A Pleasure to Burn

Burning Man 2013

I did something I’ve never done before, in my entire six months of blogging. Six long months, for whatever that’s worth.

I deleted a post.

It was the most recent chapter of the withering man. Something that happens to me as I write this novel is that sometimes whole chapters emerge from nowhere. It happens like this: An important event happened in the last chapter, and I sit down, full of excitement to start the next one. I know what’s going to happen next, and it’s huge. I just have to get through the beginning part where the characters react to the previous events and I can write the awesome scene.

The reaction bits take a little longer than I expected.

Then another character shows up to talk about it, who really should be there. There’s an entire conversation.

That leads to another little scene that follows naturally from the conversation, and that it would be illogical to skip.

Then the protagonist reflects on all of this.

Before I know it, I have an entire chapter, shoved right in between the two chapters I actually intended to write. In the early stages of the novel this was exciting. My characters were taking on a life of their own! I didn’t have to add anything at all to flesh out my story, it took care of that for me! It was a beautiful byproduct of novel-writing that I’d heard about but never experienced. Fully formed amino acids emerging from the chemical soup of putting words down on the page.

Now that I’m near the end, its just annoying. These Bookkeeping chapters won’t go away, and all I want to do is slide down towards the conclusion. If anything, they’re more likely to happen, because the world is more organic and the characters more real. But they bug me. They’re easy to write, but not as joyful as the good stuff. They’re not joyless, exactly, but it’s not the same.

 

So for the last chapter I did something I haven’t done during the entire process so far: I rushed through it. I got what had to happen down on the screen, and got ready to write the next one. I wasn’t super happy with the chapter, but that had happened before and people told me they were fine. I could fix it on the second draft. So I uploaded it to the blog.

And you know what? It sucked. My primary reader had more stylistic problems with this chapter than any two chapters before it. Maybe any three. He was nice about it, of course, but this is my first novel. I’m a thin skinned guy, and criticism hurts. It didn’t help that he was completely right.

So I tore the chapter down and set, nervously, to the problematic task of editing. Like any good-hearted person, I hate editing. It’s the cleanup after a wild party. The hangover cure you need to take after a fantastic night out. Editing is to writing what weedwacking is to crafting hedge-sculptures. It’s not fun, but if you don’t do it your lawn will look ratty and that’s what your gossipy neighbors will talk about. They’re used to your hedge-sculptures.

I sat down at the screen, my bare draft glaring menacingly out at me. I knew sort of what was wrong with it. The prose was bloated and low-impact. There was too much dithering and introspection. The last bit was a paragraph of exposition when it needed to be a fully fleshed scene with an emotional impact and character insight. I knew what was wrong, but I didn’t know if I had the tools to deal with it. This is my first novel, after all, and editing and I have never been friends. I hesitated for awhile. I washed some dishes. I made a chicken sandwich. Then I put my fingers on my keyboard and started to delete.

It was glorious. I hacked out whole paragraphs. I sliced out at least one entire scene, and half of two others. I burnt my chapter to the ground, and built something better from the foundations. It’s much tighter, now. It actually belongs in the book.

Eventually I’m going to have to take this ax to the whole manuscript. I’ve known this from the beginning, and I’ve been ignoring and dreading it in turns. But after today it really doesn’t seem so bad. I learned two lessons, and they are as revelatory as they are obvious. Most significant discoveries are obvious, once you learn them.

The first is that editing is a lot easier when you have a solid foundation. I enjoyed editing this chapter partially because I knew there was something good under there. I cared about it, and so my sense of purpose let me power through my reluctance to do an unpleasant task.

The second is that it’s great to have a friend who will criticize you. My friend knows me well enough to know that I have a thin skin, and criticisms would mess me up a little. He also knows me well enough to do it anyway, that I need it, and that I’d probably thank him by the end of the day. Which I did.

The third is that identity is stupid. I’ve always been an “editing sucks” guy. The same way I was a “meat guy” until the day I became vegetarian. Now I see a possible version of myself who likes to edit. I can’t know for sure that we’ll ever meet. I never even heard of him until yesterday. But now I know he’s out there. A month and a half ago I wasn’t sure I had the patience and commitment to write a novel, even the first draft. Now I’m almost done. It’s lame to limit yourself by your definitions of who you think you are. But people do it all the damn time.

Better to take those definitions and just burn them. Burn them all to cinders. Then you can build whatever the hell you want.

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Visions and Murders

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the withering man, part 19

We never notice the moment it begins. When we notice, it is far, far too late.
-The Annals of the Shivering Stone

Light streamed into my eyes and woke me up.

My eyes.

I had eyes. They stung like they were full of chlorine, but they were there.

I pawed frantically at my face, and was relieved when I felt skin, smooth and cool beneath my touch. It was extremely tender — even the light touch of my fingertips hurt like jabbing an open wound — but at least it wasn’t a mangled ruin of blood and muscle tissue. I sighed with relief and rolled onto my side.

That’s when I saw the blood. Crimson stains covered my comforter, and my sheet, and my pillow. The silk nightgown that clung to my body was a horror-show.

“Jessy,” I heard my mom’s voice from downstairs. “Are you awake? I made bacon and it’s getting cold.”

“Just a minute, Mom,” I called back.

Holy shit. My mom could not see the room like this. I scrambled to my feet and ripped the blanket and sheets off the bed. The blood had soaked through to the mattress pad. I pulled it off, and rolled everything into a log along with my nightgown. A thick scent hung in the air, like tarnished pennies.

The door creaked open behind me.

“Are you okay?” said my mom. “What’s taking you so…”

I spun around and stared at her, naked and holding a crumpled cylinder of bloody linens. I cringed.

“What the hell are you doing?” she said, laughing.

“Um…”

“Why are you wrapping your sheets up?”

I stared at her. I didn’t know what to say. Was it possible she couldn’t see the blood?

“Wrapping my sheets?” I said finally.

“Yes,” she said. “Right now. You are wrapping up your sheets. Right in front of me and everything. Are you feeling okay?”

“I wet the bed,” I blurted out.

“You…”

“Yeah,” I lowered my gaze. “I had a bad nightmare, and I…”

“Oh jeez.”

“I didn’t want to leave them like this all day.”

“Yes. Yes, I understand. Put them in the laundry room and I’ll get to the before I leave.”

“No!” I said. She stared at me. “It’s just…I really want to do them. Wash them myself, I mean.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine. Suit yourself. Just hurry up. Adam had to leave early so he can’t drive you. You don’t want to miss the bus.” She walked through the door and closed it behind her.

She couldn’t see the blood. It was the only explanation. But how had she missed it? Even rolled up, the sheets were a bloody mess. I threw them on the bed and sprinted to the bathroom. I scrubbed the dried gunk off my skin as quickly as I could, then ran back into my room.

That’s when I noticed the ceiling. The letters were there, as usual. MY EYES. But there was something else there as well. A shape. Two shapes, right behind the letters, but also not. I tilted my head and stared. I squinted. I crossed my eyes, and unfocused my vision. I did that thing you have to do to see Magic Eye puzzles. But I still couldn’t make out the shapes.

Then I relaxed and did something else. Something new. It made my eyes feel funny, like they were covered in scar tissue. The world blurred.

The letters were still there, but they shared the space with two gigantic eyes. Human eyes, the same size as the writing, with blue irises and dilated pupils. Not pictures of eyes. Actual, three dimensional eyes. They blinked.

I shrieked and leapt back. Then I saw the rest of the room. My bed was there, but so was a pile of dolls. My Yog Sothoth poster hung on my wall; at the same time it was a hole into nothing. I could see through the walls into the world outside. The sky was the blotchy purple of a bruise. An owl sat in the tree outside my room, but instead of a face it had the open, razor-toothed mouth of an anglerfish.

I could see into the other place. It was the only explanation.

The scarred and whispering place.

The withering man ripped off my face and tore out my eyes, and now I could see. The memory sent a chill through my flesh. I touched my face to make sure it was still there. It was. Hesitantly, I reached down and felt between my legs.

I was still a girl. Thank God.

“Jessy, are you coming?” my mom called again.

“Two seconds!” I said.

My eyes started to ache. A second later a bolt of pain spiked through my head, and I squeezed them shut. When I opened them my vision was back to normal. Almost. I could still sort of see the other place. It was there, just to the left of everything.

I went downstairs and threw my laundry in the washing machine. Then I scarfed down my breakfast and left for school. The second I stepped outside the scratching started in full, as it had every morning since the day of the tunnels. With my other Vision, I looked down and saw a black mass nestled in my chest, all sharp curves and edges. It scraped at my sternum.

I looked in the direction of the scraping. A man-shaped figure hunched behind a twisted tree. His exposed musculature was covered by only bare patches of skin, which crawled over his body like a swarm of slugs. He snarled as I moved past, and stepped towards me as if about to pounce. I looked straight at him.

“Try it,” I said. I dug my fingernails into my palms. “Try it and see what happens.” He shrank into himself, and then scurried away.

I did the same thing to the flock of blood-colored crows. And the blue velvet glove that jutted out of the Volkswagen and swiped at me with sharp fingers. With each look the pain in my skull intensified. When I reached the bus stop I felt like I my head would split open. I couldn’t hold this Vision-thing for long.

On the bus I emailed Derrick and told him what happened. He emailed me back straight away.

Re: Losing My Eyes

That sounds terrifying. I’m glad you’re okay. The effects are fascinating. We’ll have to experiment. I agree with you that the next step is to visit Joseph Smith at Ashfall Psychiatric Hospital. The sooner the better. I have a plan. Stand by.

–Derrick Lee

Mei found me practically as soon as I got off the bus.

“Hi Jessy!”

“Hey, Mei. What’s up?”

“Nothing,” she said. But there was a nervous look in her eyes.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“No. It’s just…”

“Yeah?”

“Are you okay?”

“Um…” I stammered.

“I mean, is everything alright?” She scratched her ear nervously.

“I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

“It’s nothing. I had this weird dream last night, but…yeah. What class you do you have first?” she asked.

My muscles tensed.

Please don’t let anything be wrong with Mei, I thought. I glanced at her with the Vision, even though it felt like there were spikes in my temples. She looked fine. No psychic parasites or clouds of dark energy. I sighed with relief.

“Jessy?” asked Mei. “Are you there?”

“Yeah, sorry. Just tired. I have Spanish first. How about you?”

“Study hall.”

“Lucky,” I said. “Walk me to class?” She nodded enthusiastically.

The students gave me the same freaked-out asshole treatment that had become the usual as we walked through the halls. It didn’t bother me as much. I had other things to worry about.

When got to Mr. Clarkson’s room I saw my classmates all milling around outside the door.

“No class today!” said Maxwell. “Woo spring break!”

“Wait,” I said. “What’s up?” I walked over to the door. There were two messages written on the door.

Mr. Clarkson’s first period Spanish class will not be held today. Students are to report to Study Hall in Room 108.

The second message was written in large jagged letters across the entire door.

YOU HAVE FORCED THE SITUATION TO THIS STAGE. THE CONSEQUENCES ARE YOURS.

From the reactions of the others, no one else could see the second message.

“Great!” said Mei. “We have study hall together.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice. “Great.”

Mr. Clarkson was absent the entire day, and no one I asked knew why. So was Juanita. A sick feeling settled into my stomach and didn’t go away. I checked my phone over and over, sure I’d find a news report that there was another murder while I was stuck in class.

I kept reliving last night, whenever I wasn’t distracted. The moment the nails penetrated my flesh. The hiss of the snakes as their heads split open. Every time I thought about it the pain in my face and eyes came back in full force. I ducked into the bathroom at least ten times throughout the day to look in the mirror and confirm I still had skin.

