the withering man, part 15
The unhallowed dead are like wine grapes. They have to be allowed to rot, if their juices are to run sweet. Only then can they be fermented, and harvested, again, and again, and again.
-The Annals of the Shivering Stone
“You’re up early,” my mom said as I staggered down the stairs Monday morning.
“Yeah,” I said. My voice only shook a little. “Mom, do I look pale to you?”
She walked over and squinted at me. “Why? Are you feeling sick? Trying to get out of going to school?”
“No, I just…when I looked in the mirror I thought I looked a little pale.”
“You look fine to me,” she said.
I nodded. That was something. An hour earlier, I woke up with a strange feeling in my leg. I pulled off my covers to find something clinging to my left thigh. I freaked out and leapt off the bed, and it scurried off before I could get a good look at it. If my mom was right, whatever it sucked out of me with those tiny slurps wasn’t blood. That wasn’t very comforting.
“Do you want a ride to school today?” Adam said as he walked into the room.
“They’re moving me to a different site today,” he said. “It’s not far from your school.”
Your school. Like he’d been out of there for more than a year himself.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d so hate to miss out on the time with my wonderful bus friends.” Adam grinned.
“Lunch on this job is late, so I should be able to give you a ride home, too.”
“No!” I blurted out.
Adam and Mom exchanged looks.
“Why so insistent?” Mom asked.
“It’s just that Mei and I were both going to stay late and go to the library,” I said. “We have a big history project coming up. Her dad is going to pick us up. He knows about it.”
“And if I call him,” said my mom, “he’ll confirm your story?”
“Yes,” I said. It was true. I set it up with Mei the day before. Sure, I left out the little detail that I planned to bail on her and get her to cover for me. But mom didn’t need to know that.
“What is that?” Adam said as we pulled into the parking lot.
“Oh Jesus,” I said.
A throng of people packed the lawn in front of the school. Many of them were adults; way too many to be teachers. A lot of them wore rain coats with hoods. Under the gray sky it made them look like some kind of weird cult. As we got closer I saw that some of them held signs.
NO CLARK SON NEAR MY SON
MURDERERS DON’T MAKE GOOD TEACHERS
Someone stepped onto a chair and stood above everyone else. It was Juanita. I saw now that behind her was a sea of students all wearing t-shirts, even though it was freezing out. T-shirts with the same words in large red letters.
STAND WITH CLARKSON
“You can’t prevent Mr. Clarkson from teaching,” Juanita’s voice rang out over the chatter of the crowd. “He is a good man. We, the students and community members of Vigil for the Innocent, believe in his innocence.”
“He’s a killer!” someone shouted. There were shouts of agreement, which launched the Stand with Clarkson people into an uproar.
“Maybe you should pull around back,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Adam, although he sounded reluctant. “Probably a good idea.”
But it was too late.
“There’s Jessica Kingsport!” Juanita called out. “In the white car. She saw the real killer. She’ll tell you.”
I groaned. I almost told Adam to floor it so I didn’t have to deal with this. But I’d probably feel like shit about it all day if I bailed.
“Better let me out,” I said. Adam stopped, and I opened the door and stepped onto the sidewalk.
All eyes turned to face me with varying degrees of hostility. My first instinct was to shrink in on myself. But I was too pissed off. I stood up straight. I’d be damned if I was going to let a bunch of ignorant assholes intimidate me.
“She doesn’t know shit!” one of the parents yelled.
“Tell them, Jessy,” said Juanita. “Tell them it wasn’t Mr. Clarkson.”
“It wasn’t Mr. Clarkson,” I said. “I saw him, and it wasn’t.”
“Bullshit,” said the guy who shouted before. “The other girl said it was too dark. She couldn’t see shit!”
“It was dark,” I said. My voice sounded firm in my ears. Good. “But the attacker was too tall. His shoulders were too broad. It wasn’t him.” It felt really good to say that. Even if I didn’t know if it was true.
Everyone in the crowd began to shout at one another. I heard some words parents really aren’t supposed to say hurled at me, and some even worse ones hurled right back at the parents. Someone screamed that she was a lawyer, and would sue. Someone else said “I know where you live.” I cringed. This was about to get very nasty.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Principal Harris’s loud voice cut through the cacophony.
Everyone turned and started to shout at him.
“These students need to get to class,” said Harris. “The teachers need to teach. The police have been notified, and they are on their way to make sure none of this gets out of hand.”
