Connections

Stairs to the Unknown

the withering man, part 11

The world is full of veins, running just underneath its diseased skin. The most delicate of all surgeons, He cuts them, and sews them back together, without puncturing the skin at all. It happens beneath our feet, as we crawl over the hairs and the sweat ducts, and we are unaware. But our blood knows. It always knows.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone

To her credit, Mei didn’t try to talk me out of seeing Katim the whole time she did my hair. Even though I could tell she wanted to. But I appreciated that she didn’t nag me about it, and we managed to have a really good time. She used an iron curled the ends of my hair towards towards my face. It looked both cute and badass with my black and red streaks. Then she did my makeup, because she’s way better at it than I am. At least, if I wasn’t trying to look like a zombie or a skeleton or something.

“You look gorgeous,” she said as she applied my mascara. I tried not to blink too much. “You must really want to floor this guy.”

“He’s in college,” I said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Plus, I may have told him I was eighteen.”

“You didn’t tell me that!”

“Well he asked,” I said, shrugging. “When a college guy asks your age, there’s a right answer and a wrong answer.”

“You’re terrible.”

“I know.” I grinned. “Now, which sexy dress should I wear?”

“I think…the black one,” Mei said. I giggled. They were all black. At least, all the ones I kept at Mei’s house. Which I guess means it’s confession time. This was not the first time I ever snuck out without my mom’s permission to see a boy.

It started the summer before last, a week after eighth grade graduation. Jenna had an invite to an Amber Lessing party. Amber Lessing was this girl at Caldwell High School who threw these legendary parties. We weren’t even ninth graders yet, but Jenna worked her magic and got herself and a few friends invited. Natasha and I went with her.

It was a crazy night. Natasha got wasted, someone dropped a TV into the hot tub, and eventually the cops came. There was some weirdness involving an old grandfather clock, which I had kind of forgotten about until just now. That should probably have made the “strange stuff” list I made earlier, but whatever. It was also the night Jenna showed her true colors. Or at least, it was the night I couldn’t ignore the signs any longer.

Anyway, I wound up in the billiard room alone with this guy named Stephan. It was my first kiss, unless you count fifth grade with Jamal. Jamal, also known as Dantre. I don’t think that really counts, though. It was pretty obvious he was gay even back then. If only from the way he used to pose his father’s collectible He-man action figures.

I saw Stephan a few times that summer. We kissed a lot, and quickly graduated to other things. Then he had to go back to Minnesota and I never saw him again. That was okay. I had a taste for boyflesh. I…might have gone a little crazy. The first half of ninth grade was a blur of climbing out of windows, midnight hookups, and boys in the backseats of cars, until some bad stuff happened and I got a hold of myself again.

When it was all over, I had learned three things. The first was when you take your bra off before they try to do it for you it melts guys’ brains. The second was that all high school boys are awful. I’m sorry, but they just are. Some of them are just a little awful. Some of them are Hannibal Lecter stuffed with hormones awful.

The third was that Mei is a really good friend.

So yeah, this wasn’t the first time I snuck out without telling my mom. It was the first time I’d done it in almost eight months. And it was the first time I ever felt bad about it. It was one thing to violate my mom’s trust to go after the withering man. It was another to do it to go hang out with some college guy. But he still might be involved, somehow. It would be irresponsible not to investigate.

Right, Jessica. Keep telling yourself that.

I said goodbye to Mei and walked towards Oaklawn Park, where I told Katim to pick me up. I didn’t want him to know where I lived, in case he did turn out to be a psycho. I’m not totally reckless. I am totally stupid, though. I forgot it had rained the whole day. It was only drizzle at this point, but the world was now made out of mud and fog.

My dress wasn’t long enough to drag on the ground, but I had to wear leggings because it was November. And I had to wear the hood of my jacket, because otherwise my hair would get wet. By the time I got to the park my legs were splashed with flecks of mud and my carefully arranged hair looked like I just got out of a haunted hay ride. Oh well. Last time Katim saw me my I was wearing ratty jeans, and my ass was covered in dirt and dead leaves from trying to scramble up a tree like a lunatic. So he’d seen me at my worst. He probably didn’t even care how I looked.

