Quiet Night

I have just returned from a three week holiday, so forgive me if the writing here is a little rusty. It’s been a while, I know, so I decided to start the year with a nice, fat story. After reading ‘the eyes of the dragon’ by Stephen King, I was inspired to write something that concerned itself with absolutely nothing but story. This happened, then this, then this, and that’s how it was. I was pretty entertained writing it, so I think it worked out. Is it just me, or is skin just the creepiest organ ever? Enjoy!

Quiet Night

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

Gabe Yeats squinted ahead on the narrow road and saw another figure walking the opposite direction. Where that poor soul hoped to go he had no idea, because all that lay behind Gabe was a hundred miles of empty road lined by countless acres of forest. Maybe he wasn’t alone, but the other man might have been a hallucination for all the difference it made. There was hope yet – judging by the size of that silhouette, he probably had some food on him.

‘Hey man!’ the fat guy called out when they were within earshot. ‘How you doin? No luck, huh?’

Gabe only shook his head. When they were close enough, he extended his hand and the guy shook it.

‘Gabe.’

‘Russel. Just call me Russ. You come far?’

The guy was big alright, but he was more of a Grizzly than a teddy, Gabe thought. Probably done his fair share of logging or fishing or whatever up north. He even had the shaggy beard to match, though it was mostly white with snow. He looked worried.

‘Yeah, too far,’ Gabe said, wiping his nose. ‘Just looking for shelter. You haven’t seen anything, have you?’

For a moment a look crossed the man’s coarse face that wasn’t quite fear, but in the territory. It was the look someone with claustrophobia might give you just before they declined your invite to go spelunking.

‘Sure, I saw a place, but I figured it was abandoned. Wouldn’t recommend it, man, basically a birds nest. There’s gotta be something better your way, right? Filling station or something?’

Gabe shook his head. ‘Not for thirty, forty miles. You wanna try that, be my guest, but I got a feeling our only shot’s this nest of yours.’

‘Or the road.’

‘That’s no option, man. I haven’t seen a car for two hours and sundown’s in about ten minutes.’

‘Shit.’ He pulled up his backpack and looked around, as if for help.

‘Hey listen,’ Gabe said. ‘If this place of yours is really abandoned, maybe we could tear down a room or two for firewood, right?’ He slapped him on the shoulder and then moved around and headed on, feeling dismal.

‘Might not be abandoned,’ Russ called after him. ‘Might be some tight ass lives there.’

‘Might be I’m willing to take an ass full of pellets to sit by a warm fire for one night. Good luck, man.’

It was the good luck that did it, or maybe the cheerful way Gabe said it. A moment later the big guy was walking by his side. It was never good to be alone on a night like this, Gabe thought. And maybe the guy had some liquor.

Gabe saw the house first, but he wouldn’t have known it for what it was but for the flicker of light in one of the windows. It was way off the road, and it was made so rickety and twisted that it blended perfectly with the woods.

‘Looks like you’re right,’ Gabe said, pointing. ‘It’s not abandoned. Or else a couple of other hobos got there first. They won’t mind sharing a little warmth, though.’

Russ grumbled something, but when Gabe left the road he still followed several steps behind. Once or twice he glanced over his shoulder, as if hoping a friendly car would show up at the last minute.

They were less than a hundred meters away when Gabe was first struck with a sense of unease, and after that it deepened with every step. The house, if you could call it that, was three stories tall including the wonky attic, and only that top window shone with light. It was flickering, which made him think first of a fire, but as he grew closer he saw that there were figures moving within.

His unease deepened when he stopped in front of the front door and heard faint music drifting down to him from the small window. It was weird and distorted by the wind, but from what he could make out it sounded almost Celtic. He glanced over at Russ and saw the big man raise his frosted eyebrows at him. Shotgun, he mouthed.

Gabe forced a smile and knocked, three times. The music stopped and the light in the attic went off, though neither of the men noticed these things at the time because they were standing close to the door now and listening for a noise within. None came.

‘Is it unlocked?’ Russ said.

