the withering man, part 10
Pain is the seed from which strength may grow. Your weapon is only as deadly as your agony. What He brings is deeper than agony, and older than truth. It is written in the jagged edges on the wounds of the world, and through it, we may rend and tear that which does not bleed.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone
I woke up the next morning almost two hours before my alarm. The writing was still there. I didn’t know if I expected it to be gone or not. I didn’t know anything. I could not get back to sleep. I just lay in my bed and stared.
At one point I got up, stood on my computer chair, and examined the words more closely. They had been etched into the ceiling with some kind of tool. A channeling tool, maybe. We had channeling tools in the garage. With Max’s old tools. The ceiling was one of those spiky white ones. That kind of carving would take a while, and there’d be bits of plaster or whatever it was all over the floor. The floor was clean.
The ridges in the ceiling were filled in with black charcoal pencil. I recognized the powder on my fingertips when I ran them along the letters. I had a set of charcoal pencils in my desk. Just a few feet away.
Had I done this? Did I nod off while I was reading that terrible website and carve the letters in my sleep, just to freak myself out? It was possible. Anything was possible. Then what? I cleaned up so thoroughly that I couldn’t find any trace of the project, disposed of the remains, put all of the equipment away, then plopped back down on my computer chair? Then I forgot everything.
I laughed out loud. The crazy thing was it wasn’t that far fetched. All except the last part. I would have remembered. I always remember.
I turned off my alarm. I didn’t need it. Any chance of additional sleep was gone, and not coming back. I sat down at my computer chair. I was a little worried it wouldn’t feel comfortable anymore. So many crazy things had happened to me as I sat on that chair. But it still was. It still felt…not safe. This wasn’t the spot for feeling safe. That was downstairs in the living room, with Adam and my mom, if it was anywhere. This chair was where I streamed slasher-movies. It was where I watched slender man videos and read creepypastas and listened to Nox Arcana with the lights off. It didn’t feel safe. But it felt right.
I thought about watching some Bloody Cuts Horror Challenge entries. There were some new ones up and I was way behind. Instead I opened a new email to Derrick. I planned to dash off a quick note asking for an update on the Clarkson situation, but I just kept writing. I told him about Withertongue. I told him about the photographs. I told him about the words that loomed over my head that very moment.
“Jessica, what are you doing?” I jumped at the sound of my mom’s voice.
“Oh,” I said. “Um…nothing.”
“It’s almost 7, and you’re not even dressed yet! The bus will be here any minute.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. I’m just feeling a bit weird.”
“I suppose that’s not surprising, but…” I watched her eyes trace from my face up to the ceiling, then widen in shock. “What is that?”
“Oh. It’s…” I looked up at the letters. “I did it. In my sleep. But I cleaned it up.”
“Yes,” she said. “I suppose you did. Okay, then. We can figure this out later. Now get dressed!”
I thought about telling her the truth. But what would I say? “I have some crazy supernatural stalker who I think has been following me for at least eleven years, and by the way he sent his insane internet manslave to teleport into my room and carve creepy words in my ceiling.” Her head would burst into goo like in Scanners. Then she would make me clean it up.
I finished the email to Derrick, threw on some clothes, and ran to catch the bus. It was late. I had to wait at the bus stop for ten minutes. In the rain. And I didn’t even get breakfast.
I sat at the back of the bus, my headphones wrapped round my ears. Just like usual. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the music. So it freaked me out when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Gah!” My eyes snapped open, and I whipped my head around to look. There was a guy in the seat next to me, wearing a look of amused anticipation. And a sweater.
It was Sweater Hole. I didn’t know his name, but he was a loud asshole and he always wore a sweater. So…Sweater Hole. He motioned me to take off my headphones. I did, even though what I wanted to do was punch his stupid smiling face and tell him to get lost. Who says I have no self restraint?
“What do you want?” I glared at him.
“You’re Jessica Kingsport, right?” said Sweater Hole. I didn’t say anything. “You were friends with Sofia Anastos?”
