the withering man, part 20
The train arrived at Willemstad a little before noon the next day, so I had almost two hours to kill. Under normal circumstances, two free hours by myself in the city would have been glorious. Not today. I was too nervous.
I went to a bookstore for a while and read part of a graphic novel about vampires. Then I went to a coffee shop famous for its mochas. I barely tasted it. But caffeine was a bad idea. After that I paced the city streets for a while, frustrated and anxious and excited. By the time 2 o’clock approached I was ready to tear my hair out.
Ashfall Psychiatric Hospital didn’t look like a haunted castle or anything, but at least it had a few turrets. As I walked across the lawn towards the main entrance, I tried to block out my Vision as much as I could. If my street was scary, I didn’t want to think about what an insane asylum looked like on the other side. I’d been practicing with the Vision all night, and I had a little more control. The pain wasn’t as bad, anyway.
The inside of Ashfall resembled a regular hospital, only more lived-in. Paintings of lighthouses and dogs hung on the walls, and the staff walked around the lobby wearing what my mom calls “fancy casual.” I headed straight for reception.
“Hi,” I said to the young man at the desk. “My name is Jessica Kingsport. I’m here to visit with Joseph Smith. His mom set it up. I mean, she was supposed to. I think she did. She’s old.”
Oh shut up, Jessica. Did I mention I was nervous?
“Once second while I look that up,” said the man in a pleasant voice. “Jessica Kingsport. Can you spell that last name?”
“K I N G S P O R T,” I said. “It’s British.” I cringed. What a stupid thing to say.
“Is that right?” The man clacked his fingers at his keyboard. “Here you are. Clip this badge on your shirt, and head over to the Navos wing. It’s just through that door, then down at the end of the hallway, and to the left. There are signs. You can’t miss it. Check in the with the nurse’s station when you get there.”
I thanked the man, took the badge, and headed in that direction. This was all unsettlingly normal. Part of me wanted creepy arches and gibbering patients struggling against straitjackets. As it was, the reality that I was about to meet Withertongue refused to set in.
I found the Navos wing with no trouble and told one of the people at the nurse’s desk who I was.
“Yes, Ms. Kingsport,” she said. “Right this way. We’ve set up a private visiting room for you. Joseph can get a little antsy around groups.”
“Okay,” I said. I followed her down the hall. There were people milling around. Everyone wore normal clothes. No nurse’s uniforms. No plain white hospital gowns. Definitely no straitjackets. It made it difficult to tell the staff from the patients. Although the man standing in the corner gibbering to himself was probably a patient.
“You have nothing to worry about,” the nurse said as we approached the room. “There’s a camera in the room, and we’ll be monitoring the entire time.”
“Is that…is that necessary?” I asked. “I mean, she’s not going to attack me or anything, right?”
“Oh no,” she said. “Joseph has never shown any signs of violence. But we like to take precautions. It’s mostly for her protection. Here you are.” She opened the door. “A technician will be right outside. Ask if you need anything.”
“Thanks.” I walked into the room. It looked like any other generic waiting room. Empty, except for a small table with a plant on it, and several padded chairs. And her.
She sat in the corner. Joseph Smith. Withertongue616. The prophet, or whatever she was, of the withering man.
The door snapped closed behind me, and Joseph’s head jerked around wildly, as if looking for the noise.
“Joseph?” I asked. Her face shot in my direction. I swallowed heavily. “It’s me. Jessica. I’m here. Just like you said.”
Her mouth stretched into a twisted smile. She waved for me to approach. I did. I saw that she still had that filthy plastic water bottle clutched in her hand. When I reached her, she stood up from her chair and lurched forward. She pawed at my face with her hand. I gasped and stepped back.
My instincts screamed at me to run out of the room. To run and run and not look back. I dug my fingernails into my palm. I was here. I had to do this.
“I did what you said.” My voice broke in my ears. “I…I let Him in. He took my face. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
She pressed two of her fingers into her empty eye sockets. Then she removed them, and pointed in the general direction of my face.
“You want me to look,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
She tilted her head. I took a deep breath, and blurred my eyes. Everything changed. The walls became stained and rusty. The lighting flickered. I looked at Joseph, and gasped. There were still sockets where her eyes should be, but they weren’t empty.
