Red On The Tip of My Pen

How well I could write if I were not here!

 

I don’t know how this happened. I think about it a lot. That gets me nowhere.

“I’m writing a new novel I’m really excited about,” I said to Maya on the phone the other day. That’s my mom. I call her Maya.

“Oh, great!” she said. “What’s it about?” I heard the apprehension in her voice. She knew what I was going to say.

“It’s a horror novel.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Right.”

“I don’t know where this comes from,” I said. “I never liked horror movies as a kid.”

“I know. That was your brother. Do you like them now?”

“Yeah. Kind of. I mean, I really like them. Some of them. It’s weird.”

“You’re weird,” she said, with the kind of unconditional affection wrapped in mild insult that is the hallmark of mothers everywhere. At least, the good ones.

As an adult, I love horror movies, but it was a long time coming. I’ve loved horror fiction for a long time, but something about movies put me off. I remember sitting in the finished basement where I spent almost all of the free hours of my childhood. My brother and I were both stuffed on the love seat with the brown flower pattern that used to be my grandmothers, watching our tiny TV. Mostly it got used for Sega Genesis games and Saved By The Bell after school, but it was the weekend, and either it was my brother’s turn or I didn’t have a game I was playing. He had the remote, and he flipped from channel to channel.

He stopped on a shot of a boy with wide eyes. Creepy music in the background.

“Change it,” I said. “This looks stupid.” He didn’t change it. An awful owl puppet showed up on screen, and something scary happened.

“Ooo, a bad horror movie,” my brother said. “I love bad horror movies.”

“I’m going outside.”

I didn’t love bad horror movies. I still don’t. I love good ones. But not all of them. When I talk to people about horror or browse horror websites like Bloody Disgusting I feel alienated. Because I love scary. I love creepy. I crazy love unsettling.

But I don’t like gore. Blood and guts both disgust and bore me. They’re supposed to do one, but not so much the other. Furthermore, I don’t even understand why people find them appealing. I mean that literally. I consider myself highly empathetic, and I don’t bat an eye at the fact people have different preferences than me. I don’t like raw onions, but it’s not weird that other people do. They have a different mind, different senses, different reactions to the same stimuli. So I accept that people dig sprays of blood on the screen. I’m just not sure why.

It’s more true for me than it is for other genres I don’t like. I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, but I completely grasp their appeal. Human connection, the fantasy of idealized romance, the warm, beautiful feeling that real love is out there, possible, never even that far away. But with gore? I just don’t get it.

Which makes the next part weird. This novel I’m writing, that one my mother will be sad that she can’t read if it somehow gets published? It’s pretty gory. There’s blood. There flesh flying off of people’s faces and splatting against the wall. At some point, someone’s head pops clean off and lands amidst a pile of Doritos. I’m less than 10,000 words in. And my other novel? That was pretty gory, too.

It’s not that I hate blood and guts. Not enough to turn me off of a horror story or movie that otherwise appeals to me. Sometimes it’s even the whole point, but everything else is so conceptually interesting or well written that I love it anyway. Kill Bill is one of my favorite movies. One of my favorite short stories is Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train, which is not about cooking steaks on an electrified third rail. Although I should totally write that story.

When I read bloody, visceral descriptions of blood and viscera, I always wonder what the writer is thinking. Do they find this kind of thing appealing? Are the just totally unfazed by it? I used to think the answer had to be yes. Now I’m not so sure. Because I don’t find it appealing, and I am definitely fazed by it. But not while I’m writing.

I’ve noticed that my brain sometimes writes jokes I find distasteful for demographics I don’t identify with. The frattiest of frat boys, or the reddest of rednecks. Jokes I think would be legitimately funny to people in those groups, but that I don’t find amusing at all. Maybe generative creativity goes isn’t about the appeal to the brain that generates it. Maybe writers don’t always write for themselves, but for the ages.

Or in this case, ages 13-17, mostly male, parental permission required for entry.

 

Twigs, Part 2 of 2

scary

Another 37, Day 10

Twigs
A Short Horror Story
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1)

 

It was when I was walking home from school, this time in the spring. Now that I think about it, it was the last day of school, so there was an extra bounce in my step. Most of the time I walked home with my best friend Genna, but her parents had picked her up directly from school so they could set out on vacation straight away. So I was all by myself. I knew I would miss Genna for the weeks she was gone, but summer vacation stretched out in front of me and nothing could bring me down.

I took the long route home along the back roads and over near the edge of town where the rich people lived. Or at least, what he had that passed for rich people. They had gardens in full spring bloom and trees covered in blossoms and it was beautiful. I used to go out for walks by myself all of the time, and even though I liked walking with Genna or my other friends I realized that I missed this solitary time to just be out in nature with no one around to distract me. I wondered why I never did this anymore. A moment later, I remembered.

“Pick us up,” said a deep, scraggly voice just a few feet away from me.

I shrieked and jumped into the air. My bag flew off my shoulder and smacked against the ground. I heard a muffled shattering noise that could only mean the unfinished Snapple in the bottle pocket had broken, and my books and notes would be soaked. I didn’t care.

“No,” I said, half to myself. “No, you’re not real.”

“That’s right,” said the voice. The voices. “We’re not real. Nothing to worry about. Just pick us up.”

I couldn’t do that. Anything but that. I had to get out of here. That’s what I thought, and I barely noticed my outstretched fingers until they brushed against the bark, and felt it pulsate.

“No!” I screamed. I jumped back and began to run. I didn’t stop to pick up my bag. I didn’t turn around to look. At one point I tripped and scraped my knees and my hands, but I just picked myself up and kept on running.