That did it. The Idiot Overprotective Parent Brigade might be able to stand up to a group of kids, but apparently they didn’t want to get arrested. The mob began to disperse, and I cut through towards the school.
“Thanks, Jessica,” said a voice as neared the door. “You didn’t need to say what you said. I appreciate that.”
“Mr. Clarkson?” I spun around, and there he was.
“I’m here,” he said, grinning. Damn. I’d kind of forgotten how cute that grin was.
“Were you back there? In that crowd? I didn’t see you.”
“The basketball team made a wall in front of me. They were afraid the crowd would throw things at me.”
“They weren’t wrong,” I said. He laughed. “Listen, can we talk later?”
“Talk?” a look shot through his eyes. Just for a second, but I caught it. “Um…yeah. Maybe. I’ll be awfully busy.”
“It’s important,” I said.
“Yes, I understand. I should get to first period. Stop by my room, later. I’ll see if I can’t fit you in.”
Fit me in? What happened to “stop by anytime?” Of course, that was before he was arrested, and all over the national news. But somehow I didn’t think that was it. Because that look in his eyes was terror. Total, absolute terror.
I thought Mr. Clarkson’s return might make my school situation better. I was wrong. Most of the students and teachers still avoided me like a diseased rat, but now some of them wanted to talk to me. Arthur Brandice asked me if I was banging Mr. Clarkson, and Jeremy Stitwell asked for my autograph “for when I was a famous serial killer and all.” Ugh.
Mei told me over and over to ignore it. Easy for her to say. She wasn’t the one being harassed every time she walked down the hall.
My attempts to further my investigations were fabulously unsuccessful. Jenna was still out of school, and hadn’t returned any of my emails. Juanita continued to evade me. She didn’t even thank me for helping, this morning. Mr. Clarkson rushed out of class as soon as it was over, so I couldn’t talk to him. And he didn’t post office house like he usually did. I finally cornered him outside of the biology lab when no one was around.
“Mr. Clarkson, wait up.”
“Oh, Jessica,” he said. “Hello. I’m sorry, I’m late for a meeting. The administration is walking me through damage control, after the incident.”
“Yeah, this’ll only take a second,” I said.
“I’d spare a second if I could,” he said. “You know I would.”
“We need to talk about…”
“I know, and I wish I could, but…”
“…the Spanish club trip.”
His eyes widened for a second, and then hardened. He dropped his briefcase on the ground and grabbed me by both shoulders.
“Listen, girl,” he said. “You will not bring that up ever again. Do you hear me?”
“Do you hear me?” He shook me, roughly. His face twisted into a crazy expression. “Or else you’ll end up like the other girls. Like all the other girls. Do you understand?”
“Let go of me!” I wrenched myself from his grip.
“Jessica,” his face softened as I backed away. “Jessica, wait!”
I ran out of the hall and didn’t look back. What the hell was that?
I avoided Mr. Clarkson for the rest of the day. Maybe cornering him as he rushed off somewhere the day he came back to school after he got out of prison wasn’t the best move. But I would have to try again. There was something going on here. If I didn’t know it before, I knew it now.
All in all, a crappy day. I was happy when it ended.
“So,” Mei said when she found me after last period. “The library?”
I nodded, and followed her out the door and across the lawn towards the library building. I wanted to get away from listening ears before I said what I was about to say.
“Yeah,” I said. “Mei, listen. I need to talk to you.”
She paused, then turned to look at me. Her face fell when she saw my expression.
“Oh no,” she said.
“Listen. Do you trust me?”
“You’re about to do something crazy, aren’t you?”
“Do you trust me?”
“I worry about you,” she said. “We all do. Me and Dantre and Natasha and…everyone.”
“I know,” I said. “But do you trust me?”
“Of course I do. You know I do.”
“I need to do something.”
“Like another date?” she said.
I shook my head. “More serious than that. Much more serious.”
“I was afraid of that,” she said.
I sighed heavily, and forced myself to continue. I was sick of lying to her. To everyone.
“There is something going on. Something huge. Something…dangerous. And I have to take care of it. I have to take care of it, and I can’t tell you about it.”
She let that hang there, for a long moment, in the cold, damp air.
“It has to do with that man, doesn’t it?” she said at last. “The one in the photographs.”
I didn’t say anything.
“He has something to do with the murders, doesn’t he?”
I laughed. “You’re much smarter than me, you know that?”
