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.
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?
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.
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.
I had an email from Derrick waiting for me the next morning.
Re: The New Victim
We put up a post detailing our findings at the crime scene. It would be in your best interests to read it.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.