Right, Jessica. Keep telling yourself that.

Almost two weeks had passed since I was last at Oaklawn Park. All evidence of a crime was gone. The park looked normal, like no teenage girls were ever murdered underneath its skeletal trees. Looking at it gave me chills. I glanced at my phone. It was 5:48. Katim said he’d be here at 6, so I still had a few minutes to kill. I cursed myself for being so early. Now I had to wait for almost fifteen minutes, with the stinging November air, and the fog, and the darkness. And the memories.

My phone was almost dead. I forgot to charge it at Mei’s. What a fantastic start to the evening! That meant it could only get better from here, right? That sounded like something Mei would say. It made me laugh. The sound spread out into the empty park without even an echo.

I checked my phone again. 5:50. Time crawled by like a slug. My arms were freezing. I walked deeper into the park just for something to do, carefully staying on the concrete so I wouldn’t muddy my dress even more. The only illumination was from the nearby streetlights, so the park was dark and eerie and beautiful. I used to walk here all the time, at night or twilight. It was spooky, with the empty swings and the gnarled trees. It always made me feel strange, and alive.

Was it because of Him? I’d seen the withering man twice, in this park. Was this where He lived, when he wasn’t following little girls? Maybe he had observed me a thousand times. Maybe every time I came into this park He was there, watching with His shriveled eyes.

“Are you in here?” I called out into the fog. “Are you watching me? Are you listening? If you are, stay the hell away from me tonight. I’ve got plans, and they don’t involve you. You can go back to haunting me tomorrow.” There was no answer. Nothing stirred. Had I really expected it to? “Are we clear?”

That’s when everything changed.

Have you ever had that feeling like you are being watched? Of course you haven’t. That feeling doesn’t really exist. It’s just something writers like to say because it sounds ominous. I’ve known that for years. I was sure of it. Until that moment.

I couldn’t see anything. They were in every crack and angle that was hidden from my eyes. I couldn’t hear anything. Just outside of the range of my hearing, they snarled and whispered.

“I know you’re there,” I said. My voice sounded shaky in my ears. “Don’t come any closer.” But they were coming closer. I couldn’t feel their warm breath, or smell the sharp scent that rose when they were on the hunt. But I felt their hunger. I could almost taste it on my tongue. Thick and syrupy, sweet with decay, like blood and mold and honey.

I closed my eyes. I took a breath, and concentrated on that spot just behind my sternum. Are you there, scratchy thing? I could sure use your help right about now.

Footsteps I couldn’t hear squelched through mud I couldn’t see. They licked cracked, bulbous lips with sharpened tongues. They came closer.
Then I felt it. A sharp, sick feeling in my chest. Like I was full of insects trying to chew their way out. I didn’t fight it. I let the pain seep through my body. My heart beat, and pumped the scratches through my blood. I was full of needles. The things all around me hesitated.

A loud honk burst my eardrums and blasted me back into my senses. The pain disappeared. So did everything else. I opened my eyes and saw headlights shining at me. I walked towards them, and found a car with a laughing college boy inside whose was in desperate need of a seriously dirty look.

“What in the world were you doing?” said Katim as I slid into the passenger seat.

“Being scared half to death by a honking horn,” I said. “Also, you’re late.”

“I am not,” he pointed to the clock. It was 6 PM exactly.

“Well, I was early,” I said. “That means you’re late.” He looked at me, I think to see if I was serious. I grinned, and so did he. I really hoped I sounded “confident and together” rather than “raving and insane”. I talk too much when I’m nervous.

“Are you ready to go?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“We’re off,” he said, and he pulled out of the parking spot. “You look great, by the way. I love the hair.”

Firland, the town where Atherton College is located, is about fifteen minutes from Caldwell. You would think that wasn’t enough time for things to get awkward. There’s nothing like a first outing with a guy to suck every drop of interesting out of you. Mostly I sat in the seat and told my inner critic to shut the hell up. Katim and I tried a couple of times to make conversation.

