the withering man, final chapter
Silence fell over the room. I stood there and stared at the place where the withering man and the Man of Many Tongues had been, trying to fully grasp what I just saw. I glanced at the others. Everyone was too hurt or too stunned or too overwhelmed to say or do anything.
It was Mr. Clarkson who spoke first.
“Oh my God,” he said. “What…what the hell have I done?”
Behind him, Juanita burst into tears.
“Did everyone just see that?” said Jenna. I was surprised how calm her voice sounded.
“Yes,” I said.
“What was that thing?” she said.
“A friend,” I replied. My answer sounded so absurd in my ears that I actually laughed, which hurt by bruised ribs. “Well, an ally, anyway. I think.”
“Jessy,” said Mei, her voice laced with pain, “is it gone? That…horrible tongue-thing, is it gone?”
“It’s gone,” I said. “It’s dead.” Then it struck me that she and Jenna were still strapped to the tables, and almost everyone in the room needed medical attention. Why the hell was I standing here flapping my lips?
I rushed forward and picked up a section of bone-saw that was once the teeth of a lukra, and started to cut Mei out of her straps. I looked over and saw Mr. Clarkson cutting Jenna free.
“Jenna, I’m so sorry,” he said, his face streaked with tears. “That thing got inside me. It got inside me and…”
Jenna looked at him with fear and revulsion.
“Get away from me,” she said. I didn’t blame her.
I cut the last of Mei’s bindings, and she leaned forward and threw her arms around me. She squeezed. I could feel how little strength she had in her arms, but it was enough to hurt my injured body. It didn’t take much. I let out a cry of pain.
“I’m sorry!” Her eyes widened.
“It’s okay,” I said, laughing. “I’m just in bad shape. We all are. We have to get to the hospital.”
“Is it safe?” Jenna asked. “I was in that hospital, and that thing came, and…”
“It’s safe,” I said. “The Many of Many Tongues can’t hurt you anymore. It’s dead.” Or worse.
Juanita sobbed even louder. Mei walked up to her and wrapped the sobbing girl in her arms.
“It’s okay, Juanita,” said Mei. “It’s all over.”
Juanita shoved her away and glared into her eyes.
“Don’t you understand?” Juanita wailed. “It had so much to teach us. So much. And now It’s gone.” She collapsed to her knees and sobbed. Mei backed away.
I hadn’t noticed Sofia leaving, but when I looked up towards the exit I saw her walk into the room through the doors. She led Ms. Sanchez by the hand. The older woman was still covered in tongues. I cringed. I hoped all of that would go away when the Man of Many Tongues died. Like those stories where the people turned to stone miraculously return to normal when the warlock that cast the spell was vanquished. I guess it doesn’t work that way. Sofia took Ms. Sanchez over to where the X-acto knife lay on the floor, then picked it up and started to cut the tongues off.
I looked over at Mei, then Jenna, then Juanita. I saw that each of them had that second nervous-system inside of them, just like Sofia did, connecting the places where the Man of Many Tongues had penetrated their flesh. I walked up to Mei.
“I have to do something,” I said, “and it might hurt.”
“That thing left something inside of me, didn’t it?” she asked.
“Then please get it out.”
Jenna walked up to her and clasped her hand. I extended the blades from my maimed hand, then slid them inside of Mei. She gasped. I dragged the blades through her body. The strands of the network stuck to them, and I tore them out through her side. She clutched her abdomen in pain, and fell to the floor.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” I said as I bent over her.
“I…I think so.” After a few seconds the pain appeared to subside a little, and she sat up.
I turned to Jenna.
“Are you ready?” She nodded. The network inside Jenna was much more extensive than Mei’s. It took longer, and judging from her cries it hurt much more. When it was done she lay on the floor, twitching, while Mei stroked her hair and whispered calming words into her ear.
I walked over to Juanita. Mr. Clarkson stood over her.
“It’s okay, Juanita,” he said. “It’s going to be okay. It’s okay.”
He kept saying it, while Juanita wailed “no no no no” over and over.
“Mr. Clarkson,” I said, “I need you to hold her still while I cut what’s left of that thing out of her body.”
