the withering man, part 19
We never notice the moment it begins. When we notice, it is far, far too late.
-The Annals of the Shivering Stone
Light streamed into my eyes and woke me up.
I had eyes. They stung like they were full of chlorine, but they were there.
I pawed frantically at my face, and was relieved when I felt skin, smooth and cool beneath my touch. It was extremely tender — even the light touch of my fingertips hurt like jabbing an open wound — but at least it wasn’t a mangled ruin of blood and muscle tissue. I sighed with relief and rolled onto my side.
That’s when I saw the blood. Crimson stains covered my comforter, and my sheet, and my pillow. The silk nightgown that clung to my body was a horror-show.
“Jessy,” I heard my mom’s voice from downstairs. “Are you awake? I made bacon and it’s getting cold.”
“Just a minute, Mom,” I called back.
Holy shit. My mom could not see the room like this. I scrambled to my feet and ripped the blanket and sheets off the bed. The blood had soaked through to the mattress pad. I pulled it off, and rolled everything into a log along with my nightgown. A thick scent hung in the air, like tarnished pennies.
The door creaked open behind me.
“Are you okay?” said my mom. “What’s taking you so…”
I spun around and stared at her, naked and holding a crumpled cylinder of bloody linens. I cringed.
“What the hell are you doing?” she said, laughing.
“Why are you wrapping your sheets up?”
I stared at her. I didn’t know what to say. Was it possible she couldn’t see the blood?
“Wrapping my sheets?” I said finally.
“Yes,” she said. “Right now. You are wrapping up your sheets. Right in front of me and everything. Are you feeling okay?”
“I wet the bed,” I blurted out.
“Yeah,” I lowered my gaze. “I had a bad nightmare, and I…”
“I didn’t want to leave them like this all day.”
“Yes. Yes, I understand. Put them in the laundry room and I’ll get to the before I leave.”
“No!” I said. She stared at me. “It’s just…I really want to do them. Wash them myself, I mean.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine. Suit yourself. Just hurry up. Adam had to leave early so he can’t drive you. You don’t want to miss the bus.” She walked through the door and closed it behind her.
She couldn’t see the blood. It was the only explanation. But how had she missed it? Even rolled up, the sheets were a bloody mess. I threw them on the bed and sprinted to the bathroom. I scrubbed the dried gunk off my skin as quickly as I could, then ran back into my room.
That’s when I noticed the ceiling. The letters were there, as usual. MY EYES. But there was something else there as well. A shape. Two shapes, right behind the letters, but also not. I tilted my head and stared. I squinted. I crossed my eyes, and unfocused my vision. I did that thing you have to do to see Magic Eye puzzles. But I still couldn’t make out the shapes.
Then I relaxed and did something else. Something new. It made my eyes feel funny, like they were covered in scar tissue. The world blurred.
The letters were still there, but they shared the space with two gigantic eyes. Human eyes, the same size as the writing, with blue irises and dilated pupils. Not pictures of eyes. Actual, three dimensional eyes. They blinked.
I shrieked and leapt back. Then I saw the rest of the room. My bed was there, but so was a pile of dolls. My Yog Sothoth poster hung on my wall; at the same time it was a hole into nothing. I could see through the walls into the world outside. The sky was the blotchy purple of a bruise. An owl sat in the tree outside my room, but instead of a face it had the open, razor-toothed mouth of an anglerfish.
I could see into the other place. It was the only explanation.
The scarred and whispering place.
The withering man ripped off my face and tore out my eyes, and now I could see. The memory sent a chill through my flesh. I touched my face to make sure it was still there. It was. Hesitantly, I reached down and felt between my legs.
I was still a girl. Thank God.
“Jessy, are you coming?” my mom called again.
“Two seconds!” I said.
My eyes started to ache. A second later a bolt of pain spiked through my head, and I squeezed them shut. When I opened them my vision was back to normal. Almost. I could still sort of see the other place. It was there, just to the left of everything.
I went downstairs and threw my laundry in the washing machine. Then I scarfed down my breakfast and left for school. The second I stepped outside the scratching started in full, as it had every morning since the day of the tunnels. With my other Vision, I looked down and saw a black mass nestled in my chest, all sharp curves and edges. It scraped at my sternum.
