too much eyeliner. I looked full-on goth. I looked like a skeleton. If anyone challenged me I would say I was mourning my own way. The assholes at school were going to make fun of me. I might as well pick out how.

And they did. Of course they did. I didn’t care. During math Arthur Brandice asked who I was supposed to be, and I said “your dead mother.” Mrs. Schwartz sent me to the principal’s office. The principal was very understanding, but scheduled mandatory counseling sessions with Miss Anne. Ugh.

I knew my brain was screwed up. I guess it was just all too real. All day long I had this niggling sense that I finally losing my mind. The wake was too much. I longed to get home and go back to researching monsters and demons. That made sense. That was safe. The headless child pile and the thing with the translucent head and the balloon-animal brain…those were the rejected garbage of a disturbed mind. Behind it all, nipping at my cerebellum and making everything worse, was the Wish. If any of this was real, this was my last chance.

The funeral was in the early afternoon, so everyone who was going got to leave school early. It was held at St. Nectarios Church. I joked to Mei that he must be the patron saint of apricot juice. She didn’t think it was funny.

I felt uneasy as soon as I crossed the church threshold, like I always do. The service was long pointless. No surprises there. The line to see the body was longer, this time. Even more people to kiss the golden cross. Finally I got up there. It was brighter in here than at the funeral home. The body there actually kind of looked like Sofia. My friend.

I leaned over her. There was no one here to hear me, except for her. I stood there for a long time without saying anything. The people behind me probably got annoyed. I kept opening my mouth, but nothing came. I stood up to leave, an ache of disappointment in my stomach.

I heard a crackling sound in my pocket. I reached down. It was in there. Of course it was. I was carrying it everywhere, now. Jagged Darkness. That’s when it all spilled out.

“You were my friend. You were my best friend ever. You could have been. You should have been.” My eyes teared up. “No one ever got me like you did. Not Mei, or Natasha, or anyone. Everybody else in the world is stupid and you were awesome and now you’re dead. It fucking sucks that somebody killed you. Somebody killed you and I am going to find them and I am going to fucking kill them.”

As I looked at the body though my soaked eyes, it began to change. It started to wriggle. Tentacles crawled out of Sofia’s corpse from a hundred points across her body. All along the wounds the mortician had so carefully painted over.

I screamed and grabbed at one of the tentacles to rip it off. I felt it. But I couldn’t quite grab it. There was a force where my flesh touched the thing. Like trying to push two positive magnets together. I knew I looked like a psycho. I didn’t care.

A soft hand touched my shoulder. It was my mom. I looked up at her, and she smiled down at me, and gestured for us to move along. I followed her. My whole body felt numb. A few people stared at me as we walked passed, probably because of my flip-out. I barely noticed. When we reached the other side, my mom wrapped me in her arms and I burst into tears.

Soon enough, those of us who were going to the burial shuffled back into our cars for the procession to the graveyard. The priest chanted his useless words again, and sealed up the casket with oil and sand. Then Sofia’s body was lowered into the ground, and it was all over.

It was all over, and my Wish was still coiled up in my head, angry and unsated. I thought, or hoped, or wished, that maybe with all the crazy stuff going on that I’d get to talk to her. That her ghost would show up, or something.  Was that an insane thing to wish for? I didn’t know how any of this worked. For all I knew her ghost would walk up to me in Spanish class the next morning and doodle on my notebook. But I couldn’t help but feel, as her body disappeared into the earth, that she was gone. My best friend was gone forever, and I didn’t get to say goodbye to anything but her cold, dead, infected corpse, which was already starting to rot.

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Pieces

My Computer Is Watching me

47 sharks, day 14

the withering man, part 5.

Knowledge is like a  dry-aged filet mignon. For every juicy, succulent bite, something had to suffer.
Joseph Smith

The whole way home, tiny things scurried at the edges of my vision. Whenever I turned to look there was nothing there. Just the sounds of squelching, and crackling, and scuttling. Like rats. I hate rats. I caught a few glimpses, and I wished they had been rats. Rats would have made sense.

I passed by Mei’s house and almost went inside just to get off the street. Just to feel safe. But I knew that if I passed through her front door I would tell Mei everything. I would tell her about Briana. I would tell her about what just happened in the park. I would tell her about the withering man. Maybe she would believe me. Maybe she would think I was nuts.

Either way she would hug me and listen to everything I said. Maybe I would start to cry. She would look at me with those huge eyes and tell me she was there for me, because that’s the kind of girl Meizhan Lin is. And I would suck her down with me. Right into all this craziness. Maybe He would start to watch her, too.

I kept walking.

“That was fast,” said my mom when I got home.

“I wasn’t feeling it.” She turned to look at me.

“Jesus Jessy, you look terrible,” she walked up to me and moved the strands of hair from my face. “You’re so pale.”

“It’s windy out. Listen, I’m going to crash, okay? I’ve got a stomach ache.”

“Of course. You want some pie? It’s razzleberry.”

I shook my head. “I just want to sleep.”

“No razzleberry? It must be serious.”

I smiled weakly. “Oh, and I don’t think I’m up for school tomorrow.”

“That’s fine. We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”

“Yeah. Thanks mom.” I walked up the stairs.

“I love you,” she said to me.

“Love you too.”

I went to my room but I didn’t sleep. I stayed up until almost 1 AM doing internet research and lurking on a couple of forums. I stared at the screen a lot and thought about Sofia. I finally drifted to sleep to the sound of angry music at low volume, pissed off that I wasn’t more more sad.

November 15th, 2013

When I woke up I found my stuffed bat, Sadi (short for Sadako), clutched tightly to my chest. I didn’t remember picking Sadi up, but it made sense. I had a text from my mom.

There’s oatmeal in the rice cooker, and some raspberries in the fridge. Call me at work if you need anything. I told the team I might have to leave to be with my daughter. So daughter, so don’t hesitate.

I had to give it to my mom. She was stepping up. She’d probably make me pay for it later.

I went downstairs. Adam was at work, too, so I had the house all to myself. I ate my oatmeal, watched an episode of Arrow on Netflix, and checked all my other 5,000 text messages from friends that offered me support or tried not to sound like they were asking if I knew anything about what had happened to Sofia. I answered a few of them. For the people that actually cared.

Then I went back upstairs, and spent the rest of the day on the same thing I did the night before: research. I am going to lay out all of what I found by category instead of just doing it chronologically, because it’ll be easier to write it that way and easier to read. Some of this might also have been from research I did over the weekend. I can’t entirely remember.

  • Derrick and the Unhallowed

I got an email from Derrick of Notes from Beneath earlier in the day.

 

Re: A photograph at the Sofia Anastos Crime Scene

Jessica,

Sorry it took so long to get back to you. We’ve gotten 48 emails from people who “knew Sofia Anastos,” so we had to give your claim the fine-toothed-comb-of-truth treatment. Your story checks out. I’m glad you came to us first. If you haven’t been contacted by reporters yet, you will be. Don’t tell them anything. It’s too dangerous. I looked at that photograph you mentioned, and get this: I looked at the picture eight times before that, but I never saw the man you mentioned. Once you pointed it out he was right there staring me in the face. This is Genuine Freaky Shit™.

Ben and I will research this further, and keep you updated. It might even turn into a Investigation if our findings are significant. We did some quick preliminary research, and so far all we’ve been able to find is this. I think there is some truth there, buried under all the pretentious posing. You’ll have a better idea than I do. We’ll keep digging.