Dozens of tiny, fleshy strings, like sinew or strands of muscle fiber, stretched out from the holes in her face. They were hooked to the inside of the empty cavities with what looked like tiny, polished fishhooks. The strings stretched out in every direction, up through the ceiling, down through the floor, and to the left and right through the walls.
Then I looked at her mouth. A large, swollen boil stretched over her lips from end to end.
That’s why she can’t talk.
I remembered the last time I spoke with her. How she ran her fingernail over her mouth. I knew exactly what I had to do. I reached into my bag and pulled out the X-acto knife. The murder weapon. I removed the gauze wrapping.
Joseph straightened her back. Her hands shook, as if she could barely contain her excitement. I stepped towards her.
“Is this going to hurt?” I asked.
She waved impatiently, and groaned. I looked nervously at the camera behind me. At this angle, it shouldn’t be able to see exactly what I was doing. Hopefully whoever was on monitor duty wasn’t paying that much attention.
I turned back towards Joseph. I leaned in, and pressed the tip of the blade to the corner of her mouth. I took a deep breath, and tried to stop my fingers from quivering. The point of the knife slid into the edge of the boil with no resistance at all. A sharp, horrid smell leaked out of the tiny opening.
Joseph lurched backwards. Her arms flailed. Patches of skin on her face and arm bulged out, and crawled along her flesh. Her entire body erupted into wracking convulsions.
I glanced back at the door. Only a few seconds before the orderlies would burst in. I had to do this now. I stepped towards Joseph and grabbed the back of her hair. She shook wildly against me. I jabbed the knife into the boil, and cut it open with a single, squelching slice.
The door behind me swung open.
“She’s having an episode,” said a man as he rushed in.
I looked back at Joseph. A wave of yellow and black spiders poured out of her open mouth, along with a stench so intense it made me retch. The creatures swarmed over her body and up the wall behind her in a squirming mass. Just before the orderly reached her, Joseph frantically unscrewed the top of her water bottle and held it into the air.
“Come!” she cried. As one, every single spider paused , then rushed towards her. They crawled up her legs, then along her arm, and into the bottle’s opening.
“Joseph,” said the orderly, “are you alright? What are you doing, Joseph?”
“Is she okay?” said a voice behind me. I turned to see the nurse.
“Seems like the convulsions stopped,” the orderly said.
“Good. Let’s get her out of here,” said the nurse. She turned to me. “Excuse me.”
I looked back at Joseph. She screwed the top of the bottle –now filled to the brim with spiders– back on. She looked at me. She smiled. Then she started to laugh. A high, triumphant, cackling sound. She laughed and she laughed and she laughed.
“Joseph,” said the nurse. “Calm down, we have to…”
Joseph kept laughing. She doubled over and her whole body convulsed with laughter. The sound reverberated in my skull and made me feel sick. She looked up, pointed straight at me, and kept laughing. I turned, and backed quickly out of the room.
“We need chemical restraints,” I heard the nurse say. “Hold her arms.”
A few seconds later they came out of the room, holding Joseph. They dragged her off in the opposite direction. She continued to point straight at me. She never stopped laughing.
I left the ward as quickly as I could. I wanted to run until my legs gave out, but I forced myself to walk. When I got to the lobby I collapsed into a chair.
My mind and my pulse both raced. What the hell just happened? Withertongue was free. She was bound, or cursed, or infected. And I freed her. Was that what all of this was about? Had she just used me?
The answer was obvious. Of course she had. She strung me along from the beginning. She knew everything, and I knew nothing. I’m sure I was an easy puppet.
I sat there for a long time with my face buried in my arms. I needed to go back in there. Would they let me in? I needed to talk to her again and demand answers. To come this far and just give up was not an option. I knew this. But I couldn’t get myself to move from that chair.
“Well?” said a voice in front of me. A female voice. “Are you coming?”
I look up frantically. There was no one there.
“Look at me,” she said again. The voice was smooth. Silky. Like a lounge singer. Or a phone sex operator. “Look properly.”
I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut. Then I Looked.
Standing in front of me was a shape, the same height and build as the Joseph Smith I saw a few minutes earlier. It had the same eyes, with the empty sockets and the protruding strings. But it wasn’t human. Instead she was a human-shaped collection of semi-translucent blackness. Like she was carved from obsidian, only blurry at the outline. Her long, night-black hair flowed around her head like it was underwater.
