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THE SKELETON KEY GHOST STORIES: POPEYE

THE SKELETON KEY GHOST STORIES: PERFORMANCE ART
November 18, 2002
THE SKELETON KEY GHOST STORIES: WHY WE SLEEP
November 18, 2002

THE SKELETON KEY GHOST STORIES: POPEYE

 Gabe’s first muddled thought was that a pair of cats must be fighting outside his window again. There had been a stray lurking in the hedgerow earlier that year, before the seasons had changed, and it had occasionally split the night with the sort of lunatic howls that had sent him and Adam bolting for their mother’s bedroom. These cries weren’t dissimilar, a mix of piercing whistles and guttural gibberish, and he lay frozen in bed for some time before he realized the sounds weren’t coming from outside at all.

The door banged open with enough force to shake stucco from the walls, and his mother flicked the light switch. She took in the scene in an instant, pawing at the wall for balance, and she began to scream as well.

Gabe followed her gaze.

Adam’s Spider-Man bedsheets had been thrown back, and his legs were drumming against the air with an insane, chattering rhythm. The tendons in his neck stood out like spreading fingers. His head rose a few inches above his pillow and slammed back down. This happened again and again, and each time something red and wet flapped against his cheek, leaving smears of itself behind.

Moving quickly, his mother crossed the room and scooped her son up into her arms. Adam buried his face against her ample chest, and his keening dropped to a low and steady drone. Gabe caught a glimpse of a spreading redness across her floral print nightgown, and his mother went thundering from the room without a backwards glance.

Only then did Gabe realize he’d messed himself. He felt an absurd sense of relief; this, at least, was something he could deal with. He went to the bathroom and cleaned himself off before changing into a dry pair of shorts. Next he gingerly carried his bedsheets to the laundry room and deposited them in the washer. After a moment’s consideration, he added Adam’s bloodied sheets as well. By the time he had finished, the paramedics had arrived.

The next twenty-four hours passed in a cold blur. There was an ambulance ride, with flashing lights and everything, but Gabe was far too frightened to enjoy it. Once they reached the hospital, Adam was wheeled away, and his mother followed behind, her sobs still hitching in her throat, leaving Gabe in the care of a pair of bored-looking receptionists. He passed the time thumbing through old magazines and trying to nap on the knobby plastic chairs. His mother appeared every few hours to check on him, but she either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer his questions, and so they watched Lucy reruns on the old Sanyo dangling from the ceiling, neither of them saying anything.

At one point a woman with a pinched face and carrying an expensive leather binder stopped by to visit Gabe, accompanied by two police officers. She asked a number of questions–Had his mother attacked Adam? And had she ever hurt them before?–and he denied everything. This was the truth, of course, but the police officers looked so disappointed that Gabe felt strangely guilty. But that was when his mother returned, carrying a few cans of Pepsi and two sandwiches wrapped in dull foil, and she flew into a great slobbery rage at the sight of the officers. While they attempted to calm her, the pinched woman made quiet clucking noises and scribbled notes in her binder.

After they departed, his mother wheezed into one of the plastic chairs, fanning herself with one meaty hand. “They’re not gonna be able to save that eye,” she told him. When she looked at him, her eyes were red and runny and fierce. “Did you see? See what happened?”

He shook his head, and her face fell. “Maybe it was an embolism,” she murmured. “That’s what they think, anyway.” Gabe didn’t understand the word, but he didn’t want to start her crying again, so he said nothing at all.

It was almost two full days before they let him see Adam. They had placed him in an antique reclining bed, a hulking monstrosity made of snaking steel tubes and wires, and his brother looked laughably small in contrast. Adam was seven, only two years younger than Gabe himself, but he had always been a frail, birdlike creature, and somehow it felt natural seeing him in a hospital setting, as though he had finally found his place in the world. Adam’s head was wrapped in interlaced layers of white gauze that haloed his forehead before swooping to hide the spot where his left eye had been. Gabe was glad for that much, at least. He didn’t want to see that staring black socket, not ever.

They made awkward small talk while their mother looked on approvingly, and Gabe tried to ignore the stained bandages. At last he was saved by the arrival of a nurse pushing a food cart with a broken wheel. Adam gave him an encouraging smile when he left, but Gabe had trouble returning it. He just wanted to go home.