What I am going to say next is very, very important. Right now, I bet you are feeling The Itch. The Itch to dig into the smokey muck underneath your feet and uncover the truth. What happened to you changes you. I know. I’ve been there. So go ahead and do your Googling. Read web pages. But stop there. Don’t follow any leads, or do any field investigation. If this avenue is real, and I believe it is, it is Fucking Dangerous. Contact us, and we’ll do the dirty work and tell you everything every step of the way. We won’t keep you in the dark. Don’t step into the shadows yourself. Your friend was murdered by someone or something. You don’t want to end up the same way.

Derrick Lee

 

I almost replied “Don’t patronize me I can fucking take care of myself,” but I forced myself to read the pages he linked instead. By the time I was done I had calmed down. But I was still going to ignore his advice because it was stupid. Here’s my response, which I rewrote three times before sending.

Derrick,

I appreciate your concern for my safety, but Sofia was MY friend. And the withering man, if I’m not just a delusional psycho, is haunting ME. I saw him again last night, at the Flash Mob of Faces and Eyes. I might be a dumb and weak high school girl, but I’m going to follow this down the rabbit hole, even if the rabbit has glowing red eyes and sharpened teeth. I’ve never been afraid of the dark. I’m not going to start now.

The “been there” link led to a page on his blog called Why I Got Into this Game. He talked about how when he was 10 he saw his best friend disappear into a “ball of splintered light.” Ever since then he’d been obsessed with finding out the “truth behind the haze.”

The research link led to a page called Whispers of the Unhallowed. Here is the About section:

Dark and terrible things exist at the edge of sanity. Just outside our fragile shell of a safe and ordered world, the universe teems with screaming and horrible beings who care nothing for our lives and take small pleasure in our suffering. Ever since I was a child, I have been blessed and cursed to see glimpses of these dark masters. Now I serve as their medium. I do not know whether they use me to reveal their faces to the world, or if my soul will one day be rent asunder for daring to unveil their secrets. All I know is that I see things, and I must communicate them or be driven mad. Care to join me?\

Terribly cool. It gave me chills. I had no idea whether this guy was serious or not. I read practically the whole site, and he never broke character. The content itself turned out to be a series of drawings by the medium, who went by Kitherling. His art was really awesome. Mostly charcoal on paper, although some were made using a drawing tablet, and two of them were full-color acrylics.

As impressive and twisted at the pictures were, I got more disappointed the further I went. Among his “dark masters” were Nyarlathotep, Slender Man, a few of the Cenobites, and what looked like the guy in the creepy bunny suit from Donnie Darko. If these came to him in his dreams, I bet he often fell asleep watching YouTube videos.

Then I got to the withering man. I saw why Derrick directed me here. It was Him. He looked a little different than when I saw him, but the drawings were slightly stylized. But there he was. The dress, the freaky eyes, the withered face. It was labeled “The Withered Lady,” even though it definitely looked like a guy’s face. Kitherling even put in the streaks of red in the flowing gown with pastel. Underneath, the description read:

Little is known of the Withered Lady, save that she appears during moments of death and calamity. To see her is a terrible omen.

There were a bunch of comments, mostly inane things like, “Never heard of this one. Sounds kinda like slender, only a chick. Neat!” And “i’d still bang her.” One comment caught my eye, because it didn’t sound like the others.

If you see Him, it is because he has chosen you to see Him. The gathering of discarded flesh does not long survive His presence. If you watch Him wither, it is because His attention has gouged into you, like a rusted fishhook dug into the soft palate of your existence. Wriggle all you wish.

–Withertongue616

Creepy. For some reason, it made my stomach hurt. I looked up “The Withered Lady” on Google but I didn’t find anything interesting.

The other picture that caught my attention was one of the least interesting. It showed a man in a suit, looking all stodgy and English. He looked normal, except that his face was covered in scars, as were his hands, which held a book. The description said he was some kind of demon, who stole souls. It struck me because of the name. “The Man of Many Tongues.” I had heard it before.

  • Jagged Darkness

I hadn’t looked at Jagged Darkness at the Screaming Edge of Sanity–the picture I drew and gave to Sofia that she carried around with her–since the day before. I took it out now. It was covered in notes, little doodles, a haiku, and other writing. Sofia did that on everything. It was easy to tell if she’d actually done the reading for a class. All the margins would be full.

At the top of the page, next to where I’d written the title, was Mr. Clarkson’s name in hearts. No surprise, there. Half the girls at school probably had that written on their books. At least Sofia’s heart had fangs on it. There was also a haiku about vampires.

My sharp teeth sink in
A taste, my love, for nothing
else makes me alive

Pretty cool. There were some quotes from Fields of the Nephilim, and one that I think was Emily Dickinson. Sofia had drawn a in the corner, which was labeled Jayda Dark. I laughed when I saw that. That was the name of the hero of our webcomic. Part of the reason we never got anywhere is because we couldn’t agree on the gender of the main character. I wanted Jayden Dark. It’s weird; I like reading about female characters, but whenever I come up with main characters they’re always boys. I guess we’d never settle that argument, now. I bit my lower lip.

On the bottom of the page was the thing I was looking for. It was written in small block letters.

THE MAN OF MANY TONGUES HAS YOU

It wasn’t Sofia’s handwriting.

  • The Flash Mob of Faces and Eyes

Katim, a.k.a. cute tall guy from the freaky flash mob last night, emailed me early in the day. So I gave him my email address. So what?

Just checking in

Hi, Jessica. I wanted to email you to make sure you were okay. You looked pretty shaken up after everything. Ping me back and let me know.

Katim Amirmoez
Atherton College

It made my head a little swimmy. Apparently he was a college student. I emailed him back straight away.

Re: Just checking in

Thanks Katim! I’m fine. I was a little shaken up but I’m much better now. The drink you gave me really helped.

I have a confession to make. I wasn’t really at the park for the flash mob. Maybe you realized that when I flipped out 😉 I was just walking nearby and I saw the lights. So I have to ask: what was up with all that? It was crazy.

 

Re: Just checking in

You’re right, I did figure that out. But it’s cool. I’m glad you were there, because then I got to meet you. To answer your question it was just a flash mob, although I admit it did get a little weirder than I expected. My friends and I were there because we’re part of a school improv group. Our group facilitator found the ad on Craigslist and we decided to do it. There were a lot more people than us, though. I’m not sure who organized it.

We didn’t know what was going to happen in the center of the circle, only what to do once the eighth chime sounded. I admit it seems a little weird to do a flash mob at night in an empty park. I suppose it was designed to be filmed. The videos are already all over YouTube. And I had no idea it was happening at a crime scene. How crazy is that?

Also, you have really intense eyes. I thought you should know.

Katim Amirmoez
Atherton College

I read that last line a bunch of times. Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

The Craigslist ad gave a time and place, and said to contact the poster for more details. I went back to it a couple of times throughout the day, because something about it bugged me. It wasn’t until that evening that I realized what it was. The ad gave the exactly location, and it was dated November 12th. Two days before Sofia’s murder.

Katim and I kept emailing each other. We didn’t talk about the flash mob any more, and I didn’t talk about Sofia’s murder or any of the recent weirdness. We just talked. He was an engineering student at Atherton College, which was in Firlund, a few towns over from Caldwell. He wanted to build planetary rovers. He did theater on the side and was a huge fan of classic horror. I told him I was a student at Caldwell High School, but I forgot to mention that I was only 16. I showed him the drawings on my website. He said they were really good. We found out we both loved calzones, and he casually mentioned there was a really good calzone place in Firlund. I realized I hadn’t been to Firlund in awhile. That was no good at all.

