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