“Good,” she said. “Good.” Her smile cut a line of white against the darkness where her head should be.
“What the hell is going on?”
“I checked myself out,” she said. When she opened her mouth to speak I saw her tongue. It was desiccated. Withered.
“You checked yourself…you can just do that?”
“Of course.” She laughed. “Why not? I’m here of my own will. Very nearly.”
“Stand up!” she shouted. I winced. “We have other places, and we must be.”
“Yeah,” I said. I got to my feet. “Okay.”
Behind her, I saw that the receptionist and the other people in the lobby were staring at me. It dawned on me that they couldn’t see or hear Joseph. To them, I was sitting here talking at full volume to myself. In the lobby of a mental institution.
“Let’s get out of here,” I whispered, and hastened out the front door.
Joseph followed, walking right through the wall of the hospital and out into the lot. Once we were in the open, I saw that some of the strings attached to her eyes went up to different heights – ten feet, fifty feet, 200 feet – then curved off and kept going.
“Follow me,” she said. “Time is sharp and broken.” She glided off quickly down the street.
“Wait!” I ran after her. Once I caught up I had to jog to keep pace.
“Why do you look like that?” I asked.
“You already know,” she said. “Don’t be stupid. Tell me.” This last was an order.
“That’s your other body,” I said. “Just like Alex is mine. Where are you going?”
“Words are scarce,” she said as she stepped off the hospital lawn and turned down the street. “We cannot linger together long. Not while you are so raw, and I am so weakened.”
“But I have so many questions,” I protested. “You can’t just bring me here and then run away.”
“Ask,” she said. “But choose carefully. Once the words are spent, they are spent.”
Everything I’d seen and experienced over the last three weeks coursed through my brain. There was so much. I didn’t understand any of it enough to know what was the most important.
“I’m trying! I just…” I bumped into an old man and knocked the cane out of his hand. I apologized, but he shot me a nasty look and told me to watch where I was going. I apologized again, and ran after Joseph, who never stopped moving.
“What does He want from me?” I said when I caught her.
“The withering man.”
“The withering man,” she smirked.
“Yes. Why has He been watching me? I mean, why me? What the hell does He want?”
“He does not want,” said Joseph. “He has no glands. But His plans for you, such as He has shoved the revelation of their shape into my skull, are as they always were. To teach you. To shape you. To watch you struggle, and suffer, and inflict suffering upon others. And to hear you scream. He can only hear us when we scream.”
“To hear me scream,” I repeated.
“To arm you.” Without turning, she reached out and grabbed the fingers of my right hand and squeezed. “So you can serve as His hands, to touch that which He cannot touch. He’s been trying for so long. But you resisted. You were strong, and stubborn, and stupid.”
“So what changed?” I asked, trying to ignore the insult.
“This time, you paid attention.”
Because of Sofia, I thought. It took my friend dying for me to finally wake up.
Joseph turned and glided into the street. I winced as a Volkswagen drove right through her.
“Follow,” she called out to me. “If you can.”
“Where are you…” Then I saw. How had I missed it? Right in the middle of the busy four-lane road was a gigantic tower. It stretched up into the sky, so high I couldn’t see the top of it. It was about ten feet in diameter, and made out small white stones. All of the cars on the road drove around it, as if they couldn’t see it at all.
Joseph walked up the tower, and a hole ripped open and sent stones flying everywhere. Red light poured out. Joseph stepped into it. It closed up behind her, and she was gone.
“Crap!” I rushed out into the street.
A car honked and swerved to miss me. I ignored it, and weaved through the oncoming traffic towards the tower. When I reached it, I saw that the tower wasn’t made of stones. It was made of teeth. I poked at the spot where the opening had been. The teeth were sharp, and a spot of blood blossomed on my finger.
A black hand burst through the tower wall. It grabbed my arm, and wrenched me towards it. The thing in my chest began to scratch, but I forced it still. There was a strange sensation, like I was ripped violently out of a slippery wetsuit. The arm pulled me through the small opening and into the tower.