“What movie are they playing?”

“I’m not sure. It’s more fun that way.”

“Cool.”

That was the best one.

It was a huge relief when the car pulled into the parking lot and I saw a group of people standing there. Maybe some other humans would pull the spotlight off of me.

“Wait here a second,” said Katim when he turned the engine off.

“Okay.”

He got out of the car, walked around, and opened the door for me.

“My lady,” he said. I giggled and took his hand.

“Dude, that is so lame,” said a voice behind Katim. I recognized him as the other guy with Katim from the Flash Mob.

“I think it’s sweet,” said a girl next to him. “Katim is deliberately being extremely lame so this girl won’t be intimidated. Awfully kind of him.”

“Just ignore them,” said Katim. I couldn’t stop laughing as I got out of the car.

“She’s got a good sense of humor, though,” said the girl. “I admit I had doubts about her taste. Aren’t you going to introduce us, Katim?”

I followed Katim as he walked over to the others. “This is Fuller,” Katim said, pointing to the guy, “and Tanya.” The girl did a curtsy, and I laughed again. “And that’s Jason.” He pointed to a guy with leaning up against a tree with a book in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. I hadn’t even noticed him there. “Say hello, Jason!”

Jason looked up from his book, startled. He walked towards us.

“This must be the famous Jessy with the intense eyes,” he said. He held out his hand. I shook it.

“Yeah, I am,” I said. I realized this was the very first thing I had said, and felt like an idiot.

Tanya laughed. “Immodesty. I like it.”

“Katim won’t shut up about you,” said Fuller.

“I thought you must have sent him naked pictures,” said Tanya. “Did you? Please say you did. I’ve got five bucks on it.”

I blushed furiously.

“Settle down guys,” said Katim. “Settle down.”

“Are all of you going to the movie?” I asked, to change the subject.

Fuller nodded, and Tanya said, “yup.”

“I’m not,” said Jason.

“What the hell?” asked Tanya.

“I have things to do,” said Jason.

“You always have things to do. What about us? What about me?” She said this in a very dramatic voice. I couldn’t tell if she was serious, but Fuller and Katim both laughed.

“That’s fine, Jason,” said Katim. “You can abandon us. But we are going to tell you the ending. You know that, right?”

“And all of the character resolutions,” Fuller added.

Jason sniffed. “That is acceptable.”

We headed off in the direction of the campus theater. Katim and I walked together, and Fuller and Tanya followed a little bit behind. I wondered if they were a couple.

“What’s with him?” I asked Katim a minute later.

“Who, Jason?” Katim asked, and I nodded. “He’s just very busy.” “He’s involved with a lot of campus groups and activities. Actually, he’s the facilitator of the improv group I told you about.”

“Wait,” I raised my eyebrows, “you mean he’s the one that organized the flash mob?”

“He didn’t organize from the ground up,” said Katim. “He wasn’t the person who placed the Craigslist add. But he got us involved, yes.”

“I see.” I filed that under “things to think about.”

“Hey,” I said a couple of minutes later, “I thought you said you didn’t have anyone to go with to horror movie night.” He laughed. “The whole reason I came with you was because I thought you’d be lonely. Have you deceived me, good sir?”

“Of course not, my lady,” he said in mock offense. “I believe a transcription of my previous sentiment would indicate that my precise words were that I had no friends to accompany me on this endeavor. I don’t count those three assholes back there.”

I laughed. “Only two assholes.”

He looked behind him. “Of course.” I looked back. Tanya had her hand in Fuller’s pocket, and he was laughing at something. Definitely a couple.

“That’s Metron Hall,” said Katim. “The screening room is in there.”

“Wow,” I said, as the building loomed into view. And I do mean loomed. It was amazing. It looked kind of like a church, if the church was also a school building designed by a version of Dante who was a 21st century architect. It was all jutting turrets and weirdly-placed arches. I remembered that Atherton College was supposed to have really interesting architecture, but I had no idea.

