the withering man, part 7
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.”