the withering man, part 12
He is the wasp that lays Her eggs in the spider’s thorax. You can be the spider, or you can be the egg.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone
“Should we go back and get help or something?” I asked Jason a minute later.
He shook his head. “We don’t know what kind of help is required. Should we get campus security? Or an EMT? Or an exorcist?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “So I guess we should…”
“Follow Katim,” said Jason.
I swallowed. “I thought you’d probably say that. Let’s go, then.”
We walked forward down the hall. Our footsteps echoed against the hard floor. I noticed it was dry and dusty. When Katim ran down this same corridor his feet squished into something. Hadn’t it?
The hall had a gentle curve, and extended several hundred feet before we reached a door on the right.
“Is where Katim went through?” I said.
“I think so,” said Jason. “There doesn’t seem to be another door nearby.”
“He definitely didn’t go much further than this,” I said.
“I’m surprised the sound of that scream carried so far,” said Jason. “These halls must act like reverberation chambers.”
I opened the flimsy wooden door and walked through. On the other side the hall extended a short distance, then branched out into three different directions.
“Dammit,” I said. “Which way did he go?”
“It’s hard to say.” Jason wasn’t looking at the hallway. He was looking at me. “You should pick one.”
“I should pick one? Why should I be the one that…oh God. What is that?”
I walked towards the left-branching hallway. Nailed to the arch over the doorway was a rubber mask. It was a full head mask, like the one Michael Myers wore in Halloween. Only the eye holes were too large, like they’d been roughly widened with a knife. The mask was white, but it had been drawn-on all over with a red marker in tight parallel lines.
“Muscle tissue,” I said.
“Someone drew muscle tissue on this mask,” I said as I reached up and grabbed it. The rubber was cool like the air, but it wasn’t dusty. Some of the marker rubbed off on my fingers. This mask had not been here long. I spun around to face Jason. “Did you do this?”
“What?” he said. “Put a flayed head mask on a nail in some old tunnels?”
“Is this some kind of joke?” I said. “It’s just like your stupid flash mob. The skin of the face has been ripped off. The skin and the eyes.”
Jason didn’t react.
“So your plan was, what?” I took a large step toward him. “Lure Katim and me down here, and scare the piss out of us with your mask and your staged scream? Or was it just me? Are both of you in on this? Jesus Christ, are you filming this or something?”
Jason shook his head. “I had nothing to do with the mask. Or the scream.” I scoffed at this. Jason brought his face level with mine and looked into my eyes. “Do you really think this is just some kind of practical joke? Or is that what you are telling yourself?”
I took a step back. “I don’t…”
“If that is all it is, what are you doing with your hand?”
I felt it. How had I missed this? My left hand was upside down, and my fingers were pressed against my jawline. The fingernails dug into my skin. Like I was trying to tear the flesh off.
“Oh my God,” I said. “What the hell am I…”
A loud yell resounded from down the hallway. A man’s voice.
“Katim!” I cried. I dropped the mask and ran down the hall in the direction of the sound. My footsteps squelched under my feet as I ran. After a hundred feet the hallway split into a T. Which way did he go?
“Katim!” I called. “Where are you?”
“Jessy!” he called. There was so much echo, the sound seemed to come from everywhere. But I thought it came from the right. I dashed off. He screamed. A short, panicked sound that was quickly muffled. Like something covered his mouth. I sped up, ignoring the stitch in my side and the growing sharpness in my chest.
The corridor ended in a door. I burst through. The room on the other side was huge, and pitch black except for the dim light from the hall. It was enough to see the rough shapes of two people in the center of the room, at least fifty feet from the where I stood. One of them was suspended off the ground, and writhing. From the choked noises he made I could tell it was Katim.
The other person was huge. Like a bodybuilder, or a pro-wrestler. Or bigger. He held Katim by the throat. No, that wasn’t right. His arm was thrust inside Katim’s mouth. Except it looked too narrow to be an arm. And his shape was wrong.
“Katim!” I yelled out.
The man, the thing, dropped Katim to the ground with a thud, and turned to face me. It let out a noise; the most awful noise I’ve never heard. Like the death scream of a wounded cougar as it was torn apart by a flock of ravenous birds. My gut twisted up, and the scratches in my chest became sharp stabs. I didn’t fight it. I took a breath
“Get away from him, you fucker!” I yelled, and I sprinted straight at them. The thing bent lower, then leapt into the air in the opposite direction. It landed with a loud squish, and ran for the far end of the room. A second later it was gone. The thing in my chest eased, and then stopped.
The door swung closed and bathed the room in darkness. I could still see Katim, barely, splayed out on the floor.
“Katim!” I bent down when I reached him. He was curled in on himself and groaning loudly. “Are you okay?”