Gabe tried to door and it swung open to reveal and empty wooden hallway with doors on either side and an arch at the end. Beyond that they couldn’t see for the darkness. The first door on the right was open, and through it Gabe caught sight of a fireplace. It was all he needed.

‘Come on, it’s fine,’ he said, stepping inside. ‘Probably a couple squatters upstairs is all.’

‘Yeah well.’ Russ followed him inside and closed the door, shutting out the biting wind and breathing a sigh of relief.

There were two windows in the room with the fireplace. One looked out into dense forest and so was black, but though the curtains were drawn on the other thin moonlight shone through moth eaten holes and it was this that Gabe used to navigate. He made out a rotten old couch, which wasn’t much good, but there was a wooden table and chairs in the adjoining room. He took one of them to the fireplace and then stepped on the legs one by one, snapping them. Russ seemed to cringe with every sound, but he helped willingly enough and four chairs later there was about enough wood to last them the night.

‘Alright genius, you got any matches now?’

Gabe grinned in the dark and pulled a box of redheads from his pocket. He’d had a few years of experience on the roads, and if he’d learned anything it was that matches were always useful.

When they had a nice fire crackling he went to sit on the couch and then stood up a moment later when it made a sound like a rusty hinge and something moved inside it. They contented themselves cross legged in front of the fireplace, and pretty soon they had their boots off and their whiskey out and were exchanging travel stories.

Russ had come recently from Toronto, but he’d been wandering just about all over the North of the world. ‘Can’t much stand any kind of heat,’ he explained. ‘I’d be happy in the Arctic, but anywhere too hot to snow I tend to sweat like a whore in church. Nah, give me a good day’s work in the frost, a fire at night and a bottle of whiskey to keep me warm.’

He did most of the talking, and Gabe heard a lot about the fights he’d been in and his two ex-wives, and how he was only going south for a little while to spend some money. Meet him in a bar, Gabe thought, and he’d be loud and drunk and fearless, but out here in the lonely cold he was whispering and huddling by the fire and sometimes staring nervously at the dark hallway behind them.

Gabe told him how he’d quit his job as a cop and come north from Detroit.

‘What for?’ Russ asked, and immediately seemed on guard the way most people did when he said he was the law.

‘Just too much. I mean, after seeing all that. All the shit people do to each other, you know…’

He looked into the fire and took a swig from his whiskey.

‘I’m sick of people. I just wanted some isolation, a little quiet.’

As if to oblige him, Russ fell silent and they remained that way for some time.

‘Who you think is upstairs?’ Gabe said after a while.

Russ shrugged. ‘You think they have food?’

‘Maybe. But if I had food on a night like this I wouldn’t be looking to share it.’

‘Yeah,’ Russ said, then he did a double take. ‘You don’t have any, do you?’

‘Nope. Last I ate was a petrol station this morning.’

‘Where d’you think that music was coming from?’

Gabe shook his head. He swivelled so his back was warmed by the fire and he could look into the dark hallway. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Gotta be honest, this place is creeping me out some.’

Russ shrugged. ‘You scared? I guess I can understand. Kinda weird place. Been in some real shady places myself.’ He chuckled. ‘This one time, damn! I was in a place fit to make your skin crawl. Slimy hole these bastards tried to call an inn, bugs creeping on you while you’re asleep, then they tried to slit my throat in the night and take all my shit.’

‘Oh yeah? What you do?’

He winked in the firelight and tapped his right arm. At first, Gabe didn’t get it, but then he tossed his flask to the other hand, flicked his wrist and a hunting knife magically appeared in his palm.

Gabe raised his eyebrows and the other man laughed. ‘Nah, not like that. Just scared ‘em off is all. Point is, no need to be worried. I guess it’s like those matches you carry around with you all the time. You found them useful, well same for my blade.’ He slid it back into his sleeve just as quickly and took another swig.

‘You want to take a chair leg?’ Gabe asked.

‘Huh?’

‘For light? To check if those guys up there got food or anything.’

‘Oh, yeah. Maybe they own the place, though. Might kick us out?’

‘This place? The one with rotten furniture and all the chairs we just broke that they didn’t seem to care about? Living in the attic?’