He grinned and looked towards the front of the bus. There was a group of people up there. The friends he normally goofed off with on the bus. All of them leaned around or over their seats and stared back at us.
“I’m…doing an article for the school paper,” he said. Someone up front laughed, and someone else punched him in the arm. “And I wanted to ask you some questions.”
“The answer to all of them is ‘go away,’” I said. I started to put my headphones back on.
“No, no, I’m serious! This is important.”
I sighed. “Fine.”
“You’re in Mr. Clarkson’s class?” I nodded again. “Do you like him?”
“So…what does it feel like to know your favorite teacher killed your best friend?”
“Was Sofia bumping uglies with Mr. Clarkson?” said Sweater Hole. “Did she tell you if he has a big dick?” His friends laughed uproariously. Sweater Hole pulled out a pen and held it up to my face like a microphone. “The school deserves to know.”
“Real fucking original.” I pressed my hands against his shoulder and shoved him off the seat. “Get out of my damn face.”
“Damn, girl! You don’t have to be like that!”
I slammed my headphones onto my head and cranked the volume all the way up. It hurt my ears, but I didn’t care. All I could hear was the music.
I found Mei as soon as I got off the bus.
“Are you okay?” she said when she saw me.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just some assholes on the bus. Today is going to suck. More than usual.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
I sighed. “Just be happy you’re not in any of Mr. Clarkson’s classes.”
“What class do you have first.”
“Hey, why is everyone heading in the same direction?” The students were all walking straight down the hall towards the gym and the auditorium.
“There’s an assembly,” said Mei. “The teachers have been going around telling everyone.”
“An assembly about Mr. Clarkson?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I have to drop my stuff off, and go to the bathroom,” I said. “I’ll meet you there? Save me a seat?” She gave me a hug and walked off.
I headed towards my locker. Everyone was walking the opposite direction, so it was a little awkward. I bumped into a few people, including Sweater Hole. There were no teachers anywhere. I barely resisted the temptation to knee him in the balls. When I got to the music corridor where my locker was, the hallway was empty.
“Hey girl, there you are.” I heard Dantre’s voice and turned around. He wore a shirt with the phrase “Stand with Clarkson” written in large red letters.
“Where did you get that?”
“Oh this old thing? I’ve had it for years. Just hiding in the back of the closet.” I rolled my eyes. “Juanita’s giving them out. I guess her brother is a shirt maker or something like that. Trying to lift himself out of the ghetto. What do you think? A little tight around the arms?” He spun around. The back of the shirt said “Vigil for the Innocent.” That group Juanita started in support of Mr. Clarkson. They sure didn’t waste any time.
“You look great,” I said, laughing.
“Anyway, what you got going on with Jenna?”
I scowled. “Why? What did she say?”
“She asked me to give this to you when I saw you,” said Dantre. “And I said do I look like a serving wench to you? But what can I say? Bitch can be pretty persuasive.” He held out a folded note.
“She’s been trying to talk to me for days,” I said with gritted teeth. “I have no idea why. Anyway, I don’t want it.”
He took my palm in his hand, and pushed the piece of paper into it. “You can burn it, for all I care. Just so long as you tell her Dantre delivered. I do not want to get on that woman’s bad side.” He closed the fingers of my hand over the note.
“Now smile, girl! That frown isn’t what I’d call flattering.” He pulled the sides of my lips open with his fingers. I snapped at him, and he laughed. “I’ll catch you later.”
Once he was gone I opened the note.
Please talk to me. I need your help. I think I’m in danger.
At the bottom was a drawing of a shape. It was crude and lacking in skill, but I recognized it. It was Jagged Darkness. Sofia showed it to Jenna. I felt nauseous.
So Jenna was in danger. And she wanted my help. What in the hell was she talking about? Was this some kind of prank? That wasn’t really her thing but I wouldn’t put it past her. What could I help her with? Should I actually talk to her? It’s not like I owed her anything.
