Consequences

Hospital

the withering man, part 12

Shallow Wells Medical Center looked different than I remembered it. It had been a long time since I’d been here, but there were a lot of people here for this time of night. Some of them wore strange clothes. I tried not to think about it. And to ignore the tiniest, almost imperceptible scratching in the center of my chest.

I hate hospitals. You can’t watch your little sister waste away in a tiny hospital gown with tubes shoved in her arms and not grow to loathe the places.

Time dragged on as the too-skinny nurse took vial after vial of blood out of my arm. The thought crossed my mind that she might keep taking my blood until I shriveled, and if I protested she’d smile too broadly and jab me with something out of the creepy vials on the shelf. She didn’t. She just told me to “wait.” They’re always telling you to wait in hospitals. Everything takes forever. At least they let charge my phone. I texted Dantre some instructions.

The police came in and asked me what happened. I said that a man attacked us in the tunnels and then ran away, but I didn’t really remember it because I was in pain and shock. What was I supposed to say? I didn’t think the phrase “teleporting slime-beast” would win me any points. The cop was skeptical. He said they’d probably want to speak to me again, and an officer would patrol past my house regularly in case the person who attacked me came after me.

After a while my mom and brother showed up. They made a big fuss and hugged me, which hurt a lot. They asked me how I was and what had happened. I gave them a censored version without the crazier parts. I left out the movie entirely, or any explanation as to why I was at Atherton College. Neither of them said anything the whole time I talked.

“So I’m in pain,” I concluded, “but not as bad as Jenna or Katim.”

“And who exactly is Katim?” said Adam. My mom shot him a look.

“Not now, Adam,” she said. He clamped up. “We’ll have that talk. Extensively. But not now.”

My insides squirmed. That was my mom. Nine seconds of sympathy and then judgment.

The doctors finally ran the tests. Nothing was broken, but I had a “minor anterior dislocation.” They snapped it back in place, put me in a sling, and told me to go home. I tried to visit Jenna and Katim before we left, but they were both asleep. I thought I saw someone standing over Jenna through the curtain around her bed, but when I opened it there was nothing there.

Adam came to the hospital in his car, so the drive home was just me and mom. Oh boy. I expected her to start yelling as soon as I closed the passenger door. Instead, she pulled out of the parking spot in silence. She said nothing as she drove around the lanes of the dimly lit hospital garage and out into the open air. I counted the seconds as I waited for her questions. I had my story all worked out. I had Dantre to back me up. The silence thickened. I could barely breathe. Finally I couldn’t stand it.

“Mom, the reason I was at Atherton was…”

“You’ve been through a traumatic experience.” Her voice was low and even as she cut me off. “It seems like life lately has been nothing but traumatic experiences. I don’t know where your head is right now. I don’t pretend to know how to deal with this. I don’t really know how to be a mother at the best of times, and it seems like it’s never the best of times.”

“Mom, I…”

“Let me finish. Maybe you can’t tell me what happened right now. I’m not going to force you. But whatever lie you were about to feed me, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t have the patience for that right now.”

“I went to Atherton to see a movie with Katim,” I blurted out. “Like, with him. I met him on the internet. In a park, but we’ve been talking on the internet.”

There was a long, dry moment where neither of us spoke.

“Go on,” she said.

“And I know it was a messed up thing to do, but…” I didn’t know what else to say. “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you for being honest.”

That’s all she said. She just looked straight ahead and drove. Her face was blank. Was she angry, or scared, or confused? She was supposed to explode and rant about something uncomfortable, like sex, or suicide, or anything. Anything but this damned silence. So I sat there, unsure about everything, as we drove down the dark streets towards home.

A phone call shook me out of my reverie. It was an unknown number.

“You should answer that,” mom said. I looked at her, puzzled. “It’s probably your father.”

What?”

“He called earlier and I gave him your cell phone number.”

“Why did you…” I stopped at the look on her face. I gritted my teeth and answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“Jessy?” said a familiar London accent. “It’s me.”

“Hello Max,” I said to my father. “Why are you calling?”

“It’s your birthday,” he said. “Can’t a fellow call his daughter on her birthday?”

“My birthday is in October,” I said.

He laughed. “Well, I’m close enough to be going on with, right? Anyway, fifteen is a big year.”

“I’m sixteen, Max,” I said. “You didn’t call last year.” Best year ever. I didn’t say that.

