Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
I’ve just awoke to see a cheap, Halloween-leftover, glow-in-the-dark cardboard skeleton pinned to my closet door. And no, this isn’t yet another creepy story where someone or something has been hiding inside to emerge in the night. I hope. All I can see in the darkness of my room is the faint, pale green glow of those old yellowing bones. But I am afraid that if I reach over to switch on my bedside lamp, I will also see my old friend David. Or whatever is left of him.
David was the strangest kid at my old school; in fact, he was the strangest person I ever knew. Nobody else ever really liked him; even my mom, who is usually the nicest of people, never seemed to call him by his name, always referring to him as “that boy”. When I’d arrive home late for a meal, or covered in mud with my shoes scuffed and clothes torn, she would say “have you been hanging out with that boy again?” or “Haven’t I always warned you to steer clear of that funny boy?” He seemed to have a stink which followed him around, and although I never once saw him throw a punch or break anyone’s stuff, people who crossed him would often end up hurt or in some kind of trouble. The other kids taunted him pretty badly, mainly as he was always very scrawny, all skin and bone; but he never once got beaten up, as they were all a little afraid of him.
He lived a minute’s walk from me, and we became friends despite his strange ways. I guess he must have latched onto me because I was always a patient and easy-going kid, and more prepared than most to humor his many outrageous claims. He had thwarted armed robbers in the local bank and tackled deadly invaders in his home. He was the world body-popping champion and lethal in most forms of martial arts. His lies were always way over the top, and even as a young kid I found this to be fascinating; I mean, why not try to impress me by telling me things that were at least vaguely plausible?
His own mom barely spoke to him, and never took him out to do anything fun. He told me that his dad had died in a brutal motorcycle crash; this was one of his two favorite topics of conversation, more like an obsession. The details of the incident changed every time he described it, but always involved a very specific way his dad had lost his life. Some criminals, drug dealers or a rival gang or something, were chasing him down the highway one night, and they forced him into a trap where they had stretched steel wire across the road to snare his bike. He had been travelling at such high speed that the friction formed when he was flung over his handlebars and scraped along the road caused him to be “de-gloved.” I remember having to ask David exactly what this meant, which I quickly regretted. It is when the body’s skin is torn clean off leaving bare bone exposed. David told me that at the funeral there was just a skeleton lying inside the coffin, only recognizable by his dad’s distinctive leather biker jacket and Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Obviously, that was another lie; there is no way there could have been an open coffin. But boy, I believed him at the time. Now THERE is an image which can stick in a kid’s mind…
In David’s garage there was a pretty ancient motorcycle, maybe dating from the 1950’s, so I always assumed the tale was true to some degree. David was forever trying to “fix up” the bike, which mainly involved him covering every inch of it in ridiculous stickers showing glittery bald eagles wearing aviator shades, and skeleton soldiers in army jackets, with slogans like “Death before Dishonor.” He sometimes said when applying these decals that one day he was going to hunt down the guys who killed his father and make them all die in the same way his dad did. David rarely told the truth about anything, but his lies reached new peaks when it came to his father, with outrageous tales of his life and death growing wilder every time I heard them, evolving into an elaborate tale of his role as a secret agent working for both British intelligence AND the CIA, going undercover on a mission to save the world from neo-Nazi gangsters who’d stolen a death-ray, or some similar crap.
I guess I felt some sort of kinship on this topic though, since I barely remembered my own dad, and could never get my mum to talk about him. David would say we were like brothers, and though he seemed needier than me, I suppose I enjoyed feeling so wanted and appreciated. At least at first.
David’s other obsession was with skeletons. These things were everywhere in his bedroom. Plastic model kits, tiny Dungeons & Dragons figurines, even one of those life-size anatomy statues that you see in doctor’s offices in old black and white movies; he had quite a collection. He loved old woodcut images from the middle ages showing skeletons representing famine or death or mortality. Those pictures always gave me the creeps, but David’s room was covered in these, usually stolen from library books about medieval times. He would endlessly try to copy these images, and pin them all over his bedroom walls, but he wasn’t much of an artist, and they always ended up somehow looking even creepier than before.
