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Does anyone remember the rhyme about the Patchwork Man? And the picture game

Does anyone remember the rhyme about the Patchwork Man? And the picture game


Estimated reading time — 12 minutes

Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, play a game!
Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, in the frame!

And the next line is something about stealing your skin. But for the life of me I cannot remember the end. I’m trying to find it for an old friend.

This friend—for privacy’s sake, let’s call her Kayla—met me for coffee after texting me out of the blue, reminiscing about our childhood days and wondering if we could get together and catch up. I’m one of the few who stayed in our hometown and never moved, even though there’s really nothing except lots of conifers reaching towards the clouds like brushes, painting the skies a permanent gray. The trees and slopes mean our roads are winding, our homes shaded, and the sky blotted out by branches unless you’re willing to drive far enough to where the land levels into pasture.

All of which is to say, our sleepy town has its share of quirks, and it’s very possible the game never caught on in other places. When Kayla mentioned it in her text to me, memories flooded back. I hadn’t thought about elementary school in years. Suddenly I was back on the playground, running across the sand screaming because Kayla wouldn’t stop trying to kiss me, pretending to be Pepe LePew while I pretended to be the cat. To be honest, I barely remembered Kayla aside from that memory. Even though we attended the same school all the way through senior year, she became one of the popular girls. And since I turned out to be the token gay (I’m actually bi, but whatever), I spent most of high school just trying to keep my head down and get through.

We met at a small café—one of only two breakfast spots in town, and the only one with coffee I consider decent. Seated by the large windows, I wondered if I’d even recognize her. I texted that I was wearing gray flannel.

When she came in, she looked around for a moment in confusion, spotted my shirt, and beamed. “Pat! Almost didn’t know it was you.”

“Kayla?” I smiled and stood up. “I definitely didn’t recognize you! Wow, you look like a real city gal! That’s a beautiful coat.”

“It’s Burberry,” she said, and blushed, embarrassed, maybe, to be a rich woman in such a homey space. “I like your tattoo. Is that a wolf?”

“It’s actually my husky, Snowy. Named him when I was eight. I never wanted to forget him, so…”

“Oh my God that is so sweet!” She laid a hand to her heart, looking genuinely touched as she slid into her seat. “I never knew you had a dog! How did I not know that? You know, my son recently got a dog—”

“You’ve got kids now?”

“I’ve got kids now!”

The first half hour of catching up, Kayla was smiling, energetic, seemingly delighted to share about her life and ask about mine. And yet, I noticed the occasional drift of her eyes as I was telling her about my dad’s health, like she was distracted. Like all this sunny conversation was just light on the water’s surface while deeper down a darker undercurrent tugged her thoughts elsewhere. Like she was itching to ask me something. But then the smile returned, as carefully applied as her makeup.

I suppose life as a businesswoman taught her to wear that amiable disposition just like that expensive coat. But I’m patient. I kept up the discussion and waited for her to get comfortable enough to shed both the fancy coat and fancy smile and explain to me why her hands were trembling.

Finally she sipped her coffee and asked, “Do you remember Jimmy Smythe?”

“’Course I remember Jimmy Smythe.” That was how we always referred to him. Not as Jimmy, like back when he was alive. Jimmy Smythe. First name, last name. Jimmy Smythe, the boy who went missing.

“You remember what he looked like?” she asked.

That took me aback. I tried to think that far into the past, shook my head. She reached into her bag and pulled out a photograph—an actual, printed photograph! This was a lot of effort. I looked at the photo and tried to remember him: blue eyes, blond hair, chubby red cheeks and that mole on his nose.

Jimmy Smythe was in our fourth grade class when he went missing. People searched for weeks, but there was no trace of him anywhere.

“You remember,” she asked, “how mad the sheriff got about the Patchwork Man?”

“I remember.” I nodded. “They thought he was someone they could find.”

The Patchwork Man was like our small town’s version of the boogie man, or Bloody Mary. A scary tale we used to spook one another. He wasn’t real. But Jimmy talked about him so much in the days before he disappeared that authorities assumed he was an actual person stalking us all. It’s possible the other kids said stuff that led them to think that, too. And Jimmy and the others drew pictures of him. So many pictures! A disfigured man in a patchwork, calico coat.