I burst through the gate of my front yard ten minutes later, slamming so hard against the fence that white paint flew off in chips as it crashed against the other side. I hunched over and breathed in ragged, gasping pants. Fire lanced up both of my sides, the scratches on my knees screamed, and my lungs felt like I would cough them out in bloody clots. But at least I was home. At least I was safe.

“We won’t forget about you, little girl.” The words scratched their way into my ears. I turned in horror towards the sound to see a small branch just a few feet away. It undulated on the neatly trimmed grass. “We never forget. So go ahead. Pick us up.”

 

I locked myself in my room that night and hid under the covers. When my mom came to wake me the next day for First Day of Summer Breakfast I told her I was sick and I couldn’t eat anything.

“You do look pretty ragged,” she said as she felt my forehead. “I don’t think you have a fever. Better just get some rest. You look like you haven’t slept in weeks.”

“I feel like it,” I croaked. It wasn’t far off. I hadn’t slept a single minute the night before.

“Poor baby,” she said. “I’ll make you some chamomile, okay? I’ll bring it right up. Let me know if you need anything. I can make you some soup.”

“Maybe later,” I said. My voice was very scratchy. I didn’t like the way it sounded. “Thanks, mom. Mom, can I ask you something?”

I was about to bring it up. The twigs. Then I saw her face. It froze up, into a mask. Before I even said anything.

“Yes?” she asked, her voice utterly empty.

“Nothing, mom. Nothing at all.”

 

I didn’t leave the house for a days. It wasn’t like me, but the rest of the family chalked it up to my illness. I did feel ill, but not for the reasons they thought. So I stayed in and I read books and I watched Netflix and played card games on my tablet. Anything to keep me busy, keep me from thinking. And I tried not to look out the window. They were out there.

Was I going insane? Surely there weren’t really living, talking twigs littering the streets of my town, begging stray girls to pick them up. I tried to tell myself that. That I was crazy, or that I had just had some kind of weird dream. I could almost believe it, except that it all felt so real. I could hear the blend of deep, craggly voices, thick with anticipation as I reached for them. I could smell the lilacs in bloom in the exact spot where it happened. I had always loved that scent, but it now it sickened me.

It took a week before I dared put a foot outside the house. I volunteered to check the mail. It had been my turn a few times, but I got out of my chores because I had been sick. My parents both believed me because I never stayed in this long, and because what kid fakes being sick right after school lets out? But after a week trapped in my own house I felt cramped and restless, and I knew I couldn’t stuff myself inside forever.

So I walked through the front door, hesitantly. I inched towards the mailbox, one step at a time, glancing in all directions and starting at the noise of a squirrel as it scurried up a nearby tree. I made it to the mailbox. I grabbed the mail. I was almost in the front door when I heard it.

“We never forget.”

This was real. This wasn’t going away. I was terrified, but I couldn’t let it keep me from the world. I had to do something. I had to tell someone. Someone I could trust. Genna. I had to tell Genna. She would be back from vacation in a week, and I would let her knew. She was my best friend, and she was the smartest person I knew aside from my dad and my 6th grade math teacher, but I was scared to talk about this to an adult. Genna would believe me. Genna would know what to do.

I counted down the days until her return on my room calendar. The stretched out far, far longer than summer vacation days are supposed to. I went outside a few times. I wore headphones so I could blast my music.  I tried to stay as far as I could away from fallen branches, but it was impossible. Sometimes I saw movement out of the corner of my eyes. Sometimes I thought I heard a voice, and I turned my music up. All the while a single question ran through my head: what would happen? What would happen if I picked them up? The thought terrified me. But at the same time…no. Best not to think about that.

Finally the day of Genna’s return arrived. I texted her in the few days beforehand that I missed her and I really wanted to see her as soon as possible. She said she felt the same. So it wasn’t hard to arrange to go over to her house the day she got back.

“Hey Stace,” she said as she opened her front door and I hugged her. “What’s up?”

“Nothing much,” I said as I stepped in. “It’s just been boring around here without you.”

“I know, right?” she said.

“Hello, Stacey!” her mom called to me we walked through the living room towards the stairs up to Genna’s room.

“Hi Mrs. Beaumont!” I said to her.

“You kids want some snacks?” she asked.

“Maybe later, mom,” said Genna, and we raced up the stairs.

“How was Paris?” I asked.

“It was super fun,” she said. “But I wish you could have been there. And we went to way too many museums.”

I giggled.

“So what’s on your mind?” she asked. “You sounded like you had something way important to tell me.”

“Yeah, it’s…it’s nothing. I was just bored, like I said.” She gave me a skeptical look. I wanted to tell her. I had to tell her. But not just yet. Not when I had this chance to have fun with my best friend and forget about things for a while.

So we sat on her bed and she showed me the pictures she took on her phone at the Eiffel Tower and her “favorite French cafe.” Then we played with her dolls for a bit. We were both way too old to play with dolls, of course, but that’s why we only did it when we were together. Mutually assured social destruction. Then she showed me the fan fiction she was writing and I gave it a Serious Critique.

It was fun, but as time went on my stomach started to twist up. I couldn’t put this off much longer. Did I really want to tell her? I had to. They were still out there. They weren’t going away. If I didn’t tell someone I would scream. So after we ate dinner and I helped her do the dishes we ended up back in her room, and I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer.

“Genna, can I ask you something weird?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Of course.”

“No, I mean, this is really weird. You might not like me anymore after I tell you. It’s that weird.”

“Weirder than when you told me you liked Josh Corbin?” she gave me a wicked smile.

“Yes,” I said, and my voice sobered. “This is serious.”

“Jesus Stacey,” Genna said. “You’re freaking me out. What’s going on?”

I took a deep breath. “Have you ever, I mean, have you ever seen something so strange you couldn’t make sense of it? Like, something…I mean, have you ever heard of a stick, like, a twig or something…talking?”