“Well I’m calling this year, aren’t I? I called the house earlier. Your mother told me you were in hospital. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. Isn’t it, like, dangerous for you to be calling?”

“Nah, I reckon I’m safe enough. For the minute. Are you sure this isn’t your birthday? November 27th?”

I sighed. “That was Alex’s birthday.”

“Who the hell is…”

“My due date. The boy I was supposed to be.”

“Right. That’s quite an honest mistake, really. Well, happy birthday anyway.”

“Yeah, thanks. Is that all? Because it’s late and, you know, I have school.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I suppose it is. Just wanted to make sure you’re safe, and all. Are you safe?”

I almost laughed. No, I’m not remotely safe. “Yes, Max. I’m safe and all.”

“Alright then. I’m off then.”

“Bye.”

I sighed with relief. He didn’t say the three terrible words. I’m coming home.

When we got home my mom told me she didn’t think I should go to school the next day. Adam was on the couch playing Xbox when I walked through the door. He asked me if we could talk. I said “no,” and went up to my room. I just couldn’t deal with whatever threat he wanted to make right now.

Sleep was difficult. I tried to watch Netflix for awhile. I went onto the Annals of the Shivering Stone and attempted to read some of the articles. I had solid evidence now that the information in that website was real. The thing in my chest really was a weapon, and it did scare off…whatever that thing was. Even though it seemed just as dangerous to me as it was to anything else. I needed answers, and I was sure that they were in there, hidden underneath all the crazy.

But I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t think of anything but the car ride home. It’s funny how the silent treatment from your mom can make you forget you were just attacked by a slime-covered horror-beast.

I got up from my bed in the middle of the night. I retrieved a bottle of India ink from my calligraphy set, went downstairs, and took a needle from my mom’s sewing kit. I thrust the needle into the end of a pencil. I bound it tightly with a piece of string. I wrapped the ink and needle in a kitchen towel and shoved it into the pocket of my silk nightgown. Then I opened the front door and stepped outside.

 

The freezing rain soaked through my gown. A drop hit my arm and ripped through my skin like a sharpened stone, drawing blood. The pain jolted me awake. For a fragmented moment I saw the rain in totality, like it was frozen in the air. Some of the droplets had teeth. I screamed and ran inside. I put a bandage on the cut, got some orange juice, and stumbled back to my bed. As I lay there trying to slow my pulse back to normal I wondered how my sleepwalking self intended to get me and my home-tattoo kit all the way to the hospital.

 

It was nearly noon when I woke up the next morning. I never set my alarm from the day before. The words MY EYES stared down at me from the ceiling.

I went downstairs. Adam and my mother were there on the couch, sandwiches in their hands.

“There she is,” said Adam. “We thought you were going to sleep until spring.”

“How is your arm?” my mom asked.

I rotated it in its sling. “It’s fine.”

“Good,” she said. “Sit down. Have a sandwich. We need to talk to you.”

I sat on the chair, picked up a sandwich, and tried to force the nervous down.

“Smoked turkey,” I said in a forced-even tone. I really hoped they wanted to talk about sandwiches. “What did you want to talk about?”

The two of them exchanged a look.

“You betrayed us,” said my mom.

I dropped the sandwich onto the table.

“I…”

“Mom is talking,” said Adam. “You’ll have your chance. But you’re not getting out of this.” I bit my lower lip and shut up.

“I told you how much it would hurt me if something happened to you,” said my mom. “Do you remember that?” I didn’t say anything. They stared at me.

“Do you remember that?” mom repeated after a drawn-out moment. I nodded. “Good. I thought maybe you’d forgotten.”

“Mom…”

“And Adam made his feelings on your safety clear, yes? He expressed the fact that he was terrified that you were in danger?” I nodded again. “I’ve never been a strict mother. Do you agree?” I nodded again, feeling sick. “I’ve always trusted you to take care of yourself. I’ve always given you your space. And yet here we are. At the moment when your brother and I expressed the most serious worry we’ve ever had for you in your entire life, you sneak out behind our backs for…what reason was it again? I can’t quite remember.”

“To go to a movie,” I mumbled.

“With who?” said my mom. “With Mei, under her parents’ supervision? Was it with Dantre, at his house, where you said you’d be?”

“With Katim,” I said. Tears burned my eyes.

“A college guy,” said Adam. “A college guy you met on the internet.”