But it was weird for her to put all of that in a note. If somebody found that it would look pretty strange. People would talk. That’s what people do. And Jenna knew I hated her. This was like, leverage or something. I could pin the note to the cork board outside of the principal’s office if I wanted to, right where everyone would see it. Or give it to the guidance councilor. It was a pretty big risk for her to take for a stupid joke.
All of this churned in my brain as I headed for the assembly. When I got to the auditorium it was packed with students and teachers. Mr. Harris stood on stage. It looked like he was well into one of his speeches. I scanned around for Mei.
“Jessy,” she whispered when I got to her aisle. “Over here.” I stepped over the people in the seats and sat down.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Mr. Harris is talking about Mr. Clarkson,” said Mei.
“Has he, like, actually said anything we didn’t already know?”
“Shh,” said someone in front of me. It was Mrs. Schwartz. I hushed up.
“…for your full cooperation in this matter,” Mr. Harris said. He stepped to the side and sat down. A woman stood up from a chair at the back of the stage. I hadn’t even realized she was there until then. I recognized her immediately.
“Thank you principal Harris,” she said. “I am Special Agent Durant, and I am the lead investigator into the murders of Sofia Anastos and Gabriella Sanchez. I know all of you must have many questions. I am going to say outright that I won’t answer them. That is not what I am here to do. But I don’t keep people in the dark any more than necessary, so I will tell you this. I believe these murders are connected to your school in some way.”
The auditorium erupted into noise. I heard the phrase “serial killer” a few times. A few rows ahead of me, I heard Maxwell say, “We’re going to be famous! How’s my hair?”
“I will not speculate as to whether or not this is a serial killer,” Agent Durant continued, “but I will warn you. Some or all of you may be in danger. There will be police presence in and around this school until this matter is resolved. I will also tell you this. One or more of you knows something vital to this investigation.”
She stared straight down into the crowd. Was she looking straight at me?
“I will be conducting interviews of students, faculty, and staff over the next few days. I’ll be pulling you out of classes as necessary. Your principal has already assured his full cooperation. I will expect it from all of you, as well.”
“She doesn’t mess around, does she?” I whispered to Mei.
“Seriously,” said Mei. There was a hint of awe in her voice, but I wasn’t surprised. She had this thing about female detectives. I drew her portrait-sized drawing of her as Irene Adler for her birthday a few years ago and she still had it hanging in her room.
“That is all,” said Agent Durant. “I’ll be seeing some of you shortly.”
Mr. Harris looked kind of stunned when he got back to the podium. He thanked Agent Durant, and told us all to go to our homerooms for the remainder of first period.
As Mei and I walked out of the auditorium I saw Arthur Brandice leaning against the hall talking to Britney Fuller. “So, Mr. Clarkson’s a serial killer, huh? Does that make his eyes less dreamy, or does the whole danger thing get you all hot and bothered? Cause I could totally…”
“What was that?” Juanita Sanchez stopped walking past and whipped around to face him. I could see she carried a bundle of “Stand with Clarkson” shirts.
“Whoa, Juanita,” Arthur held his hands out. “Chill out, chill out.”
“Chill out?” said Juanita. “You are talking that kind of language about one of our most beloved teachers and members of our community, and you ask me to chill out?”
“I just meant not to spazz out,” Arthur stammered.
“Spazz out?” said Juanita. “You think being offended by that sophomoric nonsense is spazzing out?”
“Is there a problem here?” Mr. Beef stepped over to stand next to the two of them.
“No problem, Mr. Booth,” said Arthur. “Britney and I were just leaving.”
“Good,” said Mr. Booth. “See that you do.” He walked off, followed closely by the storming Juanita.
“What’s with her lately?” Brittney said to Arthur. “She flipped out on Carmella the other day, too.”
“Mei, I’ll catch you later, okay?” I said to her as the two idiots walked away.
“Um, what are you going to…”
I chased after Juanita as she rounded the corner of the hall.
“Juanita!” I called after her.
She spun around. “What do you want?”
“I just wanted to say that was awesome,” I said. “It’s good to see someone stick it to Arthur. And, you know, stand up for Mr. Clarkson.”