“It’s neat, right?” said Tanya from behind us. “Would you believe it’s the biology building? I have organic chem lab in there.” She pointed to the top of the largest turret.

“It looks more like an oubliette than a chemistry lab,” I said. “Are there even any windows?”

“Just one,” say Tanya. “Right at the top.”

“Creepy.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Katim.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“That’s where it happened.”

“Where what happened?”

“Are you sure you should tell her this story?” said Fuller. “It’s pretty intense.”

“I can handle it,” I said. Katim and Fuller exchanged uneasy looks, but Katim continued.

“It happened in the 70s,” Katim said, in a low, even voice. “There was a promising young biology student. Come to think of it, her name was Jessica, too. One day she told the teacher she was sick, that the fumes were getting to her. ‘What fumes?’ asked the teacher. ‘Don’t you smell them?’ asked Jessica, but no one did. The teacher told her to go to the nurse and get checked out, and she did.”

We all stopped walking and listened. I leaned against a tree and watched Katim as he spoke.

“Next class, Jessica was back, saying she felt fine. Half the period went by before she said anything. Again, she complained about the fumes, that she felt sick. But this time, a few other students felt, too. So class was dismissed. The next class it happened again, and it was nearly everyone. The school administrators got worried, so they closed down the building and brought people in to investigate. But people were getting sick, all over campus now. And they were having dreams.

“In the dreams, there was a door in the biology lab. A hidden door, under the floorboards, covered in strange symbols. As they approached, the smell was gut wrenching. They tried to open it, but it was locked. It didn’t matter. Each of them had a key in their pocket. When they opened the door, they woke up screaming. After a couple of days people started to talk. They realized they were all having it. The same exact dream.

“The administrators didn’t want to take the dreams seriously, but what could they do? So they called in a team. They dug up the floorboards, and sure enough, there was the door. In the same place, with the strange symbols. But it was locked. They were about to call in a locksmith, when Jessica walked in. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I have the key.’ And she pulled it out of her pocket.

“They all watched, as this young girl walked over to the door, a strange smile on her face. She put the key in the lock. She turned it. There was a click. She reached out, grabbed the handle, and…”

“Aaaa!” Tanya yelled, and grabbed me from behind. I didn’t jump, or scream. I just turned around.

“Did you want something?” I said.

“Damn, girl!” said Fuller. “You do not scare easily.”

I shrugged. “Too many horror movies.”

“You’d better watch out for this one, Katim,” said Tanya. She turned towards the theater. “Shall we?”

“You two go ahead,” said Katim. “We’ll catch up.”

Tanya nodded and walked towards the building, followed closely by Fuller.

“I’m sorry,” Katim said sheepishly. “Was that just really lame?”

“Nah,” I said. “I thought it was cute. Besides, if you didn’t try to scare me, how would I know if you liked me?” He laughed.

“Fair enough.”

“Is any of that true?”

“It’s an old campus legend,” he said. “But it’s told about at least three different locations around campus. And I invented the part about the fumes. And there was no Jessica.”

“Shocking.”

“We should get to the movie,” he said. “It’s starting soon, and it’s an old building. Only some of the seats are comfortable.”

The screening room was small and felt very collegy. It made me really want to be in college instead of stupid high school. It was pretty full, too. Just after 7 o’clock a guy got up front and talked about the group and their plans and their upcoming horror RPG night. It sounded fun, even though I’d never done anything like that before. I wanted to ask Katim if he was interested, but it seemed pushy. And I didn’t want to look like a huge nerd.

The lights dimmed, and I pulled out my phone to turn it off. It was almost dead, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t turn back on. But I didn’t really need it anyway. I saw that I had a text message. From Jenna.

Uiapwejdmsnaucsdahuieioafh28370 ijai8s8y 093709378a 3kdjajkhea65630 28jcabn;239

My stomach turned. It was probably a pocket text. But after our conversation earlier today it made me nervous. I wrote back.

Are you okay?

No immediate response. I turned the phone off.

Katim turned to me as the lights went out completely.

“See you in two hours,” he said.