His favorite skeleton was the cardboard one I can see in front of me, though it’s no more than a tacky piece of tat, maybe three feet tall with a cheeky smirk on it’s face, and limbs you could twist into position to kind of make it do a little dance. This always used to be pinned onto his wardrobe, surrounded by his many strange sketches. He told me that the guys who had killed his dad had given it to him on the night he’d died. He awoke to find it pinned there, grinning down at him, and this had seemingly fueled his fantasies that his father’s death had been no accident. It was a message, David told me. A warning, perhaps. I asked him why he kept it around and he said it was so he would never ever forget that everyone alive had a cruel fate that was coming to them.
He would often glowingly describe a recurring dream, in which he awoke in the middle of the night, in a room with only one door, blocked by a grinning, living skeleton who left him with only one option for survival. David had to take the razor-sharp scalpel from atop the dresser next to his bed, a gift from the madman; and make drastic use of it in order to squeeze through the only other exit, which was a tiny window, barely a foot across, to emerge on the other side born again completely free of fear.
I tried to see a positive in his obsession with human bones, and sometimes suggested that he should study to become a surgeon when he grew up, but his response was usually something along the lines of “I want to help those in need, not hurt them! Surgeons waste their time sewing up skin and wrapping wounds in bandages. Why would I leave people to suffer inside their skin?”
This was a recurring theme with David. He had this insane idea that living things would be somehow better-off if we shed our own skin, and he would complain about how hot he felt, trapped inside a stifling cage of flesh. Like I said, he was a weird kid. He boasted of secret experiments; I will spare you the details but basically he claimed to be loosening his own face so it could be peeled away to show his true self underneath. You are probably wondering why I didn’t run a mile from this creep; eventually I did begin to distance myself. I am a nice guy, but I like to think I’m not stupid. I started to make excuses whenever he invited me over to his house, and I made a point of not sitting near him in classes, though I couldn’t avoid him completely. He always found me in the cafeteria and did a great job of putting me off my lunch with his gross ideas.
My mom and I moved away from that town when I was ten years old, without much notice, and in all honesty I felt a huge sense of relief to be leaving David behind. There had been two incidents, not long before we left, which really cemented the belief in my mind that this guy was maybe more than just a little odd; that maybe he was potentially dangerous. He invited me to a sleepover at his house, telling me this would be a great opportunity to take some measurements and start me on my first steps to shedding my “hot, heavy flesh”, as he put it. He said this in a completely cheerful, friendly way, as if he was proposing a perfectly normal sleepover activity. Of course, I made up some excuse about my mom not allowing me to sleep at his place, which was probably actually true.
Although I was started to become a little disturbed by David’s ideas, I still wrote it all off as B.S., figuring he was just a little upset and desperate by my efforts to avoid his company; maybe in some messed-up way he was trying to intrigue me into remaining his friend. But the second incident forced me to accept that this guy wasn’t just playing around.
Late one night a few days before we moved away, I awoke from a terrible nightmare about David, and screamed the house down when I saw that distinctive glow-in-the-dark skeleton smiling up at me from just a few feet away, taped to my bedroom cupboard. We lived in a bungalow, and I always used to leave my bedroom window open at night, figuring it was too small for anyone to enter, but I guess David must have managed it. He was still a very skinny kid by then, though even for him it must have been a very tight fit. My mom rushed in, but I didn’t tell her why I was so frightened, figuring I might get into trouble for allowing David to sneak into our home while we slept. I stopped leaving my window open at night after that. In fact it became my number one rule in life.
I returned the skeleton the next morning, more than a little angry, but by that point I was so afraid of the guy that instead of telling him what a cruel trick he had played on me, I just pretended that I enjoyed the joke, and asked him why he did it. He acted all surprised, swearing that he had never entered my room that night, but I didn’t argue. I just made my excuses and left. As I walked off down the street, intending never to return, I noticed David watching me from his bedroom window, with a strange look on his face that I didn’t like. He looked drained, and listless. And maybe a little… scared?