“Oh,” her face softened. “Thanks, Jessy.” I blinked. I was surprised she knew my name. “Do you want some t-shirts?”
I felt like a hypocrite as I carried a small pile of shirts towards Mrs. Blanchard’s classroom. I mean, I knew Mr. Clarkson was innocent. He had to be. At least I really hoped he was innocent. But images forced their way into my mind, as hard as I shoved them away. Images of my best friend and my favorite teacher, their clothes lying in shreds next to Mr. Clarkson’s desk, their naked, sweaty bodies pressed up against one another…
“Jessica, how nice of you to join us,” said Mrs. Blanchard as I walked through the door into homeroom. “I’m glad some of my students did not decide to use the shortened period as an excuse to do whatever they liked.”
I looked over at the rows of empty desks. Barley half the students were here. I cursed myself under my breath for not thinking of that.
“Have a seat, please,” said Mrs. Blanchard. “There’s a good girl.”
I spent the rest of homeroom staring at Jenna’s note until my eyes tried to squelch out of their sockets. It didn’t help.
English class was painful. I found it even more difficult than usual to concentrate on the Scarlet Letter. From the glassy-eyed looks around me, so did everyone else, including Mr. Beef. After the fourth failed attempt to get students to answer questions about Dimmesdale’s confession, he gave up and started to read directly from his notes. After awhile, I pulled out my phone and started to check Facebook. Mr. Beef didn’t say anything.
I was sure that I would be pulled out of class at any minute. Agent Durant said she’d be pulling students and teachers out of class to talk to them. I had to be one of the first people she wanted to talk to. But English droned on without any summons to the interrogation room. So did history. And proper homeroom. And Spanish, once again taught by Mr. Morris and his dog whistle. By the time lunch arrived I was kind of resentful.
I sent Mei a text.
Me: Want to eat on the roof? I’m starting to choke on all of these people.
On the way to the stairs, I saw Jenna hanging out under the school banner as usual, along with Brittney and some of the other queen jackals. I gritted my teeth and walked towards them. It didn’t look like Jenna was going to leave me alone. I might as well find out what she had to say. As I approached all three of them gave me the same look, like I was a piece of meat too rotten even for them.
“Vampire class is that way,” said Brittney.
“Yeah,” Carmela Turner chimed in, “if any of us want to be bitten, we’ll let you know.”
“I prefer my blood without any STDs. I’m here to talk to Jenna.”
“And why would she want to talk to you?” said Brittney.
“Because she asked me to,” I said. My fingernails dug into my palm. I already regretted this. “She sent me a note.”
Brittney and Carmela shot Jenna an incredulous look.
“As if,” said Jenna. “If I wanted to slum it, you’re not at the top of my list.”
“Fine,” I snapped. “Whatever. I didn’t ask you. Oh, and I see Tula’s not with you. I guess having a murdered sister means she’s not cool enough to hang with the jackals anymore.” I turned and stormed off towards the staircase.
My angry footsteps echoed in the enclosed stairwell as I marched up to the roof. When I emerged into the open air, I saw Mei had gotten there first. It was still raining out, but the roof had a large awning to keep the rain of our heads. Plus, I was glad to eat out in the rain. It was pretty, and it meant it would be just us. I think all of the mean girls were afraid they would melt, or something.
“Jessy!” Mei called out to me. “Hi!”
I walked over to her and threw my lunch down on the bench. “Hi, Mei.”
“Oh, nothing. Whatever. I just ran into Jenna and she was a total bitch. I don’t know what I expected.”
“Jenna? Did she still want to talk to you, or something?”
I nodded. “She gave me this note.” I handed it to to her.
“That’s her handwriting, I’m pretty sure,” said Mei. “What’s that drawing at the bottom?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. I didn’t want to talk about it. “Can we talk about something other than Jenna?”
“Yeah,” said Mei. “What do you have for lunch? I’ve got sesame noodles, if you want some.”
We ate and breathed in the rain and talked about how dumb the last episode of Supernatural was. I had some of her noodles and barely touched my turkey sandwich.
