the withering man, part 16
How can our branches take in the glittering lights of Heaven, when our roots are planted firmly in Hell?
We are in hell, but the flames that lick us are antiquated 19th century curricula designed to churn out industrial-age factory drones, and prison-grade processed food product. I hoped that Agatha Caldwell High School would be better than the other cesspits to which I have been subjected. More the fool, I!
There are no metal detectors, but that just means the bullies are more subtle. The hallways aren’t so stuffed with kids, but that just means it’s easier to get singled out. The teachers don’t all have that desperate, defeated look they all had at Jefferson, but their subjects are just as useless. And Jefferson had better food. I never thought I’d say that.
So I suppose I am once again to take my learning in my own hands. I feel foolish that I am surprised. I suppose I fell prey to the myth of pastoral purity and superiority. My parents seem still to believe it. I know it’s a fallacy to believe the grass on the other side of the fence is always greener. But once you leave the city, shouldn’t it really be greener? That does not seem like too much to ask.
I wish my parents would let me homeschool. But no, my mother is a partner at her new firm. Heaven forbid she sully her skyward trajectory dealing with her wretched offspring. If I can find one or two good teachers maybe they’ll let me do tutorials, as I did with Emma. I miss Emma.
Most of the teachers do not strike me as either amenable or particularly intelligent. My math teacher seems okay. But the day I study more math than absolutely required is the day the orca finally rise from the sea and take over the electoral college. The Spanish teacher also seems cool. Perhaps I shall dedicate myself to the linguistic arts. I could become a woman of many tongues.
We shall see.
Mr. Clarkson is amazing. He’s the Spanish teacher I mentioned earlier. All week long I tried to work up the nerve to ask him for private study. I need not have worried. Today he actually came to me about it!
He saw from my transcripts from Jefferson that I had already taken Spanish 2. He said that this school did not normally do things like this, but given my clear aptitude with the language he wondered if I would consider testing to move straight to Spanish 3. I said yes, yes of course! He laughed at my enthusiasm, and explain that it meant class with the 10th graders. I said I didn’t mind. I confess it is intimidating. But it’s not like I know anyone at this school, anyway.
We kept talking after that, for so long that I was late for English and he had to write me a note so Mr. Booth would not scold me. I didn’t care. I read Romeo and Juliet years ago. I could probably skip every class and still ace the test. After studying, of course.
I expressed my interest to Mr. Clarkson about perhaps studying another language. It turned out he speaks Latin and French and Italian and Indonesian. And Japanese. He showed me, somewhat embarrassed, that he keeps several volumes of manga in his desk at school that he reads in the original language. And I don’t think even that was an exhaustive list, because when I confessed my attempt to do my own translation of The Iliad and my frustrations with the differences between Homeric Greek and the modern kind my parents taught me, he revealed that he has a degree in ancient languages! The man is wasted on this school. I don’t know how they snatched him up, but I will simply count my blessings.
I am in love! Okay, perhaps not really. But if one cannot indulge in the musings of ones heart to the fullest extensions of their blossoming in one’s own diary, then what hope has romance in this dull and pallid world?
Okay, that was a bit flowery. Pun intended. What I really mean is that I have a serious crush on someone. And of course it is the most popular and most beautiful girl in school. Who is dating the quarterback. She’s quite intelligent, as well. And vicious, in that way socially powerful girls always are. I saw her tear into another girl for five minutes in the hall today, for some insignificant slight. A volley of exquisite torments. No doubt Hillary Clinton was similar in high school, and Angela Merkel.
Why does that sort of thing get me so aroused? My particular psychological poison, I suppose. Or one of them. I would make a good Cenobite. The Hellbound Heart version, of course.
I likely have a future as some powerful person’s vapid consort. If I ever get breasts. And if I could swap my face for one that’s less ugly. And get rid of my personality. Perhaps if I drink enough spirits, it will dissolve my coarse nature and individualism into something more graceful and socially acceptable.
I’ll never talk to the object of my affections, of course. In those seas lie dragons. I committed that error once, and it made the hell that was Jefferson before that happened seem like a romp through the Elysian Fields. I hesitate to even commit her name to paper, lest these writings be discovered. But I suppose if that happens, all is lost anyway.
Her name is Jenna Lethbridge. Short for Jennifer, perhaps, or Genevieve. A prosaic name, for so enchanting a specimen. Ew. The word specimen there sounds creepy. Like I’m a stalker. Or a serial killer. Perhaps I am, and I don’t know it yet. Some day some district prosecutor will hold this up in front of a grand jury and say, “The signs were there, from an early age. Sofia was such a troubled girl.”