“Why do you have to take care of it?” she asked. “What about the police, or the FBI? That agent Durant. You could go talk to her, you could…”
“Mei,” I said. “I can’t. You need to trust me. This is something I have to do. It just is.”
“But you won’t tell me about it.”
I shook my head.
“Because it’s too dangerous,” she said.
“If you had a videotape that killed anyone who watched it, would you show it to me?”
She smiled weakly at the reference. “No,” she said. “I guess I wouldn’t.”
“You’re the best person I know, Meizhen Lin.” I hugged her. “I have to go.”
She nodded. I could tell she was scared. I knew that all she wanted to do was grab me and drag me back to school and call my mom and call the FBI and do anything to stop me from leaving. But she didn’t.
“My dad’ll be here at 5,” she said. “Make sure you’re back by then, or your mom will be really angry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll see you then.”
“Just be careful, okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, and walked off into the overcast.
It wasn’t that far to the old house where Sofia hid her diary. A couple of miles through the back streets of Caldwell. There was no one on the roads, as I walked under the gray sky. No cars, no people. Some of the houses had lights. Some of them. I couldn’t fight the feeling that I was alone in the entire world. The other people were all gone. Never to come back.
Dread crept up my spine as I traveled. I hadn’t seen the creatures since this morning. No fanged worms in my sandwich, like yesterday. Nothing reaching out of the drain to strangle me, like the night before. They weren’t gone. They were around me, all the time. I knew they were. I could almost feel them, prickles on my skin. Scratches in my chest. There was a reason they were absent today. Maybe it was the sabbath, where they came from. Or maybe they hated Mondays. Or maybe they were planning something.
This is what I thought of, as I walked down the twisting, empty roads. Caldwell was full of these winding backstreets. No reason to ever go there if you didn’t live on one. I’d never been this way, until a few months ago.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Trust me,” said Sofia. “It’s neat.”
“If you say so,” I said. “This is just way too close to school for a Saturday. We’re not, like, going to school, are we?”
“Of course not!” She grinned and tilted her head in that way she did. “We’re going to Elm Street.”
“Well, Elm Avenue. Close enough.”
“That’s not the same thing at all,” I said.
“Yes it is,” said Sofia. “It is because I say it is.”
“You’re weird,” I said.
“So’s your face!”
She grasped her chest as if struck in the heart. “You got me.” I laughed.
“You know if you ever tell anyone I said ‘so’s your face’ I’m going to have to kill you?” I said. “You know that, right?”
“Don’t worry,” she grinned. “I won’t tell anyone you’re secretly…silly.”
“Oh God. I can’t believe you said that. I don’t think we can be friends anymore.”
A while later we turned a corner, and I saw Elm Avenue.
“Wow,” I said. “Where did this place come from?”
“It’s spooky, right?”
I nodded. It looked like an entire street of abandoned houses. Not just abandoned. Derelict. Decrepit.
“It’s like there was a spectral earthquake,” said Sofia, “and a bunch of ghosts died. Someone used their remains to build these houses.”
“I want to sketch them. All of them.”
“I know what you mean. Come on. I’ll show you mine. 441 Elm Street.”
We walked forward.
“For a small town, Caldwell has an awful lot of abandoned houses.”
“A medium sized town,” I corrected. She laughed. She was from “the city,” so everything was a small town. Made it sound like I was from Hicksville.
“I heard it’s because there used to be a coal mining industry. When that dried up, so did the town.”
“A coal mining industry,” I said. She nodded. “And where, exactly, did they hide this huge coal mine once it ran out? Under the rug?”
Sofia looked embarrassed for exactly one second.
“Of course you can’t see it,” she said. “It’s a ghost mine.”
“A ghost mine?”
“Yes. It’s where they got the building materials. You know, for the ghost houses.”
I shot her a withering look, but I couldn’t keep a straight face. We both burst out laughing.
“Here we are,” she said, when we reached the end of the street. “My palace of darkness.”
It wasn’t the largest house, or the most decrepit. But it was beautiful. You could tell it had been elegant when it was in good repair. Age and wear somehow made it more elegant. The cracked windows looked like frost on a winter’s day. The sagging beams added gentle curves to what would have been an uptight rigidity. An exquisite corpse of a manor, rotted to a transcendence it had never known in life. Sofia’s words, but they stuck with me.
We went inside, and she showed me around. It was gorgeous and hideous and creepy and wonderful. All cobweb-covered wall sconces and elaborate molding with artfully chipped paint. There was an old, gaudy chandelier in the living room, whose ugliness was dimmed by a thick layer of dust. Sofia stood under it and twirled.