But I was never really all that into the fads and games that the other children got swept up in. I didn’t learn about the Patchwork Man until our school field trip to an art museum. Our school was so small, it was us little kids plus all the older kids. When we finally got to the museum, all us younger kids went spilling into the rooms and wandering among the paintings, pointing and saying things like, “Ohmigod it’s the Patchwork Man!” Sometimes we pointed at creepy figures or characters in mottled clothes, like jesters. But mostly we pointed at paintings where there wasn’t any figure at all. The older kids didn’t get it and kept asking “What’s the Patchwork Man?” I didn’t really get it either, even though I kept doing it, but then Jimmy explained it to me. The picture game was kind of like a cross between Where’s Waldo and those Magic Eye things. The idea was that you had to try to find the Patchwork Man. Most of the kids were pretending just like I was. “He’s right behind you,” we’d say. “He’s gonna snatch you away.” Stuff like that.

The teachers finally told us to quit it. But for weeks after, every so often, someone would remember and start it up again, shrieking that they saw the Patchwork Man. They’d yell and point at a picture and swear they saw it for real and that he was in the picture guys I swear he was there. The week before Jimmy Smythe went missing he said it a lot.

“There was a rhyme, too,” Kayla insisted. “Do you remember, we chanted it to scare him off?” She began the chant: “Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man…”

“… play a game!” I joined in, the words tumbling up from some dusty shelf of memory. “Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, in the frame! Patchwork Man… I can’t remember the rest.”

“Yes! That’s where I’m stuck, too!” She struck the table with the flat of her hand. Tried to lift her cup, but her fingers were shaking too bad. “And then something about stealing skins. And the last line was how to get rid of him.”

Stealing skins. I’d forgotten about that until she mentioned it. How the Patchwork Man stole the skins of his victims, and his own body was sewn together from their pieces, so that he had the eyes of one, the nose of another…

“Patchwork Man…” I tapped my finger to my head, trying to recall the rest of it. “Damn! That’s gonna bother me. You didn’t have it written down? Maybe I do in an old book or something…”

“Doubt it.” She shook her head. “We destroyed all the pictures and… books, too. Everything. That night… you remember that night, after Jimmy disappeared, we all met at Roger’s house for the bonfire?”

“Oh… you’re right. Shit, I forgot. You’re right. We threw in our notebooks.”

“Not just our notebooks. Everything. Pictures we drew. Pictures we stole from our parents’ houses. Even some paintings. And the book. You remember? Jimmy’s book?”

Jimmy’s book? Now as she said it I could almost picture us all scattered around the library, Kayla at the girly girls’ table with Nancy Drew books. Me lounging on the bean bag chair with Snoopy comics. And Jimmy, suddenly exclaiming from a corner table. He had one of those Magic Eye books with the patterns where you have to cross your eyes a little to see the hidden picture, and he shouted, “It’s him! It’s him! I found the Patchwork Man!”

Everyone crowded around his table to look at the Magic Eye book. There was a chorus of “I don’t see anything’s” and “Where?” A girl named Sandy declared she could see him, but she was clearly lying because she couldn’t even point where in the picture he was, and… Kayla, back then with her freckled face and unkept hair and perpetually skinned knees from roller-skating. She squinted hard at the page and said, “I see him, too! A man standing in the corner.”

Now, in the diner, Kayla reached into her bag and pulled out a book.

“He’s in here,” she said, pushing it toward me.

Ice trickled down my spine. It was a Magic Eye book—the same book. Different copy, but identical cover and pages. “Why would you—”

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“Tell me I’m not crazy. Tell me he’s not there.”

I sighed. But I opened the book. “You know, I’ve never been good at these things. I don’t think I’ll be able to see anything in any of them.”

“You can. I’ll show you,” said Kayla, and patiently but insistently taught me how to look. How to see the ball in the picture on the first page. The airplane on the second. It was difficult—I could only make out the shapes with intense concentration. But after I saw a star without her giving me hints, she nodded encouragement and turned the page. The next one was challenging. In fact the longer I stared, the more convinced I became there was nothing in the picture at all. That this one was a dud.