He chuckled. ‘You got a point.’

‘Yeah. Here,’ he took a burning leg from the fire and handed it to the big man, who took it in his free hand and put his flask down. ‘In case they want some,’ he explained, but Gabe noticed it left his knife hand free.

‘Just call back if you need me,’ Gabe said as Russ stood up to go.

‘Sure. Probably just a couple hoboes.’

Gabe watched the light flickering fainter and fainter in the hallway, and then it disappeared altogether as he heard the creak of heavy footsteps on the stairs. Then there was nothing but fire and the whiskey and the smell of burning pine.

Gabe waited for the sounds of voices upstairs, either mean spirited or relieved. It occurred to him then that the music had completely stopped. Something was nagging at him, but he wasn’t sure what, so he stood up and went over to the moth eaten curtains. Through the cracked glass he saw drifts of snow and scattered trees. The tiny square of yellow light that should have shone down from the upper window, however, was absent.

He was worried, and he couldn’t help but think of Russ’s story. He knew it was probably nothing more than a story, but that didn’t mean things like that didn’t happen. Place like this, you could hold up and just wait for people to come by. Kill them in the night, take their stuff, bury them in the back. Slim pickings, but he knew first hand that once you spent long enough on the road there was  really no such thing as slim pickings. Some folks would kill for a pair of shoes.

He turned from the window and stared through the dark archway that opened on the hall, his stomach clenching and unclenching as he tried to calm himself down. Everything was so quiet. Russ had plenty of time to get up to the attic by now, but he’d heard nothing. He supposed it was possible the big man’s light had gone out, but then why didn’t he call out?

Gabe watched the hallway, but everything was quiet. He mustered his courage and then called out, loud enough for anyone and everyone in the house to hear him.

‘Russ! Where you at, man?’ His voice sounded unworried, cheerful even. The house ate it up and sent him back not so much as an echo. His heart beat a little faster in his chest.

He waited another minute and then ducked out of the archway, pulled open the front door, and went outside. He hurried away from the place and only slowed when he was halfway back to the road. He turned and looked back, then, but the house was dark and still aside from the dim light in the front room. From the road it would be invisible, and so would he. Not that it mattered, because he had a feeling that maybe two cars would come down the road in the next eight hours, and neither was likely to slow down for anything.

He was shivering already, and his face was going numb. How had the wind gotten so much worse in such a short space of time? He stayed where he was for a minute longer, cursing himself for being a coward and at the world in general, and then went back inside after another longing glance at the road.

He went straight to huddle by the fire, but kept his back to it so he could watch the rest of the house at the same time. Shadows grew and shrunk and moved up and down the walls like ocean tides, and each one seemed to hide something sinister.

He heard it before he saw it, and the sound of it froze him in place and rose the hairs on his neck. It sounded like a snake slithering over the wood, or sandpaper on cold steel. It was coming from the dining room from which they’d taken the chairs, but as he listened he was sure that whatever it was came into the far corner just behind the rotted couch.

For a minute there was nothing more, but a horrid stench came to him of alcohol – maybe whiskey – but concentrated a hundred times over. And beneath that was something sickly that he didn’t dare guess at.

‘W… Who are you? I got nothing on me, okay? I got nothing,’ he said in a voice so harsh with a fear it was a whisper. It stepped out into the light.

He might have done anything to escape this new horror, then, but his mind was paralysed with terror and his whole body was clenched tight. If it had approached, he might have gone mad with fear, maybe jumped out of a window, but it didn’t. If anything it seemed to shrink away from his gaze.

It was made of skin – no, it was a skin, he thought. It had boneless legs and feet that dragged a little on the floor, making that horrible sound, and its arms drifted in the air like the sleeves of an empty jacket, parts of which looked as though they’d been cut and stitched back together. Whatever remained of the face hung over backwards like a hood. Here and there, streams of black blood showed in the light, pouring from small holes and cuts in the skin, which had the look of shrivelled bark.

It was thirty seconds or so before Gabe began to feel faint and forced himself to suck in two deep breaths. The skin did not react.

