Cold, Part 5

Ice macro

 

Connected

The Monday after the party, Marisol pulled Ed aside to speak to him.

“So,” she said to him, an edge in her voice, “Kristen’s your girlfriend now, is it? Must have been one hell of a party.”

“She is?”

“That’s what everyone’s saying.”

“Oh.”

Marisol laughed. “Did you seriously not know?” Ed shrugged. She put her hand on his shoulder. “And here I was working myself up to yell at you for not telling me.”

“I told you what happened at the party,” Ed said. It was mostly true. He left out the sitting on his lap and whispering in his ear part. But he told her most of it.

“Oh Ed,” said Marisol. “What in God’s name are we going to do with you?”

Sure enough, Ed started to notice that his classmates were giving him strange looks. He had no idea how to interpret these new expressions. Nothing like them had ever been directed at him before. They were partially “you’re weird,” but he recognized that part. There was something else there, too, that he couldn’t identify.

He more or less wrote it off as one of the many things about the world he would never understand until Steve came up to him outside of the locker room. He held up his fist for Ed to bump, and said, “Respect,” with a sly smile on his face.

Respect. So that was it. Huh.

During fourth period someone brought him a note from Kristen.

“Lunchtime. Outside the auditorium. Let’s make this official.”

One thing he could say about Kristen. She wasn’t predictable.

When the bell rang for lunch Ed headed for the auditorium. He noticed a lot of other people were heading in that direction, too. When he got there he saw that a crowed had gathered.

“Oh, Ed!” Kristen’s voice rang out from the center of the crowd. “There you are. Get over here!”

Ed walked through the throng of people, who moved out of the way to let him pass. He saw students and teachers alike, all staring at him with half-formed smiles on their faces. Even the principal was there, and Mr. Clark, the janitor. As he reached the center, he saw Kristen sitting in one of two chairs laid out in front of the auditorium doors. She waved her hand at the other chair, and Ed took that as a cue to sit down. From the smile that blossomed on her face he figured he was right.

“Now Ed, as you know I’ve decided you are to be my new boy,” she said. There were scattered giggles from the crowd. “I think the time has come to show everyone what that means. Don’t you?”

Ed stared at her for a long moment before realizing she had asked him a question. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah. Um…yes.” He heard more giggling.

“Good, then,” she said. “It’s settled.” She closed her eyes and leaned forward. Ed stared at her. She had beautiful eyelids. Soft but very strong. Like they could keep the fires of hell from burning through to her eyes. He wanted to lean forward and kiss them. She was so close to him.

“Kiss her, you idiot!” someone called out from the crowd. Everyone broke into laughter. Ed suddenly realized that she wanted him to kiss her. It was the only thing that made sense. So he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.

She grabbed him by the back of the head and pressed him into her. The crowed erupted into hoots and shouts. Kristen’s tongue snaked into his mouth and wrapped around his. The feel of her, the taste of her, inflamed his senses. He felt fire running through his bloodstream. Steam slow-cooked his brain as the kiss went on and on, and his thoughts boiled into overcooked lumps of useless matter.

The longer it went on the more tightly her fingers seemed to press into Ed’s skull. The more deeply her tongue seemed twined into his soft tissue. It felt like her body was stripped of coverings, and every inch of her flesh was pressed against him. It felt like her tongue had sliced open the front of his torso, from the neck to the scrotum, and was now bathing his organs in its caresses.

Then suddenly there was a sharp sensation in his mouth. It didn’t hurt, of course, but it felt like a sting. He felt Kristen pulling away from him. He became aware of the babble and cheers of the crowd.

“Your first kiss,” said Kristen, loud enough so everyone could hear. “I wanted to make sure you would never forget it.”

A few people in the crowd clapped.

Kristen looked into his eyes. She was smiling. Aflame. Triumphant. But there was something else there, too. He couldn’t quite place it. He wasn’t very good at this sort of thing. But he thought, just maybe, it was disappointment.

He guessed he wasn’t a very good kisser.

Advertisements

Cold, Part 3

Ice Ledge

 

Connected

“You did what?” Marisol shrieked and dropped her taco. The tortilla opened up, and some of the carnitas fell out.

“I went after her,” said Ed.

“At 3 AM? Near Whitehaven? With an infuriated biker whose bike she stole after her?”

“I don’t know if there was actually a biker,” said Ed.

“Oh, well that’s fine then.” Marisol scooped the taco into her hand.

“We didn’t see any.”

Marisol rolled her eyes. “You didn’t tell me any of this.”

“No,” said Ed.

Marisol glared at him. “Fine. So the biker didn’t show up?”

“Not that I saw,” said Ed. “Someone did shoot at us, though.”

“Someone shot at you? For fuck’s sake!” All around them, the faces of other taco patrons shot in their direction. Marisol bent down and lowered her voice. “Someone shot at you?”

“I think so,” said Ed. “Maybe. There was a noise. It was pretty loud.”

“Ugh,” said Marisol. “Okay, fine, whatever. Then what happened?”

“I knew you would come,” said Kristen as Ed pulled of on the exit to Okenville. “No one else thought you would.”

“No one…” Ed trailed off. Who else was there?

“No,” Kristen said. “They didn’t.” She put her hand on his leg. Ed didn’t say anything. He just drove.

“You’re going to need a new coat,” Kristen said after a few minutes.

“Yeah,” said Ed.

“That one has a hole in it.” She didn’t need to say it. Ed knew it had a hole in it. He was there. But she said it with such delight. Like she could taste the words in her mouth, and they were delicious. Ed swallowed.

“I’ll buy you one,” Kristen said.

“You don’t have to,” said Ed.

“Of course I don’t have to,” said Kristen, and she laughed her gas flame laugh. “But it’s going to be cold at the party. And if you don’t wear a coat you will look ridiculous.”

“Party?”

“Yes. Saturday.”

Ed wanted to say something, but the words froze.

“This is my house,” said Kristen. She slipped her hand off of Ed’s leg – slowly – and slipped out of the door. “Saturday,” she said without turning around.

The text day Ed told Marisol about the party. And nothing else. He tried to get her to come.

“To a party with those people?” she said. “Not a god damn chance.”

“It could be fun,” said Ed.

“No way, brother,” she said. Then she grinned. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to cockblock.”

“You think something will happen?” Ed’s throat was dry. It was always dry, but this time he noticed, because he read that sometimes it happened in situations like this.

Marisol shrugged. “That girl wants to wrap every part of you around her fingers. I don’t know what game she’s playing, but there ain’t no doubt about that.”

“I thought you didn’t like her?”

“I don’t. I think she’s a crazy bitch.” Marisol put her hand on Ed’s shoulder. “But I like you. And if you want to dip your wick into that fire, I’m not going to stop you. How else will you learn? Just don’t expect too much sympathy over here when you get burned.”

Ed thought about hugging Marisol. But that would have been weird.

Rumors spread over the next few days that Kristen Selka was having a crazy part in the woods this weekend. Ed didn’t remember there being this much gossip in Okenville before Kristen showed up. But maybe he just never paid attention. Everyone whispered about who was invited and who wasn’t invited. Ed heard from Steve that Ryan Sutherland hadn’t even heard about it until Thursday, and certainly didn’t get an invitation. Somehow, everyone knew that Ed was going.

Ryan and two of his varsity friends cornered Ed outside the locker room Friday afternoon. There was no one else around. Ed wondered what had taken them so long.

“Hey freak,” said Ryan. “I heard you’re after my girl. Is that true?”

“I dunno,” said Ed.

“I asked you a question, assrag.”

Ed shrugged. “I’m not after anyone.”

“That’s not what we heard,” said one of the friends. Ed thought he was very tall.

“You need to learn some manners,” said Ryan. He actually said that. Like a bully in an 80s movie. Ed thought that was kind of funny.

“Are you laughing?” Ryan’s friend asked, grabbing Ed by the sleeve.

“No,”said Ed. Had he laughed? He didn’t notice.

“Oh, that is fucking it!” Ryan punched him in the stomach. Then the other two joined. They smashed Ed’s head against the wall, and elbowed him in the gut. One of them punched him in the ear.

Ed didn’t want to fight back. It didn’t seem worth it. But after a few minutes he got the impression they weren’t going to stop for a while, and he didn’t want to be late for art class. He liked art class.

Ed spent the rest of the day thinking someone was going to come and tell him he was in trouble. But no one did. Ryan and his friends must not have said anything. Maybe they were embarrassed, or something. He saw Ryan in the hall, but he wouldn’t catch Ed’s eye.

Just after last period a freshman ran up to him and handed him a bag. It contained a brand new jacket. It looked expensive. It was Gore-tex. It was flame-red and had a darker red circle on the chest.

Right over the heart.

Is it Over?

IMG_0043

the withering man, final chapter

 

Silence fell over the room. I stood there and stared at the place where the withering man and the Man of Many Tongues had been, trying to fully grasp what I just saw. I glanced at the others. Everyone was too hurt or too stunned or too overwhelmed to say or do anything.

It was Mr. Clarkson who spoke first.

“Oh my God,” he said. “What…what the hell have I done?”

Behind him, Juanita burst into tears.

“Did everyone just see that?” said Jenna. I was surprised how calm her voice sounded.

“Yes,” I said.