Sweat formed on my brow. I could feel the moisture pooling under my armpits, even as my skin went cold. Wait… maybe there was something… “I think I see a figure,” I said finally. “Sort of.”

“It’s crystal clear to me when I look.” She closed the book without looking at the page. “That one’s the Patchwork Man.”

“Oh,” I said. Felt a tingle of unease. But then I thought about it for a moment. “Could be any man-shaped figure, though, couldn’t it? We made up all that stuff about the Patchwork Man. It was just a game—”

But she was pulling more things out of her bag, now. Spilling the bag open to reveal photos. Articles. Artwork. She shoved a handful of newspaper clippings toward me.

“Here in this town,” she said, voice low and tremulous, “the disappearances started long before Jimmy. And after him, there was a boy the next year in second grade, and later a little immigrant girl. The disappearances happen every decade or so. A handful of people, and then nothing for years.” And now, her composure completely cracked. She took her napkin and held it to her face, her mouth trembling beneath welling tears as if she were biting back a scream. Finally she burst, “I didn’t mean to look! I was going through my old notebooks, childhood stuff I’d packed away, and I found some diary entries I wrote about the Patchwork Man…” She started to sob. “I should have burned it! I must have forgot it. I thought I did burn it. Once I saw my old drawings of him I… I see him everywhere now! He… he won’t go away! He’s real, he has Jimmy’s blue eye, Jimmy’s rosy cheek. Look! Look, you can see—”

“I don’t want to,” I said. But she shoved Jimmy’s photo over, along with a folder of artwork. And in spite of myself, I looked.

The folder contained printouts of paintings. The kind you might see in people’s houses, or in a museum. Initially, they were all perfectly ordinary pictures. I should my head and told her there was nothing in them. But then…

I almost missed him, like my eyes wanted to skip over him. But the feel of goosebumps on my arms made me look again, and there in a watercolor of a crowded street, amongst all the shapes bleeding together like wet ink after a rain, was a man wearing a patchwork coat made of some sort of supple, delicate leather.

He was gone in the next few paintings, but reappeared in another impressionistic crowd scene. The more images I saw him in, the easier he was to spot, hiding among the artworks like Waldo in a crowd. And I swallowed, trying to quell the fear that brought my heartbeat pounding in my ears because I could see him clearly enough now to identify the one bright blue eye and ruddy cheek. It really was Jimmy’s eye. And up close, the pieces of Jimmy and others in the Patchwork Man were all the wrong size, mismatched like some sort of Frankenstein but even more horrifying to look at…

In fact, the longer I looked, the more nauseating the details. Like how the Patchwork Man had too many fingers on his hands, and one of his ears was upside down, and his other eye had two different pupils, and the buttons of his coat were teeth and… I was getting sick to my stomach. Dizzy. Like I was feeling a sense of vertigo. Like when you look at one of those spinning spirals and when you stop everything keeps spinning. Like I was staring at a Magic Eye and the patterns were shifting—his skin was almost like those mesmerizing patterns—
WHAM

I jumped. Kayla had slammed the folder closed and was shouting at me, hollering at the top of her lungs, shaking me: “STOP LOOKING! STOP LOOKING!!!”

Everyone in the café was staring.

I stammered an apology, and we paid and quickly left.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah, I… no, actually.” I turned to her. “Why the fuck would you come all the way out here and drag me into—”

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“Because I don’t want to be next!” she cried, anguished. “Rory is starting elementary school! I just need to know the rhyme, Pat. I need to know how it ends! You’re the only person I know who might remember! Please. PLEASE! What did we do to chase him away? At the bonfire?”

“Ok.” I growled, trying to suppress the bubbling fear that—no. No. I would not succumb to this… this delusion. She’d doctored those pictures. She had to. Or… she’d drawn me into her crazy fears through sheer conviction. But I couldn’t leave her in this state, so I said, “Ok… I maybe have an idea.”

We parted ways and agreed to meet at my house later that evening. In the meantime, I looked at the artworks that hung on the walls of my house, artworks that had been there since my grandparents’ generation, showing landscapes and people—all normal. I typed this post, thinking if we didn’t solve her problem maybe someone else could help. I was still typing when the doorbell rang—evening had come sooner than I expected.