I blinked. Red, hazy light surrounded me. My Vision was different. Blurry, with the same feeling that my eyes were covered in scars. The pain was still there, but now it didn’t bother me. Not even a little. But something was missing. The world. There were no cars, no streetlights, no pedestrians on the sidewalk a few feet away. Just crimson-colored mist, and a landscape of rolling hills covered in tall grass that stretched as far as I could see.
“Where are we?” Joseph’s smooth voice tickled my ear. “Tell me.”
“The scarred and whispering place,” I said.
“And how can you be here?”
I reached down between my legs. I reached up to touch my face. There was no skin. Only dense strands of muscle tissue.
“I’m in my other body. I am Alexander Kingsport.” My voiced sounded deeper in my ears, and it cracked. But it still sounded like me.
“Too simple,” said Joseph, “But not wrong. Follow.” And she was off.
“How did we…”
“So few words,” she said, “and every one valuable. Choose carefully.”
I tried to take a deep breath, only to find I wasn’t breathing. And I had no pulse. As far as I could tell, this body was a corpse.
Had I left my real body behind? Was it sitting in the middle of the street pissing off people in SUVs and stalling traffic? I wanted to ask, but I bit my tongue. I would find out soon enough.
“If he, the withering man or whatever, if he needs me, then why has He been hunting me?” I said. “Why has He been trying to scare me?”
A huge, scaly bird flew high overhead of us, carrying a person in each of its massive talons.
“Has He?” said Joseph. “When you see Him, are you afraid?”
“Yes,” I said without thinking.
“Are you really?”
I thought about it. When I saw him the first time, when I was seven, I hadn’t screamed, or scampered away. I ran up to him. Why had I done that? And I did it again at the flash mob. I tried to climb up a tree and reach him. I should have been terrified. I thought he killed Sofia, and I should have been frightened for my life and my soul just to glimpse him. But I wasn’t.
And hadn’t he protected me, in the woods, just two days ago? Another scene flashed into my mind, from years ago, that I had forgotten until I saw the photograph the Sunday before last. The time at Caldwell river, when Jenna and I were almost crushed by a tree branch. I heard a sound above me, and that was the only reason I got out of the way in time. I thought it was a squirrel. No, I told myself it was a squirrel. But He was there. Watching me. Warning me?
“So He’s not dangerous?” I said.
A croak of laughter erupted from Joseph’s lips. She laughed so hard she stopped walking. I bumped into her, and she kept laughing.
“He is the most dangerous thing in the galaxies and dominions and endless fields of festering rot,” she said when she recovered. “In a universe of apex predators with bottomless hunger, He is the virus that infects not our cells, but the mathematics that governs the chemistry of their interactions. But He has never hurt you. He has groomed you for His service.”
“But why should I help him? If he’s so dangerous? Shouldn’t…I mean, shouldn’t we try to stop him?”
“He does not care about us,” said Joseph. “But They do. The Worms. The Devils. The Elder Things. The Serpents that gnaw on the root of the Tree and unleash the Wolf that will swallow the sun. They hunger for us, and our lusts and our torments. And He delights, such as he can delight, in making them squirm.”
I tried to wrap my head around this.
“So…we’re better off with Him than without Him,” I said.
“Yes. Until the day, at the barest of His whims, he decides to crack this universe into shards, and piss on the splinters, yes. For reasons we cannot understand without fracturing into agony and madness, “she smiled a crooked smile, “we are better off with Him.”
The hill in front of us had a huge opening, and we walked down it into a tunnel. The walls were polished marble, black and silver and purple. I heard running water up ahead.
“Were you behind the Flash Mob of Faces and Eyes?” I asked.
“Me,” said Joseph, “or one of the Acolytes.” She plucked at one of the strings in her eye. It twanged, like a discordant harpstring. “It all runs together, within the Caress.”
“But why? What did it accomplish?”
“He was trying to communicate. To teach you. To prepare you for what was to come.”
“For getting my face ripped off,” I said. “So I could See. He could have just sent me an email.”
Joseph laughed. “The truths are hammered into the soft matter of our brains. Sometimes they tear.”
We emerged out of the tunnel into a cave. There was a black river in front of us, and a figure in tattered robes standing in a small rowboat. Joseph walked towards him, and waved me to follow. The boatman stretched out his arm to her. When his hand emerged from under the sleeve I saw that it was just bone.