He stood up slowly, unclenching his fists to reveal half moon cuts where his fingernails had dug in. He dared to blink a few times, but didn’t move his eyes from the bizarre thing.

‘What are you?’ he said, and was surprised to hear that his voice sounded almost normal.

It raised a hand like a glove and waved it at him in the universal sign language: follow me, it said. Without waiting for a response, it slithered over the wood behind the couch and out into the hallway. As it brushed by his feet he took a step back and almost landed in the fire.

It had to be a trick, he thought, staring at the empty archway. Or else he was going insane. He turned to the fire and picked up the longest chair leg he could find from the flames. Breathing hard, he finished the last of his whiskey and felt the warmth shudder through him. Then he stepped out into the hall.

It was waiting for him in the room at the end of the hallway, which was a kitchen judging by the rusted basins on one side. As he approached, it dropped to the floor again and began to slide up the stairs in that eerie boneless way. He followed, but kept his distance, all the while his eyes darting left to right and trying to pierce the darkness in every corner. Where he could he shone his torch, but after he lit on a spider the size of his hand pulling a struggling mouse into its embrace, he decided to stop.

The stairs led onto landing made of rotten floorboards and absent of furniture. As he reached the top stair, he turned in place, wildly trying to see every part of the floor. One hallway leading off to his right held a bookcase and books that were more dust than paper. It ended in a short flight of wooden stairs to a trapdoor, which must lead to the attic.

But the skin boy did not go that way. Instead it beckoned Gabe and slid through the crack beneath a rotted door on the left. When he tried the knob, it was unlocked, and he stepped into the dark room beyond with an unpleasant prickling feeling on his back.

It was the boy’s bedroom, he realised. A tattered bed on one side, a bare wooden desk on the other, and a wardrobe – but not much else besides cobwebs. Why had it led him here? The skin boy curled its fingers around the knob of the top desk drawer and wrenched. There were four old candles inside and Gabe didn’t need any instruction – he placed them around the desk and one on the windowsill and lit them all with the steadily diminishing flame of the chair leg.

The skin boy brushed his hand against the bottom drawer and then floated back a few paces, expectantly. Gabe opened it and found stacks upon stacks of brittle paper. When he spread them out over the desk he saw that most were pictures done crudely in pastel and others were written on in large childish letters.

When Gabe tried to read these, the skin boy swept forward and brushed them almost angrily away. He stepped back, hands up in surrender. ‘Alright, okay. What you want me to look at?’ The skin boy only drifted back to the bed, but Gabe found what he wanted soon enough. With the top of the stack brushed away, he realised that the pictures underneath were growing more and more detailed; the writing more wild and unreadable.

‘I can’t… I don’t understand.’

The skin boy rushed in impatiently and pushed more pages from the desk, until only those at the bottom of the stack remained. These had the most skilfully drawn – if terrifying – pictures and writing that looked as if the person that wrote them had… No bones, he thought with a start.

Instead of retreating, the skin boy flapped his arms at Gabe urgently, telling him to read. These pages were set out neater. Each one had a detailed pastel picture, with a small white space at the bottom, where the boy had scrawled a caption for each in light spider web characters.

The first showed a happy family standing in front of a majestic house – clearly the one they were in now, only a few decades younger. There was a young boy, his father, and a mother who was holding a baby in her arms and smiling. The caption simply read: My name is Matthew. This is my family Alive.

The next picture was of the same family standing in the snow by a tiny grave. The caption read: Littel bruther was sick and dide. Gabe felt chills go down his arm as he put it aside and picked up the next one. I grew sick too and Mother was sad. She put me down and then merderd herself and Father.

He looked away from the grisly image and then caught sight of the other pages. Many of them were cruder depictions of the same scene, the murder drawn over and over again, as though he were practicing to get it just right.

Mother felt more sad then and felt bad. She hid our bodies down in the basement so we wouldn’t know, and she gave us our skins to wear to keep our bodies. The Mother was drawn with tears streaming down her ghostly face as she hid the three corpses. A knife gleamed on a table nearby. All the better to skin you with, my dears, thought Gabe, and immediately wanted to retch.