Genna’s eyes widened, and her face became a mask of horror. I heard her door open behind me, and the sound of footsteps.

“Did you…did you hear a twig speak to you?” She sounded terrified, more scared than I had ever heard her.

“That’s normal,” said a voice behind me. It was utterly without inflection. I turned around and saw her mom holding a tray of cut fruit. Her face was expressionless. “Don’t worry about that. It’s normal.”

“Mrs. Beaumont?” I said. “Are you okay.”

“Everything is okay,” she said mechanically. “Everything is normal.”

I looked back at Stacey, and she regarded her mom in shock. Then Mrs. Beaumont’s countenance softened. “I thought you girls might like some dessert.”

“Thanks mom,” said Genna. And I muttered my thanks as well. Mrs. Beaumont put down the tray and smiled at us and walked out of the room.

“What did you see?” Genna hissed in a loud whisper. “What did you hear, did you…did you touch them?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, almost, I…”

“Don’t pick them up!” Her voice trembled. “For the love of God, Stacey, whatever you do, don’t pick them up!”

“Did you…Genna, have you seen them? Have you heard them, too?”

She shook her head. “Not me. But my sister did. She told me, before…”

“What are you talking about? When did this happen?”

“Isabelle,” she said softly. “ A few years ago. My little sister. Isabelle.”

“Genna, what the hell are you talking about?” I looked at my friend in confusion. The next words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to realize what they meant. What they suggested. “You’ve never had a sister.”

“Yes,” she said as she closed her eyes. “I did.”

Genna and I didn’t talk about it anymore, after that. But things between us were never the same. Sometimes secrets bring people together, and sometimes they make you think about things you don’t want to think about. I didn’t ask her about Isabelle. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe it was because I did want to know, and that scared me even more.

That was a long time ago, now. The twigs were telling the truth. They never forgot about me. Oh, I didn’t always hear them. I didn’t always see them writhing just on the edge of sight. Sometimes years would go by with nothing. But they always came back. And I could never forget them, not for a single day. Any stick, any severed branch could be one of them. Could speak to me, could tempt me.

They’re talking more and more these days. They’re getting harder to resist. Harder to ignore the voices that sometimes come from everywhere. More and more I just want to stop running. I don’t want to be scared anymore. And maybe there’s something else, too. There’s always been something else. Something that made my fingers reach out before I could stop them, so long ago, in that park, in the twilight. Maybe I want to see what happens. Maybe they spoke to me, of all people, for a reason.

It would be so easy. So very, very easy. Then it would be over. Then I would have my answers. The simplest thing in the world. All I need to do is reach out

and pick them up.

Twigs, Part 1 of 2

twigs

Another 37, Day 9

Twigs,
A Short Horror Story
Part 1 of 2 (Part 2)

Ever since I was little I’ve been afraid of twigs. Trust me, I know how ridiculous that sounds. Twigs? I don’t talk about it anymore. Not to anyone. Not since the last time.

It started one day when I was nine years old. I was at Wayland Park during twilight, on one of our Twilight Walks. That’s what the whole family called them, both of my parents and my brother and I would set off towards the park just as the sky started to purple. The two of them would sit on a bench or up against a tree and let the two of us run around as we would until it started to get too dark for them to see us easily. That’s how safe this town used to be.

This particular time it was winter, or late fall. I remember because there was that nipping chill that always makes me think of hayrides and bonfires where everyone wears wool hats and huddles up next to each other for warmth. And I remember the trees. The were bare of leaves, so the park looked like a mass of wooden spiderwebs clustered against the darkening sky. Wayland Park must have evergreen trees, but I don’t remember any of those. Just the craggy, barren fingers scratching at the air. We had just had a windstorm, so there were severed branches all over the ground ground.

I had a favorite tree that I used to play under. It was gnarled and had a huge knot in the middle that I could leap up and grab onto with both my hands. More than a few times I scratched up my forehead doing that, but I didn’t care. My mom would just dab antibiotic ointment on my head and sigh and tell me I was lucky I was so cute.

This evening it was almost full dark, and I knew I could expect my dad’s deep voice to come echoing through the park any minute now to end my fun. I was tired; it was a school night, I think, but I started running around more exuberantly so as to not waste my last few minutes. That’s when I heard it. A voice, but not my father’s.

“Pick us up,” it said. It was scratchy, like someone who just woke up and needed a glass of water.

“Excuse me?” I said, turning around to look. There was no one there. Just an empty patch of ground covered in broken branches from the tree above me.

“Pick us up,” said the voice again. It sounded very strange. Even deeper than my father’s. Too deep to be a regular person, I thought. Like a cartoon voice, only there was something creepy about it.

“Is someone there?”

“Yes, we’re here,” said the voice. “Come on over. Pick us up.”

I saw movement in that direction, on the ground. Was it a squirrel? That didn’t make much sense. Squirrels didn’t talk.

“I can’t see you,” I said. I was getting uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to be rude.

“Yes you can,” said the voice. “You’re looking right at us. Come on. Come over. Pick us up.”

I stared right at it, and I could see exactly where the movement came from. But it was too dark to make out what it was. To this day I have no idea why I walked over towards the voice. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I had the urge to run away. Maybe I was curious. Maybe I thought it was all in my head. But that’s what I did; I walked towards the voice.

“That’s it,” it said as I approached, and I could tell now that it was more than one voice. “Come closer. Come closer and pick us up.”

I stepped towards it cautiously, another voice in my head screaming at me to flee. But I didn’t. I approached, step by step. I saw what was moving, now. It was several twigs, long and spindly. They shifted around as they spoke. Wriggling, like worms.

“That’s it, little girl. Don’t worry. Just reach down. That’s right. Reach down and pick us up.”