Joseph reached into her mouth and pulled out a coin. She dropped it into the boatman’s skeletal hand.
“Pay him,” she said.
Joseph stared at me with her blank face. I reached into my mouth, and felt under my tongue. There was a coin. I pulled it out and stared at it. There was a face on one side, but I couldn’t make it out in the dim misty light. On the other was a symbol I would have recognized anywhere. Jagged Darkness.
I followed Joseph onto the boat and passed the boatman the coin. He slipped it into his robes and kicked off the shore.
We floated down the river in silence as the boatman pulled on his oars. Every time the oar sent a small spray of water into the air, I saw dull colors. Purple and red and green. Then they splashed back into the water and faded to black. This was where color came to die.
“Okay, let’s say I believe all of this,” I said when the silence became too much. “What’s next? What do we do?”
The current of the river grew stronger, and the boat rocked. Two extra arms emerged from the boatman’s robes, each holding an oar. He plunged them into the water.
“Shh,” said Joseph. “We come to the nests of the neverwings. Stay silent. They will try to steal your lusts. Don’t let them.”
“What do you…”
The boat drifted into a long, narrow tunnel, lit by stones that glowed like fire set into the walls. I heard screeching from above. I looked up. The air above was filled with birds. All kinds of birds. Ravens and robins and parrots with dirty feathers. I saw a bat, and something with a scaly tail dangling behind it. They flew back and forth between the filthy nests that clung to the rock. None of them had wings.
One of them looked down at me, a bright red cardinal with a string of flesh hanging from its beak. A memory flashed through my mind. My sister Aimee, sitting in a hospital bed, tubes shoved her arms and her mouth and her nostrils. She looked at me, her eyes stained with pain and hopelessness. There was a pillow next to my hand. I wanted to pick it up. I needed to pick it up. All I had to do was press it over her tiny face. It would only take a minute. She wouldn’t even fight. And it would all be over.
“Aimee…” I whimpered.
The cardinal shrieked and plunged down towards me. Its beak gleamed in the firelight as it sped towards my face. I threw my arms over my head. In a flash Joseph stood up and slashed at the bird with something in her hand. It burst into blood and feathers, and the two halves of my attacker landed in the river with a splash.
The screeching above us grew louder. I didn’t look up. Joseph put her finger to her lips, and then smiled.
Several long minutes later the cries of the neverwings died off, and I heard nothing but the drag of the oars through the water. The boat emerged out of the tunnel and into a large area that was much brighter.
“We’re nearly there,” said Joseph. I didn’t respond, and she fell back into silence. A minute later she spoke again. “I tried to face the Baron of the Flesh that Spawns the Word.”
“The Baron that…you mean the Man of Many Tongues.”
“He has many names,” she said. Then she tilted her head. “No. Not many. Just two.” She let out a piercing laugh that echoed from the walls. “I gathered the materials and set forth. But I am weak. The Baron struck me down, and sealed his bane within me, to torment me and bind me from acting against him.”
“The spiders,” I said.
“I stood no chance against the Worm. I am dedicated to my Master, but I am not His hand.”
“Then what are you?”
“His mouthpiece. And,” she smiled that brilliant, twisted smile, “his eyes.”
I looked down at my palms and flexed my fingers.
“And I’m His hands.”
She turned and looked me in the eyes. “You could be.”
“Which means I have to fight this…thing, whatever it is. The Man of Many Tongues.”
“You must do what you must do,” said Joseph. The boatman pulled on his oars and the boat drifted forward. A wooden dock emerged from the mist up ahead. The boat glided toward it, and stopped.
Joseph stood up and stepped off the boat. I followed her off.
The ground was covered in loose sand that felt like it wanted to suck me under. We walked across it for only a minute before we came to a flight of stone stairs. Joseph walked up, and I followed.
“Understand that He can shape you, and He can destroy you if He chooses,” Joseph said as we ascended. “But only you can define yourself. You are one of very few who has glimpsed what lies beneath the skin of the world. It can be cold and sharp and lonely without meaning. To find meaning you must follow a path. And you must risk everything. You can understand, or you can be safe. It’s your last choice.”
“It’s my only choice.” I dug my fingernails into my palm.