“Are you all ready for your date tonight?” Mei asked after a while. “Do you really think your mom will let you go?”
“Oh crap! I totally forgot!” I grabbed my phone out of my pocket. “Jesus Christ. I was supposed to email Katim this morning to let him know if I could definitely make it or not.” I opened up Gmail and started to write.
“Is your mom going to let you go?”
“She thinks I’m staying at Dantre’s. Or she will. I haven’t told her yet.”
“Do you still want to go? I mean, after the stuff with Mr. Clarkson and everything?”
I gave her a skeptical look. “Are you serious? Of course I want to go. All this crazy shit is why I want to go.”
“It’s just…” Mei scratched her ear nervously.
“It’s just what?”
“I mean, there’s a…dangerous person out there.”
“A serial killer viciously murdering people in our school,” I said.
She blanched. “Yeah. I mean, do you think it’s the best idea to be out so late? Like, in the middle of the week?”
“Do you think he’s less likely to murder me on a school night?”
“Jessy, I’m serious.”
I sighed. “I know. I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself. And Katim will be there. And all of his friends. They’re college students.”
“I know,” said Mei. “But…you don’t really know this person.”
I shot her a withering look. She looked back down at her noodles and said nothing. Jesus. I loved that girl, but sometime she could be so timid.
The next class was one of the only ones I actually liked: figure drawing. So of course I was only ten minutes into my sketch when Miss Anne showed up outside the door.
“Excuse me, Mr. Santana,” she said to the teacher, “but I need to borrow Jessica Kingsport.”
“Couldn’t you have waited forty minutes?” I said to Miss Anne as we walked up the stairs. “Then I could have missed math.”
“I’m afraid Agent Durant has a strict timetable,” said Miss Anne. “There’s nothing I can do about it.” She said it just like I had made a serious request she was honor-bound to consider. The woman was so clueless.
She walked me through the school and towards the conference rooms in the hallway leading to the principal’s office and opened the door.
“There you go. I’ll be out here if you need me.”
I walked in. Agent Durant sat inside along with a couple of men. The conference room looked just like it always did, except for some recording equipment. I don’t know what I expected. A bright floodlight and an interrogation chair, I guess. Maybe some manacles or needles full of cloudy liquid. Kind of silly, now that I thought about it.
“Are you Jessica Kingsport?” Agent Durant asked as I neared the table.
“Good. Have a seat. Do you want something to drink? We’ve got water, coffee, soda.”
“I’m fine,” I said. I sat down in one of the padded chairs.
She nodded. “Very well. You already know why I’m here. I apologize if some of these questions come off as abrasive. We are looking for a murderer, and there’s no room for error. You may or may not have information that is vital to this investigation. You may possess this information and not even realize it. I am going to ask my questions, and assume that you are mature enough to deal with the fact that I don’t have the time or the luxury to be gentle. Can you handle that?”
“Yeah.” I straightened my back in my seat. “Yes.”
“Good. What was your relationship with Sofia Anastos?”
“She was my friend,” I said. Agent Durant wrote something in a notebook.
“Would you say you were her closest friend at this school?”
My stomach squirmed. “I don’t know. Yeah. Maybe.”
“Is it maybe, or yes?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t know each other that long. She was new just this year.”
“Do you believe she confided in you? Told you her secrets?”
I shrugged. “You’d have to ask her.”
“I can’t ask her. She was bled from over one hundred and fifty cuts along the length of her entire body until she died. I’m asking you.”
I winced. “She was pretty shy. She told me some stuff. Some stuff she didn’t tell me.”
Agent Durant nodded, and stared at me with her piercing brown eyes. “Do you know why she was at Oaklawn Park on the morning of her murder?”
I shook my head. “I was freaked out because she wasn’t in school and I didn’t know why. I was…I was mad at her. Because she wasn’t here and she didn’t tell me. I checked all morning for her text.”