“What was that thing?” she said.

“A friend,” I replied. My answer sounded so absurd in my ears that I actually laughed, which hurt by bruised ribs. “Well, an ally, anyway. I think.”

“Jessy,” said Mei, her voice laced with pain, “is it gone? That…horrible tongue-thing, is it gone?”

“It’s gone,” I said. “It’s dead.” Then it struck me that she and Jenna were still strapped to the tables, and almost everyone in the room needed medical attention. Why the hell was I standing here flapping my lips?

I rushed forward and picked up a section of bone-saw that was once the teeth of a lukra, and started to cut Mei out of her straps. I looked over and saw Mr. Clarkson cutting Jenna free.

“Jenna, I’m so sorry,” he said, his face streaked with tears. “That thing got inside me. It got inside me and…”

Jenna looked at him with fear and revulsion.

“Get away from me,” she said. I didn’t blame her.

I cut the last of Mei’s bindings, and she leaned forward and threw her arms around me. She squeezed. I could feel how little strength she had in her arms, but it was enough to hurt my injured body. It didn’t take much. I let out a cry of pain.

“I’m sorry!” Her eyes widened.

“It’s okay,” I said, laughing. “I’m just in bad shape. We all are. We have to get to the hospital.”

“Is it safe?” Jenna asked. “I was in that hospital, and that thing came, and…”

“It’s safe,” I said. “The Many of Many Tongues can’t hurt you anymore. It’s dead.” Or worse.

Juanita sobbed even louder. Mei walked up to her and wrapped the sobbing girl in her arms.

“It’s okay, Juanita,” said Mei. “It’s all over.”

Juanita shoved her away and glared into her eyes.

“Don’t you understand?” Juanita wailed. “It had so much to teach us. So much. And now It’s gone.” She collapsed to her knees and sobbed. Mei backed away.

I hadn’t noticed Sofia leaving, but when I looked up towards the exit I saw her walk into the room through the doors. She led Ms. Sanchez by the hand. The older woman was still covered in tongues. I cringed. I hoped all of that would go away when the Man of Many Tongues died. Like those stories where the people turned to stone miraculously return to normal when the warlock that cast the spell was vanquished. I guess it doesn’t work that way. Sofia took Ms. Sanchez over to where the X-acto knife lay on the floor, then picked it up and started to cut the tongues off.

I looked over at Mei, then Jenna, then Juanita. I saw that each of them had that second nervous-system inside of them, just like Sofia did, connecting the places where the Man of Many Tongues had penetrated their flesh. I walked up to Mei.

“I have to do something,” I said, “and it might hurt.”

“That thing left something inside of me, didn’t it?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then please get it out.”

Jenna walked up to her and clasped her hand. I extended the blades from my maimed hand, then slid them inside of Mei. She gasped. I dragged the blades through her body. The strands of the network stuck to them, and I tore them out through her side. She clutched her abdomen in pain, and fell to the floor.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” I said as I bent over her.

“I…I think so.” After a few seconds the pain appeared to subside a little, and she sat up.

I turned to Jenna.

“Are you ready?” She nodded. The network inside Jenna was much more extensive than Mei’s. It took longer, and judging from her cries it hurt much more. When it was done she lay on the floor, twitching, while Mei stroked her hair and whispered calming words into her ear.

I walked over to Juanita. Mr. Clarkson stood over her.

“It’s okay, Juanita,” he said. “It’s going to be okay. It’s okay.”

He kept saying it, while Juanita wailed “no no no no” over and over.

“Mr. Clarkson,” I said, “I need you to hold her still while I cut what’s left of that thing out of her body.”

“Jessy,” he said, looking into my eyes, “I didn’t mean to do it. It infested my mind. I didn’t mean it. Oh God.”

“Just hold her still.” I bent down, and got to work.

When it was finished I stood up to see Sofia and Ms. Sanchez standing near me. I took a step towards Sofia, my blades extended. She shook her head and pointed to Ms. Sanchez. I nodded, and got started.

The network inside Ms. Sanchez was worse even than Jenna’s. It seemed to take forever, and her mouth hung open the whole time in a soundless scream. When I finally tore it out of her, she lurched backwards, clasping her chest. My eyes widened in horror as her body started to break apart along the lines where the network had been, as if it had been the only thing holding her together.

“Oh God,” I cried, and I stepped towards her. She held her hands out to block me, and shook her head. She caught my gaze. I saw pain in her eyes, but also something else. Peace? She threw her arms out, looked up into the air, and smiled. I watched as her body split into pieces, and the pieces dissolved into dust.

I turned to face Sofia.

“She’s gone,” Sofia said, “free.”

I nodded. “Your turn.”

Sofia shook her head. “No.”

“But…aren’t you in pain?” I said.

She just stared at me, but her eyes answered my question.

“Then let me help you, Sofia. Please.”

She shook her head again. “No. Not done. Others.”

“Others? I don’t understand.”

She pointed up at an angle, through the far wall. “Others.”

“Sofia, I don’t…”

Then she walked towards the wall and stepped into it.

“Wait!” I cried. But it was too late. She was gone.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“You were talking to Sofia?” said Jenna from behind me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Couldn’t you see her?”

“No.” Jenna shook her head. “Is she…is she going to be okay?”

“I hope so.” I sighed. “Okay. We really need to get to the hospital.”

There were murmurs of agreement around me. Together, we walked towards the stairs.

“It is over,” Mei said in my ear as we walked, “isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I lied. “It’s over.”

Maybe it was over, for her and the others. I didn’t know. I hoped so. But whether it was over for me was a different question entirely. And I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

 

 

Mr. Clarkson led us to the surface, and we reached the hospital a few minutes later. It was a small mercy that we were so close. Trying to explain to the ER staff what had happened was a nightmare, but we had so many injuries between us they rushed us in. The hardest part was getting them to send paramedics to recover Katim.

The police showed up less than half an hour later, with Agent Durant and the FBI close behind. They arrested Mr. Clarkson. Again. He confessed to what he had done. In fact, he told them the whole truth, which I’m sure made him sound completely insane. Everyone else told versions of the truth, too. I kept my answers vague, and claimed I didn’t remember much of it. I don’t know if they believed me.

My injuries weren’t as bad as they I feared they might be. Maybe I’m built tough, or maybe my claws somehow protected me. But they were bad enough. I’m recovering. Slowly. It seems like rapid healing isn’t something I get from being…whatever the hell I am.

It’s been a little over a week since all of this went down. A slow week, at least compared to the few that came before it. As crazy as it sounds, everything is kind of getting back to normal. Nothing has tried to kill me. All of us are back in school, and it’s just as full of assholes as ever. Everyone still stares at me and crosses the hall when I walk by, but what else is new? At least now I’m not alone.

Katim is in a coma. The doctors say they don’t know if he’ll ever come out. It was caused by injury to the brain. Maybe it was that parasite inside of him, but I can’t help but think it might also have been the sharp piece of metal I shoved into his eye. Even if it was the parasite, that was still my fault. He would never have been involved, if not for me.

I’ve been visiting him, every day. I owe him that. I look at the wound on his face, and his severed fingers, and it reminds me of the damage I’ve caused. I think about all of those people, including my brother, who lost their fingers because the withering man was trying to free the thing inside of me, and I ignored Him. I can’t afford to be that ignorant ever again.

Juanita is acting strange. She’s withdrawn into herself, and won’t really talk to anyone. I hope for her sake she’s getting therapy. And pills. And maybe electro-shock. But how do you recover from something like this? I’ve tried to talk to her, and I know Mei has, too. But she won’t respond. I’m worried. I’m also watching. Just in case.

Mei has been wonderful and supportive, like she always is. But there’s something in her eyes when she looks at me. She comes the closest to knowing the full extent of my involvement, because she knew about the withering man. Part of her is afraid. I finally worked up the nerve to ask her about it.

“I just need time, Jessy,” she said. “I’ll…I mean…I need some time.”

But I don’t know. I hope desperately I haven’t lost her. That she isn’t broken. I just don’t know.

But it’s not all bad. Jenna and I have been talking nearly every night. It started with a bunch of texts in the hospital. She told me she didn’t understand what in God’s name happened, but she knew that I had saved her. Again. The night we both got out, she called me and we talked for hours. About that night, the Man of Many Tongues, and everything that’s happened between us over the past few years. The last thing I said before we hung up was, “This doesn’t mean I like you, you know.” I kind of meant it, that first time. But now I make sure it’s the last thing I say whenever we talk, and it’s turned into a running joke. It makes us both giggle.

She stood up for me when Carmella Turner made fun of my dress in school, the other day. I thanked her, but told her not to do that again. If she keeps that up it’ll probably mean the death of her popularity. She said she didn’t care.

Mom and Adam are freaked out, of course, but they’re handling it. I told them I was going nuts and went for a midnight walk when I got abducted. So they’re crazy mad at me. I don’t think I’ll be allowed out on Saturday night for a couple of years. But mom will get over it. She’s going through an overprotective phase, and I can’t really blame her. Besides, if I want to get out of the house, I have other means, now.