And there were side effects. One second I sat in my desk, and the next I was in a field of tall, warped flowers. An emaciated man with a cloth bag over his head stood out in the field. He pulled the petals off the flowers. They whimpered. He turned to look at me, and the mouth drawn on the bag smiled. I yelped. And I was back in math class, with everyone staring at me.

Later on as I stepped into the door to homeroom it became a gaping bodily orifice. I gritted my teeth and went through. I walked along what looked like the inside of an intestine for a few seconds, then emerged through an arch into sunlight. I was outside. In the parking lot behind the school.

The sick feeling followed me home. I considered going to Juanita’s house, but that would be a waste of time. She wasn’t there. I already knew that. I just wanted to do something. I had this new power or whatever it was, but I couldn’t control it. It was as likely to get me killed or sucked into some hell-dimension as help me. And if I came up against the Man of Many Tongues again, it would be as useful as a pair of binoculars.

I had barely eaten all day, and dinner was no different.

“Are you alright?” Mom asked as we ate. “You’ve hardly touched your calzone.”

“My stomach is still a little off,” I said.

“You’re probably still messed up from last night,” said Adam.

My jaw dropped open.

“What?” I said.

“From your fall,” said Adam.

“Oh. Right. That.”

“What did you think I meant?”

“I just…” The phone rang and saved me from answering.

“Get that, Adam,” said Mom. “You’re closest.”

Adam groaned and picked up the phone.

“Hello?” he said. “Yeah, she’s here. One second.”

He handed the phone to me. My stomach turned as I took it and pressed it to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Act excited and confirm that you are Jessica Kingsport,” said Derrick’s voice through the receiver.

“Yes, this is Jessica Kingsport,” I said.

“Good. Now here’s the plan. I’m from the Rosedell Art Fellowship Association.”

“Jesus, are you really?”

“Of course not. Try to stay in character. Let me talk to your mother, but play along that you signed up for their Teen Artist Outreach Program. Congratulations. You’re about to earn an interview.”

I handed the phone to my mom. “He wants to talk to you,” I tried to say in a stunned voice.

“Hello?” my mom said into the phone. “Yes, this is Anita Solis. Yes. Yes, she is my daughter.”

I ran off into the kitchen and picked up the other phone to listen.

“…a very valuable opportunity,” said Derrick. He sounded like bank manager ten years older than he actually was.

“I didn’t even know she entered.” Mom sounded stunned.

“We will not proceed without your permission, of course.”

“You definitely have my permission!”

“Excellent. We were quite impressed with your daughter’s portfolio.”

“She’s talented.” I heard the pride in her voice.

“Indeed. There is, however, a complication,” said Derrick.

“Which is?”

“Your daughter was shortlisted after another candidate was disqualified. Because of this, we find ourself in a situation of some urgency. The live assessment period ends this week, and the only available appointment is for 2 PM tomorrow, Thursday, December the fifth.”

“Hmm. Yes, that might be a problem,” Mom said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to take off of work tomorrow. Plus Jessica would have to miss school.”

“I understand,” said Derrick, “but this really is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“I can take the train!” I said into the phone.

“Jessy?” said Mom. “What are you doing on the line?”

“Please Mom! I can take the train. It’s in broad daylight. You don’t have to come.”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with you heading into the city by yourself,” Mom said. “In light of recent events.”

“I assure you your daughter is in no danger,” said Derrick, in an I’ve-said-this-a-million-times-before voice. “The Rosedell Center is located on the train route from Caldwell, and you can call our office as soon as this call is over to verify our credentials. We’ve dealt with parents many times, and we understand your concerns.”

“Well…”

It took almost twenty minutes, but Derrick and I convinced her to let me go. I squealed and told her she was great. Then Derrick asked to speak to me alone. I heard the phone click, but peeked into the living room to make sure.

“Are we secure?” asked Derrick.

“Yeah,” I said in a low voice.

“Excellent. Now all we need to worry about is getting you a ‘blade that has taken a human life.’ I wish we knew for sure whether that specifically indicates a murder weapon. Ben has access to a police evidence locker, but the timeframe is tight. If a scalpel used during a fatal surgery is acceptable, then we can…”

“I’ve got it,” I said.

“Come again?”

“I’ve got it covered. I know where I can find one.”

He paused. “You’ll have to explain that to me later.”

“Are you coming? With me, I mean.”

“No. I’m busy, and I don’t think it’s a good idea. Smith might not be willing to see me. She specified you.”

“Okay.” I tried to hide the unease from my voice.

“You can handle this,” he said. “I know you can.”

“Thanks.”

“We’ll talk later,” he said.

“Yeah.”

I hung up the phone. When I walked into the living room Mom hugged me and Adam gave me a fist bump. I acted excited. Which was easy because I was excited, even if I was also a little scared. Then I stuffed the rest of my calzone into my mouth and went up to my room. I logged into the Fragments of the Annals of the Shivering Stone website and read and read and read. I was finally going to meet Withertongue. I wanted to be prepared.

 

 

I waited until past midnight, then crept downstairs. I put on my jacket and my shoes, and walked out the back door. It was cold and wet and muddy, but the garage was less than a hundred feet away from the house. I unlocked it, stepped in, and took down my father Max’s old toolbox.

As I pulled out the X-acto knife, any doubt I had evaporated. In my other vision, the knife looked different. Sharp, jagged growths jutted out from the blade. When I waved it through the air it cut tiny tears through the air of the scarred and whispering place.

As I held the rusty blade in my hand, memory flooded into my mind. I was seven. It was just a week after my birthday, but the ground outside was covered by an early snow. Max came home drunk. Mom sent Adam and I to our rooms.

Adam stopped at the top of the stairs.

“Adam, come on,” I hissed. “Mom said to go to our rooms.”

“You go,” said Adam. “I want to listen.”

I grimaced. “Then I’m listening, too.”

“No! You go to your room!”

“I’m listening,” I said, “or else I’m going to scream and you’ll get caught, too.”

“Fine,” said Adam. “Come here and hush up.” I moved close to Adam and we huddled on the landing in silence.

From below, we heard our parents speaking in low voices.

“So what happened now?” my mom said in an exasperated tone. “Who am I going to have to call and apologize to this time?”

“Not sure that’ll help in this case,” said Max.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“I went to Cathy’s.” There was silence. “Don’t look at me that way, Anita. I was just blowing off steam. I’m just a bloke. Only human.”

“And what am I?”

“John was there. Didn’t rightly expect that.”

“John was…what did you do, Max?”

“What I had to.”

“What did you…oh my God!” She gasped. “Is that blood? Max, what did you…”

“He was beating her, Anita,” his voice was calm, just like it always was. So very calm. It made me shudder. “Again. I don’t reckon I had much choice.”

“So you call the cops!” Mom shrieked. She lowered her voice, but it kept its urgency. “Or get her to a shelter. You don’t…”

“Tried that,” said Max. “Been trying it for months. It’s her word against his. He’s careful. Doesn’t leave so many marks.”

“But, is he…”

“He won’t be a problem anymore.”

“Holy fuck, Max!” Mom screamed. “This isn’t a bar fight, or some two bit drug dealer in Oaklawn Park. There’s no walking away from this.”

“I’m thinking that just might be the best plan there, love.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Might be time to get out town for awhile,” he said. His words burned in my ears. He said it so casually, like he didn’t just say he was about to rip my life apart.

“They’re going to find you,” Mom said, quietly. “You can’t just run away. They’ll be after you.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe. But I know what I’m doing. And they won’t find much. I was careful. Following John’s example, I suppose.” He smirked.

Mom went quiet. I braced myself. I expected her to scream. She didn’t. She said the last thing I expected to hear.

“Fine. What can I do?” My jaw dropped open. I glanced over at Adam, and his eyes were wide and panicked.

“Tell the kids…something, will you?” said Max. “And take care of this for me.”

Something clattered to the floor. No one said another word. I heard footsteps, then the door slammed.

I ran down the stairs, and Adam followed. I saw Mom, standing there, her eyes red with tears.

“Mom,” Adam’s voice broke when he said it. “What’s going on?”

“Your father is leaving,” she said in a perfectly neutral tone. “He’s leaving and he won’t be back for awhile.”

Adam and I ran up to her and threw our arms around her.

Next to her, on the ground, lay an X-acto knife, caked with blood.

I haven’t seen Max in person ever since. The police found the body of John Margolis the next day. I never learned exactly how he died. You don’t tell little kids that kind of thing. But I saw the knife. The detective asked us some questions. They suspected him, but I guess there wasn’t that much evidence. I suppose he really was careful. He was always careful, when he wanted to be.

I don’t know why he left the knife behind. Mom never gave it to the cops. She just let it dry and put it in his toolbox. I don’t know why. Maybe she wanted to protect him even after everything. Or maybe she was saving it, in case he ever came back.

I tried to ask her about it once, years later. Why she helped him. She just flipped out and told me never to bring it up again.

I’ve hated my father for years, because of that, and for other reasons. But it’s funny how these things sometimes work out. The world has a twisted sense of humor, I guess.

And I had my murder weapon.

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Tearing Away the Masks

Untitled

the withering man, part 18
Our flesh lets us move in the world. But it is a prison. Mutilation will set you free.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone

Everything is different, now. I’m different. I’ve always been different. But now I understand. Not everything. Of course not. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand everything. There’s so much, and I think a single glimpse of it in its raw form would drive you utterly insane. Joseph says it’s happened, so many times. But she says I’m stronger than they are. Or at least different. “Broken, in just the right way.”

I’m not sure exactly why I’m writing all of this down. But I need to. I think things are going to get crazier from here on out. On one level it’s over. On another it’s just beginning. If I’m not tough enough, and I do go mad, I want to be able to look back and see how it happened. And if something faster or nastier than I am finally catches me and takes me out, I want the people I love to know what happened. Even if they’ll never believe it.

Okay, enough with the drama. Where did I leave off? Right. I was about to meet Derrick.

The only decent coffee shop in Caldwell is the Sparrowhawk Cafe. I don’t know why it’s called that, except that there’s a stuffed sparrowhawk in it. During the time Sofia and I were friends we came here all the time. She taught me the difference between a Starbucks macchiato and a real macchiato. And there were a lot of little side alcoves where we could talk without anyone nosing in.

I hadn’t stepped foot in here since.

“Hi,” said the barista behind the counter as I walked in the door. The place was almost empty. “What can I get for you today?

“I’m here to meet someone, actually,” I said. “His name is Derrick Lee.”

“Are you Jessica?” she asked.

“Um…yeah.”

“He called to ask us to tell you he’d be a little late, and to wait for him at the red table. Just past those couches over there, and to the right.”

“Okay,” I said, slightly flustered.

“He also said for you to order anything you wanted. On him. He must not want to let you get away.” She winked at me. I didn’t wink back.

I sat at the red table – which was indeed very red – sipping my Americano for ten minutes before I heard footsteps coming around the corner. A second later a man’s face came into view.

“Oh hell no,” I said. I stood up.

“Jessica,” he said. “Wait. Let me explain.”

“Didn’t I already say hell no?” I said. “How about hell no you lying bastard?”

Because I recognized him. We’d met before, at Atherton college. Just before something tried to kill me. Only that time his name had been Jason.

“Just let me explain,” he said again. “I promise it’ll make sense.”

“Oh, I’m suppose to trust you?” I said. “Because of all this solid trust between us?”

“I apologize for the deception,” he said. “But I had to find out if you were the real deal.”

“What? The real deal? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sit down,” he said. “I’ll explain everything.”

I sighed. “Fine. But you’re buying me a pastry.”

I came back a minute later with my dark chocolate raspberry scone and another Americano. A laptop and several stacks of paper now occupied the table.

“Research,” he said when he saw me eying it all.