But it was several more days before that happened, and when they did return, it was an oddly joyless event. There was no fanfare, no friends or relatives to welcome them back, no sparkling banners or celebratory ice cream pies. Some of their food had gone bad, judging from the faint breath of decay permeating the apartment, and the air was stale and sour.

His mother tried to find a sitter while she went for groceries, but none of the regular girls were available. She finally gave up and left Gabe in charge, a rare honor indeed. The boys sat together on the couch, watching cartoons and sharing a box of sugar cereal. Gabe tried not to stare at his brother’s bandaged face, but this was a losing battle.

He had to ask. “Does it hurt?”

Adam seemed surprised by the question. “Not anymore. It did at first, but now it just feels itchy. Like I want to reach in there and scratch it.”

Gabe felt a dizzy thrill of horror at this. He tried to imagine what it would be like to drag your fingernail across that spongy gray flesh, to feel it flaking and peeling beneath your touch. He shuddered–he couldn’t help himself–and Adam saw this and looked away. “It’s not my fault,” he said in a voice almost too low to hear.

Gabe instantly felt guilty. “No, it’s not that!” he insisted. “I was…I was thinking of some guy I saw in the hospital. He was gross.”

“What was wrong with him?”

Gabe thought for a moment. “He crashed his car. And part of the steering wheel was still sticking out of his head.”

“Yecch!” Adam seemed delighted by this, so Gabe pressed on.

“Yeah, and every time he tried to talk, a horn would honk out in the parking lot.” Sudden inspiration struck, the perfect ending flourish. “And he was asking the doctors to leave it stuck in his head so he wouldn’t have to buy a Halloween costume.”

Adam rolled his eye, and Gabe knew he had gone too far. His brother only giggled. “Hey, I just realized…I can go as a pirate this year!”

“Popeye the Pirate,” Gabe agreed at once. Then he clapped a hand over his mouth, realized what he had said.

But Adam pitched forward, hooting laughter. “Popeye!” he repeated, pounding a fist against the sofa. “Popeye the Pirate!” Then they laughed like maniacs, like a pair of certified Looney Tunes, and for the first time Gabe thought things might still turn out okay.

When their mother returned home, she was naturally horrified by the name, but Adam refused to budge. He was Popeye, he told her. He yam what he yam.

Their mother refused to let Adam sleep alone that night, so when it came time for bed, he gathered his pillow and blankets and padded off to her room, while Gabe settled down in the empty bedroom. It felt strange sleeping alone; without Adam’s breathless little snores coming from the corner, the silence felt deafening. Gabe pulled the covers over his head and drifted off.

He woke some time later to the sound of movement in the room beyond. He stirred, reaching for the blanket, but a voice froze him in place.

“Don’t look at me.” The voice was thick and weirdly distant, like a man speaking from the bottom of a very deep well. “I don’t want you to look at me.”

Gabe felt sudden warmth spreading beneath him, and he knew he had messed himself again. Every hair on his body was standing at attention; it felt like a thousand needles pricking against his scalp.

“I don’t want to hurt you or do nothing sick.” There was a pleading note in the voice, a sort of trembling eagerness. “I just wanna hold you for a little bit so I can get warm, you hear that? I just wanna hold you without you looking at me.” There was another shuffling footstep, closer now.

Gabe pressed back against the wall, making mewling sounds in the back of his throat, and the blanket fell away. He saw.

The man was enormous, easily more than three hundred pounds, with a wide, doughy face and eyes that were piggish and dull. He was naked, and his entire body bristled with curly black hairs so thick that Gabe initially mistook them for fur. His penis was a flaccid nub of white flesh nestled in a furious swirl of hair, and his lips were wet and gummy. The only delicate parts of his body were his fingers, which were long and slender; the fingers of a pianist, perhaps, or a surgeon.

Their eyes met, and his lips drew back in a feral snarl. The fat man came at him, and Gabe began to scream. Acting more on instinct than anything else, he slapped his palms over his eyes. An instant later an immense weight landed on him, driving the air from his lungs. He felt something scratching and burrowing against the back of his hands, and he knew the fat man was going for his eyes. He began to buck and writhe, drumming his feet against the man’s stomach. The man’s breath smelled like dried blood.

The light snapped on, and the crushing pressure vanished at once. Gabe blinked stupidly. His mother stood in the doorway, her face chalky and bloodless, and behind her hovered Adam, peering around the corner. The fat man was gone, and only then did Gabe realize the truth.

