the withering man, part 14
You can only understand that which hunts you when you can smell the hunger in its breath. When you can lick the adrenaline-laced sweat off its forehead. When you can press the lens of your eye against theirs, firmly enough that the vitreous humor leaks out. They will only let you do this during a single moment. The moment their teeth are clamped around your throat.
–Annals of the Shivering Stone
After all the recent activity, the next few days felt useless and frustrating. Mr. Clarkson wasn’t back in school. The principal posted an announcement on the community forum that Mr. Clarkson was released from police custody and would resume his classes on the upcoming Monday. This caused a 500+-reply uproar from parents that I didn’t have the stomach to actually read, but people talked about it the next day. Apparently there was going to be a meeting. None of this helped me. I desperately needed to talk to him, but I couldn’t. I thought about calling him, but I had no idea what I would say.
“So…I heard you went on a trip. Did you have fun? Did you bond? Did you summon anything from the pits of hell?”
I figured I’d come up with something when he was in front of me, and he couldn’t just hang up.
Jenna was absent, too. No surprise there. She was in bad shape after the attack, and probably traumatized all to hell. I could probably talk my mom or Adam into driving me to Shallow Wells Medical Center to visit. But what was I going to do, interrogate her in her hospital bed? I did email her and say we needed to talk. She didn’t respond.
Juanita Menendez was at school, but I couldn’t get her alone. She was usually surrounded by people anyway, and these days even more so, still handing out t-shirts. I tried again and again to corner her, but she always ducked out. Eventually I realized it was more than just her popularity. She was avoiding me.
No real surprise, I guess. Everyone knew about what happened at Atherton with me and Jenna. They didn’t know the details, of course. But they knew I was there, and that Jenna and I were attacked by someone who was probably the Thousand Cut Killer. Lisa Reed of Channel 7 broke the story. She tried to interview me as I waited for the bus on Thursday; I told her to get bent.
But the damage was done. The student body of Caldwell is 98% idiot, but apparently that’s all the brains it takes to work out that I had a connection to two of the attacks. Worse, someone found a picture of me and Mrs. Sanchez at the Teen Arts Festival last year, and it made the rounds on everybody’s Facebook walls. I had connections to all three of the victims. Add in the fact that most people thought I was a freak anyway, and everybody in the school began whisper and shift to the other side the hall when I walked by.
Even the teachers treated me differently. During classes they acted like I wasn’t there, and in the halls they avoided catching my eye. Miss Van Sutton made the mistake of calling on me in history, to ask about, of all things, Joseph Smith and the founding of the Mormon church. An eerie silence fell over the class, which leaked into hushed whispers. I mumbled that I didn’t know, even though I did. She let it drop.
Without Mei and Dantre I would have gone totally nuts. Dantre walked with me from class to class whenever he could, and loudly announced, “Make way for the Heir of Slytherin! Seriously evil wizard coming through!” It made me laugh. And Mei was Mei. I felt better knowing she’d stick with me no matter what. But I got a sick feeling whenever we were alone together.
I had already given her the same explanation of the events in the tunnel I had given mom and Adam. But she knew there was more. She didn’t ask, but the fact of it hovered like coal dust, poisoning the air between us. I wanted to tell her. Desperately. Nothing would have made me feel better than let it all out to the most accepting person I knew. Maybe she’d even believe me. I almost told her, at least five times. But every time I was on the verge I heard a sickening crunch, as the metal door slammed on Katim’s fingers. And his scream. His horrible scream. I couldn’t infect Mei with this awfulness. Better to have her hate me. Better to die.
The moments of relief I got from my friends were short and scattered. Since my mom had confiscated my phone as punishment I was cut off almost all the time. Surrounded by just my classmates, and their stares.
Special Agent Durant came to school specifically to interrogate me. It took a lot longer this time. I told her the same thing I told the cop at the hospital. But she asked again, and again. She didn’t out-and-out accuse me of hiding something, or being involved. She didn’t have to. By the time it was done I was nearly in tears. But I didn’t cry. I was too pissed off, and I’d be damned if I gave her the satisfaction.
They were two of the worst days of school in my entire life. Worse than the time Robert broke up with me in front of everyone. Worse than the time I peed my pants on stage during a spelling bee.
I hope that puts it into perspective when I explain that school was the easy part. It was the fun part. School was just awful and unpleasant.
The other stuff was terrifying.
The first thing happened on the bus ride to school Thursday morning. The assholes on the bus whispered and shot me looks, just like I expected them to. At one point Sweater Hole looked like he was going to try to sit next to me again, but I gave him such a nasty look that he threw his arms up and backed off. I wore my headphones and tried to ignore all of it.
But after awhile I noticed I could hear the whispers through the music. That was odd. I turned off the music to try to hear them better. They stopped. I shrugged and put my headphones back on. The whispers returned.