“J…Jessy?” He dry heaved as he said it.
“Yeah, it’s me. I’m here. Are you hurt?”
“I don’t…I’m not…”
“Can you stand up?”
“Let me help you,” I said. I hunched down and took him by the arm. As he stood, his face pressed against my shoulder, and I felt that it was wet.
“Thanks,” said Katim. He let go of me and stumbled for a moment before finding his feet. He retched again.
The room filled with light. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them slowly.
“There you are,” Jason said from the door. “I found the light switch. What happened? I heard screams.”
“Katim was attacked,” I said. “By…someone.”
I looked around the room. It was the size of the gymnasium at school, and had high ceilings plastered in enormous cobwebs. There were chairs against the two far ends of the room, but nothing else. A thick layer of dust coated the floor, marked with wet, uneven footprints where Katim’s attacker ran off.
“Where are we?” said Katim. He grimaced and wiped something thick and slimy off his face.
“We’re in the tunnels under Haskins,” said Jason as he walked towards us.
“No, I realize that,” said Katim. “This room. How did I…”
“Calm down,” I said. “Take a deep breath.” He did. He appeared to relax. “Now, what do you remember?”
“We heard the screams,” said Katim. He stared off ahead of him, his eyes unfocused. I wondered if he was in shock. Couldn’t people die of shock? He continued. “In the hall. The screams. I ran off after them. I got to a door. I didn’t know where to go, so I went through. I heard voices. A girl, and a man. She sounded scared. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. He sounded angry. I followed them.”
“Did you see a mask?” I asked. “Nailed to a wall?”
“And you went down that hallway?”
“No, not that one. Straight ahead. Towards the voices. The passage twisted. I took several turns,” an edge of panic crept into his voice. “There was a door. I walked through it. I saw her. It was dark but I saw her. Laid out on a table. And there was a man, and, and…” his eyes widened. “He…he wasn’t normal. He walked towards me, and grabbed me, and…” Katim’s hands shook. I put my arms around him, because I didn’t know what else to do. His whole body was shaking.
“Shh. It’s okay,” I said, because that’s what a cop on TV would say. “You’re safe. You’re perfectly safe. Just tell us what happened.”
“Everything went dark. I screamed. Then I heard your voice, and…did I call out for you?”
“That’s when his mouth opened, and… something forced its way down my throat.” He rubbed his jaw with a quivering hand. “I couldn’t breathe. I thought…I thought I was going to die. There was a flash of light, and then…”
“I came in,” I finished. It was hard for him to talk.
“And he ran away,” he looked at me, like he’d never seen me before. “He ran away from you.”
“I’m just glad you are okay.”
“Wait,” said Jason. “Are you saying after he grabbed you, you somehow moved to a different room?”
“I…” said Katim. “I think so. It sounds so insane.”
“All of this is insane,” said Jason. “But it’s happening.”
“Oh my god,” said Katim.
“What?” I said.
“The girl,” he rubbed his hair with both of his hands. “She’s still back there.”
If she’s still alive.
“Jessica’s friend,” said Jason.
Katim looked at me. “You know the girl?”
I almost said “I think so.” But who the hell was I fooling? This was happening. This was real. No matter how many times I told myself that, I needed to say it again.
“Yes,” I said. I dug my fingernails into my palm and forced myself to say what I said next. “She’s in danger, and she asked for my help. We have to go find her.”
I waited for one of them to say something sensible, like “we need to get the god damned hell out of here.” I wouldn’t have blamed them. Neither of them did. I sighed, with relief or resignation. I couldn’t tell.
“Katim, can you lead us back?” I said.
“Katim,” I grabbed him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Can you lead us back there?”
“Yes.” His voice sounded firmer. “I can.”
That’s when the lights went out.
“Shit,” I said, as Katim cried out.
“It heard us,” said Jason, his words thick in the darkness. “Whatever attacked you, it heard us. It knows we’re coming.”
I wanted to argue. But there was nothing to say.
“Does anyone have a light?” I said.
“My phone,” said Katim. I heard him fumble in his pockets. “Dammit. It’s gone. I must have dropped it back…there.”
I pulled mine out of my pocket. “Mine’s dead.”
“I have a flashlight,” said Jason. He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket, and tried to turn it on. He banged his hands against it. “I did have a flashlight.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I can see.”
“You can?” said Katim.
“Yeah,” I said. “A little.”
“It’s pitch black,” said Jason. “And the light was just on. Your photoreceptors should be conditioned for bright light.”
“I have good night vision,” I snapped. “Now stay close. We’ll hold hands, and move slowly.”
“Okay,” said Katim, and Jason said “fine.”