My fingers stretched out in front of me, towards one of the branches. They bent sinuously on the ground, almost as if they were…satisfied. I needed to stop. I couldn’t do this. But I couldn’t help myself. It was like I was watching my hand moving against my will. It was almost there. All I needed to do was close my fingers and the twig would be in my grasp.

“That’s right,” said the voices. They sounded excited, now. “That’s just right. Just like that. Pick us up, little girl. Pick us up.”

My fingers closed. I felt the rough bark against my skin, and it moved under my touch. It writhed.

“Stacey! Jacob!” My father’s voice boomed from somewhere behind me. It shattered the spell. I let go of the stick and pulled my hand away sharply, as if it had been burned.

“Stacey!” The warm voice came again. “Jacob! Come on, kids! It’s time to go home!”

I ran towards the voice like it was the only shelter in the middle of an ice storm. I always ran towards him like that, I told myself. It was normal. It wasn’t because I was scared. Why would I be? Nothing strange had happened. I certainly hadn’t almost picked up a talking, wriggling branch that wanted so desperately to be picked up.

For a couple of seconds as I raced towards my father I believed it. The twigs weren’t making any noise now. I must have imagined it. I decided there was no reason not to glance back, just to prove to myself that nothing had happened. That it had just been a long day, I was light headed from romping about and my imagination got the best of me. No reason not to just take a quick look, just to make sure.

I wish I hadn’t. Maybe then that would have been it. None of the rest of it would have happened. Maybe they would have left me alone. But I did look back. And I saw them. Even more of them, now. Where had they all come from? They shivered along the ground in erratic, staccato motions. Like they were frustrated. Angry. Angry that I had escaped.

 

 

I asked my mom about it a few days later, because it weighed on my mind. I didn’t believe it had really happened, or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. And I didn’t want her to think I was making things up. But I had to ask someone; I needed someone to tell me it was nothing so I could stop thinking about it.

“Mom,” I said to her as we were making turkey sandwiches together. She let me cut the tomatoes as long she was there watching. “Is there such a thing as talking twigs?”

“What do you mean, dear?” she said as she spread mustard onto the bread.

“You know, twigs that can talk. That tell people to pick them up, or something.”

The expression fell off of her face. It went totally blank, like she had just woken up. I barely ever saw that look on my mother, who was always laughing or smiling or crying. Something. Not this blank, empty visage.

“That’s normal,” she said, her voice as flat as her expression. “Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s…normal? For twigs to talk?”

“Yes. It’s normal. Don’t worry about it.”

A chill ran through me. Why was she acting like this? I tried to think of something to say but nothing came. A moment later her usual half-smile returned. I watched it blossom on her face, and when she spoke it was like nothing had ever happened. “Can you pass me the cheese, please? I got this English farm cheddar from Mrs. Wilkins and it’s supposed to be super sharp.”

I didn’t bring it up again after that. I thought about asking my father, but I couldn’t stand the idea of watching his laughter lines flatten out and listening to that stale, mechanical tone in his voice. I didn’t know that it would happen, but the idea scared me. So I kept it to myself, and just hoped that the whole thing would go away.

For a long time it did. Nothing happened, and I stopped thinking about it. I didn’t forget it, and I never touched fallen branches or got any closer to them than I could manage. But that didn’t really affect my life, and more and more I came to believe that I had dreamed the whole thing, or seen it on TV somewhere and imagined that it happened to me. That’s the kind of silly thing little kids do, after all, and once I got into middle school I spent a lot of my time ashamed of all the kiddie things I did and thought and was into. This was just one more of those.

Until it started again.

Considered Optimism

Flowers in Boots

Swarms of uncaring, unknowable life-forms
squidge through you at every moment
over your eyeballs, and across your tongue
as it tastes that strawberry
that teems with their brethren.
And some day, they will chew up your corpse
and ferment the sugar into blood
into alcohol, that the screaming, grieving friends
you leave behind, won’t even get to drink.

On the other hand, boots exist
and if you wear them
when you stomp through the mud
to pick blackberries from your garden
after a rainstorm,
your feet stay dry.

So you’ve got that going for you.

Whispered Words from a Withered Tongue

Pinson

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.

“Joseph?”

“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.”

“Um…”

“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.

“Tick. Tock.”

“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.

“He?”

“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.

“How?”

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…”

“Shh!”

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.”

“Seriously?”

“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.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Visions and Murders

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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.

My eyes.

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.

“Um…”

“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.

“You…”

“Yeah,” I lowered my gaze. “I had a bad nightmare, and I…”

“Oh jeez.”

“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.

–Derrick Lee

Mei found me practically as soon as I got off the bus.

“Hi Jessy!”

“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…”

“Yeah?”

“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?”

“Study hall.”

“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.

“Hello?”

“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.

“Which is?”

“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.”

“Well…”

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.

“Come again?”

“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.”

“Thanks.”

“We’ll talk later,” he said.

“Yeah.”

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.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Tearing Away the Masks

Untitled

the withering man, part 18
Our flesh lets us move in the world. But it is a prison. Mutilation will set you free.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone

Everything is different, now. I’m different. I’ve always been different. But now I understand. Not everything. Of course not. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand everything. There’s so much, and I think a single glimpse of it in its raw form would drive you utterly insane. Joseph says it’s happened, so many times. But she says I’m stronger than they are. Or at least different. “Broken, in just the right way.”

I’m not sure exactly why I’m writing all of this down. But I need to. I think things are going to get crazier from here on out. On one level it’s over. On another it’s just beginning. If I’m not tough enough, and I do go mad, I want to be able to look back and see how it happened. And if something faster or nastier than I am finally catches me and takes me out, I want the people I love to know what happened. Even if they’ll never believe it.