“Did you exchange text messages with her regularly? What was the last message she sent you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “All the time. Here. You can look.” I pulled out my phone, and handed it over. She opened it up and took a look. Then she handed it to one of her assistants. Sofia’s last message, by the way, was “See you tomorrow! Goodnight!”
“Did Sofia have anywhere she recorded her thoughts, or the events of her day?” Agent Durant asked. “A diary? Or a blog or website we might not know about?”
I froze. Sofia did have a diary. How could I forget that? Idiot. And it was no shock the police hadn’t found it. She didn’t keep it in her room, or her locker, or anywhere obvious. But I knew where it was.
Should I tell her? Of course I should. It was the right thing to do. The only thing to do. Durant was an FBI manhunter. She was looking for Sofia’s killer. And she was good at her job. Otherwise she wouldn’t be here. But something Derrick had written flashed into my mind.
The police can’t handle this. These brutal killings were not performed by a person. They were committed by some Thing.
In my head there was a serial killer, and he was real. And in a different part of my head there was the withering man, and the Man of Many Tongues, if they weren’t the same. They were real, too. Which reality was the truth? Which one was I actually living in, and which was the fantasy?
I had to make a decision. If I got it wrong people could die. My throat felt very dry. I thought about the photographs. I thought about the letters that appeared in my ceiling less than twenty four hours ago. I thought about that day, 9 years ago. The last time I saw Brianna.
“No,” I said. “I don’t know about anything like that.”
Agent Durant narrowed her eyes at me. “Are you sure.”
“Yes. I am absolutely sure.”
The rest of the day was a buzzing fog of meaningless voices and useless information. I couldn’t pay attention in any of my classes. Even Chemistry, which I usually like, especially on lab days. Mrs. Ennis pulled me aside when I accidentally lit my magnesium strip on fire to ask me if I was okay. I told her I was fine.
Katim emailed me to tell me he was excited about tonight and that he forgave me for being late with my reply. I almost wrote him back to cancel. Mei was right, even if she was wrong about why. There was something dangerous walking the streets of Caldwell.
And it wasn’t just after people from our school. It was after me. But what I said to her was true, too. The thought of canceling our plans made me want to jump off the roof and impale myself on the sharp fence outside the cafeteria.
The second the final bell rang I got a text.
Dantre: Meet me in the girl’s locker room. 5 minutes!
Something felt wrong about that. But it wasn’t until I stepped through the locker room door that I figured out why. Dantre never used that much punctuation.
“Oh hell no,” I said when I saw who was in there. I took a step back.
“Jessica!” Jenna called after me. “Wait!”
“Yeah right. That’s going to happen.” I made a mental note to slaughter Dantre with an ax.
“Listen, I’m sorry about earlier.”
“Yeah? You should have tried being sorry in front of your idiot friends. That would have been the perfect time to be sorry. Now?” I spun around and began to push open the door. “ Now it just sounds stupid.”
“Jessy, I’m scared.” There was a sting of desperation in her voice. I sagged my shoulders, and turned to face her. Her face was a mask of fear. And hopelessness. I’d seen that before, but never on a real person. It was a damsel face. It was a horror-movie face. It was a “monsters are after me and my world is splintering into chaos and I don’t know what to do” face. My anger dissolved.
I stepped towards her. “Jenna, have you seen something?”
She nodded. “I see him. In my dreams. Every night. Whenever I close my eyes.”
“The withering man,” I said.
“What?” she looked confused. “Who?”
“Who do you see in your dreams, Jenna?”
She lowered her eyes. “James.”
“James?” My eyes widened. “You mean Mr. Clarkson?”
“But it’s not him! There’s something wrong. There’s something wrong with his face. He’s all…cut up, or something.”
“The FBI have Mr. Clarkson in custody. If he’s the killer…”
“It’s not him!” Her face was full of panic. “At least, I don’t think…it’s all so confused. So confused. I can’t sleep. I can’t close my eyes.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. I felt the muscle tense up. “I don’t understand. What can I do about it?”