Joseph came to speak to me. She appeared in my bedroom, which scared the piss out of me. She knew I was there, because those eyes on my ceiling are, apparently, actually her eyes. We talked for a long time. As usual, a lot of what she said didn’t make what you’d call sense. She laid down a lot of vague hints about what my life would be like, now that I was “in His service.” I protested that I hadn’t agreed to that. She just smiled.

I told her what the withering man had done, and what his words had been.

“He broke the contracts,” she said. She actually sounded surprised. First time for everything. “That is…significant.”

“But what does it mean?”

“It means that change has come to stir the gentle waters. Something is about to happen, and when it is done, I fear nothing will remain the same.”

It’s kind of hard to talk to Joseph, because she is so goddamn dramatic.

I asked her a bunch of the questions I didn’t have time for last time we spoke. Including the one that burned inside of me.

“Why did the withering man take Briana? My friend, who disappeared when I was seven years old. Why did He take her?”

I knew Joseph’s answer before she said it.

“He didn’t.”

So that’s one more mystery to add to the pile. Speaking of which, Derrick seems convinced I’m going to be his on-call monster slayer, or something. I told him everything that happened, and he practically creamed his jeans. I guess this is the sort of thing people like him live for, but rarely get to actually see. I told him I’d think about it.

I held out a vague hope for a few days that my fingers would magically come back, the way my face and eyes had. But I guess it’s not really the same. They’re gone, and the doctors told me the wound was already scarred over. My mom is talking about prosthetic, but they sound pretty expensive. I guess I’m going to have to learn to draw with my left hand. It sucks, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should.

That’s pretty much everything. That leads us right back to now. As I’m writing this, I’m also looking through those crazy letters sent to Alex Kingsport. I can read them, when I Look with my other eyes. They’re full of people and events that happened over the last few years. Joseph was right. The withering man was trying to communicate with me this whole time, but I didn’t listen. I recognize some of the things in the letters. There is a photo of two children, who got kidnapped in California when I was eleven. It was national news; they were never found. Maybe I could have stopped it. Maybe I could have stopped all of it, if I’d just been paying attention.

The last one I looked at was sent to me earlier this year, and it made me gasp. It’s a picture of Maxwell, one of the guys in my class. He’s smiling, but there are flames wreathed around face, and a sword hanging over his head. I saw Maxwell just a few hours ago. Maybe whatever it is hasn’t happened yet. Maybe I can stop it. I am not going to let him get hurt, not when I can fight against it.

I don’t know if I want to work for the withering man, or whatever. I don’t even know what that means. It’s a heady question, that requires a lot of thought and soul-searching. But later. I don’t have time to worry about that now.

I have work to do.

Previous Chapter

The Harvest

old operating theatre

the withering man, part 21

Something tapped at my window. I leapt out of my computer chair and ran to look. Nothing. Then I Looked with my vision. Still nothing. I sat back down, marveling at how much easier it was to use the vision since my trip through the underworld. Or whatever it was.

The sound came again. I glanced over at the clock. It was midnight. Of course it was. I walked to the window and opened it. I leaned out and looked down at the street. Someone stood on the sidewalk in the scarred and whispering place, looking up at the window. A girl. A sick feeling roiled in my stomach, because I recognized her.

I put the X-acto knife in my pocket, grabbed the spider-filled water bottle, and crept down the stairs. I threw on my jacket and stuffed the water bottle into one of the over-sized pockets. Then, quietly, I opened the door and walked out into the night.

“I hoped it wouldn’t be you,” I said as I approached the girl in the street.

Sofia stared at me with glassy eyes. The thing in my chest stayed still, just like last time I saw her. Apparently it didn’t think of Sofia as a threat. No. I didn’t think of her as a threat. I prayed I wasn’t horribly wrong.

“Come with me,” she said. The words were a garble of Spanish, English, and at least one other language I didn’t recognize. But I understood it. I guess I could do that, even though He hadn’t torn off my ears.

“Where are we going?”

“Come with me,” she repeated in that same flat tongue. I saw that she now had a tongue. It was too large, and spilled out of her mouth. There were more of those wriggling red tentacles all over her body than there were last time I saw her. They were all connected inside of her, by some kind of mockery of a nervous system that ran throughout her body.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come with you.”

She turned and lurched away. Not the stuttering lurch of a blue ghost in a horror movie, but the gait of a person in an enormous amount of pain. It made me angry.

“I don’t know if you’re in there,” I said. “But I’m going to save you. I am going to kill that asshole and I am going to save you.”

She didn’t respond.

I followed her up Fayette Avenue. She moved so slowly it drove me crazy. I wanted to scream for the Man of Many Tongues to come out and fight me. But what good would it do?

Sofia turned into Mei’s driveway and my blood froze. She didn’t walk to the front door, but instead hobbled along the side of the house and into the backyard. A tall stone structure jutted up from the middle of the yard. It was smooth, and tapered to a point twenty feet up. It reminded me of the tower of teeth, but I didn’t quite know why until Sofia walked up to it. An opening formed in front of her, and she stepped through.

I walked over to it as the opening closed. I tried to walk through. The wall was solid. I knocked on it. Nothing happened. I waited for Sofia’s hand to reach out and pull me in, like Joseph’s had. Then I kept waiting.

I looked around. Was this a trap? Did she lure me here so the Many of Many Tongues could leap out and devour me? I didn’t think so. The thing in my chest was still. I knocked on the wall again. There was no response.

I took a deep breath, and tried to think about this logically. When Joseph pulled me in, she yanked me out of my skin and into my Alex body. So all I had to do to pass through was get turn into my other form. How the hell did I do that?

I tried to step out of my skin. Nothing happened. I tried to blur my vision so much that I slipped out of my body. I concentrated really, really hard.

It took me almost twenty minutes to figure it out. The fact that my dead best friend was on the other side in agony was almost enough to prevent me from feeling like an idiot. In the end, I felt the tiny cuts on my face left by the green wig creature, and was able to press through them and out of my flesh. The wall of the tower opened up and I passed through.

Sofia waited on the other side. She started to walk again. We were inside a narrow tunnel with open wounds for walls. It dripped onto my head and shoulders. I tried to ignore it.

We walked for a long time. I tried to talk to Sofia a few more times, but she ignored me. I told her I was going to save her, and free her from her pain. I didn’t know if any of it got through, or if she heard me at all. But the sound of my voice was better than the shuffling and the dripping and the silence.

It’s hard to tell time, in that place. I don’t think I realized how much I relied on the metronomes of my breathing and my heartbeat until they were gone. It was hard to tell one second from the next. Hours could have passed by the time we reached the gaping orifice at the end of the tunnel. Sofia stepped in, and I followed.

As I passed through, I felt myself slip out of my Alex body and back into my normal one. But I kept my Vision up. We emerged into a parking lot at the back of a large, six story building. It was still night. I hoped to God it was the same night. I didn’t want to think what Mom would do if I disappeared for a entire day. It took me a second to recognize the building.

“Shallow Wells hospital,” I said. “Jenna.”

Sofia turned away from the building and led me towards the patch of trees next to the lot. Mud seeped into my shoes as I slogged through the wet ground. A minute later, we reached a concrete structure with two large metal doors. Like one of those outside entrances into a basement. It was rusted and filthy, and covered in vines.

“Hello, Jessica,” said a voice behind me. I turned around.

“Hello, Mr. Clarkson.”

“You don’t sound surprised to see me,” he said. There was a wild fascination in his voice, like when he told stories about his travels around the world. He looked normal, to my Vision, except there was something weird about his face.

“I’m not,” I said. “I know what you are.”

“Do you?” He sounded genuinely confused, for just a second. He shook his head. “You may believe that. But you don’t know anything. Not yet.”

“What do you want from me, Mr. Clarkson?”

“You always did ask stupid questions,” he said. “What I want doesn’t matter. The Baron wants to destroy you.” He looked into my eyes. “You don’t sound surprised at that, either.”

“No,” I said. “Of course it wants to destroy me. I’m here to kill it.”

Mr. Clarkson laughed. “If only it was that simple. You might as well try to kill the tides, or the mountains. It is older than flesh, or the dust that spawned the galaxies. It taught us to speak, just so it could return and rip our our lying tongues.”

This was starting to piss me off.

“My grandpa’s pretty old,” I said. “I could probably kick his ass, too.”

“You do have a tongue on you,” he said, and smiled. “It’s a shame you’re so terrible at Spanish. If you were more fluent I could have included you from the beginning, and saved us all of this mess. You would have gotten to know Sofia here a whole lot better. Oh well.”

“Fuck you.”

He shook his head. “Not today. Now come with me.” He walked towards the rusted doors.

“Come with you?” I scoffed. “Now why the hell would I want to do that?”

“Don’t make this difficult. Come with me or I’ll kill your friend.”

I laughed. “I’m not sure if you’ve looked, but she’s already dead.”

“No. Not that friend.”

I heard snarling behind me. I turned to see two things dragging a struggling person. To my normal eyes, the things looked like pieces of old medical equipment that floated in the air. A syringe, some scalpels, tweezers, part of a bone saw. All rusted and in ill repair. With my Vision I saw that all of it was bound together, with strips of dried muscle, into the rough shape of two beasts. Two monstrosities of beef jerky and sharp edges.

The thing in my chest began to scratch frantically.

“Please,” said Mr. Clarkson. “That little toy of yours might frighten the blemiyeh, and the lesser cravelings, and the whispers. But it won’t scare the lukra.”