  • Piquerists

Confession time. I have a thing for serial killers. I guess that’s pretty common because serial killers are neat. I don’t want to be a serial killer, or anything. I don’t want to kill people. I mean, of course I want to kill some people, sometimes. Like Jenna. Or the guy who founded the Westboro Baptist Church. But that’s just normal wanting to kill people. It’s not some uncontrollable urge. I just find the whole thing fascinating.

This certainly looked like a serial killer. So I did some research.

It was really hard. The freaky stuff helped me not think about my dead friend. Looking at pictures of nightmare creatures gave me something else to see when I closed my eyes other than… My brain occupied this weird double head space. On one level, I thought there really was something spooky and supernatural going on here. There was too much crazy stuff to just be normal. But even though I kind of believed it, it was a game. A mystery to unravel that gave me the same tingling on the back of my neck I got reading Peter Straub or Robert McCammon.

The other half of my brain knew all of that was crazy. It just was. You want there to be vampires and ghosts but it always turns out it’s some guy whose mom kept him in a closet. If I wanted to find out what happened to Sofia I had to accept that it might just be some psycho.

I had to keep stopping my research because it messed me up. Normally gruesome images of real life murders didn’t bother me. I hoped it wouldn’t last. Then I got mad at myself for blaming Sofia for sensitizing me. It was a whole thing.

Sofia’s body showed signs of what might be piqeurism. That’s when a killer gets sexual pleasure from puncturing someone else’s skin. Ugh. There had been a few cases of bodies found with similar wounds to Sofia’s, but never tied to any particular serial killer or area or time.

I spent three hours reading about piquerists, and looking at pictures of their victims. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The screwed up thing is that sort of understood it. I hadn’t cut myself in a long time, but I could remember the intense release. I stopped when I noticed my fingernails were cutting into my palm, and I no idea how long they’d been like that.

  • Three Digits

At some point fatigue and monotony took their toll. I started to nod off. My faced crashed into the keyboard a few times. I tried to slap myself awake, but that never works. I just think it’s funny. Eventually I lost the battle and passed out. I’m not sure how long I was under. I’m not sure when I started Sleep Googling.

Did I talk about my sleepwalking before? I did, a little. I don’t know what it’s like for other people. I always remember it, which I guess is pretty unusual. I see the world the way it is, but it’s also different. It’s hard to explain. I do specific things, and they have a meaning that doesn’t make sense in any other context. But it’s not psychic, or anything. I don’t have this grand plan guiding me. Things are just different.

This time, each letter I typed was connected to this network of black lines that stretched out and intersected all across the world. Like a huge spiderweb. As I typed I was tangled up the web into balls and shapes. I was trying to build something. I looked through my history later and saved some of the things I searched for, because they’re pretty weird and funny. Except the last one.

harpoon’s sonata
hairy badgers of glitterdoom (don’t look that up; it’s gross)
last train to jitterbug calaca
murder weapon cavity pain
red eyes blue eyes one eye through eyes
why are my bones all sparkly
left finger at bus-stop please contact

Something about the results of the last one caught my attention, and I slowly bloomed into wakefulness. One of the first hits was a random forum discussion where someone talked about the time they watched someone else lose their fingers in a bus accident. The forum was part of a page called “Three Digits.” I clicked over, and it blew my damn mind.

It was a community/support group specifically designed for people who had witnessed other people lose their fingers or hands on more than one occasion.

Never in my wildest imaginings did I think there’d be a group about it. The site had a section on testimonials, stories about famous people who had seen associates lose fingers, and even a webcomic about a one handed man in a world where everyone else had stumps. There was a shop that sold, among other things, fingerless gloves. “For all of your friends!”

Weird and weirder.

I spent awhile on the very active forum. Everyone told their stories. A lot of the people had logical reasons to have seen so many flying fingers. Some of them worked as cabinet makers under sub-par conditions, or in factories, or slaughterhouses. There were people with family histories of nerve disease. There were a couple of doctors who had amputated fingers and apparently just needed to talk about it. The forum had a huge sticky discussion thread started by a guy claiming to be a voodoo priest and offering to buy the fingers if they were no longer needed.

And there were people like me. People who had seen a lot of accidental amputations for no reason. They were just cursed. After way too much time reading other people’s stories, I opened an account and posted something.

Strange bald man in a dress

I just found this site today, but it’s really fascinating. I’ve seen six people lose fingers in my life (I’m 16), the most recent of which was last night when a police officer accidentally shot them off of someone in a flash mob. At least, I think it was an accident. He might have been aiming for his head, lol.

Anyway, the question I wanted to ask is pretty weird, and probably it won’t make sense to anyone. But I’ll feel stupid if I don’t ask. Have any of you ever seen a man in a black and red dress, with no hair, whose face kind of withers when you look at it? Then the man disappears? I saw him again last night, just after the guy’s hand got shot. It might mean nothing, but I am just curious.

I tried to upload the cropped photo I made of the withering man from the Notes from Beneath website, but apparently I hadn’t saved it because I couldn’t find the file. I went back to the blog to download it again, but the image wouldn’t load. So I gave up, went back to my forum post, and clicked submit. It said Your comment is awaiting moderation.

When I checked back later, the comment had been approved and had two replies.

NameGame: I am tired of repeating this to new people, but I will do it anyway. See, up at the top of the page, where it says GUIDELINES FOR POSTING, in big shiny letters? See where #4 says “Before you ask a question or start a new topic, make sure to search the archive to see if it’s already covered. The discussion you are interested in might already be in progress”? Yeah, go ahead and read that more carefully.

 

wheelgal7: @NameGame, you know under number 7 where it says “don’t be a cock mongler,” and has a picture of your avatar? Yeah, you might want to read that more carefully.

@Jessytheshrouded It’s not a weird question! There’s an older thread about this. (link) Just be warned. That thread is from before the forum was moderated, so there’s some weird trolling.

Welcome to 3D!!!

I thanked wheelgal7, and went over to the linked topic. It was called “has this hapened to anyone else? (spooky)”

The thread had 537 replies. I read every single one of them without getting out of my chair. Here is the first post. I cleaned it up because the grammar was so bad it was hard to read. You’re welcome.

Hi my name is Angela and I’ve had the finger thing happen to me too. But what I wanted to ask people is if you’ve also see a woman with no eyelids and a bald head in a pretty (but scary) dress that is only there over away from you and then disappears. Because I see that sometimes and my mom says I’m seeing things like an imaginary friend but I don’t think so.

What followed was a long discussion. Some people said “that’s spooky” or “so lame” and moved on. Plenty of people criticized the girl’s spelling and grammar. But others reacted the way I reacted as I read it.

Ho.
Ly.
Christ.

Animalius Rex: I’ve seen him, but…I never had the balls to tell anyone.

MartianManslapper: Yeah, me too. Jesus. Does this have something to do with our finger curse? It has to, right?

thedudewiththebike: GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!

I think some of them were faking it. But I’m almost certain some of them weren’t. Then it got weirder.

Withertongue616: The skin, the bone, the flesh, clogs us like a clump greasy hair stuffed into our throats. We can spin neither truth nor lies until the obstruction is incised. When a limb is stunted, a doctor amputates so it will not rot. When a tool is buried beneath a wall of flesh, He tears away the flesh, so the new blood may blossom.

There he was. The person who had posted on the Withering Lady picture on Whispers of the Unhallowed. I felt sick. That wasn’t his only post.