Best to find some place to hide this tome. Just in case.
Today sucked. It was so crappy, it has apparently left me with all the eloquence of a mentally stunted beaver who never made it past sixth grade at beaver school. No point wasting my time writing it down.
One should always listen to one’s mentors. Mr. Clarkson practically forced me to join the Spanish Club. He’s been attempting to persuade me for weeks. First he said they needed members. Then he indicated that my gifts should not be kept to myself. When these attempts failed, he hinted he would cease my private lessons if I did not acquiesce. So that was that.
It turned out to be pretty cool. I won’t quite say “wonderful,” even though I’m tempted. It is too soon to tell. But I will confess that the atmosphere in my first meeting stood in stark contrast to everything else in this cesspool of a school. A cool oasis in a parched desert of hormones and assholes.
I suspect it is partially because it is almost all girls. And that Mr. Clarkson is the proctor. He introduced me as a “gifted new student,” and made me stand up and talk about myself. In front of everyone. It was embarrassing. But no one sniggered. Everyone seemed to actually pay attention. A whiff of fresh air, when I am choked by the fumes.
The president of the club is a girl named Juanita Menendez. She appears to be one of those people who is legitimately interested in others, and in listening to what they express. Or perhaps she is merely good at faking it. That’s 90% the same thing.
The icing on the proverbial cake? Jenna is in the club. She sat across from me, wearing a tight top of palest blue. I didn’t stare, of course. One learns the skills of camouflage.
I think I’ll be coming back next week.
My heart is pounding in my chest so viciously that I fear it will burst out of me, and crawl forth to haunt the corridors of the school. It has been pounding all day.
Jenna spoke to me.
She found me after math class, and said she was “really impressed” with the poetry I read at Spanish Club yesterday. She’s one of the editors of Wanderings, the school poetry magazine, and she wondered if I wrote poetry in English as well. I have no idea what I said in response. But it must have been at least vaguely coherent, because she smiled and said “great!” before she walked off. The smile would have made me weak in the knees, if I had knees left at that point.
I believe, once I’ve calmed to a state of semi-rationality, that I shall write some poetry. Some of it might even be suitable for public consumption.
I’m going to win a Nobel prize in physics, because I have discovered that the world is actually made out of shit. Like when you get down into the particles that make up the particles, you will find that they are composed entirely of excrement.
How did I make this fascinating discovery, you may ask? Simple. There’s a Spanish Club trip coming up, to go to Willemstad for the Latin American Cultural Festival. Not everyone is going, but Juanita is. And Mr. Clarkson is. And Jenna is. Guess who’s not going?
I asked my mother. Do you know what she said? Nope! You can’t go, because I’m a miserable bitch! What she actually said was “Your father and I aren’t comfortable with you gone for that long with strangers.” Right. I’m so sure my father had a say in it. It was all her.
I can’t recall when I’ve ever wanted to so something so urgently. This is the kind of trip where people make real friends. Where people forge bonds. I don’t think my mother wants me to have any friends. She desires that I stay her isolated little golden child. Tula gets friends, because she’s a lost cause. So what if I wither into an old spinster, who dies and leaves a lonely corpse for her myriad cats to feast on? She’ll be dead long before that. Why should she care?
Melodrama, thy name is Sofia. I’m glad I didn’t actually say any of those things to my mother. Not that she wouldn’t have deserved it. But lack of restraint is a sword whose handle is as sharp as the blade. And I’m sure she meant well. She just doesn’t understand me.
But all is well. James came to my rescue.
James is a legitimately amazing person. By James I refer to Mr. Clarkson. He asked me to call him James from now on, when we’re not in class. He talked to my mother, and assured her I would be safe and well taken care of. She relented, on the condition that my grades were up to snuff. I know they are, but midterm grades aren’t released to parents until mid-October. That means I need to collect letters from all of my teachers indicating my standing.
I have a quest!
The trip is in two days. I’m so excited.
That was the craziest four days of my life. And likely the best. That feels like such a ridiculous thing for a fifteen year old to say. I can just hear my future self saying “Get some perspective; you’re embarrassing both of us.” In a fabulous pants-suit, with her literary agent on the other end of her cell waiting to tell her that she’s on the bestseller list for another week, of course.