Okay, enough with the drama. Where did I leave off? Right. I was about to meet Derrick.

The only decent coffee shop in Caldwell is the Sparrowhawk Cafe. I don’t know why it’s called that, except that there’s a stuffed sparrowhawk in it. During the time Sofia and I were friends we came here all the time. She taught me the difference between a Starbucks macchiato and a real macchiato. And there were a lot of little side alcoves where we could talk without anyone nosing in.

I hadn’t stepped foot in here since.

“Hi,” said the barista behind the counter as I walked in the door. The place was almost empty. “What can I get for you today?

“I’m here to meet someone, actually,” I said. “His name is Derrick Lee.”

“Are you Jessica?” she asked.

“Um…yeah.”

“He called to ask us to tell you he’d be a little late, and to wait for him at the red table. Just past those couches over there, and to the right.”

“Okay,” I said, slightly flustered.

“He also said for you to order anything you wanted. On him. He must not want to let you get away.” She winked at me. I didn’t wink back.

I sat at the red table – which was indeed very red – sipping my Americano for ten minutes before I heard footsteps coming around the corner. A second later a man’s face came into view.

“Oh hell no,” I said. I stood up.

“Jessica,” he said. “Wait. Let me explain.”

“Didn’t I already say hell no?” I said. “How about hell no you lying bastard?”

Because I recognized him. We’d met before, at Atherton college. Just before something tried to kill me. Only that time his name had been Jason.

“Just let me explain,” he said again. “I promise it’ll make sense.”

“Oh, I’m suppose to trust you?” I said. “Because of all this solid trust between us?”

“I apologize for the deception,” he said. “But I had to find out if you were the real deal.”

“What? The real deal? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sit down,” he said. “I’ll explain everything.”

I sighed. “Fine. But you’re buying me a pastry.”

I came back a minute later with my dark chocolate raspberry scone and another Americano. A laptop and several stacks of paper now occupied the table.

“Research,” he said when he saw me eying it all.

I sat down, and sloshed some coffee on the papers. I didn’t do it on purpose. Probably.

“So what should I call you?” I asked. “Derrick, or Jason? Or just bastard? That sound easier.”

He smiled. “Derrick. Jason is just a mask I wear.”

“So it’s not your real name?”

“Derrick isn’t my real name, either.”

“So what is…”

“If I decide I can trust you, maybe.”

“If you decide to trust me?” I said. “Oh that is rich.”

“Even so.”

“And where’s Ben?” I said. “I thought you said he’d be here. If there even is a Ben.”

“Ben is real,” said Derrick. “But he’s busy. And…”

“What?”

“He said you make him uncomfortable.” He stared at me when he said this, as if looking for a reaction. I took a bite of scone.

“You said you’d explain,” I said, my mouth full. “So explain.”

“Where to begin?” he said. He tapped a few keys on his laptop, then looked up at me. “When Katim told me he met you at the flash mob, I was intrigued.”

“Wait…you set up the flash mob!” I said. “Katim told me. You were behind it!”

He shook his head. “I urged the Atherton improv group to get involved, yes. But I wasn’t behind it. You are right in surmising that I suspected it had mystical significance.”

“Mystical…”

“Come on, Jessica,” he chided. “Surely you understand what’s going on here isn’t normal. You of all people.”

I closed my eyes. “Fine. Go on.”

“Katim told me he met a girl at the Flash Mob of Faces and Eyes who wasn’t part of the group, but who showed up at the precise moment of the event. Her name was Jessica Kingsport. The same name as a girl who emailed me that very afternoon to tell me that she was a friend of the victim, and that identified an entity in one of my crime scene photographs both Ben and I had missed. Suffice to say I was intrigued.”

“So what, you told Katim to keep talking to me? To spy on me?”

“Yes,” Derrick admitted. “But he didn’t know that was my intent. I urged him to continue contact. It didn’t take much urging. He really likes you.”

A week ago, that would have made my stomach flutter.

“Meanwhile,” Derrick continued, “the correspondence between you and I continued, and I grew more intrigued. You insisted on calling your phantom ‘the withering man,’ even when the source called it ‘The Withered Lady.’ You wanted to investigate your friend even though it was dangerous. You found Withertongue616. The password to her website was your birthday, and she wrote mystical words on your bedroom ceiling. More and more, I suspected that you were special. That you were a very specific kind of vessel.”

“A vessel?”

“Someone receptive to the entities and influences of the places that lie under the skin of the world. The scarred and whispering place, as Withertongue calls it.”

“Do you have any idea how crazy this sounds?” I said.

“Tell me something. Did you ask that question because you believe it, or because you felt you were supposed to ask it?”

I didn’t answer.

“That’s what I thought,” he said.

“Derrick, who are you? What is your deal?”

“You already know that. You’ve read our website.”

“So you’re, what, some kind of monster hunter? Like the Winchesters?”

He laughed. “It involves less breaking into abandoned asylums and fake identities with rockstar names and more internet networking. But yes. That is essentially what we do.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“He’s not as involved as you might think.”

“So…what? You hunt ghosts? You kill vampires?”

He laughed. “There’s not that much killing. These entities aren’t physical. Not in the normal way. They can’t be seen directly. They can’t be touched. At least, not by most of us. You, I’m not so sure.”

“Me?”

“You already know that,” he said. “You’re just pretending to be surprised. Does it feel safer, perhaps?”

Damn him.

“Wait, so if they can’t be seen, what’s with the videos? And the audio recordings, and all of that?”

He shrugged. “It’s what the readers want. The more you look like Ghost Hunters the more people show up to your website. And we need people to show up. That’s one of the ways we find them. The entities can’t be seen, but they leave traces. Distortion effects on photographs, phantom noises, neighbors acting out of the ordinary. ”

“So those audio clips are fake?”