She found the sole and skin of Timothy too and told him he was alive also. We were all confused and none cud remember dyeing. Mother always found more skins for her and Father, but Timothy and I kept our own, and now we sleep every night in barrls of Father’s whiskey to stay clean. Gabe grimaced at the picture. She was preserving them, of course – waiting for her chance to get a fresh boy and baby skin. Or maybe she’d get one a few sizes too big and let them grow into it.

The next was a picture of a young boys face, horribly contorted in terror and lacking eyeballs. It looked to Gabe like a psychotic rendering of The Scream.

I found the bodys and new the truth, the caption said. But I cud not go for my Father and Timothy did not no and wud not lissen. Mother keeps Father in the attic so he won’t go exploring, and Timothy only sleeps most times or cry’s.

   The last picture was of the deflated skins of the family and their souls fleeing into the sky, where a bright sun shone. You must help me, stranger. I can’t alone. Show them their bodys and they will no the truth and sleep again. My Mother has taken too many skins, and I don’t want to wear another’s, but only to go to heven. Plees help me.

 Gabe let it fall to the desk and stood for a moment, staring down at all those scenes, eerie and gruesome in the candle light. Then he turned to see the Skin boy, Matthew, still waiting. He heard the music playing in the attic, but he couldn’t recall when it had started up again. My Mother has taken too many skins. Those words were what got to him more than anything else in the end. How many? He wondered. A place like this couldn’t have many visitors, but they’d been here a long time. How many other travellers like he and Russ had come past looking for sanctuary? Ten? Twenty?

He closed his eyes and rubbed them, trying to get rid of the whiskey haze that lay thick over his mind. He’d heard it said that fear had a sobering effect, but it wasn’t true. You might feel crystal clear awareness, but that didn’t stop you slurring your words and stumbling now and then. Plees help me.

He drew a shaking breath and opened his eyes to see Matthew still floating by the bed, highlighted only by the moon; his chair leg had only smouldering red embers now.

‘Where’s the basement?’ he asked.

Before the words were all the way out his mouth Matthew dropped to the floor and slid from the room. He followed, still holding the chair leg as a weapon – though what it could possibly do to such things as the skin people he didn’t know. As they went through the landing, Gabe glanced down the hallway and saw that the light in the attic was back on, and shadows flicked here and there across the cracks of light.

Wincing at every creaking floorboard, Gabe followed the sound of skin down the stairs to the ground floor. The fire was still burning low, so he took another chair leg and then followed Matthew into the kitchen, where he found the skin boy waiting outside an old wooden door.

He pushed it open and saw stone steps leading into darkness, so dense that even the firelight only penetrated a few feet of it. He went down the first two steps and then looked back. Matthew wasn’t following him.

‘Come on, what’re you waiting for? I can’t go alone.’

But the boy stayed where he was and mimed something that looked to Gabe like shivering.

‘Great. The dead boy is afraid of the dark and here I am.’

His knees felt weak. He didn’t like the smell that was coming from below, something like old sweat and blood. He was ice cold, but the air drifting up to him was warm. He glanced back at the skin boy and raised his eyebrows. Plees help me. He started down the stairs.

He held the chair leg in front of him, for all the good it did, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. The last thing he wanted to do was trip and roll on to the bottom. Wouldn’t want to wake the baby, he thought.

After what felt like an hour he reached the bottom and breathed out slowly. But the air caught in his throat as he heard a sharp slurping shuffling sound from the other side of the room. His eyes were wide open now, his pupils dilated, but he couldn’t see far enough into the room – the flames on his makeshift torch were shrinking by the minute.

He took three cautious steps into the room before he caught sight of a huddling form in the far corner. There was something else as well, two large round shadows. The slurping stopped and then the shadow slumped back against the side of the wall and began to cry.

‘Russel?’

The reaction was instantaneous and shocking. The big man leapt to his feet and grabbed a slender piece of wood from the floor. He held it in front of him and quailed against the wall, breathing so hard he was wheezing. ‘Whathefuck? Who is it? I’ll kill you bastards I will so help me god. Jesus Christ save me I’ll kill you.’

