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.”
“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 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.”