I sat down, and sloshed some coffee on the papers. I didn’t do it on purpose. Probably.

“So what should I call you?” I asked. “Derrick, or Jason? Or just bastard? That sound easier.”

He smiled. “Derrick. Jason is just a mask I wear.”

“So it’s not your real name?”

“Derrick isn’t my real name, either.”

“So what is…”

“If I decide I can trust you, maybe.”

“If you decide to trust me?” I said. “Oh that is rich.”

“Even so.”

“And where’s Ben?” I said. “I thought you said he’d be here. If there even is a Ben.”

“Ben is real,” said Derrick. “But he’s busy. And…”

“What?”

“He said you make him uncomfortable.” He stared at me when he said this, as if looking for a reaction. I took a bite of scone.

“You said you’d explain,” I said, my mouth full. “So explain.”

“Where to begin?” he said. He tapped a few keys on his laptop, then looked up at me. “When Katim told me he met you at the flash mob, I was intrigued.”

“Wait…you set up the flash mob!” I said. “Katim told me. You were behind it!”

He shook his head. “I urged the Atherton improv group to get involved, yes. But I wasn’t behind it. You are right in surmising that I suspected it had mystical significance.”

“Mystical…”

“Come on, Jessica,” he chided. “Surely you understand what’s going on here isn’t normal. You of all people.”

I closed my eyes. “Fine. Go on.”

“Katim told me he met a girl at the Flash Mob of Faces and Eyes who wasn’t part of the group, but who showed up at the precise moment of the event. Her name was Jessica Kingsport. The same name as a girl who emailed me that very afternoon to tell me that she was a friend of the victim, and that identified an entity in one of my crime scene photographs both Ben and I had missed. Suffice to say I was intrigued.”

“So what, you told Katim to keep talking to me? To spy on me?”

“Yes,” Derrick admitted. “But he didn’t know that was my intent. I urged him to continue contact. It didn’t take much urging. He really likes you.”

A week ago, that would have made my stomach flutter.

“Meanwhile,” Derrick continued, “the correspondence between you and I continued, and I grew more intrigued. You insisted on calling your phantom ‘the withering man,’ even when the source called it ‘The Withered Lady.’ You wanted to investigate your friend even though it was dangerous. You found Withertongue616. The password to her website was your birthday, and she wrote mystical words on your bedroom ceiling. More and more, I suspected that you were special. That you were a very specific kind of vessel.”

“A vessel?”

“Someone receptive to the entities and influences of the places that lie under the skin of the world. The scarred and whispering place, as Withertongue calls it.”

“Do you have any idea how crazy this sounds?” I said.

“Tell me something. Did you ask that question because you believe it, or because you felt you were supposed to ask it?”

I didn’t answer.

“That’s what I thought,” he said.

“Derrick, who are you? What is your deal?”

“You already know that. You’ve read our website.”

“So you’re, what, some kind of monster hunter? Like the Winchesters?”

He laughed. “It involves less breaking into abandoned asylums and fake identities with rockstar names and more internet networking. But yes. That is essentially what we do.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“He’s not as involved as you might think.”

“So…what? You hunt ghosts? You kill vampires?”

He laughed. “There’s not that much killing. These entities aren’t physical. Not in the normal way. They can’t be seen directly. They can’t be touched. At least, not by most of us. You, I’m not so sure.”

“Me?”

“You already know that,” he said. “You’re just pretending to be surprised. Does it feel safer, perhaps?”

Damn him.

“Wait, so if they can’t be seen, what’s with the videos? And the audio recordings, and all of that?”

He shrugged. “It’s what the readers want. The more you look like Ghost Hunters the more people show up to your website. And we need people to show up. That’s one of the ways we find them. The entities can’t be seen, but they leave traces. Distortion effects on photographs, phantom noises, neighbors acting out of the ordinary. ”

“So those audio clips are fake?”

“No. Not with this one. The entity behind the Thousand Cut Killings is different. More dangerous. The usual methods are inadequate. That’s why I had to see what you were capable of.”

Something struck me.

“You lured me to the tunnel! Me and Katim!”

“I did. I wish Katim hadn’t been involved. But if I hadn’t taken you down there, Jenna would be dead.”

“But if you weren’t involved, how did you know it was going to happen?”

“I would love to say ‘old fashioned detective work,’” he said. “But it would be a lie. I got an email.” He turned his laptop so I could see. It was from Withertongue.

Concordance

4893183923 83948081

“It’s just gibberish,” I said.

“It isn’t. The first part is the mathematical description of an astronomical alignment. A pretty basic one. It depicts an exact date and time of you know how to read it. The second part is the archive number of an old newspaper, with an article about a murder that occurred in those tunnels 67 years ago.”

“How the hell did you figure that out?”

“It’s what we do. I was already researching local murders. Sofia Anastos and Gabriella Sanchez were both killed in locations of previous murders. It must be part of this entity’s mandate. It can only kill where others have killed before.”

“The Man of Many Tongues,” I said. “That’s its name.”

He nodded.

“That was it in the tunnels, wasn’t it?”

“I believe so. Or its avatar. Something old and powerful and terrifying. And it was frightened of you.” I said nothing. “I see you don’t deny it.”

“I guess not.”

“Does that mean you’ve decided to trust me?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But how did you figure it out? That the creature was frightened of me? I mean, it’s not the only explanation.”

“I already suspected,” said Derrick. “Or else I never would have brought you down there. I brought you there to see it for myself.”

“That was pretty god damn dangerous,” I snapped. “You could have gotten us all killed.”

“But I didn’t.” He smiled. I wanted to punch him in the face. “I was right,” he said. “You were fantastic.”

“It’s this thing inside of me,” I said, my voice strained. “It’s not me. It’s this creature. That’s what they’re scared of. I’m not special, Derrick. The withering man infected me. Or maybe I was just born wrong. I’m not special. I’m just a host.”

“No,” he said, and he took a sip of his latte. “I don’t think so.”

I blinked. “What?”

“I don’t think there’s something inside of you. I think it’s just you. Part of you.”

“No. No, that’s not possible. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does, though. The lore on this is thin. Even thinner than usual. But there is some. Read this.” He fished a piece of paper out of the stack and handed it to me.

The friars believe the rite of purification has failed. But I do not believe they are correct. I have come to believe with my mind what I have long felt in my heart. That which inhabits me and wards the demons away is itself no demon. It is an organ, like my liver or my pancreas. It was placed there by God. I have seen him. His face is pale, and he cannot wear mortal flesh for long.

–From the journal of Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, circa 1810

“And this,” Derrick handed me another paper.

I do the Devil’s own work, for the purification of the Race. And he has blessed me with an instrument. A weapon. It scratches inside my head, but it’s mine as sure as my arm is mine. I’m sure of that.

…does he look like? Rotted, like a corpse in the early stages of active decay. And he wears a dress. Go figure that. The Devil dresses like a woman. Explains something about women, doesn’t it?

–From Interview with Mennonite Davies

“Mennonite Davies the serial killer?” I said.

“We can’t pick our sources,” he said. “But it all jives with my reading of the Annals. This thing, this weapon, is part of you. Even if He put it there.”

I should have felt relieved. I didn’t know if it was true, but even the chance that I didn’t have a hellbeast living inside of me something. I should have felt better, but…

“What does it matter?” I said. “So there’s this thing inside of my that scares monsters. Maybe it’s me, maybe it isn’t. I still can’t do anything. I want to kill the thing that murdered Sofia, but how? I’m useless.”

“You don’t know how to harness it. But maybe someone does.”

“Withertongue.”

He nodded. “You have to do what she suggested. It’s the next logical step.”

“You mean the part where she said I should expose myself to the withering man? Is that the suggestion you’re talking about?”

“Jessy, I know it’s scary, but…”

“Do you? Do you have insects with eyeballs screaming into your brain during your morning bus ride? Did the tormented ghost of your best friend try to kill you yesterday?”

“What? You didn’t tell me about that.”

“I got Sofia’s diary. She was there. In the house where she kept it. Waiting for me.”

“And she tried to kill you?”

“I…I don’t know. Maybe. It was like she was trying to resist, but then she couldn’t.”

“This is all the more reason to move forward with this.”

“Move forward,” I scoffed. “That makes it sound so easy.”

But he was right. I knew he was. Maybe the withering man would kill me. Or worse. But I was dead either way.

We continued to talk. He bought me another coffee, and another pastry. We both got hungry so we got sandwiches. The Sparrowhawk has awesome sandwiches. Hours went by; I barely noticed. I showed him the printout of what I had written. Everything that happened to me since Sofia died. He showed me his research.

“Where do you get all of this stuff?” I asked.

“It’s the most important part of the job. We’ve been collecting it forever. From many different sources. First hand interviews done by field operatives. Scholars with a lot of time on their hands, or access to old, worm-riddled tomes. Mediums.”
“Mediums? Like…people who speak to ghosts?”

“A lot of it is bullshit, of course.” he said. “It comes with the territory. A single fact buried in every mountain of myth. But sometimes a single fact is all you need. You learn to pick out the gold from the lead.”

Some of what I read about the Man of Many Tongues fit with what I already knew. An ancient demon who gifted mankind with speech. An obscure Greek text the said tower of Babel was built to reach his kingdom, and it was he that struck it down. Another said he was the tower of Babel, that it was built from his bones. One account from 12th century France said he tore the tongue from the mouth of God to give to mankind. Like a sick version of the Prometheus tale. Now he returned periodically to harvest words and souls from the chosen sacrifices.

“The debt is due,” I said.

“Hmm?” Derrick looked up from his drink.

“He wrote that, in Sofia’s diary,” I said. “The debt is due. Like he gave us tongues, and now he wants them back.”

“Interesting,” said Derrick. “Did you read about the spiders?”

“Yeah.” There were numerous references to spiders, or “the many legged.” As a way to ward him off, or as his enemies. There was one text that was, I kid you not, an actual book of spells. It had a ritual for summoning the Man of Many Tongues to rid yourself of a spider infestation.

“That sounds like a bad idea,” I said to Derrick.

“People are, and always have been, very very stupid.”

“Do these spells work?” I asked. “I mean, are they real?”

“It’s not that simple,” said Derrick. “Thaumaturgy is complicated. It’s highly conditional, and unreliable in the physical realm. And it’s always horrifically dangerous. But there are techniques with actual effects. Some of the entities and domains can be tapped or commanded through their symbology and correspondences. Like what you did with Jagged Darkness, although I don’t claim to understand that. Or the wards Ben and I put on the hospital.”

“The hospital?”

“To keep Jenna safe,” he said. “They harness the power of a being called the Black Priest. I’ve used them before. I have no doubt Jenna would be dead right now if I hadn’t done it. But they won’t last.

I boggled at all of this. Why was magic harder to believe in than monsters? I don’t know. It just was.

“What do you make of the spiders?” he said.

“What about them?”

“It could be a weakness,” said Derrick. “Something to use against him.”

“What, like, we can throw spiders at him?”

He shrugged.

This was all so weird. Even when I’d spent the last week beset by horrors, this was weird. I was sitting in a coffee shop with a man I barely knew trying to figure out how to kill a demon. But it felt good to be doing something. It’s what Buffy would do.

As the time went on I had to admit to myself that I did trust Derrick. Not that I wasn’t pissed that he lied. But he believed me. He was part of the same messed up shadow world that I was, and he’d been there a lot longer than me. He knew some of what was going on.

“Oh shit,” I said when I looked at my phone.

“What is it?”

“It’s seven o’clock! How the hell did that happen? My mom’s going to be pissed.”

I had two missed calls from her, and three texts. I texted her back and said I’d be home soon.