I looked in the direction of the scraping. A man-shaped figure hunched behind a twisted tree. His exposed musculature was covered by only bare patches of skin, which crawled over his body like a swarm of slugs. He snarled as I moved past, and stepped towards me as if about to pounce. I looked straight at him.
“Try it,” I said. I dug my fingernails into my palms. “Try it and see what happens.” He shrank into himself, and then scurried away.
I did the same thing to the flock of blood-colored crows. And the blue velvet glove that jutted out of the Volkswagen and swiped at me with sharp fingers. With each look the pain in my skull intensified. When I reached the bus stop I felt like I my head would split open. I couldn’t hold this Vision-thing for long.
On the bus I emailed Derrick and told him what happened. He emailed me back straight away.
Re: Losing My Eyes
That sounds terrifying. I’m glad you’re okay. The effects are fascinating. We’ll have to experiment. I agree with you that the next step is to visit Joseph Smith at Ashfall Psychiatric Hospital. The sooner the better. I have a plan. Stand by.
Mei found me practically as soon as I got off the bus.
“Hey, Mei. What’s up?”
“Nothing,” she said. But there was a nervous look in her eyes.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“No. It’s just…”
“Are you okay?”
“Um…” I stammered.
“I mean, is everything alright?” She scratched her ear nervously.
“I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“It’s nothing. I had this weird dream last night, but…yeah. What class you do you have first?” she asked.
My muscles tensed.
Please don’t let anything be wrong with Mei, I thought. I glanced at her with the Vision, even though it felt like there were spikes in my temples. She looked fine. No psychic parasites or clouds of dark energy. I sighed with relief.
“Jessy?” asked Mei. “Are you there?”
“Yeah, sorry. Just tired. I have Spanish first. How about you?”
“Lucky,” I said. “Walk me to class?” She nodded enthusiastically.
The students gave me the same freaked-out asshole treatment that had become the usual as we walked through the halls. It didn’t bother me as much. I had other things to worry about.
When got to Mr. Clarkson’s room I saw my classmates all milling around outside the door.
“No class today!” said Maxwell. “Woo spring break!”
“Wait,” I said. “What’s up?” I walked over to the door. There were two messages written on the door.
Mr. Clarkson’s first period Spanish class will not be held today. Students are to report to Study Hall in Room 108.
The second message was written in large jagged letters across the entire door.
YOU HAVE FORCED THE SITUATION TO THIS STAGE. THE CONSEQUENCES ARE YOURS.
From the reactions of the others, no one else could see the second message.
“Great!” said Mei. “We have study hall together.”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice. “Great.”
Mr. Clarkson was absent the entire day, and no one I asked knew why. So was Juanita. A sick feeling settled into my stomach and didn’t go away. I checked my phone over and over, sure I’d find a news report that there was another murder while I was stuck in class.
I kept reliving last night, whenever I wasn’t distracted. The moment the nails penetrated my flesh. The hiss of the snakes as their heads split open. Every time I thought about it the pain in my face and eyes came back in full force. I ducked into the bathroom at least ten times throughout the day to look in the mirror and confirm I still had skin.
And there were side effects. One second I sat in my desk, and the next I was in a field of tall, warped flowers. An emaciated man with a cloth bag over his head stood out in the field. He pulled the petals off the flowers. They whimpered. He turned to look at me, and the mouth drawn on the bag smiled. I yelped. And I was back in math class, with everyone staring at me.
Later on as I stepped into the door to homeroom it became a gaping bodily orifice. I gritted my teeth and went through. I walked along what looked like the inside of an intestine for a few seconds, then emerged through an arch into sunlight. I was outside. In the parking lot behind the school.
The sick feeling followed me home. I considered going to Juanita’s house, but that would be a waste of time. She wasn’t there. I already knew that. I just wanted to do something. I had this new power or whatever it was, but I couldn’t control it. It was as likely to get me killed or sucked into some hell-dimension as help me. And if I came up against the Man of Many Tongues again, it would be as useful as a pair of binoculars.