“No. Not with this one. The entity behind the Thousand Cut Killings is different. More dangerous. The usual methods are inadequate. That’s why I had to see what you were capable of.”

Something struck me.

“You lured me to the tunnel! Me and Katim!”

“I did. I wish Katim hadn’t been involved. But if I hadn’t taken you down there, Jenna would be dead.”

“But if you weren’t involved, how did you know it was going to happen?”

“I would love to say ‘old fashioned detective work,’” he said. “But it would be a lie. I got an email.” He turned his laptop so I could see. It was from Withertongue.

Concordance

4893183923 83948081

“It’s just gibberish,” I said.

“It isn’t. The first part is the mathematical description of an astronomical alignment. A pretty basic one. It depicts an exact date and time of you know how to read it. The second part is the archive number of an old newspaper, with an article about a murder that occurred in those tunnels 67 years ago.”

“How the hell did you figure that out?”

“It’s what we do. I was already researching local murders. Sofia Anastos and Gabriella Sanchez were both killed in locations of previous murders. It must be part of this entity’s mandate. It can only kill where others have killed before.”

“The Man of Many Tongues,” I said. “That’s its name.”

He nodded.

“That was it in the tunnels, wasn’t it?”

“I believe so. Or its avatar. Something old and powerful and terrifying. And it was frightened of you.” I said nothing. “I see you don’t deny it.”

“I guess not.”

“Does that mean you’ve decided to trust me?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But how did you figure it out? That the creature was frightened of me? I mean, it’s not the only explanation.”

“I already suspected,” said Derrick. “Or else I never would have brought you down there. I brought you there to see it for myself.”

“That was pretty god damn dangerous,” I snapped. “You could have gotten us all killed.”

“But I didn’t.” He smiled. I wanted to punch him in the face. “I was right,” he said. “You were fantastic.”

“It’s this thing inside of me,” I said, my voice strained. “It’s not me. It’s this creature. That’s what they’re scared of. I’m not special, Derrick. The withering man infected me. Or maybe I was just born wrong. I’m not special. I’m just a host.”

“No,” he said, and he took a sip of his latte. “I don’t think so.”

I blinked. “What?”

“I don’t think there’s something inside of you. I think it’s just you. Part of you.”

“No. No, that’s not possible. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does, though. The lore on this is thin. Even thinner than usual. But there is some. Read this.” He fished a piece of paper out of the stack and handed it to me.

The friars believe the rite of purification has failed. But I do not believe they are correct. I have come to believe with my mind what I have long felt in my heart. That which inhabits me and wards the demons away is itself no demon. It is an organ, like my liver or my pancreas. It was placed there by God. I have seen him. His face is pale, and he cannot wear mortal flesh for long.

–From the journal of Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, circa 1810

“And this,” Derrick handed me another paper.

I do the Devil’s own work, for the purification of the Race. And he has blessed me with an instrument. A weapon. It scratches inside my head, but it’s mine as sure as my arm is mine. I’m sure of that.

…does he look like? Rotted, like a corpse in the early stages of active decay. And he wears a dress. Go figure that. The Devil dresses like a woman. Explains something about women, doesn’t it?

–From Interview with Mennonite Davies

“Mennonite Davies the serial killer?” I said.

“We can’t pick our sources,” he said. “But it all jives with my reading of the Annals. This thing, this weapon, is part of you. Even if He put it there.”

I should have felt relieved. I didn’t know if it was true, but even the chance that I didn’t have a hellbeast living inside of me something. I should have felt better, but…

“What does it matter?” I said. “So there’s this thing inside of my that scares monsters. Maybe it’s me, maybe it isn’t. I still can’t do anything. I want to kill the thing that murdered Sofia, but how? I’m useless.”

“You don’t know how to harness it. But maybe someone does.”

“Withertongue.”

He nodded. “You have to do what she suggested. It’s the next logical step.”

“You mean the part where she said I should expose myself to the withering man? Is that the suggestion you’re talking about?”

“Jessy, I know it’s scary, but…”

“Do you? Do you have insects with eyeballs screaming into your brain during your morning bus ride? Did the tormented ghost of your best friend try to kill you yesterday?”

“What? You didn’t tell me about that.”

“I got Sofia’s diary. She was there. In the house where she kept it. Waiting for me.”

“And she tried to kill you?”

“I…I don’t know. Maybe. It was like she was trying to resist, but then she couldn’t.”

“This is all the more reason to move forward with this.”

“Move forward,” I scoffed. “That makes it sound so easy.”

But he was right. I knew he was. Maybe the withering man would kill me. Or worse. But I was dead either way.

We continued to talk. He bought me another coffee, and another pastry. We both got hungry so we got sandwiches. The Sparrowhawk has awesome sandwiches. Hours went by; I barely noticed. I showed him the printout of what I had written. Everything that happened to me since Sofia died. He showed me his research.

“Where do you get all of this stuff?” I asked.

“It’s the most important part of the job. We’ve been collecting it forever. From many different sources. First hand interviews done by field operatives. Scholars with a lot of time on their hands, or access to old, worm-riddled tomes. Mediums.”
“Mediums? Like…people who speak to ghosts?”

“A lot of it is bullshit, of course.” he said. “It comes with the territory. A single fact buried in every mountain of myth. But sometimes a single fact is all you need. You learn to pick out the gold from the lead.”

Some of what I read about the Man of Many Tongues fit with what I already knew. An ancient demon who gifted mankind with speech. An obscure Greek text the said tower of Babel was built to reach his kingdom, and it was he that struck it down. Another said he was the tower of Babel, that it was built from his bones. One account from 12th century France said he tore the tongue from the mouth of God to give to mankind. Like a sick version of the Prometheus tale. Now he returned periodically to harvest words and souls from the chosen sacrifices.