“Jessy,” he said, looking into my eyes, “I didn’t mean to do it. It infested my mind. I didn’t mean it. Oh God.”
“Just hold her still.” I bent down, and got to work.
When it was finished I stood up to see Sofia and Ms. Sanchez standing near me. I took a step towards Sofia, my blades extended. She shook her head and pointed to Ms. Sanchez. I nodded, and got started.
The network inside Ms. Sanchez was worse even than Jenna’s. It seemed to take forever, and her mouth hung open the whole time in a soundless scream. When I finally tore it out of her, she lurched backwards, clasping her chest. My eyes widened in horror as her body started to break apart along the lines where the network had been, as if it had been the only thing holding her together.
“Oh God,” I cried, and I stepped towards her. She held her hands out to block me, and shook her head. She caught my gaze. I saw pain in her eyes, but also something else. Peace? She threw her arms out, looked up into the air, and smiled. I watched as her body split into pieces, and the pieces dissolved into dust.
I turned to face Sofia.
“She’s gone,” Sofia said, “free.”
I nodded. “Your turn.”
Sofia shook her head. “No.”
“But…aren’t you in pain?” I said.
She just stared at me, but her eyes answered my question.
“Then let me help you, Sofia. Please.”
She shook her head again. “No. Not done. Others.”
“Others? I don’t understand.”
She pointed up at an angle, through the far wall. “Others.”
“Sofia, I don’t…”
Then she walked towards the wall and stepped into it.
“Wait!” I cried. But it was too late. She was gone.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“You were talking to Sofia?” said Jenna from behind me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Couldn’t you see her?”
“No.” Jenna shook her head. “Is she…is she going to be okay?”
“I hope so.” I sighed. “Okay. We really need to get to the hospital.”
There were murmurs of agreement around me. Together, we walked towards the stairs.
“It is over,” Mei said in my ear as we walked, “isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I lied. “It’s over.”
Maybe it was over, for her and the others. I didn’t know. I hoped so. But whether it was over for me was a different question entirely. And I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
Mr. Clarkson led us to the surface, and we reached the hospital a few minutes later. It was a small mercy that we were so close. Trying to explain to the ER staff what had happened was a nightmare, but we had so many injuries between us they rushed us in. The hardest part was getting them to send paramedics to recover Katim.
The police showed up less than half an hour later, with Agent Durant and the FBI close behind. They arrested Mr. Clarkson. Again. He confessed to what he had done. In fact, he told them the whole truth, which I’m sure made him sound completely insane. Everyone else told versions of the truth, too. I kept my answers vague, and claimed I didn’t remember much of it. I don’t know if they believed me.
My injuries weren’t as bad as they I feared they might be. Maybe I’m built tough, or maybe my claws somehow protected me. But they were bad enough. I’m recovering. Slowly. It seems like rapid healing isn’t something I get from being…whatever the hell I am.
It’s been a little over a week since all of this went down. A slow week, at least compared to the few that came before it. As crazy as it sounds, everything is kind of getting back to normal. Nothing has tried to kill me. All of us are back in school, and it’s just as full of assholes as ever. Everyone still stares at me and crosses the hall when I walk by, but what else is new? At least now I’m not alone.
Katim is in a coma. The doctors say they don’t know if he’ll ever come out. It was caused by injury to the brain. Maybe it was that parasite inside of him, but I can’t help but think it might also have been the sharp piece of metal I shoved into his eye. Even if it was the parasite, that was still my fault. He would never have been involved, if not for me.
I’ve been visiting him, every day. I owe him that. I look at the wound on his face, and his severed fingers, and it reminds me of the damage I’ve caused. I think about all of those people, including my brother, who lost their fingers because the withering man was trying to free the thing inside of me, and I ignored Him. I can’t afford to be that ignorant ever again.
Juanita is acting strange. She’s withdrawn into herself, and won’t really talk to anyone. I hope for her sake she’s getting therapy. And pills. And maybe electro-shock. But how do you recover from something like this? I’ve tried to talk to her, and I know Mei has, too. But she won’t respond. I’m worried. I’m also watching. Just in case.