Joseph opened a door at the top of the stairs, and gray light streamed in. It was a welcome sight, after all the dimness.
“After you,” she said. I stepped through and emerged onto a cobbled street under a gray sky. Small shacks lined the road around me, and strange creatures walked around. The denizens of this world, maybe, carrying about their scarred and whispering business, as uncaring as if we were ordinary pedestrians walking out of a Starbucks.
I looked over at Joseph when she came through the door.
“I want to fight that Many Tongued son of a bitch,” I said. “I want to kill him.”
“I know.” She reached her hand out towards me. “Take my hand, and step as I step.”
I clasped my hand around hers, and together we stepped forward. I felt a sensation like a wet fur coat pressed against my entire body. I started to suffocate, and then forced myself to take a gasping breath. A sharp pain in my chest confused me for a moment, before I realized my heart was beating again. It felt strange. I looked at Joseph. She was no longer a black figure with no features. She was just a woman. An ordinary woman, in a navy blue top, with no eyes.
“We’re back in the real world, I guess,” I said.
“But are we?”
“Wait a minute, we’re in Caldwell. That’s the Sparrowhawk Cafe. How the hell did we get here?”
Joseph smiled. It wasn’t much less creepy when she looked human. “We took a shortcut through the underworld. Weren’t you paying attention?”
“That was the…”
“No. But it will serve. Here, you’ll need this,” she passed me her water bottle. Even without Looking I could see the spiders swarming within it. ““The Baron sealed this within me because he fears it. Perhaps he won’t expect you to wield against him. You’ll also need this.” She handed me the X-acto knife. I wasn’t sure how she got that.
“Um…thanks.” I wrapped the knife back in its gauze and put both objects into my bag. “So what now? How do I find the Man of Many Tongues?”
“You’ve already kicked the nest,” said Joseph. “The hornets will come to you.”
I gritted my teeth. “I’ll be ready.”
“Good. Next time I see you, hopefully you won’t be dead.”
“Wait, next time? Where are you going?”
She tilted her head and looked at me. “Back to the hospital. It takes three days to check yourself out. I wouldn’t want to break the rules.” She turned and began to walk away.
Realization spiked through me, and I ran towards Joseph.
“Can I save her?” I cried.
Joseph turned around and looked at me.
“Sofia. The creature, he did something to her,” my mouth felt dry. “He twisted her. She’s in pain. Can I save her?”
“When you ask anyone enough questions, the final answer is always the same.”
“And what is that?”
“I don’t know.” She stepped backwards, and was gone.
I looked at my phone. It was 4:30. The trip through the scarred and whispering place took a little more than two hours. It felt like minutes. Or days. I had a text from my mom asking me how it went and how long it was going to take. I responded and said it went well, and that I was on my way back.
I didn’t feel like going home just yet, so I went into the coffee shop and got a drink. I sat there and sipped it and thought about everything. The coffee tasted intense, now that I had a working tongue again. The four million questions I should have asked Joseph ran through my mind. I didn’t know how to feel about any of this. But it was like the crazier it all got, the more it made sense. When the real world is a torrent of ceaseless madness, rational explanations are the scales that cover our eyes.
Or something like that.
It was nearly six when I got home. Adam and my mom were waiting for me with cake and pizza.
“How did it go?” Mom asked before I could even put my stuff down.
“Pretty well,” I said. “But I’m exhausted. Is it okay if I just go to bed?”
“You have to at least have some cake,” said Adam. “I’ve been baking it all day.”
“No, of course not. Wow, you are tired.”
But I had some pizza and cake with them anyway. They kept me down there for almost an hour, answering questions about an interview that never took place. I kept my replies vague, and told them I was overwhelmed by it all. I think they believed me.
I went to my bedroom, but I didn’t sleep. Whatever I told my family, I was not tired. Maybe it was the coffee, or the adrenaline, but it was hard to imagine ever sleeping again. Instead I sent Derrick an email. I couldn’t concentrate enough to get the details down, so it was vague. And I read some more of the Annals of the Shivering Stone. The encounter with the Man of Many Tongues was bound to happen soon, and it would be very, very dangerous. I needed every edge I could get.
But mostly, I sat around and waited for something to happen.
It didn’t take long.