I led them through the door, and back down the hallway. I hoped to God I was going in the right direction. No one spoke as we eased our way down the passage. The only noise in my ears was our breathing, and the echo of our footsteps. I thought about what I said earlier, about hearing footsteps that weren’t ours, and shuddered.
In full light the hallways had felt narrow. Now they were claustrophobic. I wanted to speed up, but Katim and Jason both tripped several times as the hallway curved. If either of them fell and hurt themselves it would slow us down to a crawl. That thing, whatever it was, tried to kill Katim. It would have, if I had been just a few seconds later. And it had Jenna. I tried not to think about it.
My heart pounded, and I felt my pulse in my throat. Every muscle in my body was tense. My breathing was too shallow. I tried to slow it down, and failed. The thing in my chest wasn’t scratching, but I could feel it. It was in there, sleeping, ready to awaken. I didn’t know whether to be comforted or terrified. My feet ached from running in these shoes. At least they weren’t long heels. It would be ridiculous if Katim had died because I was wearing stilettos. I almost laughed at that. Almost.
Something strange happens to the mind when you are wandering through tunnels in the dark. My great grandfather told stories about the sewers under Paris. The cold, and the loneliness. It felt like the world was nothing but blackness and passageways and rot. And we’d be trapped down here forever. I felt Katim’s ragged breath on the back of my neck. But was it really his? The person behind me could be anyone. Or anything.
I stepped on something and jumped with shock.
“What’s wrong?” said Katim in panic.
“The mask,” I said. “The rubber mask. It’s under my feet. We’re at the intersection.” No one responded. I turned left. A little ways ahead the passage curved, and then branched. “Okay, Katim. This is the way you came before, right?”
“Which way did it go?”
“You need to focus,” I said, more confidently than I felt. “You can do this.”
The lights went on. Just for a second. Just long enough to see what was written on the walls. On every wall. Hundreds and hundreds of times, in the same large block letters.
SHE BELONGS TO ME
Then they flickered off, and we were once again in darkness.
“Um, guys,” said Katim. “Did you just see…”
“Yes,” said Jason. “Writing. She belongs to me.”
“That means she’s alive,” I said. Something flooded my brain that might have been relief. “It means we have to find her, and we have to hurry. Katim, which way did you go?”
“Left,” he said.
“Are you sure.”
“Yes.” He didn’t sound sure. But what choice did we have? We went left.
Katim continued to give instructions. We went right, then left, then right again. I hoped desperately we were getting closer.
A bright light flashed in front of my eyes. I groaned.
“What?” said Jason. “Why did you stop? Did you see something?”
“I…” when the darkness returned there was an image burned into my vision. Words. Like I had stared too long at neon and then closed my eyes.
LEAVE. OR I WILL VIOLATE THE INTEGRITY OF YOUR FLESH, AND DRINK OF YOUR THOUGHTS AND YOUR FLUIDS.
Neither of them saw it.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Let’s go.”
We continued. Our footsteps sounded different, now. I thought the hall had narrowed, but it was harder to see. The words were still in my eyes. I kept blinking. We kept walking.
“Wait,” said Katim a few minutes later, “do you hear that?”
I stopped moving. Jason’s foot kicked the back of my shin, and then he stopped. I listened. It was faint, but there. Whimpering.
“Jenna!” I called. “We’re coming Jenna!” The whimper grew louder. We kept walking. The thing in my chest began to scratch.
Another neon flash burst in front of me.
MY SLAVES WILL THRUST THEIR SHARPENED RAVAGES INTO THE SOFT PLACES OF YOUR TISSUES AND YOUR MIND, AND YOU WILL BE A DESICCATED HUSK OF CEASELESS AGONY.
The survival part of my brain screamed at me to run away. This wasn’t some distant watcher who would disappear as soon as I approached. This was a monster. A killer. A hungry demon from a festering hell.
But it’s afraid, I thought. It is doing what bullies and cowards do. It is threatening me, because it is scared. But why? Why would it be afraid of me? Because of this thing in my chest? I dug my fingernails into my palms, and kept walking.
“There’s a door ahead,” I said, a minute later.
“That has to be the door,” said Katim. He swallowed heavily. “We’re there.”
“Are you all ready?”
“Yes,” said Jason. Katim squeezed my shoulder.
“Then let’s go.”
I stepped forward and opened the door. It was different than the other doors. Metal, and heavy. As soon as I opened it I heard Jenna’s desperate noises, much louder now. I stepped through, and felt Katim take the weight of the door from behind me. I walked into the room.
There was almost no light, but I could just barely see. At the far end, laid out on a table, was Jenna. And right next to her, its thick body pressed against hers, stood the creature. It turned to face us. It was closer, now, than when I glimpsed it before. In the darkness, I saw its outline was bumpy. Like it was covered in tumors. My chest felt like it would burst open. The creature pulled away from Jenna, and bent close to the ground. Like a cat about to strike. It screeched, louder and more terrible than the last one. Then it charged.