“A nightmare,” he told her, flushing with shame. “I had a nightmare.”

She shook her head. “After what happened…I thought…do you realize what you made me…?” She seemed unable to finish a sentence. Then she sniffed loudly, and her expression darkened. “Did you piss your pants?”

He mumbled an apology, but she was already turning away, disgusted. “Can I sleep with you tonight?” he called after her, desperate now, but she shut the door without answering.

The fat man didn’t come back. It was a very long night.

The next day was Monday, a school day. Adam was dreading the return, and he became so nervous that he threw up in the bushes while they were waiting for the bus to arrive. Gabe stood guard over him, scowling at passing children, and no wise guys spoke up. When Adam finished vomiting, he wiped his mouth and gave his brother a weak smile.

But no sooner had they arrived at school before some great wit spoke up in the hallway: “Check out the Cyclops.” It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Adam stiffened, but he kept walking. Gabe, on the other hand, turned and fell on the joker, raining down a flurry of blows, mashing the boy’s lips against his teeth and splattering pinpricks of crimson across his uniform. Adam tried to pull him away, but Gabe ignored him. He was screaming with inarticulate rage, his voice high and reedy, and the younger boy gasped and gulped for air beneath him.

There was a suspension, of course, and talk of possible expulsion. Gabe sat in the Principal’s office, his knuckles stinging and his forearms numb, fighting back the urge to cry. When his mother finally arrived to pick him up, she looked at him as though he was some strange and distasteful type of insect. They drove home in silence.

He was exiled to his room, where he spent his time reading and staring at the ceiling, and at last he fell asleep. And when he woke, he was no longer alone.

“Don’t look at me,” the voice breathed. “Don’t you do that.”

Gabe kept his eyes shut. He could sense the shape in bed beside him, huge and heavy, and it was colder than anything he had ever imagined. A meaty arm fell over him, pinning him in place, and its touch made Gabe think of darting black flies gathering against his skin. He bit his lip to keep from screaming.

“I just wanna be warm,” the man mumbled in Gabe’s ear. “That’s all. Ain’t no harm in that.”

There was no way of knowing how long they lay there. The warmth gradually seeped from Gabe’s body, leaving him chilled and chattering, the blankets drawn up to his chin. At last the bedsprings groaned and shifted, and the arm withdrew from Gabe’s shoulder. He heard the man pad away into the darkness, and only then did Gabe begin to cry.

Later in the day, Adam returned from school, looking more cheerful and relaxed than before. “Nobody bothered me,” he told Gabe proudly. “Probably ‘cause of what you did. Aaron Melicher even said he thought the patch looks cool.” And still beaming, he threw his arms around Gabe’s waist in a quick, furious hug. “Thanks,” he said.

Gabe patted his brother’s back, but he was thinking of the fat man’s eyes, small and glassy beneath a mound of bloodless skin, and if Adam noticed the gooseflesh creeping across Gabe’s arms, he didn’t mention it.

Once the sun dipped from the sky, the boys went to see about dinner. They found their mother asleep in front of the television, a cloud of vodka hanging thick in the air around her. They made sandwiches and carried them to the kitchen table instead. Adam leafed through a comic book while he wolfed down his food, but Gabe was unable to eat much. Everything he tasted seemed tainted by the smell of the fat man’s breath, sour and slightly metallic. He wondered what would happen when the lights were turned off for the night. Would the fat man return?

Gabe thought he might.

He went to his mother, shaking her awake. Her eyes were wet and bleary, and she seemed unable to focus properly. “Whuzzit?” she demanded.

“Can Adam sleep with me tonight?” he pleaded. “I don’t want to be alone. I might have more nightmares.”

His mother regarded him for a moment, suspicious, but at last she nodded. Gabe hurried to tell Adam the news. He felt a deep and pressing sense of shame as he went, although he couldn’t have explained why. He hadn’t done anything wrong, had he? Besides, the boys would be safer if they were together, that much was obvious. He kept telling himself this, and eventually it began to make sense.

Adam didn’t seem overjoyed to learn he would be returning to his old room, but he accepted the news stoically. They got ready for bed together, trading rumors about an upcoming video game they both wanted, and at last they climbed into their beds.

“Night,” Adam said.

“Night, Popeye,” he replied, and this got another squeal of laughter, as he had known it would. He turned off the light.