‘Russel! It’s me, calm down, man. Jesus, what happened to you?’

As he came forward and lit up the big man’s face, it was hard to believe it was even the same person. His face was covered in a mixture of sweat and something smelling like pure ethanol. His eyes were wild and unfocussed and he was covered in grime, though there was also some dark blood drying from a wound on his forehead. When he saw that it was Gabe, he slid down into a sitting position and began to shudder as though he was sobbing, though no tears came from his eyes.

‘Oh, Jesus, Gabe. Christ. I thought they’d got you, man.’

‘What? No, they’re still in the attic. What the hell happened to you? I thought they got you, too. Didn’t you hear me calling?

He shook his head. ‘Couldn’t answer. Too scared. Figured you were a goner.’

Gabe squatted and handed his torch to the other man, though it made him cringe to do it.

‘Thanks. So you saw ‘em too, huh?’

‘Yeah. What happened to you?’

‘I opened the attic door. Just so I could take a look and see who was up there before I went up. I… I mean I thought I was going crazy. First I thought, Russ my man, you had too much whiskey. And then I realised it was for real, you know, these human skins, just dancing around and flopping and sliding everywhere. It made me sick. Then one of them turned around and I saw its face and it looked at me.

‘I just ran blind through the house. So scared I couldn’t even scream, and then I saw another one in the kitchen, blocking the hallway, looking toward the light where you were. I just went through the nearest door, fell down the stairs. Found a barrel of this stuff, though. Strong stuff, man. Shit, I really thought you were dead.’ He took a long, deep breath and the smell made Gabe want to retch again.

‘You don’t want to drink that, man.’

‘What? Oh, keep my head clear and shit, huh?’

‘Yeah, sure.’

‘So what happened to you?’

Gabe told him, and by the time he was done the torch had guttered to nothing but a red glow and Russ’s mouth was gaping open. When Gabe got to the part about the skin boy and his baby brother sleeping in the barrels, he stood up and went to the opposite corner, where he vomited his stomach empty. He came back looking pale and sick, and Gabe didn’t blame him one bit.

‘Where is he now?’ Russ said.

‘Waiting in the kitchen. I think he didn’t want to come down because he knew you’d be scared. He must have seen you running.’

‘Yeah. Look man, screw this, let’s just get the fuck outta here. Wait till morning and break out.’

Gabe stared at him, and was disgusted to find he was tempted. Very tempted. Even the thought of waiting out a cold night in the ice was better than this evil place.

‘What makes you think they’ll let us leave?’ he asked instead. ‘They must know we’re around. They probably got the exits blocked, just hanging around waiting for us to try something, or come to them.’

Russ swore. ‘Okay, what if we tip the barrels, set fire to the place? Yes! We burn ‘em, they’ll die. That’s what they want, isn’t it? That’s what the kid wants, why bother with all this body shit? We burn em’, they die.’

But Gabe was shaking his head slowly. ‘Don’t think that’ll cut it, man.’

‘Why not?’

‘They burn, they lose their skins. I don’t know how the mother’s taking folk’s skins but she’s got some way, and I think she can still do it whether she’s wearing one or not. We burn ‘em, she’ll get us anyway.’

‘Well what the fuck? She’s gonna take our goddam skins if we go up there! You didn’t see them, man, you don’t understand. Just cos some goddam ghost boy thinks it’ll work doesn’t mean it will. We drag these bodies up there, you know what? It’ll just piss her off. I’m not doing it. You’re the cop man, you do it. You can go be a hero and risk your own skin, I’m leaving here first chance I get.’

He was breathing harshly now, staring him down at him like he was saying, make me do it, go on, just try it. Gabe realised the big man was absolutely terrified. For all his bravado he was mad with fear. Somehow, it made Gabe himself calmer. He wasn’t running, after all.

‘I’m not a cop,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘I’m not a goddam cop. I used to sell cars, that’s all.’

Russ gaped at him. ‘Why’d you say you were?’

‘I dunno, man. I started hitchhiking up North a while back, looking for an escape, get away from the cities and work somewhere quiet. I meet a lot of people on the road, they all ask me the same questions. I just started making shit up after a while to keep it interesting. I mean who cares? Last time I was a Vietnam vet, guy gave me free beer.’