“It was at a park,” I said. He glared at me like he wanted to punch me. Why the hell did I say that?

“Why did you do this?” my mom asked.

“I…I don’t know. I just wanted to…after Sofia. I wanted something good, I guess.”

“And you thought going to Atherton College to meet a strange man you barely know,” she said, “on a school night, while a serial killer who killed your friend was loose, and lying about it was the only way to achieve this?”

“I didn’t…I mean, I didn’t think,” I said.

“Yes, that’s obvious,” said my mom. “You were attacked last night. Someone attacked you and broke your arm. Do you have any idea how gut-wrenchingly terrified we were? How terrified we still are?”

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed.

“Yes,” she said, “I imagine you are. You are also grounded.”

“I’m grounded?”

“Didn’t I say that?” my mom said. “Was I not loud enough?”

“I heard you just fine,” said Adam.

“But you’ve never grounded me,” I said, “that’s…not a thing. You don’t do that!”

“And you don’t do what you did,” my mom said. “We’re both evolving, I suppose. You will go to school tomorrow, and then come straight home. You will not go out for the rest of the week, or this upcoming weekend. Hand me your phone.”

I handed it to her. My body felt numb.

“You’ll get it back next Monday,” she said. I started to protest, then gave up. “Adam and I will both monitor your progress. If you violate these rules I will change the wifi password, and you will not receive the new one until January.”

I mouthed the word “January.”

“Are we clear?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now finish your lunch. I contacted Mei and she’ll be emailing you any homework you missed from today.”

I choked down my sandwich without tasting it. When it was gone I didn’t get up. I just sat there on the chair. The two of them talked about other things, and watched TV, and I sat there, paralyzed and unfeeling. I wanted to get up. I wanted to go to my room. There were things to do. Important things. They didn’t go away just because of this. I couldn’t move.

Why had I gone out with Katim? It was selfish and stupid. I had no reason at all to do it except for my own self-centered satisfaction. Ugh.

If I hadn’t gone, Jenna would have died.

But would she? Maybe she was only attacked under those tunnels because I was there. Maybe all of this was my fault. The withering man was after me. He always had been. Sofia was my friend. Jenna used to be, and she had come to me for help. Maybe these girls were being targeted because they knew me. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t handle any of this.

I sat in that chair for hours. Adam and my mother ignored me, for the most part. I didn’t think I’d ever have the energy to move again. I felt drained and shitty and useless. The television droned on and the sky outside grew dark and I sat there and atrophied.

Maybe I never would have gotten out of that seat. Maybe I would have sat there until my muscles disintegrated and I died. Except for something my mother said.

“What do you guys think of pizza?” she said as it neared dinner time. “I’m in the mood for anchovies.”

“Anchovies?” said Adam. “Since when do you eat anchovies?”

Mom smiled. “I suppose it’s been awhile. I used to eat them all the time with your father. They were his favorite.”

Adam choked on a sip of Coke. “What?”

“Sorry. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought him up. He called Jessy last night. I guess I’ve got him on the brain.”

“He called?”

They started to talk about it, but I wasn’t listening. Something lit up inside my head. My father called because he thought it was my birthday. November 27th. How hadn’t I thought of it before?

“Mom,” I interrupted. “Can I go check the mail?”

“Are you expecting something?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. She and Adam exchanged another look.

“Fine,” she said. “Go ahead.”

I walked outside to the mailbox. It was freezing, and I still wore my nightgown. I didn’t care. I grabbed the stack of letters and looked at them as I walked back in. An electric bill, two credit card offers, a shoe catalog, the new National Geographic which nobody would actually read. And a letter addressed to Alex Kingsport.

“I’m going to my room,” I said.

I put the rest of the mail on the desk and ran up the stairs. In all the craziness of the last few weeks I forgot today was November 27th. The day I would have been born if I hadn’t come out prematurely. The day that, every year since I was five, I get a letter from no one addressed to the name I would have had if I was a boy.

I pulled the box of unopened letters from under my bed. Was this connected, somehow? Were these letters from WitherTongue? Or from Him? For the first time since last night I felt sort of like a person. My mom could ground me for sneaking out and lying–I probably deserved it. But that didn’t make any of this any less real. The withering man was still out there. Jenna was still in danger, and maybe others, too. I didn’t know if I could do anything about it, but I had to try.