So we left for a new house in the next town over, and I attended a different high school to David; in fact I never even laid eyes on him again. I don’t even know what he looks like nowadays. A couple of years later I found out from someone who had know some of David’s relatives that his dad didn’t die in a motorbike crash; in fact, he didn’t die at all, but had left home, simply because he didn’t like David’s mother, or David. Which made me wonder where the hell this kid picked up his obsession with people losing their skin?
We didn’t move all that far away though, just a few miles, and even though I never bumped into him myself, my mom would sometimes tell me that she’d see him lurking around the streets, and he would always ask her how I was doing. Again, she would always refer to him as “that boy”, and she would say that she wished we had left him behind when we left our old home. It always struck me as very strange how uneasy he seemed to make her feel; after all, he was just a skinny little kid who would stand no chance in any sort of fight. I started to suspect that maybe my mom knew things about David which she kept under her hat. I did hear stories from friends who still lived back in the old neighborhood that a few pets had gone missing and then been found in a very grisly state, but nobody would ever tell me all the details, just that David had was suspected of being involved. And there was an incident where David had been accused of pulling a knife of some kind on a school bully, and threatening to cut him down to size, but there was no real evidence, though David was pressured into finding a new school anyway.
Eventually he began to fade from my mind, as I rationalized him as just another weird kid who told people stupid stories to get attention or have some sort of impact on their lives. I used to sometimes have troubling dreams about skeletons marching down the streets and sort of recruiting people for their flesh-less army, but everyone has nightmares sometimes, don’t they? I honestly thought that David would grow up to surprise everyone and become some world-famous doctor, or maybe a plastic surgeon working in Beverly Hills. But then when I was about fourteen, I found a certain Halloween decoration taped to my locker at school and I had a nervous breakdown.
I spent about eight weeks in the psychiatric ward of my local hospital, where I was happier than I had been in a long time. I guess this was down to the dependable daily routines in there; the stability. And the safety. My mom visited nearly every day, and though I was never a very popular kid, I was lucky enough to have made three or four good friends who also often came to see me, usually on weekends. They made jokes about me being in the funny farm and receiving shock treatment, which sounds mean but I knew that they were nice guys, and we all had a pretty stupid and tasteless sense of humor; if our roles had been reversed I would have been making the same snide wisecracks. We used to explore the ward, even though visitors weren’t supposed to, and my mates would try to fool the other patients into thinking that they were not visitors but consultant psychiatrists, which obviously never worked.
There was a girl in my ward named Susan who was a couple of years older than me, with a real anger management problem. She was everything I was not: smart, witty, tough and rebellious. I guess she was my first real crush, and she was always nice to me even though I was a total geek. One day, about a week before I left for home, she told me that during a cigarette break outside the building, she had met a strange, skinny kid with very pale skin and all of his facial hair shaved clean off, who had been asking odd questions about me. He wouldn’t tell her his name, and she told him to get lost pretty quickly, but though she acted cool as ever when she told me about this, I could tell that he had gotten under her skin and totally freaked her out. He was asking if I was expected to make a recovery or if I had totally lost my mind forever. Susan told me that he sounded deadly serious when he asked this, and seemed desperate for an answer. She threatened him with violence if he ever hassled her again, and threw her cigarette away and headed back inside, but he followed her and kept asking weird things about whether I was cutting myself, or if I was morbidly obsessed with my mortality. The last thing he shouted after her as she hurried away down the corridor back to the ward was an offer to smuggle inside a razor sharp scalpel for me, if I needed it.
I played down the incident to Susan and evaded her questions, which soured things pretty badly between us, but my philosophy regarding David was that he was my problem and nobody else’s. I alone had befriended him, and I guess I had humored him when I should have shown him some tough love. And then I had run away and left him all alone. I guess I carried around a little guilt about the way I had handled our friendship. I had made my own bed and had to lie in it. I couldn’t live with the idea that my mistakes could taint anyone else. Any innocent parties.
Now, of course, I view the situation very differently. I was his victim. He was playing me like a violin. Or like a skeleton playing the Spanish guitar in one of those Mexican Day of the Dead cartoons. I was dancing to his tune. But back then I couldn’t see the woods for the trees.