Russ started to laugh, and it had a hysterical quality that Gabe didn’t like. He was either drunk or he had a concussion from his tumble. ‘Hey, keep it down, man.’

But Russ wouldn’t stop laughing. Soon he was practically rolling on the floor, letting out a series of high pitched yuks that made Gabe want to smack him in the face.

Then they heard a small splash coming from the open barrel and Russ stopped cold. It was followed by some slapping and gurgling sound as something pulled itself out of the barrel and then slid down onto the floor.

A second later they were both running. The chair leg was forgotten, but terror gave them all the vision they needed, and though Russ fell over twice on the way they were soon in the kitchen again, cursing. Russ caught sight of Matthew waiting by the counter and opened his mouth to scream, but Gabe put a hand on his shoulder and a finger to his mouth and he choked it back.

The skin boy slid closer, trying to mime something with his boneless arms. Gabe realised what it was and stopped just short of slapping his forehead. ‘The bodies,’ he said. ‘We forgot the damn bodies.’

Russ stared at him, wide eyed. ‘You crazy, man? I’m not going back in there. Jesus, I can’t believe I was drinking that shit.’ He went green for a minute, but resisted the urge to throw up again. Both of them were remembering the sickening sound of wet skin on concrete.

‘Wait. Matthew, is your little brother… Can he hurt us?’ Gabe asked. The skin boy couldn’t quite nod or shake his head, but he raised a noodle-like finger and swayed it back and forth, no.’

‘Shit.’

Russel refused to accompany him, and so he returned to the darkness alone, without a torch. Matthew made to follow but Russ put a hand out to stop him.

‘What are you doing? What if your crazy parents come down, huh? He’s safe, I’m not.’ Gabe gritted his teeth but said nothing – he was right after all, though Gabe didn’t know what the boy could do to help if his mother did indeed come down.

Gabe navigated the stairs with painful slowness and then began to tiptoe, trailing his left hand along the wall. Somewhere in the dark he could hear the skin of the infant flopping around. Its silence was unnerving. Babies, in his experience, were never silent, as long as they were awake. Timothy only sleeps most times and cry’s. Perhaps he was crying, and only Matthew could hear him.

He followed the room around until he came to the barrels and then kept going, but though he was approaching the stairs he had yet to feel any kind of doorway or box that might hold the bodies. When he hit the stairs at last, he closed his eyes and tried to remember the picture Matthew had drawn. Where had they been? Ah, that’s right. The loose flagstone in the middle of the basement – right where Timothy was dragging around and screaming quietly.

With each step toward the middle of the room, a feeling of revulsion mingled with pity rose in him. The baby was crawling over the graves of its family. It knew or sensed something, he was sure.

He knelt close, and now he could smell Timothy. Flesh and blood, pickled in old whiskey. It wasn’t pleasant. This was a worse stench than Matthew’s, of course, because despite the cold Timothy had begun to rot before his mother dug him up.

Gabe felt around the floor for purchase and accidentally brushed over a leg as it crawled away from him. He broke out in a cold sweat, but he found the crack a moment later and lifted the heavy piece of stone.

As he was pushing it aside he felt small boneless hands run across his leg and a moment later the infant was climbing onto his back. Resisting the urge to scream, he pushed the stone over and then reached down into the black hole beneath with no thought other than he had to get out, get out NOW.

Timothy’s arms were curling around his neck as he pulled one of the corpses from the hole. They were well rotted, almost skeletons. Almost. There was still enough meat to warrant worms, still enough moisture to make the bones slippery in his fingers. He only hoped they’d stick together.

When he stood up to leave with the corpse, Timothy went mad, slapping his face and trying to bite him with a toothless mouth. Gabe was almost running for the stairs now, certain that he’d be driven insane if he stayed one more minute down here. Before he was halfway up, the infant dropped from his neck and crawled quickly back to the middle of the room to guard his family.

He laid the corpse on the counter with help from the other two, though Russ looked as sick as he felt. ‘What happened down there? You don’t look good,’ he said. Gabe only shook his head and turned away.