“Let’s go, then,” said Derrick. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

A ride home turned out to be on the back of his Vespa. In the rain. I tried to give him directions, but he didn’t need them. He knew where I lived. When we got to near my street I told him to let me off.

“Why? It’s almost a mile away. There’s no need for you to walk in this weather.”

“Just let me off, okay?”

He pulled over. “We’re at Oaklawn Park,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“You’re going to do it, aren’t you? You’re going to find the withering man.”

“I have to. You said it yourself.”

He nodded. “I would say to be careful, but that wouldn’t make much sense. Do you want me to come with you?”

“No. I don’t think that will work.”

“You’re probably right.”

“Thanks, Derrick,” I said. “I’m beginning to forget I’m still mad at you.”

He laughed.

“If I’m still alive later, I’ll email you.”

“Make sure you do.”

I walked into the darkness of the park. It was raining so hard I could barely hear the Vespa pull away. There were no sounds in the world except the rain. And nothing in the world except me and the  darkness. And them. They were here. Behind the trees. Underneath the shadows. Watching.

I headed towards the bushes, where nine years ago I saw the withering man. The ground was so muddy it ripped one of my shoes off. I kept walking. If I stopped, even for a second, I was going to run away and never come back. Rain pounded against my head and shoulders. It plastered my hair to the clammy skin of my face. My fingers and toes were freezing, and cold, slimy mud seeped into my exposed right sock.

I felt the hidden things nearby, as I walked. A prickle on the back of my neck. I slogged through the sucking mud for what felt like an hour. The creatures kept their distance. Finally I reached the bush. I took a deep breath. I felt the scratching in my chest, like I always did these days. Frightening and reassuring.

“I’m here,” I said. I could barely hear my own voice over the thwack of the raindrops. “I’m ready for you. I’m ready to let you in. Even though it’s a stupid idea. Can you hear me, you bastard? I’m ready for you.”

I concentrated on the scratching in my chest. I pushed it down, forced it into my gut. It fought back. It thrashed at me and tore up my insides. I doubled over in agony. In my mind’s eye I grabbed it, and shoved it back against my spinal cord, and tied it around my vertebrae. It struggled. My vision swam. Tiny splinters of pain shot through my torso. It struggled again. I clamped down. It gave a final lurch, then went still. For the first time in almost a week, I couldn’t feel it.

The air went hazy. I heard scurrying sounds, intermingled with the rain. One second there was nothing but the water pounding against the mud, and the next it was like I was in the middle of a rainforest. Full of tiny, hungry things, scuttling and croaking and screaming to each other. A drop of rain cut down the side of my arm and drew blood. I winced. Something flew past my head, and its orange eyes burned through the darkness.

Whispers filled the air.

hello, little morsel

penetrate

the pricking, then the bleeding, then the harvest

you are looking delicious, today, without your claws

They were all around me. I could almost see them. A single, dripping talon. Half of a twisted smile. I heard a squelching footstep in the mud. My stomach felt sick. Light flashed in front of me. When I closed my eyes I saw the words.

YOUR SURRENDER WAS TO BE. WE GRANTED YOU YOUR FLESH, MOLDED FROM THE SCRAPS OF OUR KILLS, AND FROM OUR EXCREMENT. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN OURS TO RECLAIM.

“No!” I screamed. “Not you! I don’t surrender to you!”

Something sharped sliced along my back. I lurched forward. Intense heat seared my face, and I smelled singed hair and burnt flesh. A warm wet feeling, like a tongue, ran along my neck. This was wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

I reached in to my chest for the scratching thing. My protector. I grabbed at it, trying to start it up. It stayed still. I had pushed it too far down. Sharp claws sank into my left shoulder. They shoved me roughly to the ground, and my knees sank into the mud.

I’m dead. This is it. I’m going to die.

The claws twisted. Rough fingers closed around my neck. I felt hot breath in my ear, and heard sick, desperate panting. A tongue licked along my earlobe.

Darkness burst in front of me. I don’t know how else to describe it. Fifteen feet straight forward a spot of blackness I could not see through appeared, then spread out quickly. It bathed over me, and I saw nothing. A second later my sight returned and they were gone. There were no whispers, no sounds, no talons sunk into my flesh, no tongue in my ear.

Only Him.

The folds of his black and crimson dress swayed, indifferent to the wind. His withered face stared at me with that terrible dessicated grin.

“Take me,” I sobbed. I could barely recognize my voice, or believe my own words. “Take me. I’m ready. I let you in.”

He glided towards me. I had never seen him move before. It was elegant. Effortless. Like the rain and the air and the world stepped aside to let him pass. I saw his face more clearly than ever before. No eyelids. The facial structure was all wrong. Perfectly wrong. The face of the god that nests at the base of the uncanny valley to which the insane pay homage. Things buzzed around him I couldn’t quite see. Like appendages that weren’t attached.

He came closer. He leaned over me. I stared into his hollow eyes. I wasn’t afraid. As crazy as that sounds, in the place where I was now, fear could not enter. Only cold, jagged purpose.

“I let you in,” I said again. My voice was calm.

Then I blinked.

And he was gone.

 

The walk home was hell. I never found my shoe. Aches covered my body. I was freezing, and exhausted, and hopeless.

“Where the hell have you been?” said my mom as I staggered through the front door. “Oh Jesus, Jessy, look at you. You’re covered in mud.”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I whimpered.

“Oh my God, are you bleeding?” she ran up and put her hand gently on my face.

“I’m sorry. I was walking home, and I fell, and…”

“Shh, shh,” she put her arms around me and squeezed. “It’s okay. We were just worried sick. Your brother’s out driving, looking for you.”

“I’m so sorry. I lost track of time, and then I rushed to get home, and…”

She pulled away. I saw she was covered in mud, but she didn’t seem to notice. She looked into my eyes.

“Are you alright?”

“I guess so,” I said. “I’m scraped up. And freezing.”

“Sit down. I’ll get some bacitracin for those cuts, and then we’ll run you a hot bath. It’ll ease your bones. How does that sound?”

I nodded, and walked towards the chair.

As she head into the kitchen, my mom turned at looked at me.

“What happened to your shoe?”

 

The bath felt nice. There’s nothing like a soak in hot water to pull you back into normality. As I warmed up, my head started to clear.

I puzzled over what had happened. If something about me was different, I couldn’t tell. I thought this was supposed to help me “see,” whatever that meant. Was Withertongue lying? Did I screw up, or fail some kind of test? The withering man hadn’t killed me. That was something. In fact, hadn’t he saved me from those creatures? That was another mind screw. I couldn’t handle all of this, right now.

“Sis, are you in there?” I heard Adam’s voice through the door.

“Yeah.”

“Can I come in?”

“I’m naked.”

“Cool,” he said, and opened the door.

“Adam!” I crossed my hands over my chest.

“What?” he said. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I helped change your diapers, you know.”

“You were three years old.”

“What can I say? I peaked early.”

I laughed.

“What do you want?”

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said. “I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw it with my own two eyes.”

“I’m fine. Better.”

“Mom said you took a nasty fall.” He reached out to touch my forehead.

“Yeah. But it was only a flesh wound.”

He grinned. “Why were you out so late, anyway?”

“I was at Sparrowhawk. Studying. I just had to get out of the house, you know? I lost track of time.”

“I get that,” he said. “But next time call and tell us where you are, alright?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t make me beat your ass,” he said. But he smiled.

“I won’t.”

He closed the door, and left.

After the bath I stumbled over to my room and flopped into my computer chair. I had an email from Mei with the homework I missed from the day. I didn’t have the energy to even read it. I’d get in trouble tomorrow, but oh well. I sent a quick one to Derrick.

Status Report

I tried it. I saw Him. I don’t think it worked.

Then I crawled into bed and fell asleep.
I woke up, and I knew something was very, very wrong. It was too dark. It was too quiet. I couldn’t see light from the streetlights through my window, or hear the hum of the computer fan. I felt the bed underneath my skin, but I felt it through a layer of foam. It felt distant. Not real. I closed my eyes.

Then I heard something. A faint buzzing sound. My eyes snapped open.

He was above me. Horizontal. Floating three feet above me. His face unwithered. His lidless gaze bored into my skull.

“You,” I said softly. “What do you…”

Snakes shot out from the folds of his clothing. Two of them. Instead of faces, their bodies ended in long, ragged fingernails. They dug into the sides of my head, along my jawline and up my temples. Pain like nothing I’ve ever felt cut into me. They pulled away, and with a sound like ripping fabric tore the skin of my face clean off.

I tried to scream at the agony, but the snakes stuffed the flesh into my open mouth. I tasted blood and raw meat. I choked as it cut off my oxygen. Then two more snakes darted out of the withering man’s dress. They hissed, and their mouths opened into four. Like the Predator’s, only worse. So much worse.

They flew towards me, and clamped around my eyeballs. Fangs tore through my eyelids and penetrated the membranes. The pain intensified, and time slowed down as I felt my eyes being ripped out of their sockets. I screamed into my flesh-gag. Everything went red.

And then black.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Interlude

Lamp, typewriter, and specs..

the withering man, interlude

I cried for a long time after I read Sofia’s diary. A few days ago I was so worried that maybe Sofia didn’t like me as much as I thought. Or that she was secretly friends with Jenna. Now that I knew all of that was true, I didn’t care. I cried because what happened to her was so brutally, cosmically unfair. She was dead. Worse than dead. For no reason. No reason except that some horrible thing that shouldn’t exist wanted it that way. It made me sad. And it made me angry.

The diary made it sound like Mr. Clarkson was behind all of this. Or he knew who or what was. I needed to make him talk, no matter what it took.

Once I gathered myself together I called the hospital. Jenna was in terrible danger. Even more than I realized. I had no idea why she wasn’t dead already. I cursed myself for not doing more to protect her. If she was attacked I would have heard about it, right?

The hospital staff told me she was fine, and under police protection. I asked to talk to her but they wouldn’t let me because I wasn’t family. I emailed Katim to check on him too, and he said he was fine.

Then I went down to make a sandwich, and was attacked by a man with a green wig for a face and green hair instead of blood. I wrote about that, before. We’re back where we started. It left visible scratches. It was the first time one of these things left a mark. It’s getting worse.

I woke up after only a few hours of fitful sleep and started to write. I wrote all night long. The next morning I threw up my cereal onto the living room floor. I don’t know if it was sleep deprivation, or stress, or something else. My mom let me stay home from school. So I went back to my room and kept writing.

I’ve been writing all day. It looks like I’m just about caught up, now. I’m going to meet Derrick in a few hours. Maybe he’ll have some answers. Maybe he’ll be able to help me sort all of this out.

Maybe.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

The Diary

I can feel you

the withering man, part 16

September 3rd

How can our branches take in the glittering lights of Heaven, when our roots are planted firmly in Hell?

We are in hell, but the flames that lick us are antiquated 19th century curricula designed to churn out industrial-age factory drones, and prison-grade processed food product. I hoped that Agatha Caldwell High School would be better than the other cesspits to which I have been subjected. More the fool, I!

There are no metal detectors, but that just means the bullies are more subtle. The hallways aren’t so stuffed with kids, but that just means it’s easier to get singled out. The teachers don’t all have that desperate, defeated look they all had at Jefferson, but their subjects are just as useless. And Jefferson had better food. I never thought I’d say that.

So I suppose I am once again to take my learning in my own hands. I feel foolish that I am surprised. I suppose I fell prey to the myth of pastoral purity and superiority. My parents seem still to believe it. I know it’s a fallacy to believe the grass on the other side of the fence is always greener. But once you leave the city, shouldn’t it really be greener? That does not seem like too much to ask.

I wish my parents would let me homeschool. But no, my mother is a partner at her new firm. Heaven forbid she sully her skyward trajectory dealing with her wretched offspring. If I can find one or two good teachers maybe they’ll let me do tutorials, as I did with Emma. I miss Emma.