I pulled out the very first letter. It looked old, now. Too old. Yellowed, like it was made of aged parchment. I hadn’t looked at it in years. My hands shook as I grabbed the corner. I didn’t want to open it. Why didn’t I want to open it?

Because I knew it was dangerous.

You can understand, or you can be safe.

I ripped open the letter. It looked like a credit card offer from a company called Name Services. Right under the top someone scrawled a line in pen.

a single letter for Jessica

The rest of the text was printed, and entirely gibberish.

Ya vubupin do. Ota ubet renu melet vapece. Uitohi sofanih rusie. Hi neg piliro. Ionirag sitiba tatit dem raca bosene yunele. Dgog eni itomap wajex, agepeno. Eaninu salu niedasi nil. Weranet ceguhi cebo erib Iietelal. Tureni atarero rime. Hifadop yar teca. Yomed ipiba, fecieve. Otunugu tutole: Ueya sure rone. Reti yip wemasi. Noberie atitel ihanow! Airurik site atenula. May yali qoceri piyi hibesog! Eo modeteh sutedo!

I read it again. And again. And again. It didn’t take long for me to see the pattern. It wasn’t that subtle. The first letter of every sentence spelled out a phrase. Hadn’t I seen something like that before? I sat down on my computer chair and opened up Withertongue’s website. I clicked on “Hidden Names.”

They say he had a name, once. But he opened his skull with a dull blade and ripped it out. Then he squeezed it by the neck until it coughed out its last breath. He plucked out its feathers. He tore out its innards. He skinned and boiled the carcass, then sucked the meat off the bones, one by one. Now he has no name, and nothing, not death, or loss, or sanity, can ever find him again.

Names are barriers. Walls around us that block out the sharp, jagged noises of the hidden screamers. He cannot speak to us, through the wall of our names. But some of us have names hidden behind our names. Hidden in dark, bloody cavities, scarred and whispering. Sometimes he plunges a sharpened finger into those cavities, and excretes exquisitely tainted nectars on which we may sip. To taste them is to know truth.

Did tainted nectars mean letters in the mail? Maybe it did. Because I did have a secret name, hidden behind my name. Alex Kingsport.

I tore open the letters one by one. There were twenty-two in all. One for each year since I was five, and ten more. The first one I opened was covered in jagged lines of different colors. The second was a solid wall of nonsensical text, like over-complicated legalese. Another was a printout of static, like on an old TV set, and another looked like a page from a screen play in at least seven different languages. Every letter I looked at  was gibberish, without any obvious pattern.

Maybe I could decipher them in time, like I had with the first. But I didn’t think so. They weren’t meant for me. They were meant for Alex. But I had been Alex, hadn’t I? For a few minutes, right here in this room just a couple of days ago, when my poster was a hole in the world and my stuffed animals blinked at me. I tried to remember how I had done that, and if I wanted to go back. The idea gave me chills. Then I opened the last letter.

It was a photograph. A perfectly normal, ordinary photograph. It showed five people standing in front of a large building in the sunlight. Two adults and three students. The adults were James Clarkson and Gabriella Sanchez. The students were Jenna Lethbridge, Sofia Anastos, and Juanita Menendez. Two victims of the killer, one almost victim, and the FBI’s prime suspect. I’d never seen this picture before, but I’d seen something like it.

I pulled last year’s school yearbook down from the shelf and opened it to a spot near the end. And there it was. There was a page spread of photos from the Latin American Cultural Festival. Every year the Spanish Club took a four day trip up to Willemstad to attend the festival. There was a picture nearly identical to the one in the envelope. It listed Mr. Clarkson and Ms. Sanchez as the adult proctors. Sofia wasn’t there, and there were a couple of different students, including Jenna and Juanita.

Here I was, trying to play detective with my internet searches, and someone had been sending me clues for years. But why? Clues to what, exactly? I remembered how Jenna said everything changed after “the trip.” This had to be the trip she meant. This year’s trip was in September. I had no idea that Sofia had gone, even though I knew she was in the Spanish Club. What happened on that trip? Had it started all of this? The Man of Many Tongues? The killings?

I had to speak to Jenna. I had to speak to Mr. Clarkson. I had to find Sofia’s diary. That wouldn’t be easy, in my grounded state. And I had to talk to Juanita Menendez. If that picture meant what I thought it did, she was in terrible danger, and she might not even realize it.

I sat down at my computer. Without my phone it was my only means of contact with the world. I had several emails. One was from Katim.