Withertongue616: The madness stands next to you and screams in your ear. You feel the warmth on the small hairs of our skin. You feel the spittle flick against the side of your face. Your eardrums reverberate and bleed. You could step away, and spare yourself the pain. But you won’t. Because you know once the screaming stops, you’ll be able to hear the whispers.

I didn’t realize until the end of that post that my hands had snaked up to cover my ears.

To their credit, the 3Ders ignored him for awhile. But after five posts of his they started to respond.

NameGame: Ignore the troll.

MartianManslapper: @withertongue Dude, you’re not that creepy. Go away.

Danniboi: WTF is this guy’s problem?

Weirdly enough, it worked. For nearly 400 posts WitherTongue616 was silent. The 3Ders went back to trading stories about the withering man. Only, as far as I could tell none of them actually ever saw him wither. Or at least, they never said anything. They just saw him for a second. Some of them more than once. One person claimed to have seen him dozens of times, but I think he was lying. The discussion diverged a bit into gardening, or whether Dark Knight Rises was better than the Avengers, and a few other things.

As I reached the end of the discussion thread, I started to get nervous. A dull nausea spread over my gut. I winced every time I scrolled down to reveal a new post. Why was I doing this? Was I still asleep? A sharp pain bloomed in my chest. I dug my fingernails into my palm. Then I hit the bottom of the last page, and read the final post. It was dated five months ago.

WitherTongue616: She did not have to bleed, so very many times. Her sin was to be young and wet and succulent, and her scent was too strong when it ached with hunger. She did not have to bleed. But you do, my jagged little thing. Oh yes, you do.

I closed the browser window and turned off the monitor. I turned the computer off. I threw my phone on the bed, rushed out of my room, and shut the door.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

The Best Novel That Will Ever Be Written

trophy

47 Sharks, day 12

Right now, I am taking a break from very short stories and blathering about high school to write The Novel. I have to capitalize the word Novel in this case, because it is going to be a masterpiece. My opus. The culmination of every moment I’ve ever spent reading fiction, scratching down ideas in spiral notebooks, building and shaping my imagination. Sure, it’s just about a teenage girl and the crazy stuff that happens to her, and I came up with the idea two weeks ago watching Slender Man videos. But it is going to be nuanced.

Man, I can’t wait until I get this piece of crap finished so I can move on with my life.

I read at least a dozen articles by published novelists—John Scalzi and Joyce Carol Oates leap immediately to mind—where the authors said they wrote several novels before they wrote one that was any good. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. I used to find the concept very dejecting. Up until a few months ago I hadn’t actually finished more than a few short stories in my entire life, and none of them had much polish. Now, as I follow up a day where I spent 8 hours writing, it feels encouraging. Because I am deep in the throes of First Novel Syndrome.

I have nothing but speculation to support this theory, but I think First Novel Syndrome actually exists, and that it will go away once this novel is done. First Novel Syndrome is something that affects writers while they put together…their first novel. Oh, wow. That’s actually kind of a huge coincidence. I’m surprised I didn’t notice that the name and the circumstance match up so well.

Weird.

Anyway, FNS is the condition whereby you are writing a novel that you think you will actually finish. The precise effect that goes on in the brain differs from patient to patient, but it looks something like this:

“OH MY GOD I AM ACTUALLY DOING THIS! Wait, is it good enough? It’s probably going to be published because it is so awesome. Is it publishable? Would it be more publishable if the protagonist was more like Neil Patrick Harris? This is the best idea I have ever had. Wait, do I have better ideas? Should I put the girl from my last unfinished novel in here somehow? She was a great character and I don’t want her to go to waste. This has to be perfect. This isn’t perfect. I just had a better idea. Should I stop and write that? OH MAN I AM AWESOME!”

Right now, part of me feels like this is The Novel that I get to write. It has to incorporate every good idea that I have. It has to be fully accessible to a wide audience and yet structurally innovative. It should be fast pace and engaging, but the plot needs to tie together to an elegantly cohesive whole. The characters need to be realistic and lovable, able to stand the test of time for when people are reading this in 50 years. It needs to be scary and hilarious and moving and fun and philosophically both inspiring and subversive.

Another part of me has read those articles by those readers, and is able to calm the hell down. Of course I like what I’m writing. I’m sure John Scalzi liked those four novels he wrote before Old Man’s War that he now considers crap. If we didn’t like our work, we couldn’t continue. But I also know that this might be the first of several bad novels that I write while I learn how to create plots that aren’t basically reworkings of Twelve Monkeys and characters more realistic than Velma from Scooby Doo.

I can always feed it to the sharks.

What I do know is that in 10 years, I am going to write a great novel. Maybe it’ll be my first great novel, and only my friends and a few people on the internet will read it. Maybe it’ll be my third best seller.

For now, I am sufficiently obsessed with the withering man to, with any luck, actually finish it. So excuse me, while I shut the hell up and get writing.

Faces and Eyes

Shade's Forest

This is part four of my horror/dark fantasy novel, the withering man. It picks up exactly where Jagged left off.

IMG_0115

We’re never prepared, when it starts. How could we be? He needs to prepare us. Our blood vessels are too thin, so He pushes needles through them. Our eyes blind us, so He rips them out and makes us to crush them between our teeth. Our faces lie to us about who we are. So He cuts the skin along the edges, and rips them off with His sharpened fingers. He does all of this for us, and He asks for nothing in return. Nothing but our screams.

–WitherTongue616 (WitherTongue? Seriously? Gross)

Was I going insane? I passed the phone to Mei. “I’ve seen this man before.” I said under my breath. “The one in the dress, standing next to the tree.”

She leaned down and looked. “What man?”

“Next to the tree. On the far left of the image. Bald, in the dress.”

“I don’t…”

“Right there,” I pointed.

“Oh!” she said. “Weird. Who is he?”

“I don’t know.” She couldn’t see him, my mind screamed at me. Until I pointed him out, she couldn’t see him.

I stared at the image for the rest of the car ride. The last time I saw the withering man had been at Oaklawn Park, hadn’t it? No, that wasn’t right. It was at the zoo. It was at the zoo the day Briana disappeared.

“Shit,” I said. I said it softly, this time. I still caught Mr. Lin’s scowl in the rearview mirror.

They dropped me off in front of my house, which was less than a block away from theirs.

“If you need to talk or cry on someone, you text me,” said Mei as she hugged me. “Or just come over. You promise?”

“I promise.”

I walked through the front door and into the living room. I flopped my bag on the couch, right behind where my brother Adam stood in front of the TV, wearing a headset, playing an apparently intense game of Call of Battlefields or whatever it was. I sat down and watched.

A couple of minutes of swearing and leaping around later, Adam tore off his headphones and threw them on the ground. Then he turned around and saw me.

“Oh Jesus Chris Jess!” he yelled. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.” He furrowed his brow, and pulled his phone out of his pocket to check the time. “Shouldn’t you be in school?” He grinned. “What did you do, cut class?”

I groaned. “I can not put up with your crap right now. Don’t you watch even a little bit of news?”

He shrugged. “Why should I? It doesn’t have much relevance to my demographic” I grabbed my bag, and stormed towards the stairs. If I wanted sympathy, I wasn’t going to get it from my older brother. “What? What’s wrong?”

“You know my friend Sofia? She was murdered today in Oaklawn Park. So if you need me, I’ll be on my bed crying my eyes out.” I walked up the rest of the stairs, into my room, and slammed the door.