Most of the teachers do not strike me as either amenable or particularly intelligent. My math teacher seems okay. But the day I study more math than absolutely required is the day the orca finally rise from the sea and take over the electoral college. The Spanish teacher also seems cool. Perhaps I shall dedicate myself to the linguistic arts. I could become a woman of many tongues.

We shall see.

Sofia Anastos

September 6th

Mr. Clarkson is amazing. He’s the Spanish teacher I mentioned earlier. All week long I tried to work up the nerve to ask him for private study. I need not have worried. Today he actually came to me about it!

He saw from my transcripts from Jefferson that I had already taken Spanish 2. He said that this school did not normally do things like this, but given my clear aptitude with the language he wondered if I would consider testing to move straight to Spanish 3. I said yes, yes of course! He laughed at my enthusiasm, and explain that it meant class with the 10th graders. I said I didn’t mind. I confess it is intimidating. But it’s not like I know anyone at this school, anyway.

We kept talking after that, for so long that I was late for English and he had to write me a note so Mr. Booth would not scold me. I didn’t care. I read Romeo and Juliet years ago. I could probably skip every class and still ace the test. After studying, of course.

I expressed my interest to Mr. Clarkson about perhaps studying another language. It turned out he speaks Latin and French and Italian and Indonesian. And Japanese. He showed me, somewhat embarrassed, that he keeps several volumes of manga in his desk at school that he reads in the original language. And I don’t think even that was an exhaustive list, because when I confessed my attempt to do my own translation of The Iliad and my frustrations with the differences between Homeric Greek and the modern kind my parents taught me, he revealed that he has a degree in ancient languages! The man is wasted on this school. I don’t know how they snatched him up, but I will simply count my blessings.

Sofia Anastos

September 7th

I am in love! Okay, perhaps not really. But if one cannot indulge in the musings of ones heart to the fullest extensions of their blossoming in one’s own diary, then what hope has romance in this dull and pallid world?

Okay, that was a bit flowery. Pun intended. What I really mean is that I have a serious crush on someone. And of course it is the most popular and most beautiful girl in school. Who is dating the quarterback. She’s quite intelligent, as well. And vicious, in that way socially powerful girls always are. I saw her tear into another girl for five minutes in the hall today, for some insignificant slight. A volley of exquisite torments. No doubt Hillary Clinton was similar in high school, and Angela Merkel.

Why does that sort of thing get me so aroused? My particular psychological poison, I suppose. Or one of them. I would make a good Cenobite. The Hellbound Heart version, of course.

I likely have a future as some powerful person’s vapid consort. If I ever get breasts. And if I could swap my face for one that’s less ugly. And get rid of my personality. Perhaps if I drink enough spirits, it will dissolve my coarse nature and individualism into something more graceful and socially acceptable.

I’ll never talk to the object of my affections, of course. In those seas lie dragons. I committed that error once, and it made the hell that was Jefferson before that happened seem like a romp through the Elysian Fields. I hesitate to even commit her name to paper, lest these writings be discovered. But I suppose if that happens, all is lost anyway.

Her name is Jenna Lethbridge. Short for Jennifer, perhaps, or Genevieve. A prosaic name, for so enchanting a specimen. Ew. The word specimen there sounds creepy. Like I’m a stalker. Or a serial killer. Perhaps I am, and I don’t know it yet. Some day some district prosecutor will hold this up in front of a grand jury and say, “The signs were there, from an early age. Sofia was such a troubled girl.”

Best to find some place to hide this tome. Just in case.

Sofia Anastos

September 9th

Today sucked. It was so crappy, it has apparently left me with all the eloquence of a mentally stunted beaver who never made it past sixth grade at beaver school. No point wasting my time writing it down.

September 10th

One should always listen to one’s mentors. Mr. Clarkson practically forced me to join the Spanish Club. He’s been attempting to persuade me for weeks. First he said they needed members. Then he indicated that my gifts should not be kept to myself. When these attempts failed, he hinted he would cease my private lessons if I did not acquiesce. So that was that.

It turned out to be pretty cool. I won’t quite say “wonderful,” even though I’m tempted. It is too soon to tell. But I will confess that the atmosphere in my first meeting stood in stark contrast to everything else in this cesspool of a school. A cool oasis in a parched desert of hormones and assholes.

I suspect it is partially because it is almost all girls. And that Mr. Clarkson is the proctor. He introduced me as a “gifted new student,” and made me stand up and talk about myself. In front of everyone. It was embarrassing. But no one sniggered. Everyone seemed to actually pay attention. A whiff of fresh air, when I am choked by the fumes.

The president of the club is a girl named Juanita Menendez. She appears to be one of those people who is legitimately interested in others, and in listening to what they express. Or perhaps she is merely good at faking it. That’s 90% the same thing.

The icing on the proverbial cake? Jenna is in the club. She sat across from me, wearing a tight top of palest blue. I didn’t stare, of course. One learns the skills of camouflage.

I think I’ll be coming back next week.

Sofia Anastos

September 11th

My heart is pounding in my chest so viciously that I fear it will burst out of me, and crawl forth to haunt the corridors of the school. It has been pounding all day.

Jenna spoke to me.

She found me after math class, and said she was “really impressed” with the poetry I read at Spanish Club yesterday. She’s one of the editors of Wanderings, the school poetry magazine, and she wondered if I wrote poetry in English as well. I have no idea what I said in response. But it must have been at least vaguely coherent, because she smiled and said “great!” before she walked off. The smile would have made me weak in the knees, if I had knees left at that point.

I believe, once I’ve calmed to a state of semi-rationality, that I shall write some poetry. Some of it might even be suitable for public consumption.

Sofia Anastos

September 12th

I’m going to win a Nobel prize in physics, because I have discovered that the world is actually made out of shit. Like when you get down into the particles that make up the particles, you will find that they are composed entirely of excrement.

How did I make this fascinating discovery, you may ask? Simple. There’s a Spanish Club trip coming up, to go to Willemstad for the Latin American Cultural Festival. Not everyone is going, but Juanita is. And Mr. Clarkson is. And Jenna is. Guess who’s not going?

I asked my mother. Do you know what she said? Nope! You can’t go, because I’m a miserable bitch! What she actually said was “Your father and I aren’t comfortable with you gone for that long with strangers.” Right. I’m so sure my father had a say in it. It was all her.

I can’t recall when I’ve ever wanted to so something so urgently. This is the kind of trip where people make real friends. Where people forge bonds. I don’t think my mother wants me to have any friends. She desires that I stay her isolated little golden child. Tula gets friends, because she’s a lost cause. So what if I wither into an old spinster, who dies and leaves a lonely corpse for her myriad cats to feast on? She’ll be dead long before that. Why should she care?

September 15th

Melodrama, thy name is Sofia. I’m glad I didn’t actually say any of those things to my mother. Not that she wouldn’t have deserved it. But lack of restraint is a sword whose handle is as sharp as the blade. And I’m sure she meant well. She just doesn’t understand me.

But all is well. James came to my rescue.

James is a legitimately amazing person. By James I refer to Mr. Clarkson. He asked me to call him James from now on, when we’re not in class. He talked to my mother, and assured her I would be safe and well taken care of. She relented, on the condition that my grades were up to snuff. I know they are, but midterm grades aren’t released to parents until mid-October. That means I need to collect letters from all of my teachers indicating my standing.

I have a quest!

Sofia Anastos

September 17th

The trip is in two days. I’m so excited.

September 22nd

That was the craziest four days of my life. And likely the best. That feels like such a ridiculous thing for a fifteen year old to say. I can just hear my future self saying “Get some perspective; you’re embarrassing both of us.” In a fabulous pants-suit, with her literary agent on the other end of her cell waiting to tell her that she’s on the bestseller list for another week, of course.

But it’s still true. It was amazing. Transcendent. A paradigm shift. A few days ago, I didn’t have any friends at all. And now…

I can’t even write about it, right now. I’m trying, but it won’t work. I’m too jittery. Too high. I’ll write about it tomorrow. The return to the mundanity of the high-school grind will no doubt bring me down. I will admit to a lingering dread, which I’m trying to shove down into the darkness, that when I go back to school tomorrow everything will revert. Nothing will be different, and it’ll all be back to normal.

I’m hesitantly optimistic.

September 23nd

I am delighted to report that school did not break my spirit. The intensity of this weekend has dulled. That is likely for the best. That level of brightness is sure to burn, before long. Before the light has dimmed completely, I will set the events down in these pages. Years from now, when it feels dim in the recesses of my soul, I can run my eyes along these words and recapture some of this luminescence.

The festival itself was great fun. It isn’t the kind of event I would have expected to enjoy. My last high school boasted an “ethnically diverse community,” which meant there were enough people of different races to from ethnically-oriented cliques. They always tried to hold “multicultural days” which amounted to the Japanese students bringing in teriyaki chicken. I thought I had enough of multiculturalism. It turns that was the sanitized McCulture version.

There were stands full of vendors selling hand-crafted objects from Chile and Argentina and Ecuador. There were discussion panels that were surprisingly fascinating. We went to one about the differences in homosexuality in different Latin cultures. How progressive. My mother would blow her top if she found out.

There was a mini-film festival, and Jenna went with me to see Cronos, Guillermo del Toro’s first film. She hated it. But she sat next to me, and clung to my arm during the scary parts. A Carnival ran through the whole four days, so there were always people in costume.

But none of that was what made me so excitable yesterday I couldn’t write. That happened Saturday night. Perhaps I should say Happened. It deserves a capital. It deserves its own title, writ large on a banner, thrust into the peak of a mountain and swaying in the wind. But I can’t think of a title right now.

James, Jenna, me, Juanita, and Ms. Sanchez all ended up back in James’s room after the evening meal. We talked and laughed and joked. We spoke to each other in Spanish, and Greek. I remember we all spoke Chinese at one point, but that must just be my addled brain making things up. The point is, we bonded. That was the whole point of going, after all. James and Ms. Sanchez shared a bottle of some kind of Argentian wine.

Me and Jenna and Juanita kept trying to pressure them into giving us some. I think James would have, but Ms. Sanchez was a rock. Not that it mattered. We were mostly joking. The hours rolled by. Ten PM became midnight became 2 o’clock. None of us wanted to leave. None of us wanted to go to bed. It felt desperately important that the night not end. I can’t remember ever having more fun. I wanted it to go on forever.

I don’t remember who made a joke about lovers. Ms. Sanchez said that surely us girls were too young to have had “relations,” and all of us laughed. Including James. Jenna asked her how many “relations” she had had. She got all uptight. Then James said “I can name at least one.” She slapped him playfully, and Jenna asked James how it was between them. That’s how the talk turned to sex. It got intense. It got steamy.

Then, all of a sudden…

No, I can’t write it down. Not in detail. I wouldn’t know how. And if someone found this diary James could get in serious trouble. He could lose his job. Maybe even get arrested, even though all he did was watch. Ms. Sanchez would certainly be arrested. So none of the nasty details. An attempt to blunt the richness of those memories into the coarseness of mere language would be a betrayal. Perhaps if I was a better writer. Maybe someday.

I will say that it was magnificent. And strange. I suppose the first time is fated to be different than one’s naïve fantasies. But this was very different. There were so many tongues. It felt like more than four. It felt like a hundred. This is by no means a complaint, mind you.

James never tried to join in, and none of us invited him, even though it went on for over an hour. A long, wonderful hour. That seems bizarre, when I write it down. But it felt right. It felt vital. He just watched. The look on his face was strange. Calm, and hungry, and powerful. Like we did this all for him. It didn’t seem weird at the time. It was just intoxicating.