I never told my mom exactly what had happened with the skeleton on my locker and the friendly hospital visit, but she wasn’t stupid and knew that David was circling me like a shark. So even though it hit her bank balance pretty hard and we never had it easy afterwards, as soon as I was discharged from the hospital she quit her job and we moved again, halfway across the country this time, and we made damn sure we told as few people as possible where we were headed. I literally never saw any of my old friends again.
I heard Susan disappeared about a year later. There was a police search but no trace of her was ever found. That is all I know. She had a real rebellious streak, and I told myself that she must have gotten bored with her life and run off to start a new one. Whatever gets you through the night, right?
The fresh start in a new town did me the world of good, and against all odds I managed to catch up at high school, attend the local college and eventually land myself a pretty decent office job with the city council, providing social services for local disabled people. I was based in a huge 1960’s building with maybe three hundred staff. One of whom was David.
No-one else who worked for the council ever seemed to meet him. He worked in human resources, in a tiny, cramped basement office. But he was never around. His whole department never seemed to have anyone around; there had been some pretty severe budget cuts after the financial crash in 2008, and I guess that had left just a skeleton staff. I don’t know how he tracked me down. He must have been very determined, as my mom had changed both of our names.
I didn’t realize he worked there at first. I heard references to some new guy downstairs named David, but let’s face it, it’s a very common name. And like I said, nobody ever seemed to see him around the premises. But after a few weeks, I saw his full name on a round-robin internal e-mail, and I felt like I had been gutted like a fish. The e-mail was discussing an upcoming office Halloween party. It seemed that David had volunteered to bring in his own decorations and make the place “exquisitely creepy”. I walked right out of that building, went back to my little flat and started packing my belongings. I never even told them that I’d quit. I remembered someone from the office describing a very thin and odd-looking man in an elevator a couple of days earlier, who wore so many clothes you could barely see an inch of his skin, even wearing a hat and gloves though the weather was warm for October. A woolen scarf obscured his mouth and nose, and tinted glasses hid his eyes, but she said that she was sure his skin was the color of porcelain.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that he found work in human resources. There, he could quickly learn everything about me. Everything he needed. I left town that same afternoon, withdrew my savings and closed my bank account. Threw away my phone. Bought a bus ticket to a city I’ve never visited before and rented a cheap room. This room. And laid low. Luckily my mom had taught me to always have enough cash so that I could go on the run. I could always live very frugally anyway. I never ate much, and avoided social situations. I had developed a terror of telling people about myself. About my old life. I’ve barely left this room in months.
Today I read a story in the newspaper about a truly horrific motorcycle crash, which took place not far from where I grew up. The man involved had been middle-aged. I recognized his surname. The details were sketchy, just something about him being rushed to hospital after riding straight into a steel wire placed across the quiet country road which he drove down each day. He was speeding when he hit the wire. I guess he must have been flung head first along the asphalt. In that situation, there isn’t much a leather jacket and pants can do to save your skin. I stared at the small photograph of his face for a very long time. He seemed vaguely familiar from somewhere. The police are appealing for information on the incident. I could contact them, I thought. But maybe tomorrow morning. First I needed to lie down and close my eyes. I didn’t want to think about anything at all. Thinking is bad. I wanted to drain my head of everything. And I felt warm. Very warm. Constricted in my skin. I wanted to take off my heavy overcoat of flesh and let my bones cool off. I slept more deeply than I had in months, perhaps years, as if there was a huge weight stripped off my shoulders.
Now I lie here wide awake in my bed and stare at that skeleton. Its glow has faded from age. The time is 3AM; Soon the dim light of a new day will aid my eyesight, forcing me to confront the presence in my room. The presence In my head, in my life. I have learnt now, learnt at last that this thing has always been there. If I run it will follow me, and I have nowhere left to hide. There is a cool breeze from my open bedroom window. I guess I have let my old rule about never leaving windows open lapse. I figured that I should have been safe, as that window is tiny, maybe eight inches by six. Nobody could have fit through in one piece. But my bedroom door is bolted from the inside, and there is no other way in. David must have squeezed through. Or what is left of him.
I bet if I reach up for my bedside lamp, I’ll find a scalpel there, too.
Credit: Hack Shuck