Last Night

Jessica,

I am so sorry I got you involved in whatever that was. I should never have taken you down into those tunnels. What I remember doesn’t make any sense, but the doctors tell me I lost quite a bit of blood and underwent oxygen deprivation and head trauma. I believe I am suffering from hallucinations or fabricated memories, or both. It is the only explanation that makes sense. I remember you saving my life. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then I cannot express my gratitude. I also understand if you never want to speak with me again. I hope that’s not true. But if it is, then there will be no ill feelings.

Katim Amirmoez

Atherton College

He didn’t blame me for what happened. That was a surprise and a relief. He should blame me. If he knew what was really going on… Then again, I didn’t know what was really going on. It was probably best he think it was all a hallucination. Safer. I should stay away from him. For his own protection.

I emailed him back even though I didn’t know what to say. I told him I didn’t blame him, and that I wanted to see him again but I didn’t know when that would be because my mom was very angry.

The next email was from Derrick.

Re: The New Victim

Thank you for informing us of your research. All of this is connected. I’m sure of it. Ben and I have done some digging in that direction, but before I reveal the results there are a few other data points you need to know about.

If you haven’t heard, Mr. Clarkson has been released. No formal charges have been filed. The feds don’t appear to have another suspect, so chances are they still think it was Clarkson. Ben and I aren’t so sure.

Word from those who know says a girl from your school named Jenna Lethbridge was attacked by the Thousand Cut Killer last night on the Atherton College campus but interrupted before he could finish her work. Do you know Lethbridge? Did she know Anastos or Sanchez? Ben and I are pursuing this lead, but you go to Caldwell High School with her and have information we might not. Anything might be important.

Now on to Withertongue616. Ben was able to isolate the IP address of the server used to host Fragments of the Annals of the Shivering Stone. With a little leg work he dug up a street address and phone number for Joseph Smith, which does appear to be Withertongue616’s legal name. Just like the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The next step is to contact him. I’ll do it if you want me to. But this is your lead to follow. It’s your call.

Derrick Lee

I took a deep breath. I was deep in this. I couldn’t stop now. I emailed Derrick back three words.

I’ll do it.

Joseph Smith’s phone number had a Willemstad area code, so it wasn’t that far away. My mom had my phone, but she didn’t take away my computer. Would she be angry if I made a phone call? This was new territory; I didn’t know the rules. I locked my bedroom door, just in case. Then I put on a headset and dialed the number. It rang six times, then someone picked up.

“Hello?” The voice was female. She sounded about two hundred years old.

“Hello?” I said.

“Yes? Hello? Is there someone on the telephone?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking for Joseph Smith. Does he live here?”

“Does he…” said the woman. “Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.”

“I’m sorry. Does Joseph Smith live here?”

“Are you one of Joseph’s friends?” said the woman.

“Yes,” I said. “Sort of. My name is Jessica.” Dammit. Why did I give my real name? “I’d like to talk to Joseph if that’s not too much trouble. Is he available.”

“One of Joseph’s friends,” said the old woman. “One of Joseph’s friends. How sweet.”

“Yes. Is Joseph available?”

“Oh dear. Oh my, oh dear.”

“Is Joseph…”

“Joseph never told me about any friends,” said the woman. “Not in a long, long time.”

“Listen, I just need to speak to him. Is he…”

“Oh, I’ve been so worried about Joseph,” said the woman. “Always a troubled child. Yes. Troubled. And a troubled adult, now, too, I suppose. If Joseph ever really grew up. I’ve been so worried.”

“Worried?” I said. “Why, is something wrong?”

“Joseph has always been special, you know,” the woman said. “Always been special. That’s why we chose the name, you know. Chosen by God. Able to see things. Well, perhaps not see.” She chuckled.

“Yes,” I said. “Can I speak to Joseph. It really is important.”

“Oh. You wish to speak to Joseph?”

“Yes!”

“Oh dear, oh dear. I’m afraid that’s not possible. They took my Joseph away. Always been trouble. Tried to do it years ago, they did, but I wouldn’t let them. But it got bad. It got very bad.”

“They took him away? Where?”

“Ashfall,” said the woman.

“Oh.” I guess I wasn’t really surprised.

“Do you want to visit my Joseph? I could phone ahead.”

“Yes,” I said. “That would be great appreciated. Thank you, Mrs. Smith.”

“Oh you are very welcome. It’s no trouble at all. Such a polite young man.”