“The debt is due,” I said.

“Hmm?” Derrick looked up from his drink.

“He wrote that, in Sofia’s diary,” I said. “The debt is due. Like he gave us tongues, and now he wants them back.”

“Interesting,” said Derrick. “Did you read about the spiders?”

“Yeah.” There were numerous references to spiders, or “the many legged.” As a way to ward him off, or as his enemies. There was one text that was, I kid you not, an actual book of spells. It had a ritual for summoning the Man of Many Tongues to rid yourself of a spider infestation.

“That sounds like a bad idea,” I said to Derrick.

“People are, and always have been, very very stupid.”

“Do these spells work?” I asked. “I mean, are they real?”

“It’s not that simple,” said Derrick. “Thaumaturgy is complicated. It’s highly conditional, and unreliable in the physical realm. And it’s always horrifically dangerous. But there are techniques with actual effects. Some of the entities and domains can be tapped or commanded through their symbology and correspondences. Like what you did with Jagged Darkness, although I don’t claim to understand that. Or the wards Ben and I put on the hospital.”

“The hospital?”

“To keep Jenna safe,” he said. “They harness the power of a being called the Black Priest. I’ve used them before. I have no doubt Jenna would be dead right now if I hadn’t done it. But they won’t last.

I boggled at all of this. Why was magic harder to believe in than monsters? I don’t know. It just was.

“What do you make of the spiders?” he said.

“What about them?”

“It could be a weakness,” said Derrick. “Something to use against him.”

“What, like, we can throw spiders at him?”

He shrugged.

This was all so weird. Even when I’d spent the last week beset by horrors, this was weird. I was sitting in a coffee shop with a man I barely knew trying to figure out how to kill a demon. But it felt good to be doing something. It’s what Buffy would do.

As the time went on I had to admit to myself that I did trust Derrick. Not that I wasn’t pissed that he lied. But he believed me. He was part of the same messed up shadow world that I was, and he’d been there a lot longer than me. He knew some of what was going on.

“Oh shit,” I said when I looked at my phone.

“What is it?”

“It’s seven o’clock! How the hell did that happen? My mom’s going to be pissed.”

I had two missed calls from her, and three texts. I texted her back and said I’d be home soon.

“Let’s go, then,” said Derrick. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

A ride home turned out to be on the back of his Vespa. In the rain. I tried to give him directions, but he didn’t need them. He knew where I lived. When we got to near my street I told him to let me off.

“Why? It’s almost a mile away. There’s no need for you to walk in this weather.”

“Just let me off, okay?”

He pulled over. “We’re at Oaklawn Park,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“You’re going to do it, aren’t you? You’re going to find the withering man.”

“I have to. You said it yourself.”

He nodded. “I would say to be careful, but that wouldn’t make much sense. Do you want me to come with you?”

“No. I don’t think that will work.”

“You’re probably right.”

“Thanks, Derrick,” I said. “I’m beginning to forget I’m still mad at you.”

He laughed.

“If I’m still alive later, I’ll email you.”

“Make sure you do.”

I walked into the darkness of the park. It was raining so hard I could barely hear the Vespa pull away. There were no sounds in the world except the rain. And nothing in the world except me and the  darkness. And them. They were here. Behind the trees. Underneath the shadows. Watching.

I headed towards the bushes, where nine years ago I saw the withering man. The ground was so muddy it ripped one of my shoes off. I kept walking. If I stopped, even for a second, I was going to run away and never come back. Rain pounded against my head and shoulders. It plastered my hair to the clammy skin of my face. My fingers and toes were freezing, and cold, slimy mud seeped into my exposed right sock.

I felt the hidden things nearby, as I walked. A prickle on the back of my neck. I slogged through the sucking mud for what felt like an hour. The creatures kept their distance. Finally I reached the bush. I took a deep breath. I felt the scratching in my chest, like I always did these days. Frightening and reassuring.

“I’m here,” I said. I could barely hear my own voice over the thwack of the raindrops. “I’m ready for you. I’m ready to let you in. Even though it’s a stupid idea. Can you hear me, you bastard? I’m ready for you.”

I concentrated on the scratching in my chest. I pushed it down, forced it into my gut. It fought back. It thrashed at me and tore up my insides. I doubled over in agony. In my mind’s eye I grabbed it, and shoved it back against my spinal cord, and tied it around my vertebrae. It struggled. My vision swam. Tiny splinters of pain shot through my torso. It struggled again. I clamped down. It gave a final lurch, then went still. For the first time in almost a week, I couldn’t feel it.

The air went hazy. I heard scurrying sounds, intermingled with the rain. One second there was nothing but the water pounding against the mud, and the next it was like I was in the middle of a rainforest. Full of tiny, hungry things, scuttling and croaking and screaming to each other. A drop of rain cut down the side of my arm and drew blood. I winced. Something flew past my head, and its orange eyes burned through the darkness.

Whispers filled the air.

hello, little morsel

penetrate

the pricking, then the bleeding, then the harvest

you are looking delicious, today, without your claws

They were all around me. I could almost see them. A single, dripping talon. Half of a twisted smile. I heard a squelching footstep in the mud. My stomach felt sick. Light flashed in front of me. When I closed my eyes I saw the words.

YOUR SURRENDER WAS TO BE. WE GRANTED YOU YOUR FLESH, MOLDED FROM THE SCRAPS OF OUR KILLS, AND FROM OUR EXCREMENT. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN OURS TO RECLAIM.

“No!” I screamed. “Not you! I don’t surrender to you!”