The creatures, apparently called lukra, dragged the struggling form and dropped her next to Mr. Clarkson. She was bound tightly with thin rope, and her mouth was gagged. She was close enough, now that I could see who it was. My eyes widened.

“Oh my God, ” I called to her. “Mei!”

I clenched my jaw shut.

“Let. Her. Go.”

“The Baron warned you,” said Mr. Clarkson. “It gave you every chance. It told you the consequences would be yours. Your interference has put us off schedule and tainted the supply. Luckily Mei here is obliging enough to speak Chinese.” He bent down over her and stroked her cheek. “Aren’t you, Mei? That makes her viable for the harvest, as well as being a way to force your obedience. Very convenient.”

Mei’s eyes caught mine, and I saw the depth of her terror.

“Mr. Clarkson,” I said, pleading. “Mr. Clarkson. This isn’t you. You don’t want to do this.”

“Jessy?” His face softened and grew desperate. “Jessy, what am I doing? I…” He squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, they twinkled like winter stars. “But it is me. Or it soon will be. The Baron sees to my needs.” He continued to stroke Mei’s cheek.

“You’re sick.”

He stood up. “I’m a man. It came because I needed It, and It needed me. Do you know what that’s like? To feel needed by something to something so primal? So real?”

“Listen to yourself, Mr. Clarkson,” I said. “You’re not making any goddamn sense. You don’t want to do this. Now let her go.”

“You’re wasting our time,” he said. “And we’re already behind schedule. A demonstration, to show you we’re serious.”

He signaled behind him, and one of the lukra clamped down on Mei’s arm with its saw-blade teeth. She screamed into her gag. Blood welled out of the wound and darkened her shirt. Mr. Clarkson looked into my eyes. “Do you understand?”

I fought the numbness that spread through my body and forced myself to nod.

“Now follow me.”

He opened the doors of the concrete structure and walked down. I went after him, along with Sofia. The lukra dragged Mei close behind us. I heard her muffled groans as her head smacked the stone steps. Every one made my insides ache. I thought about attacking the lukra, grabbing Mei, and running. But attack them with what? The knife in my pocket felt very small, right now.

“Mei,” I said softly to her. “Mei, don’t worry. I’m going to get us out of this.” I didn’t know if she heard me, or believed me. I didn’t know if I believed it myself.

“This sub-basement used to be part of the hospital,” said Mr. Clarkson as we walked through its dusty halls. “It hasn’t been used in decades. A lot of people died down here. That parking lot back there is paved over a graveyard. That’s why it’s called Shallow Wells, actually. A little joke, although no one alive remembers it. But It was there. It has shown me so much.”

He laughed. “Listen to me. I’m bringing one student to be tormented and another to be harvested and I still can’t stop teaching. I guess I went into the right profession, huh?” He smiled at me. I wanted to jab my knife into his eye.

Mr. Clarkson led us down one dusty-caked tunnel and the next. Goddamn tunnels. If I got out of this, I didn’t ever want to see a tunnel for the rest of my life.

“Where are you taking me?” I said.

“It wants to see you,” said Mr. Clarkson. “To taste you with Its own eyes. And to show you what It is doing.”

“I’m going to kill it,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “I don’t know if you’re in there, Mr. Clarkson. But I want you to know that. And if I have to, I’m going to kill you.”

“Brave words,” said Mr. Clarkson. “Does it make you feel better, to say them, I wonder?” He turned down another corridor. It ended in a large set of double doors. “We’re here. After you.”

I hesitated. Mr. Clarkson gestured with his fingers. There was a muffled scream, and I looked back to see one of the lukra with its filthy syringe-tooth plunged into Mei’s cheek. I clasped my hand to my mouth to stifle a cry.

Mr. Clarkson put his hand on my shoulder.

“I said after you.”

I pushed on one of the doors. It swung open to reveal a large room that sloped downward. It had rows of wooden stadium seating that overlooked an oval shaped area at the bottom. I saw a room like this at the medical museum in Willemstad. An operating theater, built so people could watch surgeries back in the days when the amount of blood and viscera on your shirt was a sign of your skill as a doctor. Several oil lamps hung on the walls cast flickering yellow light onto the grisly scene below.

There were three operating tables on the stage, set at nearly upright angles. Two of them had girls strapped to them; the third was empty. Next to the empty table stood a figure, covered from head to toe with writhing tentacles.

There was also a man, if you could call it a man. It was tall, and naked, and covered in scars. On top of its neck was something that only vaguely resembled a head. A lump of flesh, round and misshapen. The creature had its body pressed up against one of the girls, so I couldn’t see her face. The other girl I recognized.

“Jenna!” I called.

“Jessica?” she whimpered. “Jessica is that you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m here. Just hold on. I’m going to save you.”

Light flashed in front of me, and left the imprint of words in my eyes.

NO. YOU WON’T.

The Man of Many Tongues pulled away from its victim with a slurping sound. Its chest was covered in tentacles, and they had gouged into the girl where its flesh touched hers. No, they weren’t tentacles. They had never been tentacles. I glanced back at Sofia, and saw them jutting out of her body as well. They were tongues.

The creature turned to face me. The tongues pulled into its body, into the scars on its chest. Not scars. Mouths. Thousands of cracked, thin-lipped mouths. A large gash bisected its entire face, and a long tongue hung between its legs. When it stepped away from its prey, I saw that it was Juanita. She whimpered in pain. Which meant she was still alive.

“Here she is, Your Lordship,” said Mr. Clarkson. “This is the one.”

The creature’s head split open like a pez dispenser, and an enormous tongue shot towards me. It stretched the twenty feet between us, and stopped inches from my face. I gasped. The tip of the tongue split in two with a ripping sound, and each of the forks flicked the air. Like a snake tasting for prey.

Then it pulled back into the creature’s head.

There was another flash of light.

YES. IT IS THE ONE.

“Let my friends go,” I said. “Or I will fucking annihilate you.”

Mr. Clarkson laughed.

YOU SHOULD HAVE SURRENDERED. IT BRINGS ME NO PLEASURE TO MAKE YOU SUFFER. BUT YOU WILL SUFFER. YOUR FLESH WILL BE DISSOLVED INTO LIQUID AGONY, AND YOUR AGONY WILL BE SPREAD OUT AMONG THE REALMS, DISPLAYED FOR THE ACOLYTES AND THE PRETENDERS TO SEE, AND TO UNDERSTAND.

“Like hell it will,” I said. I pulled the water bottle out of my pocket, unscrewed the lid, and hurled it at the beast.

“Please work,” I whispered.

It arced through the air, and then crashed into…nothing. When it reached the edge of the operating area, it smashed into what appeared to be an invisible wall.

When I squinted, I could just barely see what the bottle smacked into. Like a filthy discoloration in the air that covered the stage in a half-dome. The spiders rushed out of the bottle and swarmed up the barrier. They chittered and bit at it, but they couldn’t get in. Bile rose from my stomach and stung my throat.

“Nice try,” said Mr. Clarkson. “But the Baron knew the instant the foul prophet was freed. It knew someone would try to use the spiders against It. It took precautions.”

IT HAS BEEN WITNESSED. ITS PUNISHMENT AWAITS IT. TAKE IT AWAY, said the Man of Many Tongues in a flash of light.

Mr. Clarkson grabbed me by the arm. “Come with me.”

“Where are we going?”

“How many times do I have to do this before you understand?” He lifted his fingers to gesture at the lukra.

“No!” I cried. “No. Please. I’ll come.”

He smiled at me and walked through the doors. I followed, as did Sofia.

“I wish you could see how beautiful this is,” said Mr. Clarkson. “The five of us shared a moment of transcendent bliss, during that festival all those weeks ago. Didn’t we, Sofia?”

He looked at her. The glazed look in her eyes faded, and she stared at him in fear.

“No,” she said.

He looked puzzled. “You are a stubborn one. Always fighting. I see why the two of you were friends.” He chuckled. “But Jessica, I assure you it was a beautiful moment. All of this is merely its culmination. Once their bodies have been prepared, and allowed to ferment, they will grow new tongues for him to harvest. Thus completing the circle of existence. Don’t you think that’s beautiful?”

“No,” I said. “I think it’s bullshit. You killed them. You made them suffer. They’re still suffering.”

“Is there ever majesty, without suffering?” said Mr. Clarkson. “A fascinating topic of discussion. But one for another time, I’m afraid.”

We fell into silence. I was glad not to hear that gratingly calm voice anymore. But it left me alone inside my brain. Hopelessness pumped through me like blood. I’d tried and failed. I’d wasted my only weapon like an idiot. Nice job, withering man. You made a pretty shitty choice in Jessica Kingsport. Better luck next time, I guess.

“Here we are,” said Mr. Clarkson after a few minutes. He pointed to a metal door, rusted like everything in this place. “Open it. Good. Now step inside.”

With a sick feeling in my stomach, I did as he said. The room was empty except for some chairs piled haphazardly on one side of the room and a pile of rags in the corner. Mr. Clarkson slammed the door shut, and locked it from the other side.

“You are very stupid,” he said through the door. “How many movies have you seen like this? You know Mei has to die, and yet you still let me lock you in a room with something terrible.”