I bit my tongue. “I’m going to go now. Thank you again for your help.”

“Oh yes. I will make that phone call.”

I hung up. I looked at the clock, sure that call must have taken at least four hours. It didn’t. I looked up Ashfall to get their phone number and kill time. I’d heard of it before. I did a report on it last year for history. It was a mental institution. I waited as long as I could stand before making the call. Every minute raked against the inside of my skull.

I had no idea if the old woman would actually contact the asylum and tell them to expect me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she forgot me the moment she hung up the phone. Finally, after a grueling half hour, I called.

“Ashfall Psychiatric Hospital,” said a young man. “How may I direct your call?”

“Hi. I’m trying to get in touch with a patient I think is there.”

“Can I have the name of the patient?”

“Joseph Smith.”

“One moment please.”

Music filled my ear. It took me a minute to realize it was “Sympathy for the Devil,” remixed as elevator music. Definitely a good sign.

“Ashfall, Sanford speaking,” a woman said.

“Um…hello?”

“Yes, this is Sanford. How can I help you?”

“I’m trying to speak to a patient. Joseph Smith.”

“Ah. Yes. Joseph’s mother called. Is this Jason Carr?”

“Um…yes.”

“Joseph isn’t in group, so should available to accept your call,” said Sanford.

“Great,” I said. “Can I talk to him?”

“I’m afraid that particular patient isn’t capable of using a telephone.”

“Oh. Damn. That sucks. Do you think…”

“Do you have Skype?”

That’s how I found myself, ten minutes later, patiently waiting for a video-call from a psychotic would-be profit. I almost didn’t want it to happen. As I sat there I got more and more nervous. Then the call came in, and I was staring at Withertongue’s face.

I gasped. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. I didn’t know what to expect, but this was not it. First off, Joseph Smith was a woman. I thought back to the picture on the website. Soft features, no facial hair, shrouded in shadow.

And she had no eyes. Just half-open, caved-in lids over hollow sockets. I’d seen pictures like this on the internet. It was hard to look at, but I couldn’t look away. If my guess was worth anything, she was born blind.

She wore normal clothing, not a hospital gown or a straight jacket or anything. In her right hand she clutched what looked like a large plastic water bottle. Only it was filthy. Full of dust, or cobwebs. In her left hand she clutched several pieces of yellow notebook paper.

“Hello?” I said.

Joseph looked straight at the screen. She shook her hand at me and mumbled something I couldn’t understand. Like her mouth was full of cotton.

“Joseph Smith? Is that you?”

She banged her water bottle against the screen. I jumped.

“Withertongue? Withertongue616?”

She tilted her head. Her mouth spread slowly into a gigantic smile. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. She put the pieces of paper down in front of her. She picked one up and pressed it against the screen.

JESSICA

“Y…yes,” I stammered. “It’s me. What’s wrong? Can’t you talk?”

She tilted her head the other way and opened her mouth. Then she gagged like someone just shoved something down her throat. She coughed and sputtered. I saw her tongue, pressed against the bottom of her teeth. It was like she was struggled to talk, but couldn’t.

“I need to talk to you,” I said. “I need answers.”

She picked up another piece of paper and pressed it to the screen.

WHEN YOU FINALLY LEARN TO SEE, COME FIND ME. BRING A BLADE THAT HAS TAKEN A HUMAN LIFE.

“What? What are you talking about?”

She pulled the piece of paper, and held up her left pinky. The nail was long and sharp. She ran it along her mouth.

“What are you…”

She pressed the paper against the screen again.

WHEN YOU FINALLY LEARN TO SEE, COME FIND ME. BRING A BLADE THAT HAS TAKEN A HUMAN LIFE.

“How?” I cried. “How do I learn to see?”

She smiled more broadly. She picked up the final piece of paper, and covered the screen.

FIND HIM. LET HIM IN.

“Find him?” My stomach dropped as I thought about what that might mean. “Find the withering man? How do I…”

Joseph lurched forward like she was about to throw up. Her left arm twitched. Then she began to convulse. I looked at her in horror. There was something wrong with her face. It was bubbling. Pieces of her flesh distended out, like there were bugs between her skin and her muscle tissue. Her whole body started to thrash wildly.

“She’s having a seizure,” said a voice.

“Code red,” said another. I heard footsteps. I saw arms reach down and grab Joseph, and the image went black.

She was gone.

 

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