I didn’t cry my eyes out. I just said that to make Adam feel guilty. Instead, I went on my computer, put on Beach House, and cranked the volume up. I went back to the Notes from Beneath blog and looked around. It was pretty much a “weird stuff” blog. The writer’s name was Derrick Lee, and he was local, although I’d never heard of him, so he probably didn’t go to my school. Probably an adult who had nothing better to do.

There was an article about how Caldwell River was supposed to be haunted, a bunch of stuff about UFOs, and a long conspiracy theory article about how the mayor’s office was run by Martian vampires. That one was pretty funny, but I really couldn’t tell whether it was meant to be serious. I hoped not. The guy also had another blog entirely about sacred geometry—like the DaVinci code I guess—and how it related to mythology and movies from Japan and India.

In the middle of my reading my mom called. She was all sympathetic and said she’d be home as soon as possible, and that she’d bring calzones. I love calzones. I went on Facebook and posted “I guess when your friends die, you get a calzone. Any volunteers?”

On the Contact page of the blog the guy said “Tell us if you’ve seen unusual or unexplainable happenings. We may be able to help.” I figured what the hell.

I downloaded a copy of the photo with the withering man on it, cropped him out, and expanded the image. I attached it to an email to Derrick Lee.

My name is Jessica Kingsport, and Sofia Anastos was my friend. I’m not emailing because I’m mad about the photos, or anything. I’m glad to know about it, even if it’s horrible. Who knows how long it would be before I learned anything from the police? I’m emailing you because of something I saw in one of your photos. In the “gathered to watch” photo, in the upper left corner, there is a bald man in a dress with weird eyes. I’ve seen him before, 9 years ago, on the day my friend Briana disappeared. He looked exactly the same, but last time I watched his face wither in front of my eyes. I was only 7 and I can’t be sure what I saw, but it’s pretty weird, right? I thought you might know something about it.

A few minutes later I heard the door open downstairs and I knew my mom was home. I walked down to the living room.

“Hi Jessica,” said my mom. She put her briefcase down and walked over to hug me. “I’m not going to ask if you’re okay, because that’s a stupid question. Just talk to me if you need to, okay?”

“I will, mom.” All of a sudden everyone wanted to talk to me. Just like Mr. Clarkson said. Apparently when a friend dies you get calzones and popularity.

We ate in front of the TV, because that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was feeling kind of anti-social, but there was also an idea blossoming in my mind. I could ignore the dumb Big Bang Theory rerun and let my thoughts percolate. After I finished my calzone, I asked to go up to my room. I checked my email to see if the Notes from Beneath guy had emailed me back. He hadn’t. Then I texted Mei.

Me: I need to go out under the radar. Can you cover for me?

Mei: What r u going to do?

Me: Nothing. I just need to get out. Cover me?

Mei: *sigh* yeah, of course don’t do anything stupid

Me: I won’t

I heard a knock on my door. I opened it. It was Adam.

“Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry about your friend. And I’m sorry I was a dick earlier.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t notice. You’re always a dick.”

“Ha ha ha,” he said. “But seriously, I mean it. If you need to…”

“Don’t say ‘if you need to talk,’” I rolled my eyes. “If I hear that one more time I’m going to wretch.”

He shook his head. “I was going to say if you need to get some aggression out, the Xbox is all yours. Just say the word. Even if I’m in the middle of a match.”

I didn’t know what to say. That was actually pretty sweet.

A few minutes later I found my mom downstairs.

“Is it okay if I go over to Mei’s?” I asked. I cast my eyes down. “I…don’t want to be alone tonight.” I tried to sound sad and vulnerable. I hoped I didn’t overdo it.

“Yes,” said my mom, “of course that’s okay. Are her parents okay with that?”

I nodded. “She offered when they dropped me off.”

“That’s fine. Just call me later so I know you’re okay, alright? A mother worries.”

I laughed. “Yeah. Of course.”

“Are you going to go to school tomorrow?” I raised my eyebrow. “All the parents got an email from the principle saying it’s optional. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. It might be good to get out of the house.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I definitely want to go the vigil tomorrow, but I don’t know about school.”

“Okay. Let me know.” I nodded.

I grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl on the coffee table. Then I walked out the door, and headed straight for Oaklawn Park.

It was dark. The sky was blanketed by clouds. There wasn’t even any starlight. Fayette Avenue stretched out in front of me as a ribbon of black, punctured by columns of light from the streetlights. I’ve never been afraid of the dark, even when I was little. As a small child my version of the monster-in-the-closet was an amorphous thing that lived under my bed. It was covered in claws and eyes, and it had no skin because it had ripped it off and eaten it, to teach itself a taste for flesh. One night I was so scared that I called for my mom. She came in, and turned the light on.

“I’ll just leave the light on all night,” she said. “That way the monsters can’t get you. Monsters are afraid of the light, you know. See? Isn’t that better.”

I nodded. It was better. Because she was there. The instant she left the room, it was much, much worse. If the skinless thing came out from under the bed to get me, now there were no shadows. There was nowhere to hide.

Oaklawn Park was less than a mile from my house. As I walked, a sense of dread built inside of me that had nothing to do with the dark. Whatever…no, no, whoever killed Sofia might still be there. I didn’t know who it was or why they did it. I had to find out. But what if she had some stalker or something? Would he want to go after her friends? But there was more to it than that. This was so obviously the beginning of a horror move. Some horrible Thing kills a girl, and her friend goes to investigate in the night without telling her mom. What happens to that girl? It usually works out, right?

The area around Oakland Park is most shops, and a library, and the preschool. Everything was closed, so at night it’s even darker than the streets with regular houses. So I was surprised to see so much light coming from the far end of the park. I thought there might be a few cops still there. I wasn’t sure how long it took to process a crime scene, but if the FBI was really coming like Derrick had said then it could be days. But this was too much light for a few cops.

As I entered the park and got closer to the crime scene, I saw that most of the lights were paper lanterns. I walked towards the orange glow. I heard voices. There were dozens of people here. Maybe more. They were hard to see, even in the light of their lanterns, because all of them wore black. My jaw tightened as I approached.

I got nearer and saw that some of them were wearing plain white masks that covered their entire faces. Some of the others were wearing glasses with large googly eyes, only the eyes were bloodshot, or green and diseased. What was going on here? Halloween was just a few weeks ago. Was this some kind of holdover from that? Some of them were just standing there, but a few of them were talking. The conversation sounded normal. They wasn’t chanting or speaking in tongues or anything. Somehow, that made it freakier.

“Are you here for the gathering?” said someone behind me.

I spun around, and saw a tall, good-looking guy who was probably in his early twenties. He was holding a mask.

“Shh,” said another guy, standing next to him. “You’re not supposed to talk about it.”

“What’s the harm?” said the tall guy. “Why else would she be here?”

“Yeah,” I said. My voice sounded calmer than I felt. “I’m here for the gathering.”

“See?” said tall guy. “Don’t be so paranoid.”

“Dude, I feel you and all,” said other guy more quietly, “but this girl’s got to still be in high school.”

“How old are you?” tall guy asked.

“18,” I lied.

He grinned. “Why don’t you stand over here, with us.” I followed him to a spot a few feet away.

Nearby, a group of these people were talking to the two cops on duty. The cops were telling them to go away, that this was a crime scene. The mask-people said they were just out for a stroll, and that they had every right to be there.

Suddenly there was a loud chime. I squealed, and grabbed onto tall guy’s arm. He laughed, but put his finger on his lips and said “shh.”Everyone around us grew silent. He put on his mask. All around me, the people in black started to move. There was another chime. Then another. The people formed a large circle, fifty feet across. There was another chime. Everyone held up their lanterns.