I jerked my head around to look. The pile of rags in the corner began to move.

“He won’t kill you,” said Mr. Clarkson. “Just tear you up so you can’t move or talk, or do anything but feel pain. I suppose that’s cold comfort.”

“I’m going to get out of here!” I shouted.

“That’s doubtful. I’m going to leave Sofia here to watch. Maybe that’ll break the stubbornness out of her. Goodbye, Jessica.” I heard him walk away.

I turned back to the pile of rags. It stood up, and revealed itself to be a man in tattered clothing. Or at least, it used to be a man. With my Vision I saw a creature of tongues and teeth lodged in his throat. Tendrils protruded from it, and poked out through his body. They came out of his eyes, and his mouth, and one of his nostrils. And the three severed stumps of fingers on his right hand.

“Oh my God,” I gasped. “Oh my God. Katim.”

An image flashed through my mind, of the tunnels under Atherton college. I saw Katim, suspended in the air by the Man of Many Tongues, with something thrust into his throat. I thought I saved him. I thought I scared the thing off. But it left something behind. Something infectious.

At the sound of his name, Katim straightened up and looked at me. Then his body went limber, and he began to sway. Like a snake about to strike.

“Katim,” I said, “I’m so sorry. Oh God, this is my fault. I’m so sorry.”

He lunged. I shrieked and dove out of the way. The tongues protruding from his hand caught my outstretched arm and stuck. An intense burn seared my flesh, and my skin sizzled in my ears. I screamed and wrenched the arm away from the tongues. I leapt back.

Katim stared at me. He held up his hand, and the tongue-fingers writhed, strips of my skin clinging to their undersides. I reached into my pocket and slid my X-acto knife out of it’s gauze-sleeve. Then he charged.

I jabbed the blade at his face as he raced towards me. A jolt ran up my arm as the blade plunged with a sickening squish into his eye. He let out a too-human cry of pain jerked his head away, wrenching the knife from my grasp.  He staggered backwards. Then he looked up at me, the knife protruding from his eye-socket, and a thick yellow fluid leaking down his face. The tongue in Katim’s other eye reached out and ripped the blade out of his face by the handle and flung it across the room. It crashed against the wall with a clang.

I sprinted past him towards my lost weapon. The tentacle in his mouth shot out and struck me in the shoulder with what felt like the force of a wrecking ball.  I flew across the room, and the side of my head smashed into the jutting leg of a folding chair. Intense pain flooded my senses, and I crumpled to the floor. Katim walked towards me. I struggled to move my limbs, but they wouldn’t respond. I was too hurt, and too disoriented.

Katim leaned over me, and the tongues in his face writhed in triumph. With my regular vision, I saw that his human eyes were laced with fear. Was he still in there? It didn’t matter. I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t save anyone.

“I’m sorry,” I said. My voice was weak. “I’m sorry I did this to you. To all of you. I’m sorry I was so useless.”

I couldn’t think. Everything appeared hazy from the pain. It looked like the whole world was shivering.

No. Not everything was shivering. The Katim-beast above me looked normal. It was only the concrete ceiling above him that shivered. He didn’t seem to notice. The quiver of the stone intensified. A droning buzz filled the air. Katim didn’t react. Couldn’t he hear it? It was so loud. The ceiling quaked so violently I thought it would break apart. What the hell was going on here?

Then He emerged, like a worm crawling out of the dirt after a rainstorm. His uncanny face and terrible black dress were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The withering man floated down from the ceiling. His lidless eyes bored into my skull. The same unidentifiable things from before buzzed all around him. I expected the Katim-beast to flee, like the creatures in Oaklawn Park had done. But he didn’t react at all.

If you see Him, it is because He has chosen you to see Him.

“Help me,” I croaked. But the withering man just stared.

Katim lifted his hand to strike. I threw my arms out in front of me. One of the buzzing things dislodged from the withering man and flew towards me. The thing in my chest started to scratch more violently than before.

Memory swam in front of my eyes. “He tried to arm you,” Joseph had told me. “But you resisted.”

In the tunnels under Atherton, something flew at me, and the thing in my chest deflected it. So it struck Katim.

It was meant for me. It was always meant for me.

I squeezed the thing in my chest, and it went still. I took a deep breath. Maybe my last. The buzzing thing crashed into my hand, at the same time Katim-beast’s tongues wrapped around three of my outstretched fingers. The fingers vibrated violently, and they burned. Behind Katim, the withering man’s skin shrunk into that terrible smile. The worst pain I had ever felt washed over every nerve I possessed.

I gritted my teeth, and waited.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Visions and Murders

IMG_3939_01.web.640

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

The Diary

I can feel you

the withering man, part 16

September 3rd

How can our branches take in the glittering lights of Heaven, when our roots are planted firmly in Hell?

We are in hell, but the flames that lick us are antiquated 19th century curricula designed to churn out industrial-age factory drones, and prison-grade processed food product. I hoped that Agatha Caldwell High School would be better than the other cesspits to which I have been subjected. More the fool, I!

There are no metal detectors, but that just means the bullies are more subtle. The hallways aren’t so stuffed with kids, but that just means it’s easier to get singled out. The teachers don’t all have that desperate, defeated look they all had at Jefferson, but their subjects are just as useless. And Jefferson had better food. I never thought I’d say that.

So I suppose I am once again to take my learning in my own hands. I feel foolish that I am surprised. I suppose I fell prey to the myth of pastoral purity and superiority. My parents seem still to believe it. I know it’s a fallacy to believe the grass on the other side of the fence is always greener. But once you leave the city, shouldn’t it really be greener? That does not seem like too much to ask.

I wish my parents would let me homeschool. But no, my mother is a partner at her new firm. Heaven forbid she sully her skyward trajectory dealing with her wretched offspring. If I can find one or two good teachers maybe they’ll let me do tutorials, as I did with Emma. I miss Emma.

Most of the teachers do not strike me as either amenable or particularly intelligent. My math teacher seems okay. But the day I study more math than absolutely required is the day the orca finally rise from the sea and take over the electoral college. The Spanish teacher also seems cool. Perhaps I shall dedicate myself to the linguistic arts. I could become a woman of many tongues.

We shall see.

Sofia Anastos

September 6th

Mr. Clarkson is amazing. He’s the Spanish teacher I mentioned earlier. All week long I tried to work up the nerve to ask him for private study. I need not have worried. Today he actually came to me about it!

He saw from my transcripts from Jefferson that I had already taken Spanish 2. He said that this school did not normally do things like this, but given my clear aptitude with the language he wondered if I would consider testing to move straight to Spanish 3. I said yes, yes of course! He laughed at my enthusiasm, and explain that it meant class with the 10th graders. I said I didn’t mind. I confess it is intimidating. But it’s not like I know anyone at this school, anyway.

We kept talking after that, for so long that I was late for English and he had to write me a note so Mr. Booth would not scold me. I didn’t care. I read Romeo and Juliet years ago. I could probably skip every class and still ace the test. After studying, of course.

I expressed my interest to Mr. Clarkson about perhaps studying another language. It turned out he speaks Latin and French and Italian and Indonesian. And Japanese. He showed me, somewhat embarrassed, that he keeps several volumes of manga in his desk at school that he reads in the original language. And I don’t think even that was an exhaustive list, because when I confessed my attempt to do my own translation of The Iliad and my frustrations with the differences between Homeric Greek and the modern kind my parents taught me, he revealed that he has a degree in ancient languages! The man is wasted on this school. I don’t know how they snatched him up, but I will simply count my blessings.

Sofia Anastos

September 7th

I am in love! Okay, perhaps not really. But if one cannot indulge in the musings of ones heart to the fullest extensions of their blossoming in one’s own diary, then what hope has romance in this dull and pallid world?

Okay, that was a bit flowery. Pun intended. What I really mean is that I have a serious crush on someone. And of course it is the most popular and most beautiful girl in school. Who is dating the quarterback. She’s quite intelligent, as well. And vicious, in that way socially powerful girls always are. I saw her tear into another girl for five minutes in the hall today, for some insignificant slight. A volley of exquisite torments. No doubt Hillary Clinton was similar in high school, and Angela Merkel.

Why does that sort of thing get me so aroused? My particular psychological poison, I suppose. Or one of them. I would make a good Cenobite. The Hellbound Heart version, of course.

I likely have a future as some powerful person’s vapid consort. If I ever get breasts. And if I could swap my face for one that’s less ugly. And get rid of my personality. Perhaps if I drink enough spirits, it will dissolve my coarse nature and individualism into something more graceful and socially acceptable.

I’ll never talk to the object of my affections, of course. In those seas lie dragons. I committed that error once, and it made the hell that was Jefferson before that happened seem like a romp through the Elysian Fields. I hesitate to even commit her name to paper, lest these writings be discovered. But I suppose if that happens, all is lost anyway.

Her name is Jenna Lethbridge. Short for Jennifer, perhaps, or Genevieve. A prosaic name, for so enchanting a specimen. Ew. The word specimen there sounds creepy. Like I’m a stalker. Or a serial killer. Perhaps I am, and I don’t know it yet. Some day some district prosecutor will hold this up in front of a grand jury and say, “The signs were there, from an early age. Sofia was such a troubled girl.”