“I don’t…it sounds so crazy. It made sense in my head. But my head is all full of scars, and…noises. When people are around it’s okay. I feel normal. I can sort of forget about it. Pretend it isn’t real. But when I’m alone…” Her eyes widened, and she stood up. She dug her fingernails into her face. “When I’m alone…”
“Calm down, Jenna. Nothing is going to hurt you.” That’s when I felt it. In my chest. The funny feeling. The scratching. “Now,” I said. “Just explain.”
She laughed harshly. “You won’t believe me. It’s…I think maybe I’m losing my mind.”
“Jenna, look at me,” I said firmly. She winced, then moved her head to face me. She looked into my eyes, and her expression changed. I don’t know how to describe it. It was like she was seeing me for the first time. “It doesn’t matter if it sounds crazy. I’ll believe you.”
“You…you will, won’t you?” The scratching in my chest intensified, and I nodded. Very slowly, she sat back down on the bench.
“You remember Rich?” Her voice sounded hollow.
“Your step-brother? Yeah, of course. We were friends.”
“He…he said a monster was after him. It was just kid’s stuff, I know, but he was so sure.”
“The Screaming,” I said. “I remember.”
She cringed and nodded again. “I teased him for it. For years. But he never let up. Then one night I was at his house and…and I heard things, Jessy.” Her fingers curled up over her leg. “In his room. From his closet. Screaming, only…it was inside my head. It was like nothing…nothing real. Nothing of this world. It scared me so much. And he told me, he said that you…”
I closed my eyes. “That I frightened it.”
“Yeah. Every time you came over it, whatever it was, it ran away. And it took longer to come out. Until one day you came over and it ran so far away that he never saw it again.”
I saw Withertongue’s words on the back of my eyelids.
The Things within us scratch and bite, and their snarls frighten everything away.
“And Sofia,” said Jenna. “She said it was better. She said he stayed away, when she was with you. After it all started. After the trip. She said you…did something.”
“After what trip? After what started? Jenna, you have to tell me.”
“She said you gave her something. Something beautiful and terrible. And it scared him away.”
“Oh my God.” I reached into my pocket, and pulled it out and opened it. Jagged Darkness. “She lost it. The day before she…died, she lost it.”
Jenna looked over at the picture. “Can I see?” I nodded and let her take it. She held the drawing up to her face. For a long moment she just stared at it. Transfixed.
“Those words,” I said after a minute. “The ones on the bottom. Have you seen them before?”
She reached into her backpack and pulled out her Spanish textbook. She opened it to the middle, and held the book up so I could see. Written across the middle of the page, in large, red letters, were the same words, in the same unfamiliar handwriting.
THE MAN OF MANY TONGUES HAS YOU
“Jenna, I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry. But something is after you.”
Tears filled her eyes. “I know.”
“Keep it,” I said. I heard myself say it, and I barely believed it. But this girl in front of me was in danger. No matter how I felt about her, if there was something I could do to help, I had to do it.
“The drawing. Keep it. I don’t know. Maybe it protected Sofia. Maybe it’ll protect you.”
She gave me a weak smile, and nodded. “Thank you. I…I feel better. A little bit. Just like she said.” She stood up. “I should go.”
“Yeah. Me too. I’m going to miss my bus.”
She walked towards the door. “Thanks,” she said again. And she was gone.
As I headed out to my bus stop, everything broiled around the inside of my skull. It was too much to take in, right now. What she said about Sofia. Did that mean they really were friends? If not, what the hell did it mean? She mentioned some kind of trip. What was that about? And Mr. Clarkson. She called him James. Did that mean she was sleeping with him, too? I needed to talk to her again. But not now. Definitely not now.
“Jessy, over here!” Mei called out to me as I got to the lawn. “Where were you?”
“In the locker room,” I said, “with Jenna.”
“With Jenna?” she goggled. “So you finally talked to her. What did she…”
“I’ll explain later,” I said. “Can I come straight to your place? I’ve got plans tonight with a really cute guy. And I am going. I am going, even if I have to crawl through hell. Which I think that I might. So…can you help me with my hair?”