“What’s going on here?” said one of the cops.

The sound chimed again. Two people stepped out of the crowd, and into the circle. Chime. They walked to the dead center of the circle. Chime. One of them bent down, and the other grabbed him by the mask.

“Watch!” cried the standing-man in the middle. “Watch, and take heed!” He turned to look at the crowd, still holding the kneeling person by the mask. Slowly, his masked face moved along the circle. Then it stopped. He was looking straight at me. The mask twisted, and grinned. There was one final chime. The standing man ripped the mask off his kneeling companion with a squelch. Blood poured forth, and all at once, everyone in the circle screamed.

I clasped my hands over my ears as everyone around me erupted into action. They started to rip off each others masks, or each others eyes. Sometimes blood poured out, and sometimes it didn’t.

“My face!” some of them screamed, “you ripped off my face!”

“My eyes!” screamed others. “My eyes!”

Some of the now-maskless people had makeup on. Huge, exaggerated eyes drawn around their real ones. They all ran around, tearing off masks and screaming. Some of them laughed. I got knocked over as someone ran past, and someone else almost crushed my fingers under their boot. I scrambled to my feet and backed up against a tree so I wouldn’t get trampled as I watched the bizarre scene unfold. There was a strange feeling in my chest, like something was trying to get out.

“I’m free!” someone screamed. Then someone else. Then another.

The police officer who spoke earlier rushed out into the group, yelling for everyone to calm down and explain themselves. A group turned in his direction. They rushed at him and pawed at his face. The feeling in my chest intensified. It felt like my lungs were going to burst open.

There was a deafening bang. Everyone went silent. The pain in my chest disappeared.

“You shot me!” A woman’s voice wailed into the silence. “You motherfucking shot me!”

“Why did you shoot him?” said someone else.

“You attacked me,” the cop cried out. “You all saw it. They attacked me! You are some kind of fucking cult, and you attacked me. Barry, you saw it!”

“Cult?” someone cried out in disbelief. “It’s a flash mob! It’s just a fucking flash mob!”

“Call an ambulance,” someone yelled.

The woman who had been shot stumbled out into the open where I could see her. She clutched her bloody left hand. I felt sick to my stomach. I had never seen a gunshot would, but I had seen this kind of injury before. The pinky and ring finger of her hand had been blown clean off. I threw my head back and laughed. I couldn’t help it. It was so crazy, and so ridiculous. Maybe it was to keep me from going insane.

I stopped laughing an instant later, when I saw what was up in the tree.

It was dark. I shouldn’t have been able to see anything that high, but there he was. A clear as daylight. His bizarre dress was sprawled out over the leafless branches. He looked straight at me with that pale face and those misshapen eyes. Then his skin began to bubble. It crawled along his cheekbones as if his head was stuffed with insects. Then the whole thing shrank, like a rotting skull in a time-lapse video. All that was left was the withered skin, and that terrible smile.

I dug my fingernails into my palms with anger. I grabbed the branch nearest to me and started to climb. I got a few feet up when the branch I held snapped, and I slid down the trunk and skinned my knee. I leapt back on and climbed again. I made it five or six feet up when I slipped on a dead leaf and fell off onto my back. It knocked the wind out of me. I forced myself to my feet, and grabbed another branch.

“What are you doing?” I turned around. It was tall guy.

“I’m climbing the tree,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse in my ears. “I’m not letting that fucker get away.”

“Who?” tall guy said, laughing.

“That…” I looked up. He was gone. Of course he was. “No one. I just freaked out, I guess.”

“I get it,” he said. “This is a freaky situation. Are you okay.”

“Yeah,” I lied to him again. “I’m fine.”

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Jagged

North Bloomfield School Interior

47 Sharks, day 10

This is part three of my horror/dark fantasy story that looks like it’s going to turn into a novel, the withering man. This part can be read first, although I suspect this is the last time I’ll be able to say that.

notebook

We try to deny it, but there are things out there, just on the other side of the shadows. We glimpse them when we close our eyes, and we cannot sleep. If we ever see them, all we can do is retreat into madness. All we can do is scream. But there is something deeper than them. Further down. They glimpse Him when they close what passes for their eyes. If they ever see Him, all they can do is scream.

–That same nutbar on the internet

Okay. Here we go. I am really writing this down, now. It is actually going to happen. I’ve been putting this off, but it’s not going to get any easier. Take a deep breath, Jessica. Although you don’t have to write that down.

It all started three weeks ago. Would it be easier if I dated everything? Yeah. Probably clearer that way.

November 14th, 2013

It was exactly 8:26 when I got the text message. I know because I’ve looked at it a hundred times. I’m always tired that early, but I was in my favorite class: art class. Actually it was Spanish. But Spanish is boring. The nice thing about art class is that it can happen any time and anywhere as long as I have my notebook. I felt a tiny bit bad doing it in Mr. Clarkson’s class. He was funny, and kind of hot. Spanish was interesting when he talked about cultural stuff. He had all sorts of neat stories, because I guess he’d been all over the world.

Sometimes if the whole class acted really interested, he’d spend the whole day talking about the Tamborito dancer he met in Panama or back when he used to give tours of the catacombs under Lima, and we didn’t have to conjugate anything. I wished that he taught something fun, like art class. Oh look. He did.

Today we were on gustar verbs. How boring is that? If I drew instead of listening he had only himself to blame. Just then I worked on an eyeball monster for a webcomic that maybe someday possibly would get off the ground. My friend Sofia and I were doing it together.

I looked at the empty desk in front of me. Sofia sat there, but she was out today. Sick, I guessed, but she hadn’t texted me or emailed me or anything to tell me about it. She better be really sick, or we were going to have words. That was when I felt my pocket vibrate. I had a text. I slid the phone under my desk and opened it. It wasn’t from Sofia. It was from Dantre. It said “Jamal” on it, but he decided a month ago to go by “Dantre” and I hadn’t changed it in my phone yet.

OMG girl!! they found a DEAD BODY in oaklawn WTF right???

Then a link.

Something jagged twisted in my gut. I opened the link and read.

BODY FOUND IN LOCAL PARK

–Lisa Reed

Follow me on Twitter

UPDATE, 8:20 a.m.: Police have confirmed that the body belongs to a teenaged female, but have not released the identity or confirmed whether this is homicide.

CALDWELL — Police have roped-off the southwest corner of Oaklawn Park this morning after discovering a dead body in the vicinity.

A jogger called police around 7 a.m. to report the body found in the bushes on the outskirts of the park.

The remains have not yet been identified, and they have yet to determine a cause of death, police Lt. Art Venderbak said.

“We have no comment at this time as to whether foul play is suspected,” Venderbak added.

Police said the body had likely not been there longer than several hours.

The thing in my gut clenched tighter as I glanced at Sofia’s empty seat. I took a deep breath. I didn’t know it was her. I wasn’t having psychic flash or something because that was ridiculous. It’s just that when you’re really afraid of something then you feel like you’re certain. Like when you know there’s a monster behind the hanging tarp, but there never is.

“Something interesting on your phone, Inocenta?” asked Mr. Clarkson. It took me a second to remember that was my Spanish name.

“Um…”

“Some new and fascinating insight you’ve found into gustar-like verbs, perhaps?”

I took another breath. “They just found a dead body in Oaklawn Park,” I said.

There was a moment of dead silence.