I’ve never done acid or mushrooms or anything. But it has to feel something like this. I suppose it was sleep deprivation, and hormones, and the intensity of it all. The light in the room changed, and I saw colors and shapes that weren’t there. A skull made of scorpions. A woman covered in weird bumps, and a man excising them with a sharp knife.

Those sound terrifying, when I write them down now. They weren’t. It was all wonderful. I see why the poets craft verse, and the musicians compose songs. Pure, perfect bliss.

I did have a nightmare about it last night, though. James stood up, unhitched his jaw like a snake, and devoured all of us. It freaked me out. But a nightmare is just a nightmare. Raw clay for burgeoning novelist, and I shall shape it into something dark and horrific and beautiful.

Sofia Anastos

September 24th

Strange days ahead. You can’t predict the aftermath of something like The Event. You can only strap in, ride the current, and hope it takes you somewhere you want to be. Mixed metaphors are inevitable.

Juanita avoided all of us the whole day. I think she wants to forget it happened. I can understand that. Especially if she is completely straight, or thought she was.

Jenna bumped into me in the hall and passed me a note.

Substitute Room. Lunchtime.

I didn’t know where that was, so I had to ask someone else, who giggled. I later found out why. It’s also called the “makeout room.” When I arrived Jenna was there. She pushed me against the wall, and…

I hadn’t dared to hope. I gave it no thought at all. What happened on the trip was surely a one-off event. Something to remember forever, but it would never happen again. Jenna had a boyfriend. And in the impossible case that she liked girls, anyone she wanted would kneel down to kiss her magnificent feet.

As she kissed me, I realized I might be wrong. She told me she thought I was cute since she first noticed me in Spanish Club. She wanted to continue to do this, but it had to be a secret. If I wanted to, that was.

Jenna’s an intelligent person, but I think that was the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.

But the day was not yet finished. The strangest part was still to come.

I had a Greek lesson with James after school. For the first time I did not want to attend. I wanted to find Jenna. But I had the concession that I could talk to James about it. The only person with whom I could speak the truth, in all the world. I tried to broach the subject halfway through the session.

“Something interesting happened today,” I said. “It was related to what happened last Saturday, on the trip.”

His face grew cold, and he stood up.

“Don’t you ever bring that up again,” he said. “Do you hear me? To anyone. Ever.”

“I…”

He grabbed me by the arm. “Do you hear me?” He stared down at me, and I could swear it was the same hungry, intense expression he wore the other night. Only angrier.

“Yes,” I stammered. “Yes of course. I swear.”

He calmed down, and we ended the lesson early. I ran from his room and came straight home.

It was terrifying, but now that I look back with a clearer eye it makes sense. If any one of us had loose lips, it would erupt into a major scandal. He would lose his job, perhaps go to jail. We would all get into serious trouble. James just wanted to ensure I grasped the full gravity of the situation. He was looking out for me.

Besides, nothing can bring me down. I have a girlfriend. Jenna Lethbridge is my girlfriend. I have to write that again, because I scarcely believe it. Jenna Lethbridge is my girlfriend.

Sofia Anastos

September 25th

I wrote Jenna a poem, today. She loved it so much, but didn’t think it would be appropriate for the school magazine. She did reward me, though. In the boy’s locker room. I could get use to this. I think I’ll write another poem.

I had another nightmare about James. I have to write these down, even though I don’t like to think about them. Vivid imagery is the paint in a writer’s toolbox. Plus we can mix metaphors whenever we want to. This time scars covered his entire face. I was strapped to an operating table, and James watched as the surgeon cut pieces out of me, one by one.

Sofia Anastos

September 26th

Ta loyagin gipino bo rima ce ci? Idut ra leloneh pacadiw utobirul ritobem. Timoli te toc tipeval enore pe te vadera? Atutura hobir fonel damohim derapo tini dinesie omil pire, nebo lucuy idat balep relu pele re renam sif.

I SEWED MUSCLED AND SINEW INTO THE MOUTHS OF THE FLAILING SACKS OF MEAT, AND SO GIFTED TO MAMMALS THEIR TONGUES, AND TO MEN THEIR UTTERANCES. YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED. THE DEBT IS DUE.

Nerie re ekisef biefab epi! Masiel xopoc ceri obadit pacav hicitu ne: Nakev nat verin. Reyi ceyocoh unet huremed niseta jidese mupahis telag todeber.

WTF? I did not write that. Did someone find my diary?

September 28th

Another nightmare. I grow weary of them. They are the bad kind. The kind that cling to the back of your eyelids, and whose images fill what should otherwise be darkness. Jenna’s having them, too. I think they are worse when we are together. I hate to say that. It hurts to read. I want to ask Juanita if she has them, but she is evasive. I want to ask James, but I fear it would be a repeat of last time.

September 30th

Is this a descent into madness? Are the images and sounds that torment me products of a fraying mind? I wish desperately that this were so. But it is happening to Jenna. And Juanita, I believe, though she won’t admit it. I went down to the Cultural Arts Center to talk to Ms. Sanchez. She told me to go away. She pretended not to know me. She called security to escort me from the building. I should talk to someone. The school councellor, or a psychologist. But I can’t do that without my mother finding out. Then she’ll find out everything.

October 1st

Something strange happened today. I realize I am filling these pages with strange occurrences. This one is different.

It happened during lunchtime. I walked past this girl, sitting alone and drawing in a notebook. I know her, a little, from my Spanish class. Her name is Jessica Kingsport. She talks in class a lot, but generally not about Spanish. She’s cute, in a Tim-Burton-character kind of way. Not to my usual taste. As I strolled past my eye caught the picture she drew, and my mind went blank.

I closed my eyes. The nightmare-scape was gone. The whispers that had lingered at the edges of perception for days went silent. I told her that her picture was badass, and named it Jagged Darkness at the Screaming Edge of Sanity. She lit up like a Goth Christmas tree at the compliment, and said I could keep it. I sat down, and we talked. We talked about comic books. We talked about horror movies—an apparent obsession of hers. I told them I loved them as well. Which is not a total lie. The longer we talked, the calmer I felt.

When lunch ended and we parted ways, all of the horror returned. Not all at once. It crept in, slowly. So slowly I barely noticed, until my mind was once more a hellscape. Worse, for its brief absence. As if resentful that I would do something so terrible as leave it alone.

October 14th

Oh Jenna, my love. What is happening to us? I ache for your touch. I want nothing else. Nothing in the world.

November 5th

The last few weeks have been crazy. Those are my watchwords. Crazy. Strange. Insane. Such is my life. The nightmares have grown worse. They’re trying to tear my sanity into shreds. But I have defenses, now. Jagged Darkness, and Jessy Kingsport. The picture she drew frightens me. There’s something deep inside of it. Something terrible. But whenever I look at it the nightmares can’t get through. I carry it around everywhere. I sleep with it. Whenever I wake up from a horrible dream –which is every time I wake up – I stare at it. If I stare long enough the nightmares retreat from my mind, like rats from a sinking ship. It takes a little longer every day. This terrifies me. How long will it continue to work?

I’m spending a lot of time with Jessy. She’s fun. She’s a good artist, and she loves my fiction. Most of all she makes me feel safe. I can forget what is happening and feel normal. I can even watch scary movies with her, and not be frightened. Because they’re not real. It’s like he won’t come near her. Because he is real. He is terribly real.

I know his name now. The Man of Many Tongues. I know this because he writes it on everything. Papers I carry, or books I read. I don’t know how he does it. I never see him. Not with my eyes open. I throw them away as soon as I see them. But today it showed up on Jagged Darkness.

THE MAN OF MANY TONGUES HAS YOU

He wrote it there to frighten me. To make it clear that although I can keep him at arms length for now, he is close. He is always close.

I miss Jenna. We can’t see each other. It’s too much. We tried. Over and over we tried. It did not go well. I told her about Jessy, about how she makes me feel safe. But she laughed. Apparently Jessy hates her, because of something that happened with a guy years ago. In Jessy’s defense, Jenna is pretty mean to her at school. I told that to Jenna. She said I didn’t understand. She’s right. I don’t understand anything. Not anymore.

I miss James, as well. We continue our lessons together, but it isn’t the same. The temptation to tell him everything gnaws at me. Warning or no warning. I think he might be receptive if I catch him in the right mood.

There seem to be two James Clarksons these days. Sometimes he is the warm, nurturing man who plucked me from the dank pits of new-school-madness and showed me a path. In those moments he wants to help me. I know he does. But whenever he is about to, he becomes the other James Clarkson. The strange, hungry beast that was born that night. The one whose scarred likeness lives in the darkness, whenever I close my eyes.

I wish desperately to speak to him. To make things the way they were. He might listen. If I explain that I won’t tell anyone what happened, but that I need his help. He might listen.

November 13th

It’s gone. Jagged Darkness is gone.The last time I saw it was when I took it out to show to James. I worked up the nerve to talk to him, despite the consequences. I told him what I have been experiencing, and I showed him the picture. And he took it. He must have. Now it is gone and I have nothing.

I feel almost safe, in this house. I don’t know why. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to step out of the door. I tried to text Jessy, to get her to come here. But my phone is dead. It was charged a few minutes ago. And I can’t stay here forever.

I wish you were here with me, my love. But I fear I may never see you again. He’s coming for me. He whispers it to me, in the silence. My debt is due. He is coming.

I don’t know what will happen when he arrives.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

The House on Elm Street

aged

the withering man, part 15

The unhallowed dead are like wine grapes. They have to be allowed to rot, if their juices are to run sweet. Only then can they be fermented, and harvested, again, and again, and again.
-The Annals of the Shivering Stone

“You’re up early,” my mom said as I staggered down the stairs Monday morning.

“Yeah,” I said. My voice only shook a little. “Mom, do I look pale to you?”

She walked over and squinted at me. “Why? Are you feeling sick? Trying to get out of going to school?”

“No, I just…when I looked in the mirror I thought I looked a little pale.”

“You look fine to me,” she said.

I nodded. That was something. An hour earlier, I woke up with a strange feeling in my leg. I pulled off my covers to find something clinging to my left thigh. I freaked out and leapt off the bed, and it scurried off before I could get a good look at it. If my mom was right, whatever it sucked out of me with those tiny slurps wasn’t blood. That wasn’t very comforting.

“Do you want a ride to school today?” Adam said as he walked into the room.

“What for?”

“They’re moving me to a different site today,” he said. “It’s not far from your school.”

Your school. Like he’d been out of there for more than a year himself.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d so hate to miss out on the time with my wonderful bus friends.” Adam grinned.

“Lunch on this job is late, so I should be able to give you a ride home, too.”

“No!” I blurted out.

Adam and Mom exchanged looks.

“Why so insistent?” Mom asked.

“It’s just that Mei and I were both going to stay late and go to the library,” I said. “We have a big history project coming up. Her dad is going to pick us up. He knows about it.”

“And if I call him,” said my mom, “he’ll confirm your story?”

“Yes,” I said. It was true. I set it up with Mei the day before. Sure, I left out the little detail that I planned to bail on her and get her to cover for me. But mom didn’t need to know that.

 

“What is that?” Adam said as we pulled into the parking lot.

“Oh Jesus,” I said.

A throng of people packed the lawn in front of the school. Many of them were adults; way too many to be teachers. A lot of them wore rain coats with hoods. Under the gray sky it made them look like some kind of weird cult. As we got closer I saw that some of them held signs.

NO CLARK SON NEAR MY SON

and

MURDERERS DON’T MAKE GOOD TEACHERS

Someone stepped onto a chair and stood above everyone else. It was Juanita. I saw now that behind her was a sea of students all wearing t-shirts, even though it was freezing out. T-shirts with the same words in large red letters.