Gabe was awoken from a deep and muddy sleep by his brother’s voice in the darkness. “Gabe? Are you there?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“There’s someone else in here.” Gabe knew at once his brother was crying. “I can hear him moving around.”

“Don’t look!” Gabe said in a furious whisper. “Just keep your eyes shut and don’t open them for anything!”

“Why?” Now Adam’s breath was hitching loudly, like helicopter rotors fighting against gravity. “What is it? Tell me what it is!”

“Just keep them closed!” Gabe ordered, but then his brother began to scream, and Gabe realized he had opened them after all.

He threw the covers aside and slid to the floor. Adam was flopping madly, his body ricocheting against the bed hard enough to make its springs shriek in protest, and his cries had become thick grunts of pain. There was something extending from Adam’s face, a thin and stringy cord that twitched and danced like a balloon in a stiff wind. Gabe reached for the lamp, and his fingers fumbled for the turn-switch. In that instant, the darkness shifted before his eyes, and he saw his brother wasn’t alone in the bed. The fat man was hunched over Adam, his moonish skin slick with frost, his face drawn in a lupine howl. His slender fingers–the fingers of a pianist, perhaps, or a surgeon–were rooting around in the dark mess that had been Adam’s remaining eye, picking and tweezing with exacting care. Then the desk lamp came to life beneath Gabe’s fingers, and the fat man was gone. The small red thing he had been playing with fell across Adam’s cheek and didn’t move again.

Adam lay motionless, but Gabe could see his chest rising and falling. He covered his brother with a blanket as best he could, trying not to look at the spongy mess his face had become, and he went to fetch his mother. When she proved too drunk to wake, he called the ambulance himself.

A disorienting sense of déjà vu colored the next few days, from the ambulance ride to the sterile waiting rooms to his mother’s feverish sobs. At one point she left the hospital, returning a few hours later drunker than ever before, screaming and cursing the doctors with words Gabe had never heard her use before, and a pair of young orderlies were forced to lead her away.

Once again Gabe was quizzed by police officers and investigators. He couldn’t tell them the truth, of course. They would call him crazy, and with good reason. He would be locked in a room with padded walls and forgotten.

This eye couldn’t be saved either, the doctors told his mother in apologetic tones. Too mangled, they said. Never seen anything like it before, they said.

They finally agreed to let him visit Adam. There was a thick band of gauze circling his brother’s forehead, extending to cover the spots where his thoughtful brown eyes had been, and his lips were scabbed and dry. Gabe tried to think of a funny nickname, something to send them both spiraling into another fit of giggles, but his mind ran blank. Instead he rested his head on Adam’s shoulder and cried, whispering apologies in a low and breathless rush. Adam gave his shoulder a reassuring pat and told him everything would be okay, but he couldn’t keep his voice from cracking.

They wouldn’t let the boys return home. Their mother’s violent outbursts and stockpile of vodka hadn’t impressed Child Protective Services, who seemed especially concerned by the fact that she had slept right through the second attack, deep in a drunken stupor.

Instead they placed Gabe and Adam in an emergency care shelter. The foster parents were a Methodist minister and his wife, and they proved compassionate and friendly, if a bit dull. Their foster mother was a former nurse who had some experience dealing with the disabled, and she taught Adam tricks for navigating the unfamiliar house, such as counting steps and following loops of string. He accepted the lessons graciously, and even when he stumbled on the carpet or banged his shins against a table, he never cried, at least not that anyone could tell.

They were given a cozy bedroom with plenty of toys, and Gabe made sure to read the week’s latest comics to Adam every night before they climbed into their separate beds, doing his best to describe what was happening in each new panel.

It was the smell that finally woke Gabe, the stink of old dead things, sour and slightly metallic. He sat up in bed, heart hammering in his chest. Adam was speaking to someone.

“You’re so cold.” His brother’s voice was sleepy and faraway. “Why are you so cold?” One of his arms was crooked in the air at a strange angle, as if wrapped around a large something Gabe couldn’t see.

Adam seemed to listen for a moment, and a peaceful smile broke across his face. “I love you too, mommy,” he whispered, and his hand patted the empty air.

On the far side of the room, Gabe burrowed deep beneath his mound of blankets, hands pressed tightly against his eyes, and if he cried at all during the night, he never woke his brother.


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