I had barely eaten all day, and dinner was no different.
“Are you alright?” Mom asked as we ate. “You’ve hardly touched your calzone.”
“My stomach is still a little off,” I said.
“You’re probably still messed up from last night,” said Adam.
My jaw dropped open.
“What?” I said.
“From your fall,” said Adam.
“Oh. Right. That.”
“What did you think I meant?”
“I just…” The phone rang and saved me from answering.
“Get that, Adam,” said Mom. “You’re closest.”
Adam groaned and picked up the phone.
“Hello?” he said. “Yeah, she’s here. One second.”
He handed the phone to me. My stomach turned as I took it and pressed it to my ear.
“Act excited and confirm that you are Jessica Kingsport,” said Derrick’s voice through the receiver.
“Yes, this is Jessica Kingsport,” I said.
“Good. Now here’s the plan. I’m from the Rosedell Art Fellowship Association.”
“Jesus, are you really?”
“Of course not. Try to stay in character. Let me talk to your mother, but play along that you signed up for their Teen Artist Outreach Program. Congratulations. You’re about to earn an interview.”
I handed the phone to my mom. “He wants to talk to you,” I tried to say in a stunned voice.
“Hello?” my mom said into the phone. “Yes, this is Anita Solis. Yes. Yes, she is my daughter.”
I ran off into the kitchen and picked up the other phone to listen.
“…a very valuable opportunity,” said Derrick. He sounded like bank manager ten years older than he actually was.
“I didn’t even know she entered.” Mom sounded stunned.
“We will not proceed without your permission, of course.”
“You definitely have my permission!”
“Excellent. We were quite impressed with your daughter’s portfolio.”
“She’s talented.” I heard the pride in her voice.
“Indeed. There is, however, a complication,” said Derrick.
“Your daughter was shortlisted after another candidate was disqualified. Because of this, we find ourself in a situation of some urgency. The live assessment period ends this week, and the only available appointment is for 2 PM tomorrow, Thursday, December the fifth.”
“Hmm. Yes, that might be a problem,” Mom said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to take off of work tomorrow. Plus Jessica would have to miss school.”
“I understand,” said Derrick, “but this really is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“I can take the train!” I said into the phone.
“Jessy?” said Mom. “What are you doing on the line?”
“Please Mom! I can take the train. It’s in broad daylight. You don’t have to come.”
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with you heading into the city by yourself,” Mom said. “In light of recent events.”
“I assure you your daughter is in no danger,” said Derrick, in an I’ve-said-this-a-million-times-before voice. “The Rosedell Center is located on the train route from Caldwell, and you can call our office as soon as this call is over to verify our credentials. We’ve dealt with parents many times, and we understand your concerns.”
It took almost twenty minutes, but Derrick and I convinced her to let me go. I squealed and told her she was great. Then Derrick asked to speak to me alone. I heard the phone click, but peeked into the living room to make sure.
“Are we secure?” asked Derrick.
“Yeah,” I said in a low voice.
“Excellent. Now all we need to worry about is getting you a ‘blade that has taken a human life.’ I wish we knew for sure whether that specifically indicates a murder weapon. Ben has access to a police evidence locker, but the timeframe is tight. If a scalpel used during a fatal surgery is acceptable, then we can…”
“I’ve got it,” I said.
“I’ve got it covered. I know where I can find one.”
He paused. “You’ll have to explain that to me later.”
“Are you coming? With me, I mean.”
“No. I’m busy, and I don’t think it’s a good idea. Smith might not be willing to see me. She specified you.”
“Okay.” I tried to hide the unease from my voice.
“You can handle this,” he said. “I know you can.”
“We’ll talk later,” he said.
I hung up the phone. When I walked into the living room Mom hugged me and Adam gave me a fist bump. I acted excited. Which was easy because I was excited, even if I was also a little scared. Then I stuffed the rest of my calzone into my mouth and went up to my room. I logged into the Fragments of the Annals of the Shivering Stone website and read and read and read. I was finally going to meet Withertongue. I wanted to be prepared.