STAND WITH CLARKSON

“You can’t prevent Mr. Clarkson from teaching,” Juanita’s voice rang out over the chatter of the crowd. “He is a good man. We, the students and community members of Vigil for the Innocent, believe in his innocence.”

“He’s a killer!” someone shouted. There were shouts of agreement, which launched the Stand with Clarkson people into an uproar.

“Maybe you should pull around back,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Adam, although he sounded reluctant. “Probably a good idea.”

But it was too late.

“There’s Jessica Kingsport!” Juanita called out. “In the white car. She saw the real killer. She’ll tell you.”

I groaned. I almost told Adam to floor it so I didn’t have to deal with this. But I’d probably feel like shit about it all day if I bailed.

“Better let me out,” I said. Adam stopped, and I opened the door and stepped onto the sidewalk.

All eyes turned to face me with varying degrees of hostility. My first instinct was to shrink in on myself. But I was too pissed off. I stood up straight. I’d be damned if I was going to let a bunch of ignorant assholes intimidate me.

“She doesn’t know shit!” one of the parents yelled.

“Tell them, Jessy,” said Juanita. “Tell them it wasn’t Mr. Clarkson.”

“It wasn’t Mr. Clarkson,” I said. “I saw him, and it wasn’t.”

“Bullshit,” said the guy who shouted before. “The other girl said it was too dark. She couldn’t see shit!”

“It was dark,” I said. My voice sounded firm in my ears. Good. “But the attacker was too tall. His shoulders were too broad. It wasn’t him.” It felt really good to say that. Even if I didn’t know if it was true.

Everyone in the crowd began to shout at one another. I heard some words parents really aren’t supposed to say hurled at me, and some even worse ones hurled right back at the parents. Someone screamed that she was a lawyer, and would sue. Someone else said “I know where you live.” I cringed. This was about to get very nasty.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Principal Harris’s loud voice cut through the cacophony.

Everyone turned and started to shout at him.

“These students need to get to class,” said Harris. “The teachers need to teach. The police have been notified, and they are on their way to make sure none of this gets out of hand.”

That did it. The Idiot Overprotective Parent Brigade might be able to stand up to a group of kids, but apparently they didn’t want to get arrested. The mob began to disperse, and I cut through towards the school.

“Thanks, Jessica,” said a voice as neared the door. “You didn’t need to say what you said. I appreciate that.”

“Mr. Clarkson?” I spun around, and there he was.

“I’m here,” he said, grinning. Damn. I’d kind of forgotten how cute that grin was.

“Were you back there? In that crowd? I didn’t see you.”

“The basketball team made a wall in front of me. They were afraid the crowd would throw things at me.”

“They weren’t wrong,” I said. He laughed. “Listen, can we talk later?”

“Talk?” a look shot through his eyes. Just for a second, but I caught it. “Um…yeah. Maybe. I’ll be awfully busy.”

“It’s important,” I said.

“Yes, I understand. I should get to first period. Stop by my room, later. I’ll see if I can’t fit you in.”

Fit me in? What happened to “stop by anytime?” Of course, that was before he was arrested, and all over the national news. But somehow I didn’t think that was it. Because that look in his eyes was terror. Total, absolute terror.

 

I thought Mr. Clarkson’s return might make my school situation better. I was wrong. Most of the students and teachers still avoided me like a diseased rat, but now some of them wanted to talk to me. Arthur Brandice asked me if I was banging Mr. Clarkson, and Jeremy Stitwell asked for my autograph “for when I was a famous serial killer and all.” Ugh.

Mei told me over and over to ignore it. Easy for her to say. She wasn’t the one being harassed every time she walked down the hall.

My attempts to further my investigations were fabulously unsuccessful. Jenna was still out of school, and hadn’t returned any of my emails. Juanita continued to evade me. She didn’t even thank me for helping, this morning. Mr. Clarkson rushed out of class as soon as it was over, so I couldn’t talk to him. And he didn’t post office house like he usually did. I finally cornered him outside of the biology lab when no one was around.

“Mr. Clarkson, wait up.”

“Oh, Jessica,” he said. “Hello. I’m sorry, I’m late for a meeting. The administration is walking me through damage control, after the incident.”

“Yeah, this’ll only take a second,” I said.

“I’d spare a second if I could,” he said. “You know I would.”

“We need to talk about…”

“I know, and I wish I could, but…”

“…the Spanish club trip.”

His eyes widened for a second, and then hardened. He dropped his briefcase on the ground and grabbed me by both shoulders.
“Listen, girl,” he said. “You will not bring that up ever again. Do you hear me?”

“I…”

“Do you hear me?” He shook me, roughly. His face twisted into a crazy expression. “Or else you’ll end up like the other girls. Like all the other girls. Do you understand?”

“Let go of me!” I wrenched myself from his grip.

“Jessica,” his face softened as I backed away. “Jessica, wait!”
I ran out of the hall and didn’t look back. What the hell was that?

I avoided Mr. Clarkson for the rest of the day. Maybe cornering him as he rushed off somewhere the day he came back to school after he got out of prison wasn’t the best move. But I would have to try again. There was something going on here. If I didn’t know it before, I knew it now.

All in all, a crappy day. I was happy when it ended.

“So,” Mei said when she found me after last period. “The library?”

I nodded, and followed her out the door and across the lawn towards the library building. I wanted to get away from listening ears before I said what I was about to say.

“Yeah,” I said. “Mei, listen. I need to talk to you.”

She paused, then turned to look at me. Her face fell when she saw my expression.

“Oh no,” she said.

“Listen. Do you trust me?”

“You’re about to do something crazy, aren’t you?”

“Do you trust me?”

“I worry about you,” she said. “We all do. Me and Dantre and Natasha and…everyone.”

“I know,” I said. “But do you trust me?”

“Of course I do. You know I do.”

“I need to do something.”

“Like another date?” she said.

I shook my head. “More serious than that. Much more serious.”

“I was afraid of that,” she said.

I sighed heavily, and forced myself to continue. I was sick of lying to her. To everyone.

“There is something going on. Something huge. Something…dangerous. And I have to take care of it. I have to take care of it, and I can’t tell you about it.”

She let that hang there, for a long moment, in the cold, damp air.

“It has to do with that man, doesn’t it?” she said at last. “The one in the photographs.”

I didn’t say anything.

“He has something to do with the murders, doesn’t he?”

I laughed. “You’re much smarter than me, you know that?”

“Why do you have to take care of it?” she asked. “What about the police, or the FBI? That agent Durant. You could go talk to her, you could…”

“Mei,” I said. “I can’t. You need to trust me. This is something I have to do. It just is.”

“But you won’t tell me about it.”

I shook my head.

“Because it’s too dangerous,” she said.

“If you had a videotape that killed anyone who watched it, would you show it to me?”

She smiled weakly at the reference. “No,” she said. “I guess I wouldn’t.”

“You’re the best person I know, Meizhen Lin.” I hugged her. “I have to go.”

She nodded. I could tell she was scared. I knew that all she wanted to do was grab me and drag me back to school and call my mom and call the FBI and do anything to stop me from leaving. But she didn’t.

“My dad’ll be here at 5,” she said. “Make sure you’re back by then, or your mom will be really angry.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll see you then.”

“Just be careful, okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, and walked off into the overcast.

It wasn’t that far to the old house where Sofia hid her diary. A couple of miles through the back streets of Caldwell. There was no one on the roads, as I walked under the gray sky. No cars, no people. Some of the houses had lights. Some of them. I couldn’t fight the feeling that I was alone in the entire world. The other people were all gone. Never to come back.

Dread crept up my spine as I traveled. I hadn’t seen the creatures since this morning. No fanged worms in my sandwich, like yesterday. Nothing reaching out of the drain to strangle me, like the night before. They weren’t gone. They were around me, all the time. I knew they were. I could almost feel them, prickles on my skin. Scratches in my chest. There was a reason they were absent today. Maybe it was the sabbath, where they came from. Or maybe they hated Mondays. Or maybe they were planning something.

This is what I thought of, as I walked down the twisting, empty roads. Caldwell was full of these winding backstreets. No reason to ever go there if you didn’t live on one. I’d never been this way, until a few months ago.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Trust me,” said Sofia. “It’s neat.”

“If you say so,” I said. “This is just way too close to school for a Saturday. We’re not, like, going to school, are we?”

“Of course not!” She grinned and tilted her head in that way she did. “We’re going to Elm Street.”

“Elm Street?”

“Well, Elm Avenue. Close enough.”

“That’s not the same thing at all,” I said.

“Yes it is,” said Sofia. “It is because I say it is.”

“You’re weird,” I said.

“You’re weirder.”

“So’s your face!”

She grasped her chest as if struck in the heart. “You got me.” I laughed.

“You know if you ever tell anyone I said ‘so’s your face’ I’m going to have to kill you?” I said. “You know that, right?”

“Don’t worry,” she grinned. “I won’t tell anyone you’re secretly…silly.”

“Oh God. I can’t believe you said that. I don’t think we can be friends anymore.”

A while later we turned a corner, and I saw Elm Avenue.

“Wow,” I said. “Where did this place come from?”

“It’s spooky, right?”

I nodded. It looked like an entire street of abandoned houses. Not just abandoned. Derelict. Decrepit.

“It’s like there was a spectral earthquake,” said Sofia, “and a bunch of ghosts died. Someone used their remains to build these houses.”

“I want to sketch them. All of them.”

“I know what you mean. Come on. I’ll show you mine. 441 Elm Street.”

We walked forward.

“For a small town, Caldwell has an awful lot of abandoned houses.”

“A medium sized town,” I corrected. She laughed. She was from “the city,” so everything was a small town. Made it sound like I was from Hicksville.

“I heard it’s because there used to be a coal mining industry. When that dried up, so did the town.”

“A coal mining industry,” I said. She nodded. “And where, exactly, did they hide this huge coal mine once it ran out? Under the rug?”

Sofia looked embarrassed for exactly one second.

“Of course you can’t see it,” she said. “It’s a ghost mine.”

“A ghost mine?”

“Yes. It’s where they got the building materials. You know, for the ghost houses.”

I shot her a withering look, but I couldn’t keep a straight face. We both burst out laughing.

“Here we are,” she said, when we reached the end of the street. “My palace of darkness.”

It wasn’t the largest house, or the most decrepit. But it was beautiful. You could tell it had been elegant when it was in good repair. Age and wear somehow made it more elegant. The cracked windows looked like frost on a winter’s day. The sagging beams added gentle curves to what would have been an uptight rigidity. An exquisite corpse of a manor, rotted to a transcendence it had never known in life. Sofia’s words, but they stuck with me.

We went inside, and she showed me around. It was gorgeous and hideous and creepy and wonderful. All cobweb-covered wall sconces and elaborate molding with artfully chipped paint. There was an old, gaudy chandelier in the living room, whose ugliness was dimmed by a thick layer of dust. Sofia stood under it and twirled.

“This is where I come when life gets too, you know…”

“Boring?” I said.

“Mundane. Ordinary. It’s not an escape from the world. It’s a willful descent into madness. Does that make sense?”

“Yes!” I said. Nothing had ever made so much sense.

“I do my best writing here.”

“Is this where you’re writing Nightbound Prince?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve got a new chapter, by the way.”

“Ooo!” I said. “Tell me you have it on you.”

We sat there for hours, reading and drawing and writing and laughing and talking, underneath the crumbling roof. She showed me all the hidden places in the house, where she kept things. Like some notebooks. And her diary.

Elm Avenue had been eerie then, under the orange and red leaves of early October. Now, under the dark November sky, lined with skeletal trees, it was terrifying.

I’ve already done haunted tunnels, a haunted park, and a haunted funeral home, I thought. I guess haunted house was next.