Best to find some place to hide this tome. Just in case.

Sofia Anastos

September 9th

Today sucked. It was so crappy, it has apparently left me with all the eloquence of a mentally stunted beaver who never made it past sixth grade at beaver school. No point wasting my time writing it down.

September 10th

One should always listen to one’s mentors. Mr. Clarkson practically forced me to join the Spanish Club. He’s been attempting to persuade me for weeks. First he said they needed members. Then he indicated that my gifts should not be kept to myself. When these attempts failed, he hinted he would cease my private lessons if I did not acquiesce. So that was that.

It turned out to be pretty cool. I won’t quite say “wonderful,” even though I’m tempted. It is too soon to tell. But I will confess that the atmosphere in my first meeting stood in stark contrast to everything else in this cesspool of a school. A cool oasis in a parched desert of hormones and assholes.

I suspect it is partially because it is almost all girls. And that Mr. Clarkson is the proctor. He introduced me as a “gifted new student,” and made me stand up and talk about myself. In front of everyone. It was embarrassing. But no one sniggered. Everyone seemed to actually pay attention. A whiff of fresh air, when I am choked by the fumes.

The president of the club is a girl named Juanita Menendez. She appears to be one of those people who is legitimately interested in others, and in listening to what they express. Or perhaps she is merely good at faking it. That’s 90% the same thing.

The icing on the proverbial cake? Jenna is in the club. She sat across from me, wearing a tight top of palest blue. I didn’t stare, of course. One learns the skills of camouflage.

I think I’ll be coming back next week.

Sofia Anastos

September 11th

My heart is pounding in my chest so viciously that I fear it will burst out of me, and crawl forth to haunt the corridors of the school. It has been pounding all day.

Jenna spoke to me.

She found me after math class, and said she was “really impressed” with the poetry I read at Spanish Club yesterday. She’s one of the editors of Wanderings, the school poetry magazine, and she wondered if I wrote poetry in English as well. I have no idea what I said in response. But it must have been at least vaguely coherent, because she smiled and said “great!” before she walked off. The smile would have made me weak in the knees, if I had knees left at that point.

I believe, once I’ve calmed to a state of semi-rationality, that I shall write some poetry. Some of it might even be suitable for public consumption.

Sofia Anastos

September 12th

I’m going to win a Nobel prize in physics, because I have discovered that the world is actually made out of shit. Like when you get down into the particles that make up the particles, you will find that they are composed entirely of excrement.

How did I make this fascinating discovery, you may ask? Simple. There’s a Spanish Club trip coming up, to go to Willemstad for the Latin American Cultural Festival. Not everyone is going, but Juanita is. And Mr. Clarkson is. And Jenna is. Guess who’s not going?

I asked my mother. Do you know what she said? Nope! You can’t go, because I’m a miserable bitch! What she actually said was “Your father and I aren’t comfortable with you gone for that long with strangers.” Right. I’m so sure my father had a say in it. It was all her.

I can’t recall when I’ve ever wanted to so something so urgently. This is the kind of trip where people make real friends. Where people forge bonds. I don’t think my mother wants me to have any friends. She desires that I stay her isolated little golden child. Tula gets friends, because she’s a lost cause. So what if I wither into an old spinster, who dies and leaves a lonely corpse for her myriad cats to feast on? She’ll be dead long before that. Why should she care?

September 15th

Melodrama, thy name is Sofia. I’m glad I didn’t actually say any of those things to my mother. Not that she wouldn’t have deserved it. But lack of restraint is a sword whose handle is as sharp as the blade. And I’m sure she meant well. She just doesn’t understand me.

But all is well. James came to my rescue.

James is a legitimately amazing person. By James I refer to Mr. Clarkson. He asked me to call him James from now on, when we’re not in class. He talked to my mother, and assured her I would be safe and well taken care of. She relented, on the condition that my grades were up to snuff. I know they are, but midterm grades aren’t released to parents until mid-October. That means I need to collect letters from all of my teachers indicating my standing.

I have a quest!

Sofia Anastos

September 17th

The trip is in two days. I’m so excited.

September 22nd

That was the craziest four days of my life. And likely the best. That feels like such a ridiculous thing for a fifteen year old to say. I can just hear my future self saying “Get some perspective; you’re embarrassing both of us.” In a fabulous pants-suit, with her literary agent on the other end of her cell waiting to tell her that she’s on the bestseller list for another week, of course.

But it’s still true. It was amazing. Transcendent. A paradigm shift. A few days ago, I didn’t have any friends at all. And now…

I can’t even write about it, right now. I’m trying, but it won’t work. I’m too jittery. Too high. I’ll write about it tomorrow. The return to the mundanity of the high-school grind will no doubt bring me down. I will admit to a lingering dread, which I’m trying to shove down into the darkness, that when I go back to school tomorrow everything will revert. Nothing will be different, and it’ll all be back to normal.

I’m hesitantly optimistic.

September 23nd

I am delighted to report that school did not break my spirit. The intensity of this weekend has dulled. That is likely for the best. That level of brightness is sure to burn, before long. Before the light has dimmed completely, I will set the events down in these pages. Years from now, when it feels dim in the recesses of my soul, I can run my eyes along these words and recapture some of this luminescence.

The festival itself was great fun. It isn’t the kind of event I would have expected to enjoy. My last high school boasted an “ethnically diverse community,” which meant there were enough people of different races to from ethnically-oriented cliques. They always tried to hold “multicultural days” which amounted to the Japanese students bringing in teriyaki chicken. I thought I had enough of multiculturalism. It turns that was the sanitized McCulture version.

There were stands full of vendors selling hand-crafted objects from Chile and Argentina and Ecuador. There were discussion panels that were surprisingly fascinating. We went to one about the differences in homosexuality in different Latin cultures. How progressive. My mother would blow her top if she found out.

There was a mini-film festival, and Jenna went with me to see Cronos, Guillermo del Toro’s first film. She hated it. But she sat next to me, and clung to my arm during the scary parts. A Carnival ran through the whole four days, so there were always people in costume.

But none of that was what made me so excitable yesterday I couldn’t write. That happened Saturday night. Perhaps I should say Happened. It deserves a capital. It deserves its own title, writ large on a banner, thrust into the peak of a mountain and swaying in the wind. But I can’t think of a title right now.

James, Jenna, me, Juanita, and Ms. Sanchez all ended up back in James’s room after the evening meal. We talked and laughed and joked. We spoke to each other in Spanish, and Greek. I remember we all spoke Chinese at one point, but that must just be my addled brain making things up. The point is, we bonded. That was the whole point of going, after all. James and Ms. Sanchez shared a bottle of some kind of Argentian wine.

Me and Jenna and Juanita kept trying to pressure them into giving us some. I think James would have, but Ms. Sanchez was a rock. Not that it mattered. We were mostly joking. The hours rolled by. Ten PM became midnight became 2 o’clock. None of us wanted to leave. None of us wanted to go to bed. It felt desperately important that the night not end. I can’t remember ever having more fun. I wanted it to go on forever.

I don’t remember who made a joke about lovers. Ms. Sanchez said that surely us girls were too young to have had “relations,” and all of us laughed. Including James. Jenna asked her how many “relations” she had had. She got all uptight. Then James said “I can name at least one.” She slapped him playfully, and Jenna asked James how it was between them. That’s how the talk turned to sex. It got intense. It got steamy.

Then, all of a sudden…

No, I can’t write it down. Not in detail. I wouldn’t know how. And if someone found this diary James could get in serious trouble. He could lose his job. Maybe even get arrested, even though all he did was watch. Ms. Sanchez would certainly be arrested. So none of the nasty details. An attempt to blunt the richness of those memories into the coarseness of mere language would be a betrayal. Perhaps if I was a better writer. Maybe someday.

I will say that it was magnificent. And strange. I suppose the first time is fated to be different than one’s naïve fantasies. But this was very different. There were so many tongues. It felt like more than four. It felt like a hundred. This is by no means a complaint, mind you.

James never tried to join in, and none of us invited him, even though it went on for over an hour. A long, wonderful hour. That seems bizarre, when I write it down. But it felt right. It felt vital. He just watched. The look on his face was strange. Calm, and hungry, and powerful. Like we did this all for him. It didn’t seem weird at the time. It was just intoxicating.

I’ve never done acid or mushrooms or anything. But it has to feel something like this. I suppose it was sleep deprivation, and hormones, and the intensity of it all. The light in the room changed, and I saw colors and shapes that weren’t there. A skull made of scorpions. A woman covered in weird bumps, and a man excising them with a sharp knife.

Those sound terrifying, when I write them down now. They weren’t. It was all wonderful. I see why the poets craft verse, and the musicians compose songs. Pure, perfect bliss.

I did have a nightmare about it last night, though. James stood up, unhitched his jaw like a snake, and devoured all of us. It freaked me out. But a nightmare is just a nightmare. Raw clay for burgeoning novelist, and I shall shape it into something dark and horrific and beautiful.

Sofia Anastos

September 24th

Strange days ahead. You can’t predict the aftermath of something like The Event. You can only strap in, ride the current, and hope it takes you somewhere you want to be. Mixed metaphors are inevitable.

Juanita avoided all of us the whole day. I think she wants to forget it happened. I can understand that. Especially if she is completely straight, or thought she was.