But something else happened. It was so fast, and so subtle, that I almost didn’t catch it. Something flew towards me through the air. Something tiny that I couldn’t quite see. It flew at my hand. Panic lanced through my brain. I knew, somehow, if this thing touched me, it would bring pain.
No, I screamed in my head, go away!
The thing in my chest scratched at the flying thing. I heard the thing scream, bounced off of nothing. It buzzed past my ear behind me. Straight for Katim.
Then the huge man-creature crashed into me with a sickening squelch. It swung its massive arm as it ran knocked me aside. I flew across the room and crashed into the wall, shoulder first, with a crunch. Katim and Jason yelled in shock and fear. There was a sickening snap like a breaking bone, then the heavy metal door slammed shut, and Katim screamed.
I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. It felt like the wind was permanently knocked out of me, and my shoulder was a ball of pain. A thick layer of slime covered my arm and my torso and the side of my face. So I lay there on the ground, unable to breathe, awash with agony, as Jenna whimpered, and Katim screamed and screamed and screamed.
I don’t know how long this went on. Trapped in the moment, it felt like hours. Days. Years. I was going to die. I was already dead. It felt like I was in hell, and I had been here forever, reliving this moment over and over and over. I had done something unutterably terrible, and this room was my punishment. I remembered Briana. I remember Sofia. I remembered my little sister Aimee. They were all dead. And the devil put his rusty hooks in my soul and dragged me down to join them.
Then the lights came on. It burned some of the fog out of my mind. Katim’s screams softened to groans. My breathing evened out, and I slowly pulled myself to my feet.
“Is everyone okay?” I said in a whisper. I took a deep breath, which caught in my throat, then tried again. “Is everyone okay?”
“Jessy?” Jenna’s voice was weak. “Is…is that you?”
“Yeah, Jenna. I’m here.”
“How did you…”
“One second,” I turned to look at Katim. I already knew what was wrong with him, but it still made me gasp to see it. When the door slammed, it severed three of his fingers. And it was my fault. He sat on the floor and clutched them. Blood gushed out and soaked his clothes. He stared straight ahead, unblinking.
“Katim,” I snapped my fingers in front of his eyes. “Katim, look at me.” His eyes caught mine. “I’ve seen this kind of injury before. I’m going to wrap your hand and apply pressure. It’s going to hurt, but I need to do it. Is that okay? Nod if that’s okay.” He nodded.
I’d seen worse amputations than this. Katim’s fingers were only severed just above the middle knuckles, so it was easy to wrap a torn-off piece of his shirt around them even though my hands were shaking. I cursed myself for never taking first aid lessons. But it surprised me how calm I was with all of this. As weird as it sounds, I think Katim’s injuries helped center me. It was familiar. In my crazy life, this was familiar.
I don’t remember the next period of time very well. I must have opened the door, because I saw that there was no sign of the creature. It must have felt when it ran past us. Or it disappeared. And Jason was nowhere in sight.
I managed to at least slow Katim’s bleeding, if not stop it completely. And I talked to Jenna. She was in a lot of pain. She was naked, and had several gouges across the front of her body. I think I managed to calm her down, or at least convince her the threat was over. If she didn’t bleed to death. I didn’t tell her that part.
I had no doubt that if we had not come down this into these passages, right when we did, Jenna would have ended up exactly like the other two victims. Exactly like Sofia. It couldn’t be coincidence. Was Jenna here because I was? Did the withering man somehow transport her? Or was Jason behind this? Maybe he worked for the withering man, or against him. Katim might still have been involved. It made sense. But I couldn’t think that. Not with him helpless and bleeding right next to me.
The EMTs showed up twenty minutes later, led by Jason. He had left so he could call them. They led us out of the tunnels, and into an ambulance. There were two policemen, as well, who said they’d need to speak with us as soon as we were able, and that they’d need to contact our parents. Ugh. As if things couldn’t get any worse.
I sat up in the ambulance, between Katim and Jenna. None of us said anything while the EMTs did their thing. Maybe they were in shock. Maybe they were trying to forget. But I held both of their hands. Neither of them would let me go.
I thought about Katim. Would he blame me for this? Would he ever want to speak to me again? I thought about Jenna. What did she remember? Was the danger past, or would that thing come after her again, the minute I left her alone? Most of all, I thought about the messages the creature had sent, just to me. I will violate the integrity of your flesh. Maybe it was bluffing. Somehow I didn’t think so. I had to prepare myself.
Thus ended my first date with a college guy. But at least everyone was still alive, right? All in all, it could have gone worse.