“This is where I come when life gets too, you know…”
“Boring?” I said.
“Mundane. Ordinary. It’s not an escape from the world. It’s a willful descent into madness. Does that make sense?”
“Yes!” I said. Nothing had ever made so much sense.
“I do my best writing here.”
“Is this where you’re writing Nightbound Prince?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve got a new chapter, by the way.”
“Ooo!” I said. “Tell me you have it on you.”
We sat there for hours, reading and drawing and writing and laughing and talking, underneath the crumbling roof. She showed me all the hidden places in the house, where she kept things. Like some notebooks. And her diary.
Elm Avenue had been eerie then, under the orange and red leaves of early October. Now, under the dark November sky, lined with skeletal trees, it was terrifying.
I’ve already done haunted tunnels, a haunted park, and a haunted funeral home, I thought. I guess haunted house was next.
There’s something about old, empty homes that makes me ache on the inside. They’re always dark. No matter how bright the sunlight on a summer day, it can’t get inside. It can’t penetrate their secrets. But as I walked down the street I saw that one of the houses at the far end was lit. I swallowed. Bets on which one?
Orange light spilled out of every window of 441 Elm Street as I approached. It looked like a tall jack-o’-lantern, carved from a black and rotten pumpkin. And was there someone out front? No, that was ridiculous. No one had lived here in years. No humans, anyway.
As I neared the house, I saw that an old woman stood in the open front door, her eyes fixed on me. She had wrinkled olive skin, and dark gray hair tied into a ponytail. There was something familiar about her, but I couldn’t place it.
“Kalos, Jessy Kingsport,” she said. Έchoeme ethe sas perimenei.”
My stomach clenched. I took a deep breath and stepped closer.
The old woman tilted her head to the side. It shook violently for a moment, like she was having a seizure. Then it stopped.
“Welcome, Jessy Kingsport,” she said. “We’ve been expecting you.” Her voice sounded off. Like she had something wedged in her mouth.
“Please, come in.”
The thing in my chest stretched its claws, but didn’t scratch. It just sat there, like a thorn lodged between my breasts. What the hell did that mean? That I wasn’t in danger, or that my defenses weren’t working? Or something else entirely? It didn’t matter. I had to do this.
“Okay,” I said. “Led the way.”
She smiled with too many teeth. Like a gorilla. Then she turned and walked into the house. I followed her in, with full knowledge that this was maybe the stupidest thing I had ever done. The door slammed shut behind us.
The house looked the same as I remembered, but with signs of life. Cracked saucers half-full of tea sat on the rotten coffee table. The chandelier was on, and its light struggled to shine through the coat of grime. A sweet, meaty scent hung in the air. Like boiled kidneys and fungus.
“Sit down,” said the old woman. “Have some tea. I’ll get the others.”
“I don’t think…”
“Sit down,” she barked. A wad of phlegm flew out of her mouth and splashed the door behind me. I sat down on the moldy couch, into something thick and wet. I couldn’t see it, even when I ran my fingers along the cushion. But I felt it.
A minute later the old woman returned with three other people. A man, a woman, and a small child whose gender I couldn’t determine. They all had the same look, with olive skin and dark hair. But it was more than that. The young woman looked like she could have been the old woman, forty years ago. She and the man looked like twins, and the child was the same.
“Hello,” said the man and woman in perfect unison. The child’s “hello” came less than a second later. Like an echo. It made my skin crawl. Their speech had the same garbled quality as the old woman’s.
“Um…hi,” I said. “Listen, I’d love to stay, but I’m just here to find…”
“Tomo un poco de té, chica, ” said the old woman. Her head jerked. “Have some tea, deary.”
“Uh, yeah. If it’s all the same, I think I’ll…”
“You’re in danger, Jessy,” said the man and woman, again with the child echo.
I stood up. “Yeah. I’m think I’m going to…”
“Sit,” said the old woman. I didn’t listen this time.
“We’re going to hurt you, Jessy,” the man-woman-child said again.
I stepped backwards and crawled over the couch, never taking my eyes off of them. All four of them tilted their heads and gazed at me.
“We have to hurt you, Jessy,” they all said together. I took a step back. They took a step forward.
“We don’t…” all of their heads jerked wildly, then they smiled. “We want to hurt you, Jessy.”
I backed up again, and then stepped towards me. They flowed around the couch, then rejoined as if they shared a single, fluid body. Or a single mind.