Jenna bumped into me in the hall and passed me a note.

Substitute Room. Lunchtime.

I didn’t know where that was, so I had to ask someone else, who giggled. I later found out why. It’s also called the “makeout room.” When I arrived Jenna was there. She pushed me against the wall, and…

I hadn’t dared to hope. I gave it no thought at all. What happened on the trip was surely a one-off event. Something to remember forever, but it would never happen again. Jenna had a boyfriend. And in the impossible case that she liked girls, anyone she wanted would kneel down to kiss her magnificent feet.

As she kissed me, I realized I might be wrong. She told me she thought I was cute since she first noticed me in Spanish Club. She wanted to continue to do this, but it had to be a secret. If I wanted to, that was.

Jenna’s an intelligent person, but I think that was the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.

But the day was not yet finished. The strangest part was still to come.

I had a Greek lesson with James after school. For the first time I did not want to attend. I wanted to find Jenna. But I had the concession that I could talk to James about it. The only person with whom I could speak the truth, in all the world. I tried to broach the subject halfway through the session.

“Something interesting happened today,” I said. “It was related to what happened last Saturday, on the trip.”

His face grew cold, and he stood up.

“Don’t you ever bring that up again,” he said. “Do you hear me? To anyone. Ever.”

“I…”

He grabbed me by the arm. “Do you hear me?” He stared down at me, and I could swear it was the same hungry, intense expression he wore the other night. Only angrier.

“Yes,” I stammered. “Yes of course. I swear.”

He calmed down, and we ended the lesson early. I ran from his room and came straight home.

It was terrifying, but now that I look back with a clearer eye it makes sense. If any one of us had loose lips, it would erupt into a major scandal. He would lose his job, perhaps go to jail. We would all get into serious trouble. James just wanted to ensure I grasped the full gravity of the situation. He was looking out for me.

Besides, nothing can bring me down. I have a girlfriend. Jenna Lethbridge is my girlfriend. I have to write that again, because I scarcely believe it. Jenna Lethbridge is my girlfriend.

Sofia Anastos

September 25th

I wrote Jenna a poem, today. She loved it so much, but didn’t think it would be appropriate for the school magazine. She did reward me, though. In the boy’s locker room. I could get use to this. I think I’ll write another poem.

I had another nightmare about James. I have to write these down, even though I don’t like to think about them. Vivid imagery is the paint in a writer’s toolbox. Plus we can mix metaphors whenever we want to. This time scars covered his entire face. I was strapped to an operating table, and James watched as the surgeon cut pieces out of me, one by one.

Sofia Anastos

September 26th

Ta loyagin gipino bo rima ce ci? Idut ra leloneh pacadiw utobirul ritobem. Timoli te toc tipeval enore pe te vadera? Atutura hobir fonel damohim derapo tini dinesie omil pire, nebo lucuy idat balep relu pele re renam sif.

I SEWED MUSCLED AND SINEW INTO THE MOUTHS OF THE FLAILING SACKS OF MEAT, AND SO GIFTED TO MAMMALS THEIR TONGUES, AND TO MEN THEIR UTTERANCES. YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED. THE DEBT IS DUE.

Nerie re ekisef biefab epi! Masiel xopoc ceri obadit pacav hicitu ne: Nakev nat verin. Reyi ceyocoh unet huremed niseta jidese mupahis telag todeber.

WTF? I did not write that. Did someone find my diary?

September 28th

Another nightmare. I grow weary of them. They are the bad kind. The kind that cling to the back of your eyelids, and whose images fill what should otherwise be darkness. Jenna’s having them, too. I think they are worse when we are together. I hate to say that. It hurts to read. I want to ask Juanita if she has them, but she is evasive. I want to ask James, but I fear it would be a repeat of last time.

September 30th

Is this a descent into madness? Are the images and sounds that torment me products of a fraying mind? I wish desperately that this were so. But it is happening to Jenna. And Juanita, I believe, though she won’t admit it. I went down to the Cultural Arts Center to talk to Ms. Sanchez. She told me to go away. She pretended not to know me. She called security to escort me from the building. I should talk to someone. The school councellor, or a psychologist. But I can’t do that without my mother finding out. Then she’ll find out everything.

October 1st

Something strange happened today. I realize I am filling these pages with strange occurrences. This one is different.

It happened during lunchtime. I walked past this girl, sitting alone and drawing in a notebook. I know her, a little, from my Spanish class. Her name is Jessica Kingsport. She talks in class a lot, but generally not about Spanish. She’s cute, in a Tim-Burton-character kind of way. Not to my usual taste. As I strolled past my eye caught the picture she drew, and my mind went blank.

I closed my eyes. The nightmare-scape was gone. The whispers that had lingered at the edges of perception for days went silent. I told her that her picture was badass, and named it Jagged Darkness at the Screaming Edge of Sanity. She lit up like a Goth Christmas tree at the compliment, and said I could keep it. I sat down, and we talked. We talked about comic books. We talked about horror movies—an apparent obsession of hers. I told them I loved them as well. Which is not a total lie. The longer we talked, the calmer I felt.

When lunch ended and we parted ways, all of the horror returned. Not all at once. It crept in, slowly. So slowly I barely noticed, until my mind was once more a hellscape. Worse, for its brief absence. As if resentful that I would do something so terrible as leave it alone.

October 14th

Oh Jenna, my love. What is happening to us? I ache for your touch. I want nothing else. Nothing in the world.

November 5th

The last few weeks have been crazy. Those are my watchwords. Crazy. Strange. Insane. Such is my life. The nightmares have grown worse. They’re trying to tear my sanity into shreds. But I have defenses, now. Jagged Darkness, and Jessy Kingsport. The picture she drew frightens me. There’s something deep inside of it. Something terrible. But whenever I look at it the nightmares can’t get through. I carry it around everywhere. I sleep with it. Whenever I wake up from a horrible dream –which is every time I wake up – I stare at it. If I stare long enough the nightmares retreat from my mind, like rats from a sinking ship. It takes a little longer every day. This terrifies me. How long will it continue to work?

I’m spending a lot of time with Jessy. She’s fun. She’s a good artist, and she loves my fiction. Most of all she makes me feel safe. I can forget what is happening and feel normal. I can even watch scary movies with her, and not be frightened. Because they’re not real. It’s like he won’t come near her. Because he is real. He is terribly real.

I know his name now. The Man of Many Tongues. I know this because he writes it on everything. Papers I carry, or books I read. I don’t know how he does it. I never see him. Not with my eyes open. I throw them away as soon as I see them. But today it showed up on Jagged Darkness.

THE MAN OF MANY TONGUES HAS YOU

He wrote it there to frighten me. To make it clear that although I can keep him at arms length for now, he is close. He is always close.

I miss Jenna. We can’t see each other. It’s too much. We tried. Over and over we tried. It did not go well. I told her about Jessy, about how she makes me feel safe. But she laughed. Apparently Jessy hates her, because of something that happened with a guy years ago. In Jessy’s defense, Jenna is pretty mean to her at school. I told that to Jenna. She said I didn’t understand. She’s right. I don’t understand anything. Not anymore.

I miss James, as well. We continue our lessons together, but it isn’t the same. The temptation to tell him everything gnaws at me. Warning or no warning. I think he might be receptive if I catch him in the right mood.

There seem to be two James Clarksons these days. Sometimes he is the warm, nurturing man who plucked me from the dank pits of new-school-madness and showed me a path. In those moments he wants to help me. I know he does. But whenever he is about to, he becomes the other James Clarkson. The strange, hungry beast that was born that night. The one whose scarred likeness lives in the darkness, whenever I close my eyes.

I wish desperately to speak to him. To make things the way they were. He might listen. If I explain that I won’t tell anyone what happened, but that I need his help. He might listen.

November 13th

It’s gone. Jagged Darkness is gone.The last time I saw it was when I took it out to show to James. I worked up the nerve to talk to him, despite the consequences. I told him what I have been experiencing, and I showed him the picture. And he took it. He must have. Now it is gone and I have nothing.

I feel almost safe, in this house. I don’t know why. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to step out of the door. I tried to text Jessy, to get her to come here. But my phone is dead. It was charged a few minutes ago. And I can’t stay here forever.

I wish you were here with me, my love. But I fear I may never see you again. He’s coming for me. He whispers it to me, in the silence. My debt is due. He is coming.

I don’t know what will happen when he arrives.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Prey

Scream

the withering man, part 14

You can only understand that which hunts you when you can smell the hunger in its breath. When you can lick the adrenaline-laced sweat off its forehead. When you can press the lens of your eye against theirs, firmly enough that the vitreous humor leaks out. They will only let you do this during a single moment. The moment their teeth are clamped around your throat.
–Annals of the Shivering Stone

After all the recent activity, the next few days felt useless and frustrating. Mr. Clarkson wasn’t back in school. The principal posted an announcement on the community forum that Mr. Clarkson was released from police custody and would resume his classes on the upcoming Monday. This caused a 500+-reply uproar from parents that I didn’t have the stomach to actually read, but people talked about it the next day. Apparently there was going to be a meeting. None of this helped me. I desperately needed to talk to him, but I couldn’t. I thought about calling him, but I had no idea what I would say.