The movie turned out to be The Woman, based on a Jack Ketchum novel. I was excited because I heard it was scary and had wanted to see it for years. It was about a feral woman taken in by a family, and the terrible stuff they did to her. It started out really good. A third of the way in it started to make me very uncomfortable. I squirmed in my seat, and almost got up and left twice which I have never done in my life.

“Are you okay?” Katim whispered to me half-way through. I nodded, and clutched his arm. He didn’t seem to mind.

I’m glad I saw it with other people, because the ending was very satisfying. If I was watching it at home I would have turned it off.

“Man, I thought Jessy was going to flip out,” said Fuller as we walked out of the screening room.

“I guess that was a little worse than your ghost story,” said Tanya to Katim. He nodded.

“It’s not that,” I said, “it’s just…” They all looked at me expectantly. “It just hit me in that way, you know?” It sounded weak to my ears. But Katim nodded.

“Yeah,” said Tanya. “I was like that with Cast Away.” We all laughed. “I’m serious! Something about Tom Hanks’s relationship with that volley ball really freaked me out. Seriously creepy. I wish I was joking. I really do.”

I sighed with relief. I didn’t know these people that well. It would be weird to tell them that things about violent fathers get to me. It’s not my favorite subject.

“That way,” Katim pointed through a different set of doors out of Metron Hall than where we entered.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“The Zombie Den,” said Katim. “It’s the student run cafe. We pretty much take it over after Dreams and Screams. Unless you want to go home now?”

“No!” I said. Probably too enthusiastically, because Tanya looked at me with a huge grin on her face.

“Alright,” said Katim.

The Zombie Den was pretty cool. There was a live band playing 80s songs, and they weren’t too bad. Katim bought me a delicious mocha, and the four of us sat on leather chairs with a bunch of other people and talked about the movie. It was really fun. I kept expecting Katim to take my hand or put his arm around me, but he never did. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. After about an hour I remembered my phone, and turned it back on. It came on just fine even though it was still almost dead. I didn’t have any new text messages.

“I’m going to get more coffee,” said Katim announced. “Do you want another mocha?”

“No thanks,” I said. “I do have to sleep at some point tonight.”

“They have decaf.” I made a face, and he laughed.

“So you really think Michael Myers is scarier than Freddy Krueger?” Fuller said to me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Freddy is just…”

The doors to the cafe burst open and cut me off. I looked over to see Jason walk in. He saw our group and headed straight over.

“Jason,” said Tanya. “Are you actually condescending to joining us this evening?”

“No,” said Jason. “I’m here to invite you to come with me. I want to show you what I’ve been doing tonight.”

“Why would we want to do that?” said Katim as he walked back with his coffee.

Jason smiled. “You will if you want to see something creepy.” He paused. “Do you?”

Katim turned to me. “What do you think, Jessy? Are you feeling adventurous?”

“Always,” I said.

“How about you two,” Katim said to Fuller and Tanya.

“Nah, bro,” said Fuller. “I think we’re good. I think I’m going to score tonight.”

“Oh, are you?” said Tanya.

“Yeah, I think so. Unless, I mean, you’re not a lesbian, right?”

“I might be, after tonight,” said Tanya. She turned to us. “Have fun!”

Katim and I followed Jason out of the cafe. As soon as we walked through the doors into the cold air Jason streaked off towards the middle of campus.

“Any idea where we’re going?” I asked, as Katim and I marched quickly to keep up with Jason.

“It could be the moon, for all I know. Jason does this kind of thing all the time. It’s usually interesting.”

“Uh huh.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll be safe.”

“I wasn’t worried,” I said.

Katim grinned at me.

If I was a smart person, I would have backed out then and there. Two college guys, one I barely knew and one I didn’t know at all, leading me to somewhere “creepy.” If I said I lost track of time and needed to go home, Katim probably would have understood. I felt like I was walking into a horror movie. Last time I felt that I was surrounded by strangers who ripped each others faces off. And someone lost two fingers. And I saw the withering man.