I realized with horror and confusion that the whispers were in the music. I could barely make them out. So I concentrated. Once I heard it, it was clear. Low, chattering voices, woven into Neko Case baseline.
lick and taste and lap and drink and suck and lick and penetrate the flesh
lick and taste and lap and drink and suck and lick and penetrate the flesh
I tore my headphones off my head and held them at arms length. That’s when I saw them. All along the inside of the over-ear headphone cups were dozens of tiny green and red things. Like ticks, only with human eyes. And huge, bulbous tongues. I shrieked and threw my headphones across the bus. I flailed at my ears and head. Some of them could still be on me, in my hair, in my ear canal, up inside my brain. Everyone stared. I didn’t care.
We we pulled up to school a few minutes later, I left the headphones – the expensive headphones I got for my birthday – on the bus.
During math class I went to the bathroom. I could hear two girls just outside my stall, chatting while they used the sink.
“Do you think Brandon is cute?” said one of them.
“Brandon?” said the other. “I guess. If you like hairy guys.”
“I guess he’s sort of hairy. You know what I love about bathrooms?”
“Yeah. There are always delicious things in the stalls, stuck with their naked asses hanging out. Helpless.”
The lights dimmed, and all of my muscles tensed.
“Yeah,” said the other girl. “And there’s nowhere to run.”
Footsteps came towards me. I saw feet, under the stall door. The designer shoes looked worn and tattered, and they leaked something thick and black and greasy.
“Don’t worry,” said one of the girls. Her voice was scratchier, and deeper. “It’ll be over before you know it. Before your throat has time to dry out, from all of your screams.”
I jumped to my feet and yanked open the stall door. The things were gone. The light was back to normal. It was just Britney and Carmella. They stared at me with contempt as I stood there, my pants around my ankles.
This shit continued throughout both school days, and throughout the weekend. I tried to tell myself that maybe I was going insane, from all of the stress in my life. But that was laughable. This was real. It was happening. The thing in the tunnels said it would come after me, if I interfered. That it would send its slaves after me. This had to be them. They were relentless, and they were everywhere. The scratching in my chest was constant, now. It never really stopped since the hospital. It was probably the only reason I wasn’t dead.
But how long could its protection last? These nightmare-things would wear me down. Or catch me when I wasn’t ready. Or else the thing inside of me would finally burst out of my chest. An image kept sneaking into my head, of me on an autopsy table, my internal organs slashed to ribbons and my sternum worn down to tissue paper.
I wish I could say all of this spurred me into glorious action. It didn’t. The weekend was nearly as useless as the school days. I had three leads, and I couldn’t follow any of them. The first was Sofia’s journal. I couldn’t go to the old house to get it until Monday. Not without sneaking out, and I had enough to worry about without getting grounded for another week. Plus I didn’t want to hurt mom and Adam like that. Not again.
The second was the letters. I thought I could probably read them, if I could go back into crazy land again. The scarred and whispering place, if that’s what it was. But…wasn’t that where they were? If the creatures could get me on the bus, surrounded by people, then it was idiotic to step willingly into their lair. I tried force myself to do it. Maybe there were answers in the letters. Or maybe it was a way to lure me in, so they could feast.
The third lead was what Joseph Smith said. She wanted me to come find her, after I could “see.” And the way to see?
FIND HIM. LET HIM IN.
Right. That sounded like a great idea. I thought I knew where to look. Oaklawn Park. That was where this started. But the last time I went there the crawling and hidden things tried to eat me. And that was before they were fully after me. Plus I’d have to sneak out to do it.
So I couldn’t do any of these things. But I had to. Or I was going to die. Or go insane. Or both.
Even Derrick was no help. I emailed him Thursday and told him what was going on, all about my talk with Joseph and the crazy shit that was happening to me. He emailed me back within five minutes.
Re: Help Me
This is serious. I think it’s time we meet face to face. We need to trade information, and it’s too sensitive to deal with over an unsecured connection. But I need you to do something for me. Write everything down. Everything that has happened to you, since Sofia Anastos died. Or before that. Anything you think is relevant. Print it out, and bring it to our meeting. Or put it on a portable drive. Either way.
Let me know when you can meet.
A few emails later we settled on Tuesday after school, in a coffee shop in downtown Caldwell.
Then I sat down, and I started to write. About Brianna. And the first time I saw the withering man. Everything about that moment flooded back into my brain. I relived what it felt like to be seven years old, and have a friend I could pee in the bushes with. I felt the sick fear at the sadness and confusion on her face as she was sucked into that bush and disappeared from my life forever. With those words. Those crazy, ridiculous words.
Something bloomed in my mind as I wrote. Something that had been staring me in the face, but I missed it. I had been thinking of all of this, all of this madness, as just some crazy shit that was happening to me. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t some random and awful occurrence in my life. It was my life. It had been for over ten years. No, longer than that. Since the day I was born, and the doctor declared me a boy, and cursed me with two names. Two selves.
My entire life, forces and entities watched me and influenced me, as surely as my parents, or the sun, or the air. And I never knew they were there. There was something different about me. As deep as my blood, or deeper. I never accepted it. I never understood any of it.
But I would. I swore that, as I sat on my computer chair, the carved words right above my head. Very soon, even if it killed me, I would understand everything.