“So…I heard you went on a trip. Did you have fun? Did you bond? Did you summon anything from the pits of hell?”

I figured I’d come up with something when he was in front of me, and he couldn’t just hang up.

Jenna was absent, too. No surprise there. She was in bad shape after the attack, and probably traumatized all to hell. I could probably talk my mom or Adam into driving me to Shallow Wells Medical Center to visit. But what was I going to do, interrogate her in her hospital bed? I did email her and say we needed to talk. She didn’t respond.

Juanita Menendez was at school, but I couldn’t get her alone. She was usually surrounded by people anyway, and these days even more so, still handing out t-shirts. I tried again and again to corner her, but she always ducked out. Eventually I realized it was more than just her popularity. She was avoiding me.

No real surprise, I guess. Everyone knew about what happened at Atherton with me and Jenna. They didn’t know the details, of course. But they knew I was there, and that Jenna and I were attacked by someone who was probably the Thousand Cut Killer. Lisa Reed of Channel 7 broke the story. She tried to interview me as I waited for the bus on Thursday; I told her to get bent.

But the damage was done. The student body of Caldwell is 98% idiot, but apparently that’s all the brains it takes to work out that I had a connection to two of the attacks. Worse, someone found a picture of me and Mrs. Sanchez at the Teen Arts Festival last year, and it made the rounds on everybody’s Facebook walls. I had connections to all three of the victims. Add in the fact that most people thought I was a freak anyway, and everybody in the school began whisper and shift to the other side the hall when I walked by.

Even the teachers treated me differently. During classes they acted like I wasn’t there, and in the halls they avoided catching my eye. Miss Van Sutton made the mistake of calling on me in history, to ask about, of all things, Joseph Smith and the founding of the Mormon church. An eerie silence fell over the class, which leaked into hushed whispers. I mumbled that I didn’t know, even though I did. She let it drop.

Without Mei and Dantre I would have gone totally nuts. Dantre walked with me from class to class whenever he could, and loudly announced, “Make way for the Heir of Slytherin! Seriously evil wizard coming through!” It made me laugh. And Mei was Mei. I felt better knowing she’d stick with me no matter what. But I got a sick feeling whenever we were alone together.

I had already given her the same explanation of the events in the tunnel I had given mom and Adam. But she knew there was more. She didn’t ask, but the fact of it hovered like coal dust, poisoning the air between us. I wanted to tell her. Desperately. Nothing would have made me feel better than let it all out to the most accepting person I knew. Maybe she’d even believe me. I almost told her, at least five times. But every time I was on the verge I heard a sickening crunch, as the metal door slammed on Katim’s fingers. And his scream. His horrible scream. I couldn’t infect Mei with this awfulness. Better to have her hate me. Better to die.

The moments of relief I got from my friends were short and scattered. Since my mom had confiscated my phone as punishment I was cut off almost all the time. Surrounded by just my classmates, and their stares.

Special Agent Durant came to school specifically to interrogate me. It took a lot longer this time. I told her the same thing I told the cop at the hospital. But she asked again, and again. She didn’t out-and-out accuse me of hiding something, or being involved. She didn’t have to. By the time it was done I was nearly in tears. But I didn’t cry. I was too pissed off, and I’d be damned if I gave her the satisfaction.

They were two of the worst days of school in my entire life. Worse than the time Robert broke up with me in front of everyone. Worse than the time I peed my pants on stage during a spelling bee.

I hope that puts it into perspective when I explain that school was the easy part. It was the fun part. School was just awful and unpleasant.

The other stuff was terrifying.

The first thing happened on the bus ride to school Thursday morning. The assholes on the bus whispered and shot me looks, just like I expected them to. At one point Sweater Hole looked like he was going to try to sit next to me again, but I gave him such a nasty look that he threw his arms up and backed off. I wore my headphones and tried to ignore all of it.

But after awhile I noticed I could hear the whispers through the music. That was odd. I turned off the music to try to hear them better. They stopped. I shrugged and put my headphones back on. The whispers returned.

I realized with horror and confusion that the whispers were in the music. I could barely make them out. So I concentrated. Once I heard it, it was clear. Low, chattering voices, woven into Neko Case baseline.

lick and taste and lap and drink and suck and lick and penetrate the flesh

lick and taste and lap and drink and suck and lick and penetrate the flesh

I tore my headphones off my head and held them at arms length. That’s when I saw them. All along the inside of the over-ear headphone cups were dozens of tiny green and red things. Like ticks, only with human eyes. And huge, bulbous tongues. I shrieked and threw my headphones across the bus. I flailed at my ears and head. Some of them could still be on me, in my hair, in my ear canal, up inside my brain. Everyone stared. I didn’t care.

We we pulled up to school a few minutes later, I left the headphones – the expensive headphones I got for my birthday – on the bus.

During math class I went to the bathroom. I could hear two girls just outside my stall, chatting while they used the sink.

“Do you think Brandon is cute?” said one of them.

“Brandon?” said the other. “I guess. If you like hairy guys.”

“I guess he’s sort of hairy. You know what I love about bathrooms?”

“Yeah. There are always delicious things in the stalls, stuck with their naked asses hanging out. Helpless.”

The lights dimmed, and all of my muscles tensed.

“Yeah,” said the other girl. “And there’s nowhere to run.”

Footsteps came towards me. I saw feet, under the stall door. The designer shoes looked worn and tattered, and they leaked something thick and black and greasy.

“Don’t worry,” said one of the girls. Her voice was scratchier, and deeper. “It’ll be over before you know it. Before your throat has time to dry out, from all of your screams.”

I jumped to my feet and yanked open the stall door. The things were gone. The light was back to normal. It was just Britney and Carmella. They stared at me with contempt as I stood there, my pants around my ankles.

This shit continued throughout both school days, and throughout the weekend. I tried to tell myself that maybe I was going insane, from all of the stress in my life. But that was laughable. This was real. It was happening. The thing in the tunnels said it would come after me, if I interfered. That it would send its slaves after me. This had to be them. They were relentless, and they were everywhere. The scratching in my chest was constant, now. It never really stopped since the hospital. It was probably the only reason I wasn’t dead.

But how long could its protection last? These nightmare-things would wear me down. Or catch me when I wasn’t ready. Or else the thing inside of me would finally burst out of my chest. An image kept sneaking into my head, of me on an autopsy table, my internal organs slashed to ribbons and my sternum worn down to tissue paper.

I wish I could say all of this spurred me into glorious action. It didn’t. The weekend was nearly as useless as the school days. I had three leads, and I couldn’t follow any of them. The first was Sofia’s journal. I couldn’t go to the old house to get it until Monday. Not without sneaking out, and I had enough to worry about without getting grounded for another week. Plus I didn’t want to hurt mom and Adam like that. Not again.

The second was the letters. I thought I could probably read them, if I could go back into crazy land again. The scarred and whispering place, if that’s what it was. But…wasn’t that where they were? If the creatures could get me on the bus, surrounded by people, then it was idiotic to step willingly into their lair. I tried force myself to do it. Maybe there were answers in the letters. Or maybe it was a way to lure me in, so they could feast.

The third lead was what Joseph Smith said. She wanted me to come find her, after I could “see.” And the way to see?

FIND HIM. LET HIM IN.

Right. That sounded like a great idea. I thought I knew where to look. Oaklawn Park. That was where this started. But the last time I went there the crawling and hidden things tried to eat me. And that was before they were fully after me. Plus I’d have to sneak out to do it.

So I couldn’t do any of these things. But I had to. Or I was going to die. Or go insane. Or both.

Even Derrick was no help. I emailed him Thursday and told him what was going on, all about my talk with Joseph and the crazy shit that was happening to me. He emailed me back within five minutes.

Re: Help Me

This is serious. I think it’s time we meet face to face. We need to trade information, and it’s too sensitive to deal with over an unsecured connection. But I need you to do something for me. Write everything down. Everything that has happened to you, since Sofia Anastos died. Or before that. Anything you think is relevant. Print it out, and bring it to our meeting. Or put it on a portable drive. Either way.

Let me know when you can meet.

Derrick Lee

A few emails later we settled on Tuesday after school, in a coffee shop in downtown Caldwell.

Then I sat down, and I started to write. About Brianna. And the first time I saw the withering man. Everything about that moment flooded back into my brain. I relived what it felt like to be seven years old, and have a friend I could pee in the bushes with. I felt the sick fear at the sadness and confusion on her face as she was sucked into that bush and disappeared from my life forever. With those words. Those crazy, ridiculous words.

“Frosted Flakes.”

Something bloomed in my mind as I wrote. Something that had been staring me in the face, but I missed it. I had been thinking of all of this, all of this madness, as just some crazy shit that was happening to me. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t some random and awful occurrence in my life. It was my life. It had been for over ten years. No, longer than that. Since the day I was born, and the doctor declared me a boy, and cursed me with two names. Two selves.

My entire life, forces and entities watched me and influenced me, as surely as my parents, or the sun, or the air. And I never knew they were there. There was something different about me. As deep as my blood, or deeper. I never accepted it. I never understood any of it.

But I would. I swore that, as I sat on my computer chair, the carved words right above my head. Very soon, even if it killed me, I would understand everything.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter