Red On The Tip of My Pen

How well I could write if I were not here!

 

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

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

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

“It’s a horror novel.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going outside.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tearing Away the Masks

Untitled

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

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t stepped foot in here since.

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

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

“Are you Jessica?” she asked.

“Um…yeah.”

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

“Okay,” I said, slightly flustered.

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

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

“Oh hell no,” I said. I stood up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it’s not your real name?”

“Derrick isn’t my real name, either.”

“So what is…”

“If I decide I can trust you, maybe.”

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

“Even so.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mystical…”

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

I closed my eyes. “Fine. Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

“A vessel?”

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

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

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

I didn’t answer.

“That’s what I thought,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“Jesus Christ.”

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

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

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

“Me?”

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

Damn him.

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

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

“So those audio clips are fake?”

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

Something struck me.

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

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

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

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

Concordance

4893183923 83948081

“It’s just gibberish,” I said.

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

“How the hell did you figure that out?”

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

“I guess not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And this,” Derrick handed me another paper.

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

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

–From Interview with Mennonite Davies

“Mennonite Davies the serial killer?” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Withertongue.”

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

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

“Jessy, I know it’s scary, but…”

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

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

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

“And she tried to kill you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The debt is due,” I said.

“Hmm?” Derrick looked up from his drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The hospital?”

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

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

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

“What about them?”

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

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

He shrugged.

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just let me off, okay?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“I have to. You said it yourself.”

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

“No. I don’t think that will work.”

“You’re probably right.”

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

He laughed.

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

“Make sure you do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whispers filled the air.

hello, little morsel

penetrate

the pricking, then the bleeding, then the harvest

you are looking delicious, today, without your claws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only Him.

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

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

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

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

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

Then I blinked.

And he was gone.

 

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

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

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I whimpered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?”

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

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

I nodded, and walked towards the chair.

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

“What happened to your shoe?”

 

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“Can I come in?”

“I’m naked.”

“Cool,” he said, and opened the door.

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

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

“You were three years old.”

“What can I say? I peaked early.”

I laughed.

“What do you want?”

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

“I’m fine. Better.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

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

“I won’t.”

He closed the door, and left.

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

Status Report

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

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

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

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

“You,” I said softly. “What do you…”

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

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

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

And then black.

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

Beneath the Skin

1. Casa Loma Tunnel

the withering man, part 12

He is the wasp that lays Her eggs in the spider’s thorax. You can be the spider, or you can be the egg.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone

“Should we go back and get help or something?” I asked Jason a minute later.

He shook his head. “We don’t know what kind of help is required. Should we get campus security? Or an EMT? Or an exorcist?”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “So I guess we should…”

“Follow Katim,” said Jason.

I swallowed. “I thought you’d probably say that. Let’s go, then.”

We walked forward down the hall. Our footsteps echoed against the hard floor. I noticed it was dry and dusty. When Katim ran down this same corridor his feet squished into something. Hadn’t it?

The hall had a gentle curve, and extended several hundred feet before we reached a door on the right.

“Is where Katim went through?” I said.

“I think so,” said Jason. “There doesn’t seem to be another door nearby.”

“He definitely didn’t go much further than this,” I said.

“I’m surprised the sound of that scream carried so far,” said Jason. “These halls must act like reverberation chambers.”

“Or something.”

I opened the flimsy wooden door and walked through. On the other side the hall extended a short distance, then branched out into three different directions.

“Dammit,” I said. “Which way did he go?”

“It’s hard to say.” Jason wasn’t looking at the hallway. He was looking at me. “You should pick one.”

“I should pick one? Why should I be the one that…oh God. What is that?”

I walked towards the left-branching hallway. Nailed to the arch over the doorway was a rubber mask. It was a full head mask, like the one Michael Myers wore in Halloween. Only the eye holes were too large, like they’d been roughly widened with a knife. The mask was white, but it had been drawn-on all over with a red marker in tight parallel lines.

“Muscle tissue,” I said.

“Hmm?”

“Someone drew muscle tissue on this mask,” I said as I reached up and grabbed it. The rubber was cool like the air, but it wasn’t dusty. Some of the marker rubbed off on my fingers. This mask had not been here long. I spun around to face Jason. “Did you do this?”

“What?” he said. “Put a flayed head mask on a nail in some old tunnels?”

“Is this some kind of joke?” I said. “It’s just like your stupid flash mob. The skin of the face has been ripped off. The skin and the eyes.”

Jason didn’t react.

“So your plan was, what?” I took a large step toward him. “Lure Katim and me down here, and scare the piss out of us with your mask and your staged scream? Or was it just me? Are both of you in on this? Jesus Christ, are you filming this or something?”

Jason shook his head. “I had nothing to do with the mask. Or the scream.” I scoffed at this. Jason brought his face level with mine and looked into my eyes. “Do you really think this is just some kind of practical joke? Or is that what you are telling yourself?”

I took a step back. “I don’t…”

“If that is all it is, what are you doing with your hand?”

I felt it. How had I missed this? My left hand was upside down, and my fingers were pressed against my jawline. The fingernails dug into my skin. Like I was trying to tear the flesh off.

“Oh my God,” I said. “What the hell am I…”

A loud yell resounded from down the hallway. A man’s voice.

“Katim!” I cried. I dropped the mask and ran down the hall in the direction of the sound. My footsteps squelched under my feet as I ran. After a hundred feet the hallway split into a T. Which way did he go?

“Katim!” I called. “Where are you?”

“Jessy!” he called. There was so much echo, the sound seemed to come from everywhere. But I thought it came from the right. I dashed off. He screamed. A short, panicked sound that was quickly muffled. Like something covered his mouth. I sped up, ignoring the stitch in my side and the growing sharpness in my chest.

The corridor ended in a door. I burst through. The room on the other side was huge, and pitch black except for the dim light from the hall. It was enough to see the rough shapes of two people in the center of the room, at least fifty feet from the where I stood. One of them was suspended off the ground, and writhing. From the choked noises he made I could tell it was Katim.

The other person was huge. Like a bodybuilder, or a pro-wrestler. Or bigger. He held Katim by the throat. No, that wasn’t right. His arm was thrust inside Katim’s mouth. Except it looked too narrow to be an arm. And his shape was wrong.

“Katim!” I yelled out.

The man, the thing, dropped Katim to the ground with a thud, and turned to face me. It let out a noise; the most awful noise I’ve never heard. Like the death scream of a wounded cougar as it was torn apart by a flock of ravenous birds. My gut twisted up, and the scratches in my chest became sharp stabs. I didn’t fight it. I took a breath

“Get away from him, you fucker!” I yelled, and I sprinted straight at them. The thing bent lower, then leapt into the air in the opposite direction. It landed with a loud squish, and ran for the far end of the room. A second later it was gone. The thing in my chest eased, and then stopped.

The door swung closed and bathed the room in darkness. I could still see Katim, barely, splayed out on the floor.

“Katim!” I bent down when I reached him. He was curled in on himself and groaning loudly. “Are you okay?”

“J…Jessy?” He dry heaved as he said it.

“Yeah, it’s me. I’m here. Are you hurt?”

“I don’t…I’m not…”

“Can you stand up?”

“I…think so.”

“Let me help you,” I said. I hunched down and took him by the arm. As he stood, his face pressed against my shoulder, and I felt that it was wet.

“Thanks,” said Katim. He let go of me and stumbled for a moment before finding his feet. He retched again.

The room filled with light. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them slowly.

“There you are,” Jason said from the door. “I found the light switch. What happened? I heard screams.”

“Katim was attacked,” I said. “By…someone.”

Something.

I looked around the room. It was the size of the gymnasium at school, and had high ceilings plastered in enormous cobwebs. There were chairs against the two far ends of the room, but nothing else. A thick layer of dust coated the floor, marked with wet, uneven footprints where Katim’s attacker ran off.

“Where are we?” said Katim. He grimaced and wiped something thick and slimy off his face.

“We’re in the tunnels under Haskins,” said Jason as he walked towards us.

“No, I realize that,” said Katim. “This room. How did I…”

“Calm down,” I said. “Take a deep breath.” He did. He appeared to relax. “Now, what do you remember?”

“We heard the screams,” said Katim. He stared off ahead of him, his eyes unfocused. I wondered if he was in shock. Couldn’t people die of shock? He continued. “In the hall. The screams. I ran off after them. I got to a door. I didn’t know where to go, so I went through. I heard voices. A girl, and a man. She sounded scared. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. He sounded angry. I followed them.”

“Did you see a mask?” I asked. “Nailed to a wall?”

He nodded.

“And you went down that hallway?”

“No, not that one. Straight ahead. Towards the voices. The passage twisted. I took several turns,” an edge of panic crept into his voice. “There was a door. I walked through it. I saw her. It was dark but I saw her. Laid out on a table. And there was a man, and, and…” his eyes widened. “He…he wasn’t normal. He walked towards me, and grabbed me, and…” Katim’s hands shook. I put my arms around him, because I didn’t know what else to do. His whole body was shaking.

“Shh. It’s okay,” I said, because that’s what a cop on TV would say. “You’re safe. You’re perfectly safe. Just tell us what happened.”

“Everything went dark. I screamed. Then I heard your voice, and…did I call out for you?”

I nodded.

“That’s when his mouth opened, and… something forced its way down my throat.” He rubbed his jaw with a quivering hand. “I couldn’t breathe. I thought…I thought I was going to die. There was a flash of light, and then…”

“I came in,” I finished. It was hard for him to talk.

“And he ran away,” he looked at me, like he’d never seen me before. “He ran away from you.”

“I’m just glad you are okay.”

“Wait,” said Jason. “Are you saying after he grabbed you, you somehow moved to a different room?”

“I…” said Katim. “I think so. It sounds so insane.”

“All of this is insane,” said Jason. “But it’s happening.”

“Oh my god,” said Katim.

“What?” I said.

“The girl,” he rubbed his hair with both of his hands. “She’s still back there.”

If she’s still alive.

“Jessica’s friend,” said Jason.

Katim looked at me. “You know the girl?”

I almost said “I think so.” But who the hell was I fooling? This was happening. This was real. No matter how many times I told myself that, I needed to say it again.

“Yes,” I said. I dug my fingernails into my palm and forced myself to say what I said next. “She’s in danger, and she asked for my help. We have to go find her.”

I waited for one of them to say something sensible, like “we need to get the god damned hell out of here.” I wouldn’t have blamed them. Neither of them did. I sighed, with relief or resignation. I couldn’t tell.

“Katim, can you lead us back?” I said.

“I…”

“Katim,” I grabbed him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Can you lead us back there?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded firmer. “I can.”

That’s when the lights went out.

“Shit,” I said, as Katim cried out.

“It heard us,” said Jason, his words thick in the darkness. “Whatever attacked you, it heard us. It knows we’re coming.”

I wanted to argue. But there was nothing to say.

“Does anyone have a light?” I said.

“My phone,” said Katim. I heard him fumble in his pockets. “Dammit. It’s gone. I must have dropped it back…there.”

I pulled mine out of my pocket. “Mine’s dead.”

“I have a flashlight,” said Jason. He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket, and tried to turn it on. He banged his hands against it. “I did have a flashlight.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I can see.”

“You can?” said Katim.

“Yeah,” I said. “A little.”

“It’s pitch black,” said Jason. “And the light was just on. Your photoreceptors should be conditioned for bright light.”

“I have good night vision,” I snapped. “Now stay close. We’ll hold hands, and move slowly.”

“Okay,” said Katim, and Jason said “fine.”

I led them through the door, and back down the hallway. I hoped to God I was going in the right direction. No one spoke as we eased our way down the passage. The only noise in my ears was our breathing, and the echo of our footsteps. I thought about what I said earlier, about hearing footsteps that weren’t ours, and shuddered.

In full light the hallways had felt narrow. Now they were claustrophobic. I wanted to speed up, but Katim and Jason both tripped several times as the hallway curved. If either of them fell and hurt themselves it would slow us down to a crawl. That thing, whatever it was, tried to kill Katim. It would have, if I had been just a few seconds later. And it had Jenna. I tried not to think about it.

My heart pounded, and I felt my pulse in my throat. Every muscle in my body was tense. My breathing was too shallow. I tried to slow it down, and failed. The thing in my chest wasn’t scratching, but I could feel it. It was in there, sleeping, ready to awaken. I didn’t know whether to be comforted or terrified. My feet ached from running in these shoes. At least they weren’t long heels. It would be ridiculous if Katim had died because I was wearing stilettos. I almost laughed at that. Almost.

Something strange happens to the mind when you are wandering through tunnels in the dark. My great grandfather told stories about the sewers under Paris. The cold, and the loneliness. It felt like the world was nothing but blackness and passageways and rot. And we’d be trapped down here forever. I felt Katim’s ragged breath on the back of my neck. But was it really his? The person behind me could be anyone. Or anything.

I stepped on something and jumped with shock.

“What’s wrong?” said Katim in panic.

“The mask,” I said. “The rubber mask. It’s under my feet. We’re at the intersection.” No one responded. I turned left. A little ways ahead the passage curved, and then branched. “Okay, Katim. This is the way you came before, right?”

“I…yes.”

“Which way did it go?”

“Uh…”

“You need to focus,” I said, more confidently than I felt. “You can do this.”

“I…”

The lights went on. Just for a second. Just long enough to see what was written on the walls. On every wall. Hundreds and hundreds of times, in the same large block letters.

SHE BELONGS TO ME

Then they flickered off, and we were once again in darkness.

“Um, guys,” said Katim. “Did you just see…”

“Yes,” said Jason. “Writing. She belongs to me.”

“That means she’s alive,” I said. Something flooded my brain that might have been relief. “It means we have to find her, and we have to hurry. Katim, which way did you go?”

“Left,” he said.

“Are you sure.”

“Yes.” He didn’t sound sure. But what choice did we have? We went left.

Katim continued to give instructions. We went right, then left, then right again. I hoped desperately we were getting closer.

A bright light flashed in front of my eyes. I groaned.

“What?” said Jason. “Why did you stop? Did you see something?”

“I…” when the darkness returned there was an image burned into my vision. Words. Like I had stared too long at neon and then closed my eyes.

LEAVE. OR I WILL VIOLATE THE INTEGRITY OF YOUR FLESH, AND DRINK OF YOUR THOUGHTS AND YOUR FLUIDS.

Neither of them saw it.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Let’s go.”

We continued. Our footsteps sounded different, now. I thought the hall had narrowed, but it was harder to see. The words were still in my eyes. I kept blinking. We kept walking.

“Wait,” said Katim a few minutes later, “do you hear that?”

I stopped moving. Jason’s foot kicked the back of my shin, and then he stopped. I listened. It was faint, but there. Whimpering.

“Jenna!” I called. “We’re coming Jenna!” The whimper grew louder. We kept walking. The thing in my chest began to scratch.

Another neon flash burst in front of me.

MY SLAVES WILL THRUST THEIR SHARPENED RAVAGES INTO THE SOFT PLACES OF YOUR TISSUES AND YOUR MIND, AND YOU WILL BE A DESICCATED HUSK OF CEASELESS AGONY.

The survival part of my brain screamed at me to run away. This wasn’t some distant watcher who would disappear as soon as I approached. This was a monster. A killer. A hungry demon from a festering hell.

But it’s afraid, I thought. It is doing what bullies and cowards do. It is threatening me, because it is scared. But why? Why would it be afraid of me? Because of this thing in my chest? I dug my fingernails into my palms, and kept walking.

“There’s a door ahead,” I said, a minute later.

“That has to be the door,” said Katim. He swallowed heavily. “We’re there.”

“Are you all ready?”

“Yes,” said Jason. Katim squeezed my shoulder.

“Then let’s go.”

I stepped forward and opened the door. It was different than the other doors. Metal, and heavy. As soon as I opened it I heard Jenna’s desperate noises, much louder now. I stepped through, and felt Katim take the weight of the door from behind me. I walked into the room.

There was almost no light, but I could just barely see. At the far end, laid out on a table, was Jenna. And right next to her, its thick body pressed against hers, stood the creature. It turned to face us. It was closer, now, than when I glimpsed it before. In the darkness, I saw its outline was bumpy. Like it was covered in tumors. My chest felt like it would burst open. The creature pulled away from Jenna, and bent close to the ground. Like a cat about to strike. It screeched, louder and more terrible than the last one. Then it charged.

But something else happened. It was so fast, and so subtle, that I almost didn’t catch it. Something flew towards me through the air. Something tiny that I couldn’t quite see. It flew at my hand. Panic lanced through my brain. I knew, somehow, if this thing touched me, it would bring pain.

No, I screamed in my head, go away!

The thing in my chest scratched at the flying thing. I heard the thing scream, bounced off of nothing. It buzzed past my ear behind me. Straight for Katim.

Then the huge man-creature crashed into me with a sickening squelch. It swung its massive arm as it ran knocked me aside. I flew across the room and crashed into the wall, shoulder first, with a crunch. Katim and Jason yelled in shock and fear. There was a sickening snap like a breaking bone, then the heavy metal door slammed shut, and Katim screamed.

I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. It felt like the wind was permanently knocked out of me, and my shoulder was a ball of pain. A thick layer of slime covered my arm and my torso and the side of my face. So I lay there on the ground, unable to breathe, awash with agony, as Jenna whimpered, and Katim screamed and screamed and screamed.

I don’t know how long this went on. Trapped in the moment, it felt like hours. Days. Years. I was going to die. I was already dead. It felt like I was in hell, and I had been here forever, reliving this moment over and over and over. I had done something unutterably terrible, and this room was my punishment. I remembered Briana. I remember Sofia. I remembered my little sister Aimee. They were all dead. And the devil put his rusty hooks in my soul and dragged me down to join them.

Then the lights came on. It burned some of the fog out of my mind. Katim’s screams softened to groans. My breathing evened out, and I slowly pulled myself to my feet.

“Is everyone okay?” I said in a whisper. I took a deep breath, which caught in my throat, then tried again. “Is everyone okay?”

“Jessy?” Jenna’s voice was weak. “Is…is that you?”

“Yeah, Jenna. I’m here.”

“How did you…”

“One second,” I turned to look at Katim. I already knew what was wrong with him, but it still made me gasp to see it. When the door slammed, it severed three of his fingers. And it was my fault. He sat on the floor and clutched them. Blood gushed out and soaked his clothes. He stared straight ahead, unblinking.

“Katim,” I snapped my fingers in front of his eyes. “Katim, look at me.” His eyes caught mine. “I’ve seen this kind of injury before. I’m going to wrap your hand and apply pressure. It’s going to hurt, but I need to do it. Is that okay? Nod if that’s okay.” He nodded.

I’d seen worse amputations than this. Katim’s fingers were only severed just above the middle knuckles, so it was easy to wrap a torn-off piece of his shirt around them even though my hands were shaking. I cursed myself for never taking first aid lessons. But it surprised me how calm I was with all of this. As weird as it sounds, I think Katim’s injuries helped center me. It was familiar. In my crazy life, this was familiar.

I don’t remember the next period of time very well. I must have opened the door, because I saw that there was no sign of the creature. It must have felt when it ran past us. Or it disappeared. And Jason was nowhere in sight.

I managed to at least slow Katim’s bleeding, if not stop it completely. And I talked to Jenna. She was in a lot of pain. She was naked, and had several gouges across the front of her body. I think I managed to calm her down, or at least convince her the threat was over. If she didn’t bleed to death. I didn’t tell her that part.

I had no doubt that if we had not come down this into these passages, right when we did, Jenna would have ended up exactly like the other two victims. Exactly like Sofia. It couldn’t be coincidence. Was Jenna here because I was? Did the withering man somehow transport her? Or was Jason behind this? Maybe he worked for the withering man, or against him. Katim might still have been involved. It made sense. But I couldn’t think that. Not with him helpless and bleeding right next to me.

The EMTs showed up twenty minutes later, led by Jason. He had left so he could call them. They led us out of the tunnels, and into an ambulance. There were two policemen, as well, who said they’d need to speak with us as soon as we were able, and that they’d need to contact our parents. Ugh. As if things couldn’t get any worse.

I sat up in the ambulance, between Katim and Jenna. None of us said anything while the EMTs did their thing. Maybe they were in shock. Maybe they were trying to forget. But I held both of their hands. Neither of them would let me go.

I thought about Katim. Would he blame me for this? Would he ever want to speak to me again? I thought about Jenna. What did she remember? Was the danger past, or would that thing come after her again, the minute I left her alone? Most of all, I thought about the messages the creature had sent, just to me. I will violate the integrity of your flesh. Maybe it was bluffing. Somehow I didn’t think so. I had to prepare myself.

Thus ended my first date with a college guy. But at least everyone was still alive, right? All in all, it could have gone worse.

Previous Chapter/Next Chapter

Connections

Stairs to the Unknown

the withering man, part 11

The world is full of veins, running just underneath its diseased skin. The most delicate of all surgeons, He cuts them, and sews them back together, without puncturing the skin at all. It happens beneath our feet, as we crawl over the hairs and the sweat ducts, and we are unaware. But our blood knows. It always knows.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone

To her credit, Mei didn’t try to talk me out of seeing Katim the whole time she did my hair. Even though I could tell she wanted to. But I appreciated that she didn’t nag me about it, and we managed to have a really good time. She used an iron curled the ends of my hair towards towards my face. It looked both cute and badass with my black and red streaks. Then she did my makeup, because she’s way better at it than I am. At least, if I wasn’t trying to look like a zombie or a skeleton or something.

“You look gorgeous,” she said as she applied my mascara. I tried not to blink too much. “You must really want to floor this guy.”

“He’s in college,” I said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Plus, I may have told him I was eighteen.”

“You didn’t tell me that!”

“Well he asked,” I said, shrugging. “When a college guy asks your age, there’s a right answer and a wrong answer.”

“You’re terrible.”

“I know.” I grinned. “Now, which sexy dress should I wear?”

“I think…the black one,” Mei said. I giggled. They were all black. At least, all the ones I kept at Mei’s house. Which I guess means it’s confession time. This was not the first time I ever snuck out without my mom’s permission to see a boy.

It started the summer before last, a week after eighth grade graduation. Jenna had an invite to an Amber Lessing party. Amber Lessing was this girl at Caldwell High School who threw these legendary parties. We weren’t even ninth graders yet, but Jenna worked her magic and got herself and a few friends invited. Natasha and I went with her.

It was a crazy night. Natasha got wasted, someone dropped a TV into the hot tub, and eventually the cops came. There was some weirdness involving an old grandfather clock, which I had kind of forgotten about until just now. That should probably have made the “strange stuff” list I made earlier, but whatever. It was also the night Jenna showed her true colors. Or at least, it was the night I couldn’t ignore the signs any longer.

Anyway, I wound up in the billiard room alone with this guy named Stephan. It was my first kiss, unless you count fifth grade with Jamal. Jamal, also known as Dantre. I don’t think that really counts, though. It was pretty obvious he was gay even back then. If only from the way he used to pose his father’s collectible He-man action figures.

I saw Stephan a few times that summer. We kissed a lot, and quickly graduated to other things. Then he had to go back to Minnesota and I never saw him again. That was okay. I had a taste for boyflesh. I…might have gone a little crazy. The first half of ninth grade was a blur of climbing out of windows, midnight hookups, and boys in the backseats of cars, until some bad stuff happened and I got a hold of myself again.

When it was all over, I had learned three things. The first was when you take your bra off before they try to do it for you it melts guys’ brains. The second was that all high school boys are awful. I’m sorry, but they just are. Some of them are just a little awful. Some of them are Hannibal Lecter stuffed with hormones awful.

The third was that Mei is a really good friend.

So yeah, this wasn’t the first time I snuck out without telling my mom. It was the first time I’d done it in almost eight months. And it was the first time I ever felt bad about it. It was one thing to violate my mom’s trust to go after the withering man. It was another to do it to go hang out with some college guy. But he still might be involved, somehow. It would be irresponsible not to investigate.

Right, Jessica. Keep telling yourself that.

I said goodbye to Mei and walked towards Oaklawn Park, where I told Katim to pick me up. I didn’t want him to know where I lived, in case he did turn out to be a psycho. I’m not totally reckless. I am totally stupid, though. I forgot it had rained the whole day. It was only drizzle at this point, but the world was now made out of mud and fog.

My dress wasn’t long enough to drag on the ground, but I had to wear leggings because it was November. And I had to wear the hood of my jacket, because otherwise my hair would get wet. By the time I got to the park my legs were splashed with flecks of mud and my carefully arranged hair looked like I just got out of a haunted hay ride. Oh well. Last time Katim saw me my I was wearing ratty jeans, and my ass was covered in dirt and dead leaves from trying to scramble up a tree like a lunatic. So he’d seen me at my worst. He probably didn’t even care how I looked.

Right, Jessica. Keep telling yourself that.

Almost two weeks had passed since I was last at Oaklawn Park. All evidence of a crime was gone. The park looked normal, like no teenage girls were ever murdered underneath its skeletal trees. Looking at it gave me chills. I glanced at my phone. It was 5:48. Katim said he’d be here at 6, so I still had a few minutes to kill. I cursed myself for being so early. Now I had to wait for almost fifteen minutes, with the stinging November air, and the fog, and the darkness. And the memories.

My phone was almost dead. I forgot to charge it at Mei’s. What a fantastic start to the evening! That meant it could only get better from here, right? That sounded like something Mei would say. It made me laugh. The sound spread out into the empty park without even an echo.

I checked my phone again. 5:50. Time crawled by like a slug. My arms were freezing. I walked deeper into the park just for something to do, carefully staying on the concrete so I wouldn’t muddy my dress even more. The only illumination was from the nearby streetlights, so the park was dark and eerie and beautiful. I used to walk here all the time, at night or twilight. It was spooky, with the empty swings and the gnarled trees. It always made me feel strange, and alive.

Was it because of Him? I’d seen the withering man twice, in this park. Was this where He lived, when he wasn’t following little girls? Maybe he had observed me a thousand times. Maybe every time I came into this park He was there, watching with His shriveled eyes.

“Are you in here?” I called out into the fog. “Are you watching me? Are you listening? If you are, stay the hell away from me tonight. I’ve got plans, and they don’t involve you. You can go back to haunting me tomorrow.” There was no answer. Nothing stirred. Had I really expected it to? “Are we clear?”

That’s when everything changed.

Have you ever had that feeling like you are being watched? Of course you haven’t. That feeling doesn’t really exist. It’s just something writers like to say because it sounds ominous. I’ve known that for years. I was sure of it. Until that moment.

I couldn’t see anything. They were in every crack and angle that was hidden from my eyes. I couldn’t hear anything. Just outside of the range of my hearing, they snarled and whispered.

“I know you’re there,” I said. My voice sounded shaky in my ears. “Don’t come any closer.” But they were coming closer. I couldn’t feel their warm breath, or smell the sharp scent that rose when they were on the hunt. But I felt their hunger. I could almost taste it on my tongue. Thick and syrupy, sweet with decay, like blood and mold and honey.

I closed my eyes. I took a breath, and concentrated on that spot just behind my sternum. Are you there, scratchy thing? I could sure use your help right about now.

Footsteps I couldn’t hear squelched through mud I couldn’t see. They licked cracked, bulbous lips with sharpened tongues. They came closer.
Then I felt it. A sharp, sick feeling in my chest. Like I was full of insects trying to chew their way out. I didn’t fight it. I let the pain seep through my body. My heart beat, and pumped the scratches through my blood. I was full of needles. The things all around me hesitated.

A loud honk burst my eardrums and blasted me back into my senses. The pain disappeared. So did everything else. I opened my eyes and saw headlights shining at me. I walked towards them, and found a car with a laughing college boy inside whose was in desperate need of a seriously dirty look.

“What in the world were you doing?” said Katim as I slid into the passenger seat.

“Being scared half to death by a honking horn,” I said. “Also, you’re late.”

“I am not,” he pointed to the clock. It was 6 PM exactly.

“Well, I was early,” I said. “That means you’re late.” He looked at me, I think to see if I was serious. I grinned, and so did he. I really hoped I sounded “confident and together” rather than “raving and insane”. I talk too much when I’m nervous.

“Are you ready to go?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“We’re off,” he said, and he pulled out of the parking spot. “You look great, by the way. I love the hair.”

Firland, the town where Atherton College is located, is about fifteen minutes from Caldwell. You would think that wasn’t enough time for things to get awkward. There’s nothing like a first outing with a guy to suck every drop of interesting out of you. Mostly I sat in the seat and told my inner critic to shut the hell up. Katim and I tried a couple of times to make conversation.

“What movie are they playing?”

“I’m not sure. It’s more fun that way.”

“Cool.”

That was the best one.

It was a huge relief when the car pulled into the parking lot and I saw a group of people standing there. Maybe some other humans would pull the spotlight off of me.

“Wait here a second,” said Katim when he turned the engine off.

“Okay.”

He got out of the car, walked around, and opened the door for me.

“My lady,” he said. I giggled and took his hand.

“Dude, that is so lame,” said a voice behind Katim. I recognized him as the other guy with Katim from the Flash Mob.

“I think it’s sweet,” said a girl next to him. “Katim is deliberately being extremely lame so this girl won’t be intimidated. Awfully kind of him.”

“Just ignore them,” said Katim. I couldn’t stop laughing as I got out of the car.

“She’s got a good sense of humor, though,” said the girl. “I admit I had doubts about her taste. Aren’t you going to introduce us, Katim?”

I followed Katim as he walked over to the others. “This is Fuller,” Katim said, pointing to the guy, “and Tanya.” The girl did a curtsy, and I laughed again. “And that’s Jason.” He pointed to a guy with leaning up against a tree with a book in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. I hadn’t even noticed him there. “Say hello, Jason!”

Jason looked up from his book, startled. He walked towards us.

“This must be the famous Jessy with the intense eyes,” he said. He held out his hand. I shook it.

“Yeah, I am,” I said. I realized this was the very first thing I had said, and felt like an idiot.

Tanya laughed. “Immodesty. I like it.”

“Katim won’t shut up about you,” said Fuller.

“I thought you must have sent him naked pictures,” said Tanya. “Did you? Please say you did. I’ve got five bucks on it.”

I blushed furiously.

“Settle down guys,” said Katim. “Settle down.”

“Are all of you going to the movie?” I asked, to change the subject.

Fuller nodded, and Tanya said, “yup.”

“I’m not,” said Jason.

“What the hell?” asked Tanya.

“I have things to do,” said Jason.

“You always have things to do. What about us? What about me?” She said this in a very dramatic voice. I couldn’t tell if she was serious, but Fuller and Katim both laughed.

“That’s fine, Jason,” said Katim. “You can abandon us. But we are going to tell you the ending. You know that, right?”

“And all of the character resolutions,” Fuller added.

Jason sniffed. “That is acceptable.”

We headed off in the direction of the campus theater. Katim and I walked together, and Fuller and Tanya followed a little bit behind. I wondered if they were a couple.

“What’s with him?” I asked Katim a minute later.

“Who, Jason?” Katim asked, and I nodded. “He’s just very busy.” “He’s involved with a lot of campus groups and activities. Actually, he’s the facilitator of the improv group I told you about.”

“Wait,” I raised my eyebrows, “you mean he’s the one that organized the flash mob?”

“He didn’t organize from the ground up,” said Katim. “He wasn’t the person who placed the Craigslist add. But he got us involved, yes.”

“I see.” I filed that under “things to think about.”

“Hey,” I said a couple of minutes later, “I thought you said you didn’t have anyone to go with to horror movie night.” He laughed. “The whole reason I came with you was because I thought you’d be lonely. Have you deceived me, good sir?”

“Of course not, my lady,” he said in mock offense. “I believe a transcription of my previous sentiment would indicate that my precise words were that I had no friends to accompany me on this endeavor. I don’t count those three assholes back there.”

I laughed. “Only two assholes.”

He looked behind him. “Of course.” I looked back. Tanya had her hand in Fuller’s pocket, and he was laughing at something. Definitely a couple.

“That’s Metron Hall,” said Katim. “The screening room is in there.”

“Wow,” I said, as the building loomed into view. And I do mean loomed. It was amazing. It looked kind of like a church, if the church was also a school building designed by a version of Dante who was a 21st century architect. It was all jutting turrets and weirdly-placed arches. I remembered that Atherton College was supposed to have really interesting architecture, but I had no idea.

“It’s neat, right?” said Tanya from behind us. “Would you believe it’s the biology building? I have organic chem lab in there.” She pointed to the top of the largest turret.

“It looks more like an oubliette than a chemistry lab,” I said. “Are there even any windows?”

“Just one,” say Tanya. “Right at the top.”

“Creepy.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Katim.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“That’s where it happened.”

“Where what happened?”

“Are you sure you should tell her this story?” said Fuller. “It’s pretty intense.”

“I can handle it,” I said. Katim and Fuller exchanged uneasy looks, but Katim continued.

“It happened in the 70s,” Katim said, in a low, even voice. “There was a promising young biology student. Come to think of it, her name was Jessica, too. One day she told the teacher she was sick, that the fumes were getting to her. ‘What fumes?’ asked the teacher. ‘Don’t you smell them?’ asked Jessica, but no one did. The teacher told her to go to the nurse and get checked out, and she did.”

We all stopped walking and listened. I leaned against a tree and watched Katim as he spoke.

“Next class, Jessica was back, saying she felt fine. Half the period went by before she said anything. Again, she complained about the fumes, that she felt sick. But this time, a few other students felt, too. So class was dismissed. The next class it happened again, and it was nearly everyone. The school administrators got worried, so they closed down the building and brought people in to investigate. But people were getting sick, all over campus now. And they were having dreams.

“In the dreams, there was a door in the biology lab. A hidden door, under the floorboards, covered in strange symbols. As they approached, the smell was gut wrenching. They tried to open it, but it was locked. It didn’t matter. Each of them had a key in their pocket. When they opened the door, they woke up screaming. After a couple of days people started to talk. They realized they were all having it. The same exact dream.

“The administrators didn’t want to take the dreams seriously, but what could they do? So they called in a team. They dug up the floorboards, and sure enough, there was the door. In the same place, with the strange symbols. But it was locked. They were about to call in a locksmith, when Jessica walked in. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I have the key.’ And she pulled it out of her pocket.

“They all watched, as this young girl walked over to the door, a strange smile on her face. She put the key in the lock. She turned it. There was a click. She reached out, grabbed the handle, and…”

“Aaaa!” Tanya yelled, and grabbed me from behind. I didn’t jump, or scream. I just turned around.

“Did you want something?” I said.

“Damn, girl!” said Fuller. “You do not scare easily.”

I shrugged. “Too many horror movies.”

“You’d better watch out for this one, Katim,” said Tanya. She turned towards the theater. “Shall we?”

“You two go ahead,” said Katim. “We’ll catch up.”

Tanya nodded and walked towards the building, followed closely by Fuller.

“I’m sorry,” Katim said sheepishly. “Was that just really lame?”

“Nah,” I said. “I thought it was cute. Besides, if you didn’t try to scare me, how would I know if you liked me?” He laughed.

“Fair enough.”

“Is any of that true?”

“It’s an old campus legend,” he said. “But it’s told about at least three different locations around campus. And I invented the part about the fumes. And there was no Jessica.”

“Shocking.”

“We should get to the movie,” he said. “It’s starting soon, and it’s an old building. Only some of the seats are comfortable.”

The screening room was small and felt very collegy. It made me really want to be in college instead of stupid high school. It was pretty full, too. Just after 7 o’clock a guy got up front and talked about the group and their plans and their upcoming horror RPG night. It sounded fun, even though I’d never done anything like that before. I wanted to ask Katim if he was interested, but it seemed pushy. And I didn’t want to look like a huge nerd.

The lights dimmed, and I pulled out my phone to turn it off. It was almost dead, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t turn back on. But I didn’t really need it anyway. I saw that I had a text message. From Jenna.

Uiapwejdmsnaucsdahuieioafh28370 ijai8s8y 093709378a 3kdjajkhea65630 28jcabn;239

My stomach turned. It was probably a pocket text. But after our conversation earlier today it made me nervous. I wrote back.

Are you okay?

No immediate response. I turned the phone off.

Katim turned to me as the lights went out completely.

“See you in two hours,” he said.

The movie turned out to be The Woman, based on a Jack Ketchum novel. I was excited because I heard it was scary and had wanted to see it for years. It was about a feral woman taken in by a family, and the terrible stuff they did to her. It started out really good. A third of the way in it started to make me very uncomfortable. I squirmed in my seat, and almost got up and left twice which I have never done in my life.

“Are you okay?” Katim whispered to me half-way through. I nodded, and clutched his arm. He didn’t seem to mind.

I’m glad I saw it with other people, because the ending was very satisfying. If I was watching it at home I would have turned it off.

“Man, I thought Jessy was going to flip out,” said Fuller as we walked out of the screening room.

“I guess that was a little worse than your ghost story,” said Tanya to Katim. He nodded.

“It’s not that,” I said, “it’s just…” They all looked at me expectantly. “It just hit me in that way, you know?” It sounded weak to my ears. But Katim nodded.

“Yeah,” said Tanya. “I was like that with Cast Away.” We all laughed. “I’m serious! Something about Tom Hanks’s relationship with that volley ball really freaked me out. Seriously creepy. I wish I was joking. I really do.”

I sighed with relief. I didn’t know these people that well. It would be weird to tell them that things about violent fathers get to me. It’s not my favorite subject.

“That way,” Katim pointed through a different set of doors out of Metron Hall than where we entered.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“The Zombie Den,” said Katim. “It’s the student run cafe. We pretty much take it over after Dreams and Screams. Unless you want to go home now?”

“No!” I said. Probably too enthusiastically, because Tanya looked at me with a huge grin on her face.

“Alright,” said Katim.

The Zombie Den was pretty cool. There was a live band playing 80s songs, and they weren’t too bad. Katim bought me a delicious mocha, and the four of us sat on leather chairs with a bunch of other people and talked about the movie. It was really fun. I kept expecting Katim to take my hand or put his arm around me, but he never did. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. After about an hour I remembered my phone, and turned it back on. It came on just fine even though it was still almost dead. I didn’t have any new text messages.

“I’m going to get more coffee,” said Katim announced. “Do you want another mocha?”

“No thanks,” I said. “I do have to sleep at some point tonight.”

“They have decaf.” I made a face, and he laughed.

“So you really think Michael Myers is scarier than Freddy Krueger?” Fuller said to me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Freddy is just…”

The doors to the cafe burst open and cut me off. I looked over to see Jason walk in. He saw our group and headed straight over.

“Jason,” said Tanya. “Are you actually condescending to joining us this evening?”

“No,” said Jason. “I’m here to invite you to come with me. I want to show you what I’ve been doing tonight.”

“Why would we want to do that?” said Katim as he walked back with his coffee.

Jason smiled. “You will if you want to see something creepy.” He paused. “Do you?”

Katim turned to me. “What do you think, Jessy? Are you feeling adventurous?”

“Always,” I said.

“How about you two,” Katim said to Fuller and Tanya.

“Nah, bro,” said Fuller. “I think we’re good. I think I’m going to score tonight.”

“Oh, are you?” said Tanya.

“Yeah, I think so. Unless, I mean, you’re not a lesbian, right?”

“I might be, after tonight,” said Tanya. She turned to us. “Have fun!”

Katim and I followed Jason out of the cafe. As soon as we walked through the doors into the cold air Jason streaked off towards the middle of campus.

“Any idea where we’re going?” I asked, as Katim and I marched quickly to keep up with Jason.

“It could be the moon, for all I know. Jason does this kind of thing all the time. It’s usually interesting.”

“Uh huh.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll be safe.”

“I wasn’t worried,” I said.

Katim grinned at me.

If I was a smart person, I would have backed out then and there. Two college guys, one I barely knew and one I didn’t know at all, leading me to somewhere “creepy.” If I said I lost track of time and needed to go home, Katim probably would have understood. I felt like I was walking into a horror movie. Last time I felt that I was surrounded by strangers who ripped each others faces off. And someone lost two fingers. And I saw the withering man.

“You know how I assist with the film department, right?” Jason said once we caught up with him. Katim nodded. “Well Erin Sellers asked me to find her a good location for the dream eating alien to chase people down. It’s for her senior project.”

“And you found one,” said Katim.

“Oh, I found one.”

Soon enough we approached a large, square building.

“We’re going to Haskins?” Katim said, his voice tinged with disappointment.

“What’s Haskins?” I asked.

“One of the underclassman dorms,” said Katim.

“Trust me,” said Jason. “This is good.” Katim shrugged, and we followed Jason inside the building and up some stairs, and down a hallway.

“Is this where you live?” I asked Katim.

He shook his head. “I lived here last year. Just one hall down that way. Jason, where are we going? Someone’s dorm room?”

“No,” said Jason. “Here we are.”

Katim and I both turned to look.

“A maintenance closet?” said Katim.

“Just wait.” Jason opened the door. He stepped in, pulled out a ladder and stood it up against the side of the hall way. Then he reached next to a shelf against the back wall, and fiddled with something for a minute.

“What are you…” said Katim.

“There!” said Jason. “Got it.” He slid a wooden panel aside with a thunk, to reveal…

“A door,” said Katim, his eyes wide.

“Indeed,” said Jason.

“I don’t see any strange symbols,” I said. Katim glanced sideways at me and smiled.

“Where does it go?” Katim asked.

“See for yourself,” said Jason. He opened the door. There was a staircase. It looked steep, and led down.

“Aren’t we on the second floor?” I asked.

“The third,” said Jason. “I noticed the discrepancy by looking at the floor plans of various school buildings. There’s extra space right in the middle of Haskins. You don’t notice when you walk around because of how the hallways are laid out.”

“This is too bizarre,” said Katim. “It’s like something out of…”

“A horror movie,” I said. We exchanged an uneasy glance. I looked over at Jason. I half expected to see a malevolent grin, or fire dancing in his eyes. But his expression was neutral.

“After you,” he said.

Katim looked at me, and stepped into the doorway and down the steps. I followed, and Jason came after me.

“How far down does this go?” I asked.

“Below ground level,” said Jason. “Far below.”

I went quiet. Our footsteps echoed in the cramped stairwell. After a hundred feet or so the ceiling lowered, and Katim had to hunch down to fit. The light behind us grew dimmer and dimmer. Katim pulled out his phone and turned on the flashlight.

“This is the point where we all stop,” I said, “and we can still hear footsteps.”

Katim laughed nervously. “Or a voice that isn’t ours.”

“Or a mysterious light up ahead,” said Jason.

“Wait, what the hell?” said Katim.

“What?” I said as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“There is a light up ahead.”

Behind me Jason laughed. “Yes there is. The corridor at the bottom has track lighting. I found it earlier and left it on.”

“Very funny,” said Katim.

“Yes. I thought so.”

After a while the stairs ended. They opened directly into a corridor. The lighting was dim and yellow, but I could see that it stretched ahead of us further than I could see. The air was rich and musty. Like rot.

My phone buzzed and I gasped. Katim laughed.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I need to get this,” I said. “One second.”

“I’m surprised you have service this far down,” said Jason.

It was a text from an unknown sender.

i dont no were i am i’m scared

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. “Guys, I think I have to…”

A scream pierced the musty silence.

“Oh shit!” Katim said. “There’s someone else down here. Someone in trouble.”

“No,” I said under my breath. “This ridiculous.”

“What?” Katim stared at me. “Nevermind. We have to find her.”

There was another scream. It was loud and high and desperate.

“We have to find her!” said Katim. He spun around and looked into my eyes. “Wait here.” He sped off in the direction of the sound. His footsteps squelched against something that covered the ground.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” I said again.

“You recognize it.” At the sound of Jason’s voice I turned. His face was absolutely neutral in the amber light. “The voice of the screamer. You recognize it.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” I said. “No. I mean, it’s impossible. It doesn’t make any sense.”

A third scream cut through the air. There was no denying it this time. I had heard that voice before. I couldn’t explain it, but I absolutely recognized the person who screamed.

It was Jenna.

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Questions

Interrogation Room

the withering man, part 10

Pain is the seed from which strength may grow. Your weapon is only as deadly as your agony. What He brings is deeper than agony, and older than truth. It is written in the jagged edges on the wounds of the world, and through it, we may rend and tear that which does not bleed.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone

I woke up the next morning almost two hours before my alarm. The writing was still there. I didn’t know if I expected it to be gone or not. I didn’t know anything. I could not get back to sleep. I just lay in my bed and stared.

At one point I got up, stood on my computer chair, and examined the words more closely. They had been etched into the ceiling with some kind of tool. A channeling tool, maybe. We had channeling tools in the garage. With Max’s old tools. The ceiling was one of those spiky white ones. That kind of carving would take a while, and there’d be bits of plaster or whatever it was all over the floor. The floor was clean.

The ridges in the ceiling were filled in with black charcoal pencil. I recognized the powder on my fingertips when I ran them along the letters. I had a set of charcoal pencils in my desk. Just a few feet away.

Had I done this? Did I nod off while I was reading that terrible website and carve the letters in my sleep, just to freak myself out? It was possible. Anything was possible. Then what? I cleaned up so thoroughly that I couldn’t find any trace of the project, disposed of the remains, put all of the equipment away, then plopped back down on my computer chair? Then I forgot everything.

I laughed out loud. The crazy thing was it wasn’t that far fetched. All except the last part. I would have remembered. I always remember.

I turned off my alarm. I didn’t need it. Any chance of additional sleep was gone, and not coming back. I sat down at my computer chair. I was a little worried it wouldn’t feel comfortable anymore. So many crazy things had happened to me as I sat on that chair. But it still was. It still felt…not safe. This wasn’t the spot for feeling safe. That was downstairs in the living room, with Adam and my mom, if it was anywhere. This chair was where I streamed slasher-movies. It was where I watched slender man videos and read creepypastas and listened to Nox Arcana with the lights off. It didn’t feel safe. But it felt right.

I thought about watching some Bloody Cuts Horror Challenge entries. There were some new ones up and I was way behind. Instead I opened a new email to Derrick. I planned to dash off a quick note asking for an update on the Clarkson situation, but I just kept writing. I told him about Withertongue. I told him about the photographs. I told him about the words that loomed over my head that very moment.

“Jessica, what are you doing?” I jumped at the sound of my mom’s voice.

“Oh,” I said. “Um…nothing.”

“It’s almost 7, and you’re not even dressed yet! The bus will be here any minute.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. I’m just feeling a bit weird.”

“I suppose that’s not surprising, but…” I watched her eyes trace from my face up to the ceiling, then widen in shock. “What is that?”

“Oh. It’s…” I looked up at the letters. “I did it. In my sleep. But I cleaned it up.”

“Yes,” she said. “I suppose you did. Okay, then. We can figure this out later. Now get dressed!”

I thought about telling her the truth. But what would I say? “I have some crazy supernatural stalker who I think has been following me for at least eleven years, and by the way he sent his insane internet manslave to teleport into my room and carve creepy words in my ceiling.” Her head would burst into goo like in Scanners. Then she would make me clean it up.

I finished the email to Derrick, threw on some clothes, and ran to catch the bus. It was late. I had to wait at the bus stop for ten minutes. In the rain. And I didn’t even get breakfast.

I sat at the back of the bus, my headphones wrapped round my ears. Just like usual. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the music. So it freaked me out when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Gah!” My eyes snapped open, and I whipped my head around to look. There was a guy in the seat next to me, wearing a look of amused anticipation. And a sweater.

It was Sweater Hole. I didn’t know his name, but he was a loud asshole and he always wore a sweater. So…Sweater Hole. He motioned me to take off my headphones. I did, even though what I wanted to do was punch his stupid smiling face and tell him to get lost. Who says I have no self restraint?

“What do you want?” I glared at him.

“You’re Jessica Kingsport, right?” said Sweater Hole. I didn’t say anything. “You were friends with Sofia Anastos?”

“So?”

He grinned and looked towards the front of the bus. There was a group of people up there. The friends he normally goofed off with on the bus. All of them leaned around or over their seats and stared back at us.

“I’m…doing an article for the school paper,” he said. Someone up front laughed, and someone else punched him in the arm. “And I wanted to ask you some questions.”

“The answer to all of them is ‘go away,’” I said. I started to put my headphones back on.

“No, no, I’m serious! This is important.”

I sighed. “Fine.”

“You’re in Mr. Clarkson’s class?” I nodded again. “Do you like him?”

“He’s fine.”

“So…what does it feel like to know your favorite teacher killed your best friend?”

“I…”

“Was Sofia bumping uglies with Mr. Clarkson?” said Sweater Hole. “Did she tell you if he has a big dick?” His friends laughed uproariously. Sweater Hole pulled out a pen and held it up to my face like a microphone. “The school deserves to know.”

“Real fucking original.” I pressed my hands against his shoulder and shoved him off the seat. “Get out of my damn face.”

“Damn, girl! You don’t have to be like that!”

I slammed my headphones onto my head and cranked the volume all the way up. It hurt my ears, but I didn’t care. All I could hear was the music.

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

“Are you okay?” she said when she saw me.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Just some assholes on the bus. Today is going to suck. More than usual.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

I sighed. “Just be happy you’re not in any of Mr. Clarkson’s classes.”

“Yeah.”

“What class do you have first.”

“History, but…”

“Hey, why is everyone heading in the same direction?” The students were all walking straight down the hall towards the gym and the auditorium.

“There’s an assembly,” said Mei. “The teachers have been going around telling everyone.”

“An assembly about Mr. Clarkson?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“I have to drop my stuff off, and go to the bathroom,” I said. “I’ll meet you there? Save me a seat?” She gave me a hug and walked off.

I headed towards my locker. Everyone was walking the opposite direction, so it was a little awkward. I bumped into a few people, including Sweater Hole. There were no teachers anywhere. I barely resisted the temptation to knee him in the balls. When I got to the music corridor where my locker was, the hallway was empty.

“Hey girl, there you are.” I heard Dantre’s voice and turned around. He wore a shirt with the phrase “Stand with Clarkson” written in large red letters.

“Where did you get that?”

“Oh this old thing? I’ve had it for years. Just hiding in the back of the closet.” I rolled my eyes. “Juanita’s giving them out. I guess her brother is a shirt maker or something like that. Trying to lift himself out of the ghetto. What do you think? A little tight around the arms?” He spun around. The back of the shirt said “Vigil for the Innocent.” That group Juanita started in support of Mr. Clarkson. They sure didn’t waste any time.

“You look great,” I said, laughing.

“Anyway, what you got going on with Jenna?”

I scowled. “Why? What did she say?”

“She asked me to give this to you when I saw you,” said Dantre. “And I said do I look like a serving wench to you? But what can I say? Bitch can be pretty persuasive.” He held out a folded note.

“She’s been trying to talk to me for days,” I said with gritted teeth. “I have no idea why. Anyway, I don’t want it.”

He took my palm in his hand, and pushed the piece of paper into it. “You can burn it, for all I care. Just so long as you tell her Dantre delivered. I do not want to get on that woman’s bad side.” He closed the fingers of my hand over the note.

“Fine. Whatever.”

“Now smile, girl! That frown isn’t what I’d call flattering.” He pulled the sides of my lips open with his fingers. I snapped at him, and he laughed. “I’ll catch you later.”

Once he was gone I opened the note.

Please talk to me. I need your help. I think I’m in danger.

–Jenna

At the bottom was a drawing of a shape. It was crude and lacking in skill, but I recognized it. It was Jagged Darkness. Sofia showed it to Jenna. I felt nauseous.

So Jenna was in danger. And she wanted my help. What in the hell was she talking about? Was this some kind of prank? That wasn’t really her thing but I wouldn’t put it past her. What could I help her with? Should I actually talk to her? It’s not like I owed her anything.

But it was weird for her to put all of that in a note. If somebody found that it would look pretty strange. People would talk. That’s what people do. And Jenna knew I hated her. This was like, leverage or something. I could pin the note to the cork board outside of the principal’s office if I wanted to, right where everyone would see it. Or give it to the guidance councilor. It was a pretty big risk for her to take for a stupid joke.

All of this churned in my brain as I headed for the assembly. When I got to the auditorium it was packed with students and teachers. Mr. Harris stood on stage. It looked like he was well into one of his speeches. I scanned around for Mei.

“Jessy,” she whispered when I got to her aisle. “Over here.” I stepped over the people in the seats and sat down.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Mr. Harris is talking about Mr. Clarkson,” said Mei.

“Has he, like, actually said anything we didn’t already know?”

“Shh,” said someone in front of me. It was Mrs. Schwartz. I hushed up.

“…for your full cooperation in this matter,” Mr. Harris said. He stepped to the side and sat down. A woman stood up from a chair at the back of the stage. I hadn’t even realized she was there until then. I recognized her immediately.

“Thank you principal Harris,” she said. “I am Special Agent Durant, and I am the lead investigator into the murders of Sofia Anastos and Gabriella Sanchez. I know all of you must have many questions. I am going to say outright that I won’t answer them. That is not what I am here to do. But I don’t keep people in the dark any more than necessary, so I will tell you this. I believe these murders are connected to your school in some way.”

The auditorium erupted into noise. I heard the phrase “serial killer” a few times. A few rows ahead of me, I heard Maxwell say, “We’re going to be famous! How’s my hair?”

“I will not speculate as to whether or not this is a serial killer,” Agent Durant continued, “but I will warn you. Some or all of you may be in danger. There will be police presence in and around this school until this matter is resolved. I will also tell you this. One or more of you knows something vital to this investigation.”

She stared straight down into the crowd. Was she looking straight at me?

“I will be conducting interviews of students, faculty, and staff over the next few days. I’ll be pulling you out of classes as necessary. Your principal has already assured his full cooperation. I will expect it from all of you, as well.”

“She doesn’t mess around, does she?” I whispered to Mei.

“Seriously,” said Mei. There was a hint of awe in her voice, but I wasn’t surprised. She had this thing about female detectives. I drew her portrait-sized drawing of her as Irene Adler for her birthday a few years ago and she still had it hanging in her room.

“That is all,” said Agent Durant. “I’ll be seeing some of you shortly.”

Mr. Harris looked kind of stunned when he got back to the podium. He thanked Agent Durant, and told us all to go to our homerooms for the remainder of first period.

As Mei and I walked out of the auditorium I saw Arthur Brandice leaning against the hall talking to Britney Fuller. “So, Mr. Clarkson’s a serial killer, huh? Does that make his eyes less dreamy, or does the whole danger thing get you all hot and bothered? Cause I could totally…”

“What was that?” Juanita Sanchez stopped walking past and whipped around to face him. I could see she carried a bundle of “Stand with Clarkson” shirts.

“Whoa, Juanita,” Arthur held his hands out. “Chill out, chill out.”

“Chill out?” said Juanita. “You are talking that kind of language about one of our most beloved teachers and members of our community, and you ask me to chill out?”

“I just meant not to spazz out,” Arthur stammered.

“Spazz out?” said Juanita. “You think being offended by that sophomoric nonsense is spazzing out?”

“Is there a problem here?” Mr. Beef stepped over to stand next to the two of them.

“No problem, Mr. Booth,” said Arthur. “Britney and I were just leaving.”

“Good,” said Mr. Booth. “See that you do.” He walked off, followed closely by the storming Juanita.

“What’s with her lately?” Brittney said to Arthur. “She flipped out on Carmella the other day, too.”

“Mei, I’ll catch you later, okay?” I said to her as the two idiots walked away.

“Um, what are you going to…”

“Later!”

I chased after Juanita as she rounded the corner of the hall.

“Juanita!” I called after her.

She spun around. “What do you want?”

“I just wanted to say that was awesome,” I said. “It’s good to see someone stick it to Arthur. And, you know, stand up for Mr. Clarkson.”

“Oh,” her face softened. “Thanks, Jessy.” I blinked. I was surprised she knew my name. “Do you want some t-shirts?”

I felt like a hypocrite as I carried a small pile of shirts towards Mrs. Blanchard’s classroom. I mean, I knew Mr. Clarkson was innocent. He had to be. At least I really hoped he was innocent. But images forced their way into my mind, as hard as I shoved them away. Images of my best friend and my favorite teacher, their clothes lying in shreds next to Mr. Clarkson’s desk, their naked, sweaty bodies pressed up against one another…

“Jessica, how nice of you to join us,” said Mrs. Blanchard as I walked through the door into homeroom. “I’m glad some of my students did not decide to use the shortened period as an excuse to do whatever they liked.”

I looked over at the rows of empty desks. Barley half the students were here. I cursed myself under my breath for not thinking of that.

“Have a seat, please,” said Mrs. Blanchard. “There’s a good girl.”

I spent the rest of homeroom staring at Jenna’s note until my eyes tried to squelch out of their sockets. It didn’t help.

English class was painful. I found it even more difficult than usual to concentrate on the Scarlet Letter. From the glassy-eyed looks around me, so did everyone else, including Mr. Beef. After the fourth failed attempt to get students to answer questions about Dimmesdale’s confession, he gave up and started to read directly from his notes. After awhile, I pulled out my phone and started to check Facebook. Mr. Beef didn’t say anything.

I was sure that I would be pulled out of class at any minute. Agent Durant said she’d be pulling students and teachers out of class to talk to them. I had to be one of the first people she wanted to talk to. But English droned on without any summons to the interrogation room. So did history. And proper homeroom. And Spanish, once again taught by Mr. Morris and his dog whistle. By the time lunch arrived I was kind of resentful.

I sent Mei a text.

Me: Want to eat on the roof? I’m starting to choke on all of these people.

Mei: Sure!

On the way to the stairs, I saw Jenna hanging out under the school banner as usual, along with Brittney and some of the other queen jackals. I gritted my teeth and walked towards them. It didn’t look like Jenna was going to leave me alone. I might as well find out what she had to say. As I approached all three of them gave me the same look, like I was a piece of meat too rotten even for them.

“Vampire class is that way,” said Brittney.

“Yeah,” Carmela Turner chimed in, “if any of us want to be bitten, we’ll let you know.”

“I prefer my blood without any STDs. I’m here to talk to Jenna.”

“And why would she want to talk to you?” said Brittney.

“Because she asked me to,” I said. My fingernails dug into my palm. I already regretted this. “She sent me a note.”

Brittney and Carmela shot Jenna an incredulous look.

“As if,” said Jenna. “If I wanted to slum it, you’re not at the top of my list.”

“Fine,” I snapped. “Whatever. I didn’t ask you. Oh, and I see Tula’s not with you. I guess having a murdered sister means she’s not cool enough to hang with the jackals anymore.” I turned and stormed off towards the staircase.

My angry footsteps echoed in the enclosed stairwell as I marched up to the roof. When I emerged into the open air, I saw Mei had gotten there first. It was still raining out, but the roof had a large awning to keep the rain of our heads. Plus, I was glad to eat out in the rain. It was pretty, and it meant it would be just us. I think all of the mean girls were afraid they would melt, or something.

“Jessy!” Mei called out to me. “Hi!”

I walked over to her and threw my lunch down on the bench. “Hi, Mei.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing. Whatever. I just ran into Jenna and she was a total bitch. I don’t know what I expected.”

“Jenna? Did she still want to talk to you, or something?”

I nodded. “She gave me this note.” I handed it to to her.

“That’s her handwriting, I’m pretty sure,” said Mei. “What’s that drawing at the bottom?”

“I don’t know,” I lied. I didn’t want to talk about it. “Can we talk about something other than Jenna?”

“Yeah,” said Mei. “What do you have for lunch? I’ve got sesame noodles, if you want some.”

We ate and breathed in the rain and talked about how dumb the last episode of Supernatural was. I had some of her noodles and barely touched my turkey sandwich.

“Are you all ready for your date tonight?” Mei asked after a while. “Do you really think your mom will let you go?”

“Oh crap! I totally forgot!” I grabbed my phone out of my pocket. “Jesus Christ. I was supposed to email Katim this morning to let him know if I could definitely make it or not.” I opened up Gmail and started to write.

“Is your mom going to let you go?”

“She thinks I’m staying at Dantre’s. Or she will. I haven’t told her yet.”

“Do you still want to go? I mean, after the stuff with Mr. Clarkson and everything?”

I gave her a skeptical look. “Are you serious? Of course I want to go. All this crazy shit is why I want to go.”

“It’s just…” Mei scratched her ear nervously.

“It’s just what?”

“I mean, there’s a…dangerous person out there.”

“A serial killer viciously murdering people in our school,” I said.

She blanched. “Yeah. I mean, do you think it’s the best idea to be out so late? Like, in the middle of the week?”

“Do you think he’s less likely to murder me on a school night?”

“Jessy, I’m serious.”

I sighed. “I know. I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself. And Katim will be there. And all of his friends. They’re college students.”

“I know,” said Mei. “But…you don’t really know this person.”

I shot her a withering look. She looked back down at her noodles and said nothing. Jesus. I loved that girl, but sometime she could be so timid.

The next class was one of the only ones I actually liked: figure drawing. So of course I was only ten minutes into my sketch when Miss Anne showed up outside the door.

“Excuse me, Mr. Santana,” she said to the teacher, “but I need to borrow Jessica Kingsport.”

“Couldn’t you have waited forty minutes?” I said to Miss Anne as we walked up the stairs. “Then I could have missed math.”

“I’m afraid Agent Durant has a strict timetable,” said Miss Anne. “There’s nothing I can do about it.” She said it just like I had made a serious request she was honor-bound to consider. The woman was so clueless.

She walked me through the school and towards the conference rooms in the hallway leading to the principal’s office and opened the door.

“There you go. I’ll be out here if you need me.”

I walked in. Agent Durant sat inside along with a couple of men. The conference room looked just like it always did, except for some recording equipment. I don’t know what I expected. A bright floodlight and an interrogation chair, I guess. Maybe some manacles or needles full of cloudy liquid. Kind of silly, now that I thought about it.

“Are you Jessica Kingsport?” Agent Durant asked as I neared the table.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Have a seat. Do you want something to drink? We’ve got water, coffee, soda.”

“I’m fine,” I said. I sat down in one of the padded chairs.

She nodded. “Very well. You already know why I’m here. I apologize if some of these questions come off as abrasive. We are looking for a murderer, and there’s no room for error. You may or may not have information that is vital to this investigation. You may possess this information and not even realize it. I am going to ask my questions, and assume that you are mature enough to deal with the fact that I don’t have the time or the luxury to be gentle. Can you handle that?”

“Yeah.” I straightened my back in my seat. “Yes.”

“Good. What was your relationship with Sofia Anastos?”

“She was my friend,” I said. Agent Durant wrote something in a notebook.

“Would you say you were her closest friend at this school?”

My stomach squirmed. “I don’t know. Yeah. Maybe.”

“Is it maybe, or yes?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t know each other that long. She was new just this year.”

“Do you believe she confided in you? Told you her secrets?”

I shrugged. “You’d have to ask her.”

“I can’t ask her. She was bled from over one hundred and fifty cuts along the length of her entire body until she died. I’m asking you.”

I winced. “She was pretty shy. She told me some stuff. Some stuff she didn’t tell me.”

Agent Durant nodded, and stared at me with her piercing brown eyes. “Do you know why she was at Oaklawn Park on the morning of her murder?”

I shook my head. “I was freaked out because she wasn’t in school and I didn’t know why. I was…I was mad at her. Because she wasn’t here and she didn’t tell me. I checked all morning for her text.”

“Did you exchange text messages with her regularly? What was the last message she sent you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “All the time. Here. You can look.” I pulled out my phone, and handed it over. She opened it up and took a look. Then she handed it to one of her assistants. Sofia’s last message, by the way, was “See you tomorrow! Goodnight!”

“Did Sofia have anywhere she recorded her thoughts, or the events of her day?” Agent Durant asked. “A diary? Or a blog or website we might not know about?”

I froze. Sofia did have a diary. How could I forget that? Idiot. And it was no shock the police hadn’t found it. She didn’t keep it in her room, or her locker, or anywhere obvious. But I knew where it was.

“Ms. Kingsport?”

Should I tell her? Of course I should. It was the right thing to do. The only thing to do. Durant was an FBI manhunter. She was looking for Sofia’s killer. And she was good at her job. Otherwise she wouldn’t be here. But something Derrick had written flashed into my mind.

The police can’t handle this. These brutal killings were not performed by a person. They were committed by some Thing.

In my head there was a serial killer, and he was real. And in a different part of my head there was the withering man, and the Man of Many Tongues, if they weren’t the same. They were real, too. Which reality was the truth? Which one was I actually living in, and which was the fantasy?

I had to make a decision. If I got it wrong people could die. My throat felt very dry. I thought about the photographs. I thought about the letters that appeared in my ceiling less than twenty four hours ago. I thought about that day, 9 years ago. The last time I saw Brianna.

“No,” I said. “I don’t know about anything like that.”

Agent Durant narrowed her eyes at me. “Are you sure.”

“Yes. I am absolutely sure.”

The rest of the day was a buzzing fog of meaningless voices and useless information. I couldn’t pay attention in any of my classes. Even Chemistry, which I usually like, especially on lab days. Mrs. Ennis pulled me aside when I accidentally lit my magnesium strip on fire to ask me if I was okay. I told her I was fine.

Katim emailed me to tell me he was excited about tonight and that he forgave me for being late with my reply. I almost wrote him back to cancel. Mei was right, even if she was wrong about why. There was something dangerous walking the streets of Caldwell.

And it wasn’t just after people from our school. It was after me. But what I said to her was true, too. The thought of canceling our plans made me want to jump off the roof and impale myself on the sharp fence outside the cafeteria.

The second the final bell rang I got a text.

Dantre: Meet me in the girl’s locker room. 5 minutes!

Something felt wrong about that. But it wasn’t until I stepped through the locker room door that I figured out why. Dantre never used that much punctuation.

“Oh hell no,” I said when I saw who was in there. I took a step back.

“Jessica!” Jenna called after me. “Wait!”

“Yeah right. That’s going to happen.” I made a mental note to slaughter Dantre with an ax.

“Listen, I’m sorry about earlier.”

“Yeah? You should have tried being sorry in front of your idiot friends. That would have been the perfect time to be sorry. Now?” I spun around and began to push open the door. “ Now it just sounds stupid.”

“Jessy, I’m scared.” There was a sting of desperation in her voice. I sagged my shoulders, and turned to face her. Her face was a mask of fear. And hopelessness. I’d seen that before, but never on a real person. It was a damsel face. It was a horror-movie face. It was a “monsters are after me and my world is splintering into chaos and I don’t know what to do” face. My anger dissolved.

I stepped towards her. “Jenna, have you seen something?”

She nodded. “I see him. In my dreams. Every night. Whenever I close my eyes.”

“The withering man,” I said.

“What?” she looked confused. “Who?”

“Who do you see in your dreams, Jenna?”

She lowered her eyes. “James.”

“James?” My eyes widened. “You mean Mr. Clarkson?”

“But it’s not him! There’s something wrong. There’s something wrong with his face. He’s all…cut up, or something.”

“The FBI have Mr. Clarkson in custody. If he’s the killer…”

“It’s not him!” Her face was full of panic. “At least, I don’t think…it’s all so confused. So confused. I can’t sleep. I can’t close my eyes.”

I put my hand on her shoulder. I felt the muscle tense up. “I don’t understand. What can I do about it?”

“I don’t…it sounds so crazy. It made sense in my head. But my head is all full of scars, and…noises. When people are around it’s okay. I feel normal. I can sort of forget about it. Pretend it isn’t real. But when I’m alone…” Her eyes widened, and she stood up. She dug her fingernails into her face. “When I’m alone…”

“Calm down, Jenna. Nothing is going to hurt you.” That’s when I felt it. In my chest. The funny feeling. The scratching. “Now,” I said. “Just explain.”

She laughed harshly. “You won’t believe me. It’s…I think maybe I’m losing my mind.”

“Jenna, look at me,” I said firmly. She winced, then moved her head to face me. She looked into my eyes, and her expression changed. I don’t know how to describe it. It was like she was seeing me for the first time. “It doesn’t matter if it sounds crazy. I’ll believe you.”

“You…you will, won’t you?” The scratching in my chest intensified, and I nodded. Very slowly, she sat back down on the bench.

“You remember Rich?” Her voice sounded hollow.

“Your step-brother? Yeah, of course. We were friends.”

“He…he said a monster was after him. It was just kid’s stuff, I know, but he was so sure.”

“The Screaming,” I said. “I remember.”

She cringed and nodded again. “I teased him for it. For years. But he never let up. Then one night I was at his house and…and I heard things, Jessy.” Her fingers curled up over her leg. “In his room. From his closet. Screaming, only…it was inside my head. It was like nothing…nothing real. Nothing of this world. It scared me so much. And he told me, he said that you…”

I closed my eyes. “That I frightened it.”

“Yeah. Every time you came over it, whatever it was, it ran away. And it took longer to come out. Until one day you came over and it ran so far away that he never saw it again.”

I saw Withertongue’s words on the back of my eyelids.

The Things within us scratch and bite, and their snarls frighten everything away.

“And Sofia,” said Jenna. “She said it was better. She said he stayed away, when she was with you. After it all started. After the trip. She said you…did something.”

“After what trip? After what started? Jenna, you have to tell me.”

“She said you gave her something. Something beautiful and terrible. And it scared him away.”

“Oh my God.” I reached into my pocket, and pulled it out and opened it. Jagged Darkness. “She lost it. The day before she…died, she lost it.”

Jenna looked over at the picture. “Can I see?” I nodded and let her take it. She held the drawing up to her face. For a long moment she just stared at it. Transfixed.

“Those words,” I said after a minute. “The ones on the bottom. Have you seen them before?”

She reached into her backpack and pulled out her Spanish textbook. She opened it to the middle, and held the book up so I could see. Written across the middle of the page, in large, red letters, were the same words, in the same unfamiliar handwriting.

THE MAN OF MANY TONGUES HAS YOU

“Jenna, I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry. But something is after you.”

Tears filled her eyes. “I know.”

“Keep it,” I said. I heard myself say it, and I barely believed it. But this girl in front of me was in danger. No matter how I felt about her, if there was something I could do to help, I had to do it.

“What?”

“The drawing. Keep it. I don’t know. Maybe it protected Sofia. Maybe it’ll protect you.”

She gave me a weak smile, and nodded. “Thank you. I…I feel better. A little bit. Just like she said.” She stood up. “I should go.”

“Yeah. Me too. I’m going to miss my bus.”

She walked towards the door. “Thanks,” she said again. And she was gone.

As I headed out to my bus stop, everything broiled around the inside of my skull. It was too much to take in, right now. What she said about Sofia. Did that mean they really were friends? If not, what the hell did it mean? She mentioned some kind of trip. What was that about? And Mr. Clarkson. She called him James. Did that mean she was sleeping with him, too? I needed to talk to her again. But not now. Definitely not now.

“Jessy, over here!” Mei called out to me as I got to the lawn. “Where were you?”

“In the locker room,” I said, “with Jenna.”

“With Jenna?” she goggled. “So you finally talked to her. What did she…”

“I’ll explain later,” I said. “Can I come straight to your place? I’ve got plans tonight with a really cute guy. And I am going. I am going, even if I have to crawl through hell. Which I think that I might. So…can you help me with my hair?”

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Fragments of the Annals of the Shivering Stone

Skull 6, foto Augusto De Luca

the withering man, Part 9

I see you
-Withertongue616

11/25/13 (still)

I only started to research Withertongue that night as a distraction. To keep from pulling my hair out, or going crazy. That’s funny, when I put it like that. The only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it. Because I found him.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

During the two hours after the news report every single person who lived in Caldwell texted me. Or emailed me. Or PMed me on Facebook. At least that’s what it felt like.

Meizhang Lin: But is he actually a suspect?

Dantre: the eyes of a killer? no way!

Natasha Jhadav: No one is saying anything! Is it driving you crazy? My dad knows something but he won’t tell me.

Mom: Isn’t that the teacher you like? That’s terrible.

Adam: Are you okay? Do you need me to come home? I can tell Steve and Nilla to screw themselves.

They were all desperate for information, just like I was. But no one had any. So everyone was confused, angry and frustrated.

I even stooped so low as to check out the dreaded Caldwell High School community forum. I spent over an hour wading through parents ranting that they always knew Mr. Clarkson was no good, the posts and counter-arguments of a new group apparently started by Juanita Menendez called “Vigil for the Innocent” designed to stand up for Mr. Clarkson, and random rants about “the children.” The only useful scrap of information I found was a post on page 16 by principal Harris.

In this country we are innocent until proven guilty. No charges have been filed. The administration and the school board stand by James Clarkson, and are confident he will be fully acquitted of all wrongdoing.

That was pretty ballsy of Our Faire Principal, considering how much of an asshat he would look like if Mr. Clarkson actually was guilty. My respect for Mr. Harris raised the tiniest smidgen. Did it mean he knew that Mr. Clarkson had an alibi? I hoped so. But still. Page 16? Didn’t this stupid forum client have a sticky feature? Were they trying to drive everybody crazy?

The only person with any actually useful information was Derrick. I sent him a frantic email about it, and he got back to me quickly.

Re: The man in custody

Jessica,

Sorry it took so long to get back to you after this morning. As you can see, it’s been a busy day. The information you sent us about Sofia and the Man of Many Tongues is clearly vital, and we’ve been chasing it down. That is the name of a dangerous entity detailed on Whispers of the Unhallowed, the same site that featured your Withering Lady. As for the arrest of James Clarkson, our information is unfortunately limited. Ben has not been able to gain access to the actual interrogation reports. Here’s what we were able to find out.

Mr. Clarkson was actually arrested, not just taken in for questioning. No charges have been filed. The warrant was issued on the strength of Clarkson’s apparent sexual relationship with the last victim, Gabriella Sanchez. According to Ben’s source Clarkson is cooperating fully with the police and the feds. No information yet on whether he has an alibi for the murder(s), or whether formal charges will be filed. They can hold him for 72 hours as is. It has been 13.

One more thing. Ben saw the coroner’s report on Sanchez. The cause of death was not blood loss, the way it was with Sofia Anastos. It was asphyxiation. Something was shoved down her throat. All of the wounds were performed before cessation of heart and brain function, and somehow she was kept alive. This suggests that whatever the killer was doing, it was interrupted in the earlier case, possibly by the arrival of me and Ben.

I know this is gruesome, and difficult to hear about your friend. But you have shown remarkable strength up to this point. I don’t think you want me to spare you the truth to save your feelings.

Derrick Lee

Ms. Sanchez was having sex with Mr. Clarkson. Or at least, the police thought so. Was she the only one? I pulled out Jagged Darkness. In the upper right Sofia had written Mr. Clarkson’s name, and drawn a fanged heart around it. Underneath, she wrote a poem.

My sharp teeth sink in
A taste, my love, for nothing
else makes me alive

I thought it was about vampires. But the fangs on that heart…

I put the thought out of my mind. I knew I should email Derrick and tell him. Hell, I should probably call the police. If Mr. Clarkson was… involved with both of them, it was a link between the victims. But I didn’t want to think about it. I couldn’t handle this right now. I needed to do something else. Anything else. I opened up a new browser window, and typed in Withertongue616.

I had searched for him before, with some success. I think I mentioned that earlier. He had commented on a few different things, all over the internet. Like here is one on a Yahoo Answers question.

If i’m a teenage mother and breastfeeding is there a risk my nipple will come off because my friend said it hapepned to someone she knew thanks

Withertongue616 answered 8 months ago
The child who suckles at your teat thirsts for a mingling of all of the fluids that course throughout you. He has watched, and judgment tickles His desiccated tongue and His cracked lips. The withering eye will be on her.

That was not chosen as the best answer by the asker.

These were all pieces of the puzzle, most likely. But I didn’t have the picture on the front of the box. I didn’t know what the puzzle looked like. Any or all of these pieces might not matter. The whole thing might not matter. Withertongue could just be some crazy person who found a couple of the same websites I did. Or maybe he was another victim of the withering man, who had gone insane from His presence and now spouted nonsense to anyone that would listen. But somehow I didn’t think so. Either way, I had to know.

This time, the first thing I found was a Youtube video called “How to make authentic Southern Fried BACON!” It came up on a search, so I opened it and watched the video. It featured a guy who looked like a male Paula Deen, and a bouncy girl with ridiculous blonde pigtails. I thought she was his daughter, until he said “give me some sugar!” and then stuck his tongue down her throat for like 15 seconds.

The video was pretty much what you would expect for the first four minutes. They made southern fried bacon. They were way too enthusiastic about it. Then at around the four minute mark, everything changed. The scene went on as normal, but suddenly the actors sounded wooden, like they were reading lines off of cue cards. Their movements became stiff and jerky, and they stared straight at the camera the entire time. They didn’t blink. Their enormous smiles never faltered.

It left an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I scrolled down. The video info said nothing about the strange shift. The top rated comments just gushed about how delicious the recipe looked. It wasn’t until over a hundred comments down that anyone seemed to notice the weirdness.

AnimallHaus: That frame at 4:21…wtf? It looks like it means something but I can’t figure it out.

There were lots of replies. But I wanted to see this frame for myself. I went back up and reloaded the video and jumped to 4:21. It took a few tries to find it, because it was just a single frame. At 4:20, the guy held a knife in front of him over a slab of raw bacon, and the girl held a battered jalapeno over the pan of hot grease. At 4:21, the guy still held the knife, but it was thrust into his stomach.

His entire torso was flayed open. His ribs and bones jutted out in splinters, his organs threatened to spill, and his hands were covered in blood. The girl’s arms were thrust completely into the oil, and it had boiled over on her face and exposed cleavage, which were covered in welts. Both of their faces were frozen in something that was half laughter and half scream.

In the background of the shot there was a window. Outside it was a bright green summer’s day. Standing in the distance was a figure. I wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t looking. You could barely make him out, but most of him was black, except his head.

I went back down to the discussion.

AnimallHaus: That frame at 4:21…wtf? It looks like it means something but I can’t figure it out.

James Palomino: Whoa! How did I miss that? Freaky.

Red Power Wrangler: It has to be a fake, right?

terry simpson: is this real

AnimalHaus: A lot of work to go to for a fake nobody noticed.

ImpSummoner: It’s like their pod people after that.

Red Power Wrangler: East coast pod people. Our West Coast pod people act nothing like that.

James Palomino: Something else freaky. This video must have been edited using the online video, because it has multiple audio channels. The weird thing is one of them is turned all the way down. Here’s the video with the channel turned up. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-24ijPmH6. It’s silent until 4:21.

I clicked on the video. Until 4:21 it was normal. At the same moment that everything changed a piercing screech assaulted my ears. It was so loud I tore my headphones off and threw them on the keyboard.

“Thanks for the damn warning,” I said. My computer didn’t respond. Thank Jesus.

I turned the volume down, put my headbaphones back on, and listened. From that point until the end of the video, I could barely hear the voices. They were muffled out by all of the screams. I went back to the original video to read the rest of the discussion and continued to read the comments.

Withertongue616: If the tongue is submerged in the scarred and whispering places, we cannot taste unless the food is astringent, bloody, and rotten. So it is when He watches us. Our scent is richer when our flesh sizzles and burns. He sees us when we flare and thrash and cut. The sick, vital, and maddening process, that is for Him like as to delight, is delighted by our screams. We slice through the flesh of the quivering blackness when we scream.

There he was. The discussion continued.

James Paolomino: Oookaaaay…

Red Power Wrangler: Well that clears it up, then.

Marty of the Party: I think I saw this guy leave a comment somewhere else once. He’s a nutjob. Ignore him.

It went on like that for awhile. Then the original commenter made one last comment.

AnimalHaus: Withertongue616, I’m intrigued. Is this nonsense, or does it actually mean something? I feel kind of weird.

Withertongue616: You can understand, or you can be safe. The choice is yours.

Bit.ly/1okiQ4b Username:witheredandunbroken password:birthday

That was the last reply. I read it over and over again. You can understand, or you can be safe. Was I about to cross some kind of threshold? Was I safe? I didn’t know.

I stood up and paced around the room. I walked over to my bed and picked up Sadi, my stuffed bat.

“Should I do this?” I asked her. She said nothing. It was just a website, I told myself. It was fine. Nothing was going to happen. I leaned down and read the last comment again. You can understand, or you can be safe.

Once safety is gone, can you ever get it back? What my mother said the other day was true. I had seen a lot of death in my life. But had I ever really felt threatened? Maybe when my father Max was around. But I barely remembered that. I lived in Caldwell. I could walk to the scene of a murder late at night and having nothing to fear except some freaky college students in masks.

But then there were the photographs. The withering man had been watching me my entire life. He was everywhere. He could do whatever He wanted, and I couldn’t stop Him. I had never been safe. But I wanted to understand, even though it made my stomach hurt and my chest felt funny. I needed to understand.

I clicked the link.

It opened to a black page with a prompt window. I typed in witheredandunbroken and birthday. It didn’t work. Of course it didn’t. That was never going to be right. I took a deep breath. I knew the password. Even though it was impossible. I didn’t want it to work. I typed in 10/17/1997. My birthday. I hit enter.

A stream of images flashed onto the scream. A cliff face on an orange mountainside. A gnarled pig fetus. A knife that stabbed down into the earth. A skull. A woman with her arms thrust the air, who screamed as blood poured out of her eyes. A jar full of spiders. Lightning from a cloudless sky. A butcher shop, where human corpses hung from rusty hooks. A skull, covered in writhing, screaming maggots. Then the maggots melted, and flowed together. Where they touched, they became skin. Human skin. Two of them crawled into the empty sockets, and bloomed into eyeballs like sickening flowers. A nose grew outwards. Gums filled in over the teeth, and two of the maggots spread out over the gums and reddened into lips. The image panned out. It was a bald headed figure, in a black dress streaked with red. The withering man.

Then he was gone. The page went black. Text appeared.

Welcome

A flash video. A god damn flash video. Not even a very well-edited one. So why were my hands shaking?

I clicked on the word in the middle of the screen, and a page loaded.

It was some kind of blog. The background was a pattern of gray and red and black lines. They quivered as I moved my eyes along the page. Some kind of optical illusion. It made the text hard to read. It made my stomach queasy.

At the top of the page was a simple logo in red text.

Fragments of the Annals of the Shivering Stone

An Instruction Manual

There was text in the center, and a frame to the right with various topics including “About the Messenger,” “The Shivering Stone,” “Weapons,” “Needles in the Veins,” and “Hidden Names.” When I scrolled down the frame the topics just kept going. If I went too fast the effect of the background made me feel like I was going to throw up.

In the main frame there was a wall of text in a mix of fonts. Here is what it said.

Some lies unshackle our wrists, so we can finally feel the full sting of our bruises.

You hear the worms that burrow through the bloodstream of reality. That is why you are here. There was a God, once. But his divine flesh was riddled with Parasites. He was infected, like everything else in his diseased and filthy creation. As he set about forming the excrement of oblivion into the clay of existence, the Worms crawled throughout him and devoured his tissues.

They nestled in his pancreas and ingested his insulin as it was secreted. They crawled through the pupil of his eyes and drank of his vitreous humor, so slowly he believed his increasing blindness was the revealed light of his birthing world. When his bones grew brittle, They squirmed through the cracks and supped on his sacred marrow.

When first of the creator’s children cried out that he was contaminated, he cast them aside. When they told him the vision of his pain was clear in their eyes, he struck them blind with his immaculately sharpened tongue. When they screamed for him to listen, he tore out their throats with his glorious golden fingertips. When they reached for the hem of his robe and the toes of his sandaled feet, he burnt their hands down to stumps with the holy fire of his breath. He could not be polluted. He was perfection itself.

He did not understand. He did not understand that the seed of his own exaltation carried a taint. From that first timeless moment in the endless wayback, long before there could be nothing, the pearl of infinite divinity had a flaw. And that flaw was just as infinite.

The creator was not polluted. He was pollution. The parasitic Worms that drank the acrid bile in his liver were no mistake. They were not formed in a seething pool of his divine excrement in error. He could not comprehend it, but when he created the cosmos, he created it for Them. So when They finally devoured the last conscious particle of his unfathomable grace, he died in perfected denial of his own absolute consumption.

They are out there. They are everywhere. The black ichor that squelches through Their distended forms, though perverted, is divinity itself. They are the rightful Gods of a universe whose creator is long-since digested, and whose angels are blind and dumb and flail in the darkness with their mockeries of limbs. They would rule us. They would swallow the stars and eject their unhallowed shit onto the surfaces of every world, where we would choke on the excrement while They watched in sickening delight.

But there is something deeper than Them. Someone that Should Not Be. The venom-dripping snake to our quivering rodent of a universe, whose very presence curdles the milk of reality. He watches them, just as He watches us. He wears the flesh that we cast aside. He cannot be understood. He can only be feared. We fear Him, but our fear is tiny. It is a wisp of vapor, in the choking ocean of smoke that is Their fear. And They fear Him. Greater than Their hunger, or Their lust, or Their ambition is Their fear of Him. If it could be forged into a weapon, Their fear would topple the foundations of creation.

Do you believe me? Have you seen Them, in your dreams? Or is all of this nothing but lies? Some lies unshackle our wrists, so we can finally feel the full sting of our bruises. The truth is that He watches you. He has chosen you, because you are a queen among the seething throng of worker ants. You have a choice. The colony is about to be flooded.

You can understand, or you can be safe.

It is your last choice.

It is your only choice.

A sound made me leap out of my chair onto my feet. It was my phone. I had an email. I ignored it for the moment–Derrick or whoever could wait–and sat back down. Once my heart stopped its urgent attempts to burst out of my chest, I looked back at the screen.

That was all the text on the main page. I clicked on “About the Messenger.”

There was a picture labeled “Joseph Smith.” That name sounded familiar. Where had I heard it before? The face in the photo was shrouded in shadow. His long brown hair was shiny, like a fashion model’s hair. From what I could see of his features they were soft. He had smooth skin and no trace of facial hair. Underneath the picture, it said the following.

The stain that foreshadows the wound. The rotting corpse that predicts the cancerous lesion. The gibbering madness of a splintered mind, before the unfathomable truth that shattered it was ever spoken. First comes the mouthpiece, then the mouth.

He speaks in shivering fragments that warp the dense meat of the scarred and whispering place, and rend the delicate flesh of the waking world. He crams the bloodied fragments into my mind. A jagged peg in a complex neurally-networked hole. The absolute purity of my sanity sterilizes them. When I speak, the gibbering wreck of nonsense that dribbles from my lips are Truths, written in the bloodstains of His words. Others have tried, and the screams of their madness and failures echo through the ages.

My eyes watered. I realized I read the whole of the last part without blinking. Was the light dimmer, in here? The funny feeling in my chest hurt was a full blown pain, now. I clicked “Shivering Stone.”

He does not live in the world, for the world cracks and bleeds where His footsteps touch down. Before long the world would bleed out, and wither. He does not dwell in the scarred and whispering place, for the screaming and hungry multitudes that are the air and the soil and clay of that place thrash and tremble at His gaze. Before long they would thrash themselves into atoms, and the atoms into dust, and the dust into nothing.

The pit that spawned Him is unknown, for He has long since torn its name from the retinas of every watching eye. He cannot dwell anywhere for long. But He can be found. He can be found, by the faceless and the eyeless, those who truly see.

He can be found.

Where the stone shivers.

 

My throat was dry. I breathed in, and the air in my lungs was thick. If I stood up and looked around my room, what would I see? I clicked “Weapons.”

There was a lot of text, here. Tens of thousands of words. Most of it didn’t make much sense, and the background stung my eyes. A few passages were clearer than others, almost comprehensible.

Blood is rich with growth. When a weapon severs the bond of life, thorns blossom in the fertile soil. As the world spits, the thorns scrape against the scarred and whispering place. A weapon that has murdered once is sharper forever, even if it has dulled. It can cut that which resists cutting.

Then, a little ways down:

Our bodies are prisons. Slave colonies, within which billions of lifeforms are yoked to our will, and die at whims far beneath our fancy. The sanctity of life is laughable. We slaughter the harmless things within us and give it no thought. They don’t even warrant our contempt. Every breath in is a genocide. Own organs try to murder us, and can we blame them?

But there are things within us we cannot understand. They would burst forth and leave our bodies a bloody mass of rent tissue. Yet like an appendix that ruptures, they cannot survive outside of us. They would kill us, yet they make us stronger. He tries to guide us, but we do not listen. He tries to sunder our flesh with the most delicate of surgeries, but we resist. So the Things within us scratch and bite, and their snarls frighten everything away.

There is one of them nestled in your body. Do you feel it? It is inside of you right now. Perhaps it scratches at the inside of your skull. Or it tries to wriggle its way out of your kneecap. Or maybe it claws at the inside of your chest, as you read these very words.

I froze. I had felt that before. Something that clawed and scratched in my chest. I felt it at the wake, when all of those things stared at me. I felt it at the Flash Mob of Faces and Eyes, just before the policeman shot off that man’s fingers. Just before I saw Him in the tree.

And I felt it right now. It scraped at the bone in front of my heart, from the inside. The sick scraping sound tickled my ears. The more I read, the worse it got. I needed to stop. I needed to stop before this thing killed me.

I closed the browser window. The feeling didn’t stop. I had to do something. Something different. Something safe. I opened up my email. My tongue grew thick in my mouth as I saw the sender.

Withertongue616 (no subject)

With numb fingers I clicked the link. There were five words on my screen.

I see you, even without

I leapt up out of my chair. I raced around my room. I pulled the hanging clock off the wall. I looked behind my poster, and under my pillow, and inside the shade of my lamp. It was ten minutes before I realized I was searching for a hidden camera. I laughed. An impossible email from a supernatural entity that had been following me, or its insane servant, and I thought they were using a god damn spy camera? I took a deep breath. At least the room around me was my room. I wasn’t in that other place.

The scarred and whispering place.

I sat back down on my chair and reread the email. It looked unfinished. I see you, even without…what? I took a deep breath, and opened up the Shivering Stone page again. Maybe there was a clue there. The pain in my chest was weaker, now. But it was still there. The page loaded, but there was no flash animation this time. Just the text. The horrible text.

I saw from the bar that this page was part of the Blogger network. I laughed. I was still signed in to Blogger with my Google account, so I could comment on Derrick’s blog. Had this insane page somehow pulled my email address that way? Was that even possible? It’s almost funny, I thought, how even now I still look for rational explanations. I have always hated rational explanations. I leaned back and let my head hang off of of my chair.

That’s when I saw them. Etched into my ceiling. I squeezed my eyes shut, but when I looked they were still there. Of course they were. The last two words of the email. The rest of it ran through my head, as I stared at the jagged black letters. I see you, even without

my eyes.

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