But it’s still true. It was amazing. Transcendent. A paradigm shift. A few days ago, I didn’t have any friends at all. And now…
I can’t even write about it, right now. I’m trying, but it won’t work. I’m too jittery. Too high. I’ll write about it tomorrow. The return to the mundanity of the high-school grind will no doubt bring me down. I will admit to a lingering dread, which I’m trying to shove down into the darkness, that when I go back to school tomorrow everything will revert. Nothing will be different, and it’ll all be back to normal.
I’m hesitantly optimistic.
I am delighted to report that school did not break my spirit. The intensity of this weekend has dulled. That is likely for the best. That level of brightness is sure to burn, before long. Before the light has dimmed completely, I will set the events down in these pages. Years from now, when it feels dim in the recesses of my soul, I can run my eyes along these words and recapture some of this luminescence.
The festival itself was great fun. It isn’t the kind of event I would have expected to enjoy. My last high school boasted an “ethnically diverse community,” which meant there were enough people of different races to from ethnically-oriented cliques. They always tried to hold “multicultural days” which amounted to the Japanese students bringing in teriyaki chicken. I thought I had enough of multiculturalism. It turns that was the sanitized McCulture version.
There were stands full of vendors selling hand-crafted objects from Chile and Argentina and Ecuador. There were discussion panels that were surprisingly fascinating. We went to one about the differences in homosexuality in different Latin cultures. How progressive. My mother would blow her top if she found out.
There was a mini-film festival, and Jenna went with me to see Cronos, Guillermo del Toro’s first film. She hated it. But she sat next to me, and clung to my arm during the scary parts. A Carnival ran through the whole four days, so there were always people in costume.
But none of that was what made me so excitable yesterday I couldn’t write. That happened Saturday night. Perhaps I should say Happened. It deserves a capital. It deserves its own title, writ large on a banner, thrust into the peak of a mountain and swaying in the wind. But I can’t think of a title right now.
James, Jenna, me, Juanita, and Ms. Sanchez all ended up back in James’s room after the evening meal. We talked and laughed and joked. We spoke to each other in Spanish, and Greek. I remember we all spoke Chinese at one point, but that must just be my addled brain making things up. The point is, we bonded. That was the whole point of going, after all. James and Ms. Sanchez shared a bottle of some kind of Argentian wine.
Me and Jenna and Juanita kept trying to pressure them into giving us some. I think James would have, but Ms. Sanchez was a rock. Not that it mattered. We were mostly joking. The hours rolled by. Ten PM became midnight became 2 o’clock. None of us wanted to leave. None of us wanted to go to bed. It felt desperately important that the night not end. I can’t remember ever having more fun. I wanted it to go on forever.
I don’t remember who made a joke about lovers. Ms. Sanchez said that surely us girls were too young to have had “relations,” and all of us laughed. Including James. Jenna asked her how many “relations” she had had. She got all uptight. Then James said “I can name at least one.” She slapped him playfully, and Jenna asked James how it was between them. That’s how the talk turned to sex. It got intense. It got steamy.
Then, all of a sudden…
No, I can’t write it down. Not in detail. I wouldn’t know how. And if someone found this diary James could get in serious trouble. He could lose his job. Maybe even get arrested, even though all he did was watch. Ms. Sanchez would certainly be arrested. So none of the nasty details. An attempt to blunt the richness of those memories into the coarseness of mere language would be a betrayal. Perhaps if I was a better writer. Maybe someday.
I will say that it was magnificent. And strange. I suppose the first time is fated to be different than one’s naïve fantasies. But this was very different. There were so many tongues. It felt like more than four. It felt like a hundred. This is by no means a complaint, mind you.
James never tried to join in, and none of us invited him, even though it went on for over an hour. A long, wonderful hour. That seems bizarre, when I write it down. But it felt right. It felt vital. He just watched. The look on his face was strange. Calm, and hungry, and powerful. Like we did this all for him. It didn’t seem weird at the time. It was just intoxicating.
I’ve never done acid or mushrooms or anything. But it has to feel something like this. I suppose it was sleep deprivation, and hormones, and the intensity of it all. The light in the room changed, and I saw colors and shapes that weren’t there. A skull made of scorpions. A woman covered in weird bumps, and a man excising them with a sharp knife.
Those sound terrifying, when I write them down now. They weren’t. It was all wonderful. I see why the poets craft verse, and the musicians compose songs. Pure, perfect bliss.