“No shit?” said Maxwell from across the room. The class burst into laughter.

“As interesting as that might be,” said Mr. Clarkson, “unless the body was dressed as a mariachi, or wore a shirt that said ‘Dejé mi corazón en Buenos Aires,’ it does not directly relate to our class, now does it? Now, if we could please get back to gustar verbs. Is that alright with everyone? Bueno. Inocenta, Salvador, please see me after class.”

My stomach was in knots for the rest of the lesson. I wanted to text my friend Mei and ask her if she had heard from Sofia, but it would have to wait. After class Mr. Clarkson gave me a warning, and Maxwell a detention.

“He just likes girls better,” Maxwell whined as we walked out together.

“He just doesn’t like you, because you’re a douchnozzle,” I said. Maxwell flipped me off and walked away.

I furiously texted Mei to ask about Sofia, even though it meant crashing into a few people in the hallways on the way to history. Mei responded right away. Nothing. Not surprising. Sofia wasn’t very good friends with Mei. She wasn’t good friends with anyone, really, except me.

Sofia was new to school this year. For the first month she didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t even know her name. The only class we had together was Spanish, because she was super gifted in languages and so she took Spanish 3 even though she was a freshmen.

One day I was eating lunch by myself, because I was in one of those moods. I drew in my notebook. Not anything in particular, just a shape.

“That is badass,” said a voice from behind me.

I turned and there was this short, black-haired girl from my Spanish class who never spoke.

“You think so?” I said.

“Definitely,” she nodded. “Like the jagged darkness at the screaming edge of sanity, or something.”

“Oh damn,” I said. “That’s a good name. I was just going to call it ‘Black Pointy Thing 5.’”

She laughed. I wrote “Jagged Darkness at the Screaming Edge of Sanity” across the top of the paper. I signed the bottom right with a flourish, tore it out of the notebook, and handed it to her.

“There. When I’m all famous, that’ll be worth five billion dollars.”

She held out her hand in protest. “No, I can’t…”

“Just take it,” I insisted.

She grinned and plucked the drawing out of my hand. “I’m Sofia.”

“I’m Jessica.”

“I know,” she said.

We started hanging out. I showed her my drawings and my prints and my sculpture. She showed me her stories. They were awesome. Twisted and beautiful and sad. She had this one about a black-winged fairy who fell in love with a mortal girl. He could only watch her from afar because the only reason his kind fully entered our world was to eat human hearts. He kept showing up to glimpse her, and falling more and more in love with her. In the end, she finds his heart on her doorstep, all wrapped up like a present. He gave it to her, because that’s the only thing his kind valued, and it’s the one and only expression of love he could possibly understand.

My birthday is a few weeks before Halloween, so I threw a big costume party. Sofia and I spent most of it in my room, playing Texas Hold ’em and coming up with ideas and sketches for a webcomic. It was going to be epic.

History class was painful. I checked my phone every few seconds for a text from Sofia. There wasn’t one. I sent her text after text, but no reply. Miss VanSutton saw me checking it and called me on a really hard question about Andrew Jackson and the national bank. But I knew the answer, so that shut her up.

I spent the time between history and home room rushing through the halls trying to find ninth graders I knew were in her class to ask if they knew what happened to her. I didn’t find any. I did find her sister, Tula, hanging out under the banners. I didn’t want to talk to her. Not that I had anything against Tula, exactly. But she was there with Jenna, and Brittney, and some other senior girls whose names I knew because everyone knew their names. I gritted my teeth. This was going to suck, but I was desperate.

“Hey Tula,” I said, loud enough to be heard over all the conversation.

Everyone stopped talking and turned to look me over.

“What do you want?” said Tula.

“I wanted to know where Sofia is. She’s not answering any of my texts.”

“So what do you want me to do about it?” asked Tula.

“She’s worried about her girlfriend,” Jenna sneered. Bitch.

I pulled out my phone, opened it up, and started typing.

“Just tell me why she didn’t come in, alright? She sent me this weird text.” I held up my screen up to Tula’s face so only she could see it. On it was written “Tell me or I’ll yell real loud about your Incredible Hulk underwear.”

Tula’s eyes widened, and she scowled at me. “She’s sick, or something. Faking it, probably. Whatever. Our mom takes the phone away when we’re sick. She thinks we’ll get better faster, or something.”

“Oh,” I said. Relief rushed into my chest. I said a hasty “thanks” and walked off down the hallway. It was all I could do not to leap off the ground and punch the air like a dork. Sofia was fine. Of course she was. I was an idiot for thinking just because I heard about someone dying, it was the person I was thinking of. How self-centered can you get? I was almost out of range when I heard someone’s phone ring. It was Paramore’s Still Into You. I recognized the ringtone. It was Tula’s.

I turned around and watched Tula pull out her phone. I watched her answer it. I watched her eyes go wide, and the look of shock and horror distort her features. I watched as she ran off down the hall, with Jenna and the others calling after her.

Less than an hour later, there was an announcement that all students were to meet in the auditorium. There, the principal told everyone what I had known since 8:26 that morning. Sofia Anastos was dead. School was cancelled for the rest of the day. A few idiots had the piss-poor taste to actually cheer at that. I hope someone nearby punched them in the head.

Students and their parents would be allowed to choose whether to attend the next day. There would be a vigil and memorial held for Sofia tomorrow evening, and he urged everyone to attend. Tears stung the corners of my eyes. I saw Juanita Menendez crying a few seats ahead of me, and I wanted to throw my history book at her. What the fuck did she have to cry about?

I sat in my chair as everyone piled out of the auditorium until it was practically empty. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to do anything.

“Jessica?” it was Mr. Clarkson’s voice from the aisle.

I looked over at him. “Yeah?”

He walked down the row where I was sitting and sat down next to me.

“I know this is hard,” he said. “I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I know you were Sofia’s friend.”

I bit my lip. Hard. “Yeah.”

“Listen, a lot of people are going to want to talk to you over the next few days. Teachers, school administrators, Mrs. Finch, probably even a few reporters.”

I dug my fingernails into my palms. I hadn’t thought of any of that.

“They are all going to tell you a lot of things, and ask you a lot of questions. I just wanted to tell you that if you want to talk to someone who will do nothing but listen, I am here. Don’t hesitate to find me.”

I felt numb, but I thought I should respond. “Thanks.”

“Come on,” he stood up. “They’re going to lock this place up in a few minutes. Oh, and here.” He held out a worn piece of notebook paper folded up into a tiny square. “I found this in my classroom yesterday. I think it belonged to her. I think she would want you to have it.”

I took the paper and followed Mr. Clarkson out of the room. The hallways were full of students packing up their stuff and calling their parents to come get them. Apparently the busses would take a few hours to organize. I found a quiet corner and pulled out the paper. I stared at it for a while. This was probably the last thing she would ever give me. I doubted I was in her will. I had a sudden flash of a stuffy old lawyer in an office, reading out “And to Jessica Kingsport, I leave my collection of antique manga and my collectible Hellraiser pez dispensers.”

I laughed. Right there in the middle of the hall. I probably looked like a psycho.

“Jessica?” Mei’s voice shook me out of my reverie. “Do you need a ride home?”

“Oh, Mei,” I said. “Yeah. Yeah I think so. I’m going to call my mom, but she’s probably stuck at work. So let me call her, and I’ll let you know.”

She looked at me with her soft eyes. “Are you okay?”

I shook my head. She put her arms around me and hugged me. I cried for a minute, then pulled away.

“I’ll be waiting out front,” she said. I nodded.