The basement door was behind me. At least, I thought it was.
Please let the basement door be behind me.
“She can’t…we can’t hold back much longer, Jessy. We’re going to taste you, Jessy.”
I reached behind me. A doorknob. I turned it. The door wouldn’t open. Jammed.
“We’re going to harvest you, Jessy. He wants us to harvest you, Jessy.” They stepped forward.
I spun around to face the door. I felt their breath on the back of my neck. I twisted the doorknob, then kicked the door. It flew open and crashed into the wall. I raced through, slammed the door shut, and locked it.
I let out a breath of relief. It didn’t last. As soon as my heart stopped pounding in my ears I heard a noise. From below. Whimpering. It sounded like Jenna had, in the tunnels. When she was on the slab. As the creature worked on her. I walked down the stairs.
It was dark, but I could see alright. The staircase was long. I remembered that from before. Long and narrow. It was hard to breathe, with the thick scent of dust in the air. As I descended the whimpering grew louder. The sound made my insides hurt. It was the sound of hopelessness.
The stairs opened into a medium sized room full of dusty furniture. There was an unfinished wall –just wooden scaffolding – in the middle of the room that divided the basement into two. One the other side, in the far room, was where Sofia hid her diary.
Pressed up against the scaffolding was the source of the whimpering. A girl. Her black hair was matted and filthy, and cuts covered the olive skin of her exposed face and arms. Some of the cuts looked old and scarred, and some of them were fresh, and still dripping.
I recognized her instantly.
“Oh my god,” I said. Tears stung my eyes. “Sofia.”
I realized why the people upstairs looked so familiar. And why they looked the same. They were all Sofia. Different ages, even different genders. But it was her.
“Oh god, Sofia. What have they done to you?”
She looked at me, her face filled with desperation, and flailed out with her loose arm. The wooden scaffolding behind her rattled. I saw that several pieces of metal were thrust through her left hand, and bound her to the wood. An industrial staple gun lay at her feet.
She tried to say something, but only a garbled moan came out. I saw why. A large gash ran up the right side of her face, extending her lips nearly to her ear. When she opened her mouth she had no tongue.
She pointed at the staple gun, then at her hand bolted to the scaffolding.
“You…did this to yourself?”
She nodded, then reached for me again.
“Oh Jesus, Sofia. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I wanted to help her. To do something. But what could I do? I was afraid to get any nearer. She mouthed a word, but her face was so mangled I couldn’t make it out.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. I kept my back pressed to the far wall, and inched past her. “I wish I could help. I’m so sorry.”
She stretched her fingers towards me as I moved by. They came two inches from my face. Along her arm, there were several red, slimy, writhing things. Tentacles. Just like I saw on her body, back at the funeral home. Tentacles, and the stumps of tentacles. It looked like some of them had been cut off.
Slowly, so slowly, I moved past her into the far room. She wailed as I stepped out of her reach. I ran to the wall on the other side of the room. There was a hole in the drywall. I took a deep breath and reached my arm in.
It was deep. That’s why she chose it. No sane person would reach into a deep hole in the dank basement of a decrepit house on Elm Street. I pawed around. My hand touched something wet and slimy. Then something with fur. I shuddered. Finally I felt something slick that crinkled, and pulled it out. This was it. A plastic shopping bag. Inside was a large gallon zip-lock, and inside of that was the diary.
I moved back towards Sofia, and crept past her towards the stairs. She mouthed that word again. Then again. I paused before going up. She wanted to tell me something. It might be important. I looked closely, as she formed the syllable with her mutilated lips.
The expression on her face changed. The desperation drained out of it, and her mouth twisted into a terrible smile. She ripped her arm out of the wall. Thick black fluid gushed from the wound. Pain lanced through me as the thing in my chest clawed viciously at my insides. I sprinted up the stars and ripped open the door.
The family sat at the couch and drank tea. Their faces jerked towards me as I spilled through the door entry way and slammed it shut behind me.
“Where are you going, deary?” said the old woman.
“You’ve only just arrived,” said the others.
They stood up.
I ran straight towards them, stepped on the back of the couch, and leapt over their heads. They spat thick gobs of saliva, which soared past my shoulder. A few flecks hit my arm, and it burned.
I crashed into the door to the outside. It flew open. I tumbled down the front stairs and ran out into the cold air.
I didn’t look behind me. I just ran, and ran, and ran. My veins filled with fire. I kept running, until Elm Avenue was far, far behind me.