I did have a nightmare about it last night, though. James stood up, unhitched his jaw like a snake, and devoured all of us. It freaked me out. But a nightmare is just a nightmare. Raw clay for burgeoning novelist, and I shall shape it into something dark and horrific and beautiful.
Strange days ahead. You can’t predict the aftermath of something like The Event. You can only strap in, ride the current, and hope it takes you somewhere you want to be. Mixed metaphors are inevitable.
Juanita avoided all of us the whole day. I think she wants to forget it happened. I can understand that. Especially if she is completely straight, or thought she was.
Jenna bumped into me in the hall and passed me a note.
Substitute Room. Lunchtime.
I didn’t know where that was, so I had to ask someone else, who giggled. I later found out why. It’s also called the “makeout room.” When I arrived Jenna was there. She pushed me against the wall, and…
I hadn’t dared to hope. I gave it no thought at all. What happened on the trip was surely a one-off event. Something to remember forever, but it would never happen again. Jenna had a boyfriend. And in the impossible case that she liked girls, anyone she wanted would kneel down to kiss her magnificent feet.
As she kissed me, I realized I might be wrong. She told me she thought I was cute since she first noticed me in Spanish Club. She wanted to continue to do this, but it had to be a secret. If I wanted to, that was.
Jenna’s an intelligent person, but I think that was the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.
But the day was not yet finished. The strangest part was still to come.
I had a Greek lesson with James after school. For the first time I did not want to attend. I wanted to find Jenna. But I had the concession that I could talk to James about it. The only person with whom I could speak the truth, in all the world. I tried to broach the subject halfway through the session.
“Something interesting happened today,” I said. “It was related to what happened last Saturday, on the trip.”
His face grew cold, and he stood up.
“Don’t you ever bring that up again,” he said. “Do you hear me? To anyone. Ever.”
He grabbed me by the arm. “Do you hear me?” He stared down at me, and I could swear it was the same hungry, intense expression he wore the other night. Only angrier.
“Yes,” I stammered. “Yes of course. I swear.”
He calmed down, and we ended the lesson early. I ran from his room and came straight home.
It was terrifying, but now that I look back with a clearer eye it makes sense. If any one of us had loose lips, it would erupt into a major scandal. He would lose his job, perhaps go to jail. We would all get into serious trouble. James just wanted to ensure I grasped the full gravity of the situation. He was looking out for me.
Besides, nothing can bring me down. I have a girlfriend. Jenna Lethbridge is my girlfriend. I have to write that again, because I scarcely believe it. Jenna Lethbridge is my girlfriend.
I wrote Jenna a poem, today. She loved it so much, but didn’t think it would be appropriate for the school magazine. She did reward me, though. In the boy’s locker room. I could get use to this. I think I’ll write another poem.
I had another nightmare about James. I have to write these down, even though I don’t like to think about them. Vivid imagery is the paint in a writer’s toolbox. Plus we can mix metaphors whenever we want to. This time scars covered his entire face. I was strapped to an operating table, and James watched as the surgeon cut pieces out of me, one by one.
Ta loyagin gipino bo rima ce ci? Idut ra leloneh pacadiw utobirul ritobem. Timoli te toc tipeval enore pe te vadera? Atutura hobir fonel damohim derapo tini dinesie omil pire, nebo lucuy idat balep relu pele re renam sif.
I SEWED MUSCLED AND SINEW INTO THE MOUTHS OF THE FLAILING SACKS OF MEAT, AND SO GIFTED TO MAMMALS THEIR TONGUES, AND TO MEN THEIR UTTERANCES. YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED. THE DEBT IS DUE.
Nerie re ekisef biefab epi! Masiel xopoc ceri obadit pacav hicitu ne: Nakev nat verin. Reyi ceyocoh unet huremed niseta jidese mupahis telag todeber.
WTF? I did not write that. Did someone find my diary?
Another nightmare. I grow weary of them. They are the bad kind. The kind that cling to the back of your eyelids, and whose images fill what should otherwise be darkness. Jenna’s having them, too. I think they are worse when we are together. I hate to say that. It hurts to read. I want to ask Juanita if she has them, but she is evasive. I want to ask James, but I fear it would be a repeat of last time.
Is this a descent into madness? Are the images and sounds that torment me products of a fraying mind? I wish desperately that this were so. But it is happening to Jenna. And Juanita, I believe, though she won’t admit it. I went down to the Cultural Arts Center to talk to Ms. Sanchez. She told me to go away. She pretended not to know me. She called security to escort me from the building. I should talk to someone. The school councellor, or a psychologist. But I can’t do that without my mother finding out. Then she’ll find out everything.
Something strange happened today. I realize I am filling these pages with strange occurrences. This one is different.
It happened during lunchtime. I walked past this girl, sitting alone and drawing in a notebook. I know her, a little, from my Spanish class. Her name is Jessica Kingsport. She talks in class a lot, but generally not about Spanish. She’s cute, in a Tim-Burton-character kind of way. Not to my usual taste. As I strolled past my eye caught the picture she drew, and my mind went blank.
I closed my eyes. The nightmare-scape was gone. The whispers that had lingered at the edges of perception for days went silent. I told her that her picture was badass, and named it Jagged Darkness at the Screaming Edge of Sanity. She lit up like a Goth Christmas tree at the compliment, and said I could keep it. I sat down, and we talked. We talked about comic books. We talked about horror movies—an apparent obsession of hers. I told them I loved them as well. Which is not a total lie. The longer we talked, the calmer I felt.
When lunch ended and we parted ways, all of the horror returned. Not all at once. It crept in, slowly. So slowly I barely noticed, until my mind was once more a hellscape. Worse, for its brief absence. As if resentful that I would do something so terrible as leave it alone.
Oh Jenna, my love. What is happening to us? I ache for your touch. I want nothing else. Nothing in the world.
The last few weeks have been crazy. Those are my watchwords. Crazy. Strange. Insane. Such is my life. The nightmares have grown worse. They’re trying to tear my sanity into shreds. But I have defenses, now. Jagged Darkness, and Jessy Kingsport. The picture she drew frightens me. There’s something deep inside of it. Something terrible. But whenever I look at it the nightmares can’t get through. I carry it around everywhere. I sleep with it. Whenever I wake up from a horrible dream –which is every time I wake up – I stare at it. If I stare long enough the nightmares retreat from my mind, like rats from a sinking ship. It takes a little longer every day. This terrifies me. How long will it continue to work?
I’m spending a lot of time with Jessy. She’s fun. She’s a good artist, and she loves my fiction. Most of all she makes me feel safe. I can forget what is happening and feel normal. I can even watch scary movies with her, and not be frightened. Because they’re not real. It’s like he won’t come near her. Because he is real. He is terribly real.
I know his name now. The Man of Many Tongues. I know this because he writes it on everything. Papers I carry, or books I read. I don’t know how he does it. I never see him. Not with my eyes open. I throw them away as soon as I see them. But today it showed up on Jagged Darkness.
THE MAN OF MANY TONGUES HAS YOU
He wrote it there to frighten me. To make it clear that although I can keep him at arms length for now, he is close. He is always close.
I miss Jenna. We can’t see each other. It’s too much. We tried. Over and over we tried. It did not go well. I told her about Jessy, about how she makes me feel safe. But she laughed. Apparently Jessy hates her, because of something that happened with a guy years ago. In Jessy’s defense, Jenna is pretty mean to her at school. I told that to Jenna. She said I didn’t understand. She’s right. I don’t understand anything. Not anymore.
I miss James, as well. We continue our lessons together, but it isn’t the same. The temptation to tell him everything gnaws at me. Warning or no warning. I think he might be receptive if I catch him in the right mood.
There seem to be two James Clarksons these days. Sometimes he is the warm, nurturing man who plucked me from the dank pits of new-school-madness and showed me a path. In those moments he wants to help me. I know he does. But whenever he is about to, he becomes the other James Clarkson. The strange, hungry beast that was born that night. The one whose scarred likeness lives in the darkness, whenever I close my eyes.
I wish desperately to speak to him. To make things the way they were. He might listen. If I explain that I won’t tell anyone what happened, but that I need his help. He might listen.
It’s gone. Jagged Darkness is gone.The last time I saw it was when I took it out to show to James. I worked up the nerve to talk to him, despite the consequences. I told him what I have been experiencing, and I showed him the picture. And he took it. He must have. Now it is gone and I have nothing.
I feel almost safe, in this house. I don’t know why. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to step out of the door. I tried to text Jessy, to get her to come here. But my phone is dead. It was charged a few minutes ago. And I can’t stay here forever.
I wish you were here with me, my love. But I fear I may never see you again. He’s coming for me. He whispers it to me, in the silence. My debt is due. He is coming.
I don’t know what will happen when he arrives.