“Thanks.”

I called my mom, but got her voicemail.

“Hi mom. It’s Jessy. They cancelled school today, because…maybe you already know why. I’ll explain later. Meizhan’s dad is giving me a ride home, so there’s no need to worry.” I hung up.

I pulled Sofia’s paper out of my pocket and opened it. She had doodled all over the white space, but I recognized it instantly. It was Jagged Darkness. From how worn the creases on the folds were, it looked like she carried it everywhere.

Listen, I want to get something straight. I’m not trying to get you to feel sorry for me, or anything. I don’t expect you to get all weepy about a girl you don’t even know. Hell, I didn’t know her that well. I don’t think anybody did. Maybe that makes it sadder. But I’m not looking for pity. It’s just…it’s important, is all. It’s part of the story. I probably shouldn’t have dwelled on it so much, but whatever.

Mei’s dad was freakishly on time, like he always was. They were waiting for me when I got to the front parking lot.

“Are we all ready to go?” he said in his thick Chinese accent. I nodded and loaded my backpack into the trunk. Mei closed it, and we both got into the car and drove off.

It’s not that far from the school to the street where both Mei and I live, but traffic was heavy because everyone was in the area to pick up their kids. I didn’t feel like talking, so I just sat there. Mei must have picked it up because she didn’t try get me to talk. Mei’s dad never stops talking, but it’s not the kind of talk that requires any response. He just drones on about the weather and the traffic and whatever.

Usually I don’t care, but today his stupid voice drilled into my brain. I wanted to tell him to shut his stupid slanty-eyed face. I felt dirty the second I thought it. I’m glad I had that tiny bit of restraint. So I sat there, and let his words puncture my skull and the bump of the slow-moving car nauseate my insides.

Eventually I pulled out my phone. Maybe the distraction would keep me from throwing up. I went back to the news article about the body. There was an update that the body had been identified as Sofia Anastos, a 9th grader at Agatha Caldwell High School. Nothing else. I figured there had to be other articles. This was not the kind of town where teenage girls are killed and left in the park one a month. Are there towns like that? Jesus Christ.

So I Googled dead body caldwell oaklawn park. Sure enough, there were a few news articles, even one from the Willemstad Herald. Willemstad is the nearest “big city.” I guess this was news. A few entries down there was a link that said “The Murder in Oaklawn Park, the REAL Story.” I clicked on it. It was a blog called Notes from Beneath. The page loaded. Right at the top was a picture.

I screamed.

“Oh!” Mr. Lin yelped, cutting off his rant about Obamacare. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m fine. Just…saw something on my phone that freaked me out.”

“That’s why I say you kids shouldn’t have phones like that. Not good for you. If we had phones like that, my mother would have…” and he was off again. Mei leaned in to look at my phone, and I showed her. She gasped. Then she grabbed my empty hand and squeezed tight.

It was Sofia’s body. Once I regained my composure, I looked more closely. I could see why it took so long to identify. The police lieutenant was also full of shit when he said he didn’t know if foul play was involved.

Sofia was complete naked, and spread with her arms and legs wide out so she made an X. Her entire body was covered in fresh bruises and cuts, from her toes all the way up to her face. I mean covered. They were all small, about the same size, and evenly spaced. I felt sick.

I scrolled down and read the article.

Does that image shock you? Does it shake you down to the marrow of your soul? It should. It is shocking. It scared the hell out of me when I found it, even though I’ve been preparing for moments like this for years. That’s right. I was the one who found the body. That stupid article on the Racer website said I was a jogger, when I distinctly told the reporter I was a “blogger.” That’s BS mainstream journalism for you.

The cops didn’t know I took these pictures with my phone. Now they want me to take them down. I told them to get a court order. Besides, it doesn’t matter anyway. They’re already out in the bandwidth. That means they’re everywhere. The family has already seen them, or they will soon. Some sick fuck has already printed out a copy to keep by his bedside for those lonely nights. Does that sound harsh? Of course it is. The truth is all sharp edges, but it’s still all we have. That family’s little girl is dead. Right now, they are suffering. They are going to find out, eventually. It’s no good to stitch up a wound before you’ve sliced out the infection.

So how did I find the body? Sit back and I shall spin you a tale. As our regular readers know, I’ve been hearing rumors of strange happenings at Oaklawn Park for a while now. Last night Ben and I finally went to investigate. We got there at 3 AM, and camped out under the jungle gym. Ben is sorting through the nearly three hours of footage as I write this. We’ll have a video up here and on our Youtube channel as soon as he’s through with it.

Shut up Derrick, I can hear you saying, and tell me what you found! For the first few hours, nothing but some strange noises and two guys meeting for what I think was a drug deal of some sort. Before you drug dealers read this and decide to “ice” me before I can testify, neither Ben or I saw any faces or got any pictures of you. That isn’t why we were there. You can smoke your ganja in peace.

It wasn’t until 6:14 AM that anything really strange happened. I heard this loud squishing noise, like a 400 pound mop hitting the ground, at the edge of the park not far from where we were. We ran over to investigate. When we got close we heard this bizarre noise. Audio is here, but don’t blame me if your eardrums melt off into a puddle and you have to clean it up while simultaneously coming to terms with the cosmic horror that waits out there for all of us. We got closer, and there was another noise. This one is much worse than the first one. Seriously, don’t listen to it. I warned you.

Right after the shriek, a black figure burst out of the bushes and ran away. Ben got it on tape, but the tape is all distorted. That’s right. Actual electromagnetic interference. This is the real deal, ladies and gentlemen. That’s when we walked over to where the figure had come from. That’s when we found the body. I will admit, I screamed like Fay Wray in King Kong.

We called the cops. Ben left to work on the tape, and I stuck around to give a statement. One of the cops threw up when he saw the body. I guess the Caldwell PD never got any lessons on how not to contaminate a crime scene. I stayed on-site for the rest of the morning until Lieutenant Vederbek asked politely with his middle finger for me leave. I got a bunch of surreptitious shots of the scene, so here they are. Call me crazy, but I don’t think the local fuzz is going to be able to handle this one. I expect a black van labelled Flowers By Irene to wheel up to Oaklawn Park any minute now.

Below the article were a bunch of shots of the crime scene, but nothing as graphic as the first. Some cops putting up police tape. Some reporters trying to get statements. There was one wide shot labelled “gathered to watch,” which showed a crowd of people looking at all the commotion. I stared at this one for a long time. Was whoever killed Sofia standing there, watching? That’s what would happen on a crime show. I zoomed in on the photo, and pulled my phone up against my face. Maybe if I found someone laughing, or smiling to himself.

“Holy shit!” I yelled as my phone clattered to the floor.

“Young lady, what kind of language is that?” Mr. Lin said.

“Sorry,” I said. I reached down to get my phone.

“Sorry won’t cut it. I’m going to have to tell your mother about this. I can’t believe the language you hear from teenage girls these days. We don’t…”

“My friend got murdered today! Could you back off?”

His mouth snapped shut. He turned his eyes back on the road, and continued to drive.

As I picked my phone up, it buzzed with a text. It was from Mei.

Mei: Are you okay? What happened?

Me: I don’t know. Something crazy.

I opened the browser back up and looked at the image. There he was. Standing near a tree, at the edge of the crowd. He looked exactly as he did last time I saw him ten years ago. The flowing black and red dress. The hairless head. It was hard to tell in the picture, even zoomed in, but I thought I could make out the too-large eyes on his strange face, as well. He was right there.

The withering man.

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