Two trips later the whole family was piled on top of the kitchen counter, Gabe was covered in filth, and Timothy the skin baby was crawling at his brother’s feet, if you could call them that.

‘So, what now?’ Russ said, almost as a challenge. ‘You gonna just grab them bodies and stroll up to the attic? Bet your life on the word of a dead boy?’

‘Got a better idea?’

‘Yeah, I already told you. Burn this shit down, get the fuck out, in any order. Don’t leave me alone, Gabe.

‘We get the fire from upstairs, bring it down here, light the barrels. This place’ll go up like July fourth and we’ll warm our hands on the bonfire. Be smart.’

But the eyes that Gabe fixed on were not smart, they were only afraid. Gabe imagined running out into the snow as the house collapsed in an inferno behind them – standing and laughing in the melting snow. He imagined a screaming wind flying at them from the midst of the fire, ghostly claws slicing the air. And he imagined how it would feel to be flayed by a thing that he could neither hit nor run from.

‘There’s only one way to do this,’ he said, and saw Russ’s face twist in a mixture of surprise and rage.

‘You’re gonna leave me to it, huh?’ He flicked his wrist and the huge knife appeared in his hand once again. ‘Well you can drag those goddamned corpses up yourself.’

Without another word, he pushed past Gabe and headed for the next room. He staggered slightly, put a hand on the door frame to steady himself, and then he was gone.

Matthew and Timothy could not help him carry the bodies, so they kept watch for him as he took them one by one up the stairs and into the hallway. The light in the attic was on and the music was playing. Gabe slid into a sitting position at the foot of the stairs.

The whiskey haze was mostly gone, and though he was tired there was too much adrenaline pumping through his system for him to feel it. At last, he thought he felt an inkling of what soldiers felt after a few years on the front line. The constant fear of imminent death. It weighed on you.

Gabe had only brought up the two large skeletons, and he thought that if he could kick open the trapdoor he might be able to burst in with one corpse in each hand. If what Matthew said was right, the parents would see them and go on to the next life. Easy

This close to the door, he could hear the music clearly. It was definitely Celtic: Irish women singing in soft high voices; bagpipes and flutes. Mother and Father, locked in an endless dance that screamed: we are alive! Try to tell us different!

He grabbed each corpse by the neck and stood up. He stared up at the square of bright light ten steps above his head. He felt like an actor about to step out in front of a stage of a million spectators. Actually, he thought, it felt more like playing Russian roulette with six rounds in the barrel, but it didn’t pay to think that way.

With Matthew at his heels, he sprinted up the stairs and crashed through the trapdoor at the top, dragging the bodies as he went.

The attic was a long, triangular room. It was mostly empty like the rest of the house except for a table on which there was an old record player turning. A bookshelf on one wall held nothing but red wine.

The skin father stood at the far end of the attic, beside an open window – the same one from which Gabe and Russ had first seen the light. He was tall, but his skin was stretched too tight on him and Gabe guessed it had come from someone twenty pounds or so lighter. He had a glass of wine curled in wormlike fingers. He turned away from the window.

The father’s face was floating above his body, unlike Matthew’s, and so Gabe could see right into his black eye sockets. While he stared, the skin father broke his wine glass on the windowsill and rushed him.

Is that how she does it? Gabe wondered. They were less than ten feet apart when Gabe raised the corpses in front of him. ‘This is you! Father of Timothy and Matthew, this is you! You have died of the sickness that took your sons, and now you must follow them into the dark!’ Where the words had come from he didn’t know, but they made him feel like a gospel preacher.

For a moment it looked as if the skin father wasn’t going to stop, and Gabe was primed to dive aside and run for it. Then, as if physically struck, he stopped barely an arm’s reach away and dropped the broken glass. It was hard to know for sure, but if those eye sockets could be said to stare at anything he thought they were staring at the skull of the body he held up in his right hand.

There was a minute of tense silence in which the skin father floated closer and stretched a hand out to touch the top of the rotting skull. He moved his fingers almost in a caress, and plucked