“You know how I assist with the film department, right?” Jason said once we caught up with him. Katim nodded. “Well Erin Sellers asked me to find her a good location for the dream eating alien to chase people down. It’s for her senior project.”

“And you found one,” said Katim.

“Oh, I found one.”

Soon enough we approached a large, square building.

“We’re going to Haskins?” Katim said, his voice tinged with disappointment.

“What’s Haskins?” I asked.

“One of the underclassman dorms,” said Katim.

“Trust me,” said Jason. “This is good.” Katim shrugged, and we followed Jason inside the building and up some stairs, and down a hallway.

“Is this where you live?” I asked Katim.

He shook his head. “I lived here last year. Just one hall down that way. Jason, where are we going? Someone’s dorm room?”

“No,” said Jason. “Here we are.”

Katim and I both turned to look.

“A maintenance closet?” said Katim.

“Just wait.” Jason opened the door. He stepped in, pulled out a ladder and stood it up against the side of the hall way. Then he reached next to a shelf against the back wall, and fiddled with something for a minute.

“What are you…” said Katim.

“There!” said Jason. “Got it.” He slid a wooden panel aside with a thunk, to reveal…

“A door,” said Katim, his eyes wide.

“Indeed,” said Jason.

“I don’t see any strange symbols,” I said. Katim glanced sideways at me and smiled.

“Where does it go?” Katim asked.

“See for yourself,” said Jason. He opened the door. There was a staircase. It looked steep, and led down.

“Aren’t we on the second floor?” I asked.

“The third,” said Jason. “I noticed the discrepancy by looking at the floor plans of various school buildings. There’s extra space right in the middle of Haskins. You don’t notice when you walk around because of how the hallways are laid out.”

“This is too bizarre,” said Katim. “It’s like something out of…”

“A horror movie,” I said. We exchanged an uneasy glance. I looked over at Jason. I half expected to see a malevolent grin, or fire dancing in his eyes. But his expression was neutral.

“After you,” he said.

Katim looked at me, and stepped into the doorway and down the steps. I followed, and Jason came after me.

“How far down does this go?” I asked.

“Below ground level,” said Jason. “Far below.”

I went quiet. Our footsteps echoed in the cramped stairwell. After a hundred feet or so the ceiling lowered, and Katim had to hunch down to fit. The light behind us grew dimmer and dimmer. Katim pulled out his phone and turned on the flashlight.

“This is the point where we all stop,” I said, “and we can still hear footsteps.”

Katim laughed nervously. “Or a voice that isn’t ours.”

“Or a mysterious light up ahead,” said Jason.

“Wait, what the hell?” said Katim.

“What?” I said as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“There is a light up ahead.”

Behind me Jason laughed. “Yes there is. The corridor at the bottom has track lighting. I found it earlier and left it on.”

“Very funny,” said Katim.

“Yes. I thought so.”

After a while the stairs ended. They opened directly into a corridor. The lighting was dim and yellow, but I could see that it stretched ahead of us further than I could see. The air was rich and musty. Like rot.

My phone buzzed and I gasped. Katim laughed.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I need to get this,” I said. “One second.”

“I’m surprised you have service this far down,” said Jason.

It was a text from an unknown sender.

i dont no were i am i’m scared

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. “Guys, I think I have to…”

A scream pierced the musty silence.

“Oh shit!” Katim said. “There’s someone else down here. Someone in trouble.”

“No,” I said under my breath. “This ridiculous.”

“What?” Katim stared at me. “Nevermind. We have to find her.”

There was another scream. It was loud and high and desperate.

“We have to find her!” said Katim. He spun around and looked into my eyes. “Wait here.” He sped off in the direction of the sound. His footsteps squelched against something that covered the ground.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” I said again.

“You recognize it.” At the sound of Jason’s voice I turned. His face was absolutely neutral in the amber light. “The voice of the screamer. You recognize it.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” I said. “No. I mean, it’s impossible. It doesn’t make any sense.”

A third scream cut through the air. There was no denying it this time. I had heard that voice before. I couldn’t explain it, but I absolutely recognized the person who screamed.

It was Jenna.

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