I met Kayla outside by the firepit. She had brought her folders with pictures. I also brought a painting out from inside—it was my favorite, a landscape of the beautiful woods and slate gray sky. It seemed to embody the essence of this place, the lonely isolation and desolate beauty. But while typing I reluctantly had to admit I’d started catching odd glimpses in the corner of my eye, as if someone were peeking out from behind a trunk. I didn’t want that idea to take root any deeper than it had already.

The painting had to go.

The plan was simple: we’d burn the pictures, recite the rhyme, and hope that re-enacting what we’d done as children would jog our memories. I got the fire going while Kayla stood there tight-lipped and pale. She’d removed her makeup now, and her skin was sallow and her freckled cheeks sunken with fear. She kept whispering, “Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man…” trying to remember the rhyme, I knew. But without her knowing the rest, it sounded almost like she was calling him.

“Hey,” I nudged her, and began by tossing some of the pictures from her folder into the roaring fire. She nodded and followed suit, throwing her old diary on, and then the Magic Eye book and what was left of her folder, and lastly I ripped my painting out of its frame and broke it in two and threw the canvass on. While all of that was catching, nearly smothering the fire, we faced each other and held hands. It felt awkward and ridiculous, two adults chanting like children, but we did it anyway.

“Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, play a game!
Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, in the frame!
Patchwork Man, I see you! Looking for some skins to steal!” Kayla shouted, triumphant, remembering the third line! Just one more…
“Patchwork Man, can’t take mine! You…”

But even as the line came back to me, she stopped, turning her head. She was staring at something. You’re not supposed to look away from one another during the chant, not supposed to look at the fire. But her head was turned, mouth hanging open, eyes wide in terror. I followed her gaze and…

It was impossible. But I swear to you, there on the top of the heap was my painting of the conifers, the edges just starting to catch, and the Patchwork Man was stepping out from the trees and he was climbing out of the painting, that piercing blue eye that used to be Jimmy’s fixed on Kayla. The world seemed to swirl and ripple, everything flattening out—Kayla flattening out, too. She had her hands at her face, like that character painted in the Scream. The Patchwork Man’s misshapen hands, one large and one small, the fingers all different lengths and wrong, like how his left hand had two thumbs, grabbed her and drew her in… and they both seemed to blend with brush strokes and ash and flames and then the canvass was burning. The painting was gone. And there was no one standing where Kayla had been, just the prints from her shoes in the dirt.

I gaped, disbelieving. Stood there in a daze while the fire slowly died. Not accepting any of what I’d seen. How could I? It had to be some kind of nightmare. That was the only thing that made sense. I was having a waking nightmare. Maybe someone spiked my drink. I don’t know. I don’t know.

But when I got inside I looked up at the wall of the living room and groaned. Because there’s a small family portrait—a painting by my grandmother of my grandfather. Only now, instead of my grandfather it showed the Patchwork Man, with a new patch of freckled skin on his cheek. And I whispered to myself the rhyme, the one Kayla didn’t finish:

Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, play a game!
Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, in the frame!
Patchwork Man, I see you! Looking for some skins to steal!
Patchwork Man, can’t take mine! You know why? Cause you’re NOT REAL!

But I know now that the rhyme won’t help me. The rhyme just tells you the rule—that if he’s not real, he can’t hurt you. If he’s not real. If you don’t believe in him. But I think it’s too late because I can see him so clearly now, even now, as I finish typing this post. And I hope, for anyone reading this, you don’t make the mistake I did. If your kids talk about him, please convince them he’s not real. It’s not too late for them, as long as you can convince them.

My only hope now is to drink myself to oblivion, sleep it off, try to convince myself when I wake up that it was all a fever dream… that Kayla never contacted me (I already deleted all her messages), and that none of this happened. I just have to make myself believe it didn’t happen…

Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, play a game!
Patchwork Man, Patchwork Man, in the frame!
Patchwork Man, I see you! Looking for some skins to steal!
Patchwork Man, can’t take mine! You know why? Cause you’re NOT REAL!

Credit: Quincy Lee

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