Mei has been wonderful and supportive, like she always is. But there’s something in her eyes when she looks at me. She comes the closest to knowing the full extent of my involvement, because she knew about the withering man. Part of her is afraid. I finally worked up the nerve to ask her about it.
“I just need time, Jessy,” she said. “I’ll…I mean…I need some time.”
But I don’t know. I hope desperately I haven’t lost her. That she isn’t broken. I just don’t know.
But it’s not all bad. Jenna and I have been talking nearly every night. It started with a bunch of texts in the hospital. She told me she didn’t understand what in God’s name happened, but she knew that I had saved her. Again. The night we both got out, she called me and we talked for hours. About that night, the Man of Many Tongues, and everything that’s happened between us over the past few years. The last thing I said before we hung up was, “This doesn’t mean I like you, you know.” I kind of meant it, that first time. But now I make sure it’s the last thing I say whenever we talk, and it’s turned into a running joke. It makes us both giggle.
She stood up for me when Carmella Turner made fun of my dress in school, the other day. I thanked her, but told her not to do that again. If she keeps that up it’ll probably mean the death of her popularity. She said she didn’t care.
Mom and Adam are freaked out, of course, but they’re handling it. I told them I was going nuts and went for a midnight walk when I got abducted. So they’re crazy mad at me. I don’t think I’ll be allowed out on Saturday night for a couple of years. But mom will get over it. She’s going through an overprotective phase, and I can’t really blame her. Besides, if I want to get out of the house, I have other means, now.
Joseph came to speak to me. She appeared in my bedroom, which scared the piss out of me. She knew I was there, because those eyes on my ceiling are, apparently, actually her eyes. We talked for a long time. As usual, a lot of what she said didn’t make what you’d call sense. She laid down a lot of vague hints about what my life would be like, now that I was “in His service.” I protested that I hadn’t agreed to that. She just smiled.
I told her what the withering man had done, and what his words had been.
“He broke the contracts,” she said. She actually sounded surprised. First time for everything. “That is…significant.”
“But what does it mean?”
“It means that change has come to stir the gentle waters. Something is about to happen, and when it is done, I fear nothing will remain the same.”
It’s kind of hard to talk to Joseph, because she is so goddamn dramatic.
I asked her a bunch of the questions I didn’t have time for last time we spoke. Including the one that burned inside of me.
“Why did the withering man take Briana? My friend, who disappeared when I was seven years old. Why did He take her?”
I knew Joseph’s answer before she said it.
So that’s one more mystery to add to the pile. Speaking of which, Derrick seems convinced I’m going to be his on-call monster slayer, or something. I told him everything that happened, and he practically creamed his jeans. I guess this is the sort of thing people like him live for, but rarely get to actually see. I told him I’d think about it.
I held out a vague hope for a few days that my fingers would magically come back, the way my face and eyes had. But I guess it’s not really the same. They’re gone, and the doctors told me the wound was already scarred over. My mom is talking about prosthetic, but they sound pretty expensive. I guess I’m going to have to learn to draw with my left hand. It sucks, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should.
That’s pretty much everything. That leads us right back to now. As I’m writing this, I’m also looking through those crazy letters sent to Alex Kingsport. I can read them, when I Look with my other eyes. They’re full of people and events that happened over the last few years. Joseph was right. The withering man was trying to communicate with me this whole time, but I didn’t listen. I recognize some of the things in the letters. There is a photo of two children, who got kidnapped in California when I was eleven. It was national news; they were never found. Maybe I could have stopped it. Maybe I could have stopped all of it, if I’d just been paying attention.
The last one I looked at was sent to me earlier this year, and it made me gasp. It’s a picture of Maxwell, one of the guys in my class. He’s smiling, but there are flames wreathed around face, and a sword hanging over his head. I saw Maxwell just a few hours ago. Maybe whatever it is hasn’t happened yet. Maybe I can stop it. I am not going to let him get hurt, not when I can fight against it.
I don’t know if I want to work for the withering man, or whatever. I don’t even know what that means. It’s a heady question, that requires a lot of thought and soul-searching. But later. I don’t have time to worry about that now.
I have work to do.