I waited until past midnight, then crept downstairs. I put on my jacket and my shoes, and walked out the back door. It was cold and wet and muddy, but the garage was less than a hundred feet away from the house. I unlocked it, stepped in, and took down my father Max’s old toolbox.
As I pulled out the X-acto knife, any doubt I had evaporated. In my other vision, the knife looked different. Sharp, jagged growths jutted out from the blade. When I waved it through the air it cut tiny tears through the air of the scarred and whispering place.
As I held the rusty blade in my hand, memory flooded into my mind. I was seven. It was just a week after my birthday, but the ground outside was covered by an early snow. Max came home drunk. Mom sent Adam and I to our rooms.
Adam stopped at the top of the stairs.
“Adam, come on,” I hissed. “Mom said to go to our rooms.”
“You go,” said Adam. “I want to listen.”
I grimaced. “Then I’m listening, too.”
“No! You go to your room!”
“I’m listening,” I said, “or else I’m going to scream and you’ll get caught, too.”
“Fine,” said Adam. “Come here and hush up.” I moved close to Adam and we huddled on the landing in silence.
From below, we heard our parents speaking in low voices.
“So what happened now?” my mom said in an exasperated tone. “Who am I going to have to call and apologize to this time?”
“Not sure that’ll help in this case,” said Max.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I went to Cathy’s.” There was silence. “Don’t look at me that way, Anita. I was just blowing off steam. I’m just a bloke. Only human.”
“And what am I?”
“John was there. Didn’t rightly expect that.”
“John was…what did you do, Max?”
“What I had to.”
“What did you…oh my God!” She gasped. “Is that blood? Max, what did you…”
“He was beating her, Anita,” his voice was calm, just like it always was. So very calm. It made me shudder. “Again. I don’t reckon I had much choice.”
“So you call the cops!” Mom shrieked. She lowered her voice, but it kept its urgency. “Or get her to a shelter. You don’t…”
“Tried that,” said Max. “Been trying it for months. It’s her word against his. He’s careful. Doesn’t leave so many marks.”
“But, is he…”
“He won’t be a problem anymore.”
“Holy fuck, Max!” Mom screamed. “This isn’t a bar fight, or some two bit drug dealer in Oaklawn Park. There’s no walking away from this.”
“I’m thinking that just might be the best plan there, love.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Might be time to get out town for awhile,” he said. His words burned in my ears. He said it so casually, like he didn’t just say he was about to rip my life apart.
“They’re going to find you,” Mom said, quietly. “You can’t just run away. They’ll be after you.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe. But I know what I’m doing. And they won’t find much. I was careful. Following John’s example, I suppose.” He smirked.
Mom went quiet. I braced myself. I expected her to scream. She didn’t. She said the last thing I expected to hear.
“Fine. What can I do?” My jaw dropped open. I glanced over at Adam, and his eyes were wide and panicked.
“Tell the kids…something, will you?” said Max. “And take care of this for me.”
Something clattered to the floor. No one said another word. I heard footsteps, then the door slammed.
I ran down the stairs, and Adam followed. I saw Mom, standing there, her eyes red with tears.
“Mom,” Adam’s voice broke when he said it. “What’s going on?”
“Your father is leaving,” she said in a perfectly neutral tone. “He’s leaving and he won’t be back for awhile.”
Adam and I ran up to her and threw our arms around her.
Next to her, on the ground, lay an X-acto knife, caked with blood.
I haven’t seen Max in person ever since. The police found the body of John Margolis the next day. I never learned exactly how he died. You don’t tell little kids that kind of thing. But I saw the knife. The detective asked us some questions. They suspected him, but I guess there wasn’t that much evidence. I suppose he really was careful. He was always careful, when he wanted to be.
I don’t know why he left the knife behind. Mom never gave it to the cops. She just let it dry and put it in his toolbox. I don’t know why. Maybe she wanted to protect him even after everything. Or maybe she was saving it, in case he ever came back.
I tried to ask her about it once, years later. Why she helped him. She just flipped out and told me never to bring it up again.
I’ve hated my father for years, because of that, and for other reasons. But it’s funny how these things sometimes work out. The world has a twisted sense of humor, I guess.
And I had my murder weapon.