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.
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
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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.
“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 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.
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.
“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.