There’s something about old, empty homes that makes me ache on the inside. They’re always dark. No matter how bright the sunlight on a summer day, it can’t get inside. It can’t penetrate their secrets. But as I walked down the street I saw that one of the houses at the far end was lit. I swallowed. Bets on which one?

Orange light spilled out of every window of 441 Elm Street as I approached. It looked like a tall jack-o’-lantern, carved from a black and rotten pumpkin. And was there someone out front? No, that was ridiculous. No one had lived here in years. No humans, anyway.

As I neared the house, I saw that an old woman stood in the open front door, her eyes fixed on me. She had wrinkled olive skin, and dark gray hair tied into a ponytail. There was something familiar about her, but I couldn’t place it.

“Kalos, Jessy Kingsport,” she said. Έchoeme ethe sas perimenei.”

My stomach clenched. I took a deep breath and stepped closer.

The old woman tilted her head to the side. It shook violently for a moment, like she was having a seizure. Then it stopped.

“Welcome, Jessy Kingsport,” she said. “We’ve been expecting you.” Her voice sounded off. Like she had something wedged in her mouth.

“Uh…”

“Please, come in.”

The thing in my chest stretched its claws, but didn’t scratch. It just sat there, like a thorn lodged between my breasts. What the hell did that mean? That I wasn’t in danger, or that my defenses weren’t working? Or something else entirely? It didn’t matter. I had to do this.

“Okay,” I said. “Led the way.”

She smiled with too many teeth. Like a gorilla. Then she turned and walked into the house. I followed her in, with full knowledge that this was maybe the stupidest thing I had ever done. The door slammed shut behind us.

The house looked the same as I remembered, but with signs of life. Cracked saucers half-full of tea sat on the rotten coffee table. The chandelier was on, and its light struggled to shine through the coat of grime. A sweet, meaty scent hung in the air. Like boiled kidneys and fungus.

“Sit down,” said the old woman. “Have some tea. I’ll get the others.”

Others?

“I don’t think…”

“Sit down,” she barked. A wad of phlegm flew out of her mouth and splashed the door behind me. I sat down on the moldy couch, into something thick and wet. I couldn’t see it, even when I ran my fingers along the cushion. But I felt it.

A minute later the old woman returned with three other people. A man, a woman, and a small child whose gender I couldn’t determine. They all had the same look, with olive skin and dark hair. But it was more than that. The young woman looked like she could have been the old woman, forty years ago. She and the man looked like twins, and the child was the same.

“Hello,” said the man and woman in perfect unison. The child’s “hello” came less than a second later. Like an echo. It made my skin crawl. Their speech had the same garbled quality as the old woman’s.

“Um…hi,” I said. “Listen, I’d love to stay, but I’m just here to find…”

“Tomo un poco de té, chica, ” said the old woman. Her head jerked. “Have some tea, deary.”

“Uh, yeah. If it’s all the same, I think I’ll…”

“You’re in danger, Jessy,” said the man and woman, again with the child echo.

I stood up. “Yeah. I’m think I’m going to…”

“Sit,” said the old woman. I didn’t listen this time.

“We’re going to hurt you, Jessy,” the man-woman-child said again.

I stepped backwards and crawled over the couch, never taking my eyes off of them. All four of them tilted their heads and gazed at me.

“We have to hurt you, Jessy,” they all said together. I took a step back. They took a step forward.

“We don’t…” all of their heads jerked wildly, then they smiled. “We want to hurt you, Jessy.”

I backed up again, and then stepped towards me. They flowed around the couch, then rejoined as if they shared a single, fluid body. Or a single mind.

The basement door was behind me. At least, I thought it was.

Please let the basement door be behind me.

“She can’t…we can’t hold back much longer, Jessy. We’re going to taste you, Jessy.”

I reached behind me. A doorknob. I turned it. The door wouldn’t open. Jammed.

“We’re going to harvest you, Jessy. He wants us to harvest you, Jessy.” They stepped forward.

I spun around to face the door. I felt their breath on the back of my neck. I twisted the doorknob, then kicked the door. It flew open and crashed into the wall. I raced through, slammed the door shut, and locked it.

I let out a breath of relief. It didn’t last. As soon as my heart stopped pounding in my ears I heard a noise. From below. Whimpering. It sounded like Jenna had, in the tunnels. When she was on the slab. As the creature worked on her. I walked down the stairs.

It was dark, but I could see alright. The staircase was long. I remembered that from before. Long and narrow. It was hard to breathe, with the thick scent of dust in the air. As I descended the whimpering grew louder. The sound made my insides hurt. It was the sound of hopelessness.

The stairs opened into a medium sized room full of dusty furniture. There was an unfinished wall –just wooden scaffolding – in the middle of the room that divided the basement into two. One the other side, in the far room, was where Sofia hid her diary.

Pressed up against the scaffolding was the source of the whimpering. A girl. Her black hair was matted and filthy, and cuts covered the olive skin of her exposed face and arms. Some of the cuts looked old and scarred, and some of them were fresh, and still dripping.

I recognized her instantly.

“Oh my god,” I said. Tears stung my eyes. “Sofia.”

I realized why the people upstairs looked so familiar. And why they looked the same. They were all Sofia. Different ages, even different genders. But it was her.

“Oh god, Sofia. What have they done to you?”

She looked at me, her face filled with desperation, and flailed out with her loose arm. The wooden scaffolding behind her rattled. I saw that several pieces of metal were thrust through her left hand, and bound her to the wood. An industrial staple gun lay at her feet.

She tried to say something, but only a garbled moan came out. I saw why. A large gash ran up the right side of her face, extending her lips nearly to her ear. When she opened her mouth she had no tongue.

She pointed at the staple gun, then at her hand bolted to the scaffolding.

“You…did this to yourself?”

She nodded, then reached for me again.

“Oh Jesus, Sofia. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I wanted to help her. To do something. But what could I do? I was afraid to get any nearer. She mouthed a word, but her face was so mangled I couldn’t make it out.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. I kept my back pressed to the far wall, and inched past her. “I wish I could help. I’m so sorry.”

She stretched her fingers towards me as I moved by. They came two inches from my face. Along her arm, there were several red, slimy, writhing things. Tentacles. Just like I saw on her body, back at the funeral home. Tentacles, and the stumps of tentacles. It looked like some of them had been cut off.

Slowly, so slowly, I moved past her into the far room. She wailed as I stepped out of her reach. I ran to the wall on the other side of the room. There was a hole in the drywall. I took a deep breath and reached my arm in.

It was deep. That’s why she chose it. No sane person would reach into a deep hole in the dank basement of a decrepit house on Elm Street. I pawed around. My hand touched something wet and slimy. Then something with fur. I shuddered. Finally I felt something slick that crinkled, and pulled it out. This was it. A plastic shopping bag. Inside was a large gallon zip-lock, and inside of that was the diary.

I moved back towards Sofia, and crept past her towards the stairs. She mouthed that word again. Then again. I paused before going up. She wanted to tell me something. It might be important. I looked closely, as she formed the syllable with her mutilated lips.

“Run.”

The expression on her face changed. The desperation drained out of it, and her mouth twisted into a terrible smile. She ripped her arm out of the wall. Thick black fluid gushed from the wound. Pain lanced through me as the thing in my chest clawed viciously at my insides. I sprinted up the stars and ripped open the door.

The family sat at the couch and drank tea. Their faces jerked towards me as I spilled through the door entry way and slammed it shut behind me.

“Where are you going, deary?” said the old woman.

“You’ve only just arrived,” said the others.

They stood up.

I ran straight towards them, stepped on the back of the couch, and leapt over their heads. They spat thick gobs of saliva, which soared past my shoulder. A few flecks hit my arm, and it burned.

I crashed into the door to the outside. It flew open. I tumbled down the front stairs and ran out into the cold air.

I didn’t look behind me. I just ran, and ran, and ran. My veins filled with fire. I kept running, until Elm Avenue was far, far behind me.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Sizzle

Bacon Heart

 

Another short respite from the withering man. Flash-fiction horror about the tiny pleasures.

 

 

Sizzle

“Stop! Why are you doing this to me?”

I try to ignore the screams as I throw some bacon into the hot skillet and pour myself a glass of whiskey. There’s so much screaming, these days. I walk over and shut the window, even though that accomplishes exactly dick.

Sometimes it makes me so angry that I’m not bloody desensitized to it all already. Other times I’m just happy to still be rational. To still have some scraps of my humanity. Humanity is hard to cling to, lately.

All I can say is thank the Lord for bacon! The rich, savory scent fills the kitchen. I just sit there and drink it in. I don’t even need to eat it. I can just rest my weary-as-hell ass on my stool and let the aroma wash over me. Of course you can’t get good bacon anymore. Not like you used to. But I’ll take it. Nowadays, you take what you can get.

Bacon has always been there for me. No matter how shitty it got. I remember sitting in a shelter with my brother Elton. Every few seconds there was a loud bang outside, and we wondered. If it would be the last. If next time the walls would finally crumble. The Powers That Be in government thought bombing would solve the problem. Idiots. Even then, we all knew that wouldn’t work.

“Jeffrey,” said Elton as he crawled out from under a table, “I was going to save this, but this might be, you know, the last time we..”

“Yeah,” I said.

“So here we are. What the hell, right?” He reached into his bag, and pulled out a plastic package. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

“Oh you magnificent bastard,” I said. “Have I ever told you I love you?”

“Nah,” he said. “Probably because you’re a dude.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I bet you’re right. Let’s fry that shit up.”

We didn’t care that the portable gas burner gobbled up a good amount of our meager oxygen supply. I don’t reckon either of us expected to make it out of there.

“Jeffrey,” Elton said as we scarfed down the salty goodness. “If I don’t make it, tell my wife I love bacon.”

He didn’t make it. Neither did she. I chuckled whenever I think about it. That’s weird, right? But so many memories are all bad. At least that one has some good in it. The little things matter. Even now, when things have gotten much, much worse, the little things matter.

I remember back when folks used to joke about an upcoming zombie apocalypse. It’s not so funny, now. When it first started a lot of people thought it was a zombie apocalypse. We were conditioned by the media, I guess. Oh man, if only it was that simple. Shoot them in the head, light them on fire, hit them with a cricket bat. Zombies are easy. Zombies make sense. What we got instead…

I bite into the bacon, and close my eyes in ecstasy. The blend between the crisp on the outside and the still-tender fat was marvelous. One of the nice things about making your own bacon is that you can cut it  as thick as you like. I hated growing up on a ranch, but it turned out to be a Godsend. I’m still here, after all.

It’s gone too quickly. It always is. I fight the urge to heat the pan up and fry up another round. But who am I kidding? That’s a fight I never win.  What am I saving it for? I wait for the skillet to grow smoking hot, then toss a few slices in.

“Jeffrey!” it screams as it hits the hot steel, “what are you doing? Why are you doing this?”

I grit my teeth and stare out the window. It’s dumb, I know. Of course the neighbors will hear. The walls aren’t sound proof, and the screams are loud. Hopefully they didn’t hear my name. It would be a damn shame if they moved away.

Eventually the screams die. There’s nothing left but sizzle. I think it happens when it reaches a certain temperature, but that’s just a guess. Nothing bloody stays dead anymore.

I don’t figure I’ll last much longer. Something will get me. And then…who knows? Any number of things could happen. There’s no predicting it. I don’t know if what comes back will still be me. Some of them talk, but the things they say…I sure hope those aren’t still people in there. wouldn’t wish that on no one.

Maybe I’ll sprout wings. I’ve always wanted wings.

It’s going to happen. I’m resigned to that. Some of the other survivors have hope. Hope is for idiots. No, I might not have hope. But at least I have bacon. The little things matter.

Even now, the little things matter.