Something sharped sliced along my back. I lurched forward. Intense heat seared my face, and I smelled singed hair and burnt flesh. A warm wet feeling, like a tongue, ran along my neck. This was wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

I reached in to my chest for the scratching thing. My protector. I grabbed at it, trying to start it up. It stayed still. I had pushed it too far down. Sharp claws sank into my left shoulder. They shoved me roughly to the ground, and my knees sank into the mud.

I’m dead. This is it. I’m going to die.

The claws twisted. Rough fingers closed around my neck. I felt hot breath in my ear, and heard sick, desperate panting. A tongue licked along my earlobe.

Darkness burst in front of me. I don’t know how else to describe it. Fifteen feet straight forward a spot of blackness I could not see through appeared, then spread out quickly. It bathed over me, and I saw nothing. A second later my sight returned and they were gone. There were no whispers, no sounds, no talons sunk into my flesh, no tongue in my ear.

Only Him.

The folds of his black and crimson dress swayed, indifferent to the wind. His withered face stared at me with that terrible dessicated grin.

“Take me,” I sobbed. I could barely recognize my voice, or believe my own words. “Take me. I’m ready. I let you in.”

He glided towards me. I had never seen him move before. It was elegant. Effortless. Like the rain and the air and the world stepped aside to let him pass. I saw his face more clearly than ever before. No eyelids. The facial structure was all wrong. Perfectly wrong. The face of the god that nests at the base of the uncanny valley to which the insane pay homage. Things buzzed around him I couldn’t quite see. Like appendages that weren’t attached.

He came closer. He leaned over me. I stared into his hollow eyes. I wasn’t afraid. As crazy as that sounds, in the place where I was now, fear could not enter. Only cold, jagged purpose.

“I let you in,” I said again. My voice was calm.

Then I blinked.

And he was gone.

 

The walk home was hell. I never found my shoe. Aches covered my body. I was freezing, and exhausted, and hopeless.

“Where the hell have you been?” said my mom as I staggered through the front door. “Oh Jesus, Jessy, look at you. You’re covered in mud.”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I whimpered.

“Oh my God, are you bleeding?” she ran up and put her hand gently on my face.

“I’m sorry. I was walking home, and I fell, and…”

“Shh, shh,” she put her arms around me and squeezed. “It’s okay. We were just worried sick. Your brother’s out driving, looking for you.”

“I’m so sorry. I lost track of time, and then I rushed to get home, and…”

She pulled away. I saw she was covered in mud, but she didn’t seem to notice. She looked into my eyes.

“Are you alright?”

“I guess so,” I said. “I’m scraped up. And freezing.”

“Sit down. I’ll get some bacitracin for those cuts, and then we’ll run you a hot bath. It’ll ease your bones. How does that sound?”

I nodded, and walked towards the chair.

As she head into the kitchen, my mom turned at looked at me.

“What happened to your shoe?”

 

The bath felt nice. There’s nothing like a soak in hot water to pull you back into normality. As I warmed up, my head started to clear.

I puzzled over what had happened. If something about me was different, I couldn’t tell. I thought this was supposed to help me “see,” whatever that meant. Was Withertongue lying? Did I screw up, or fail some kind of test? The withering man hadn’t killed me. That was something. In fact, hadn’t he saved me from those creatures? That was another mind screw. I couldn’t handle all of this, right now.

“Sis, are you in there?” I heard Adam’s voice through the door.

“Yeah.”

“Can I come in?”

“I’m naked.”

“Cool,” he said, and opened the door.

“Adam!” I crossed my hands over my chest.

“What?” he said. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I helped change your diapers, you know.”

“You were three years old.”

“What can I say? I peaked early.”

I laughed.

“What do you want?”

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said. “I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw it with my own two eyes.”

“I’m fine. Better.”

“Mom said you took a nasty fall.” He reached out to touch my forehead.

“Yeah. But it was only a flesh wound.”

He grinned. “Why were you out so late, anyway?”

“I was at Sparrowhawk. Studying. I just had to get out of the house, you know? I lost track of time.”

“I get that,” he said. “But next time call and tell us where you are, alright?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t make me beat your ass,” he said. But he smiled.

“I won’t.”

He closed the door, and left.

After the bath I stumbled over to my room and flopped into my computer chair. I had an email from Mei with the homework I missed from the day. I didn’t have the energy to even read it. I’d get in trouble tomorrow, but oh well. I sent a quick one to Derrick.

Status Report

I tried it. I saw Him. I don’t think it worked.

Then I crawled into bed and fell asleep.
I woke up, and I knew something was very, very wrong. It was too dark. It was too quiet. I couldn’t see light from the streetlights through my window, or hear the hum of the computer fan. I felt the bed underneath my skin, but I felt it through a layer of foam. It felt distant. Not real. I closed my eyes.

Then I heard something. A faint buzzing sound. My eyes snapped open.

He was above me. Horizontal. Floating three feet above me. His face unwithered. His lidless gaze bored into my skull.

“You,” I said softly. “What do you…”

Snakes shot out from the folds of his clothing. Two of them. Instead of faces, their bodies ended in long, ragged fingernails. They dug into the sides of my head, along my jawline and up my temples. Pain like nothing I’ve ever felt cut into me. They pulled away, and with a sound like ripping fabric tore the skin of my face clean off.

I tried to scream at the agony, but the snakes stuffed the flesh into my open mouth. I tasted blood and raw meat. I choked as it cut off my oxygen. Then two more snakes darted out of the withering man’s dress. They hissed, and their mouths opened into four. Like the Predator’s, only worse. So much worse.

They flew towards me, and clamped around my eyeballs. Fangs tore through my eyelids and penetrated the membranes. The pain intensified, and time slowed down as I felt my eyes being ripped out of their sockets. I screamed into my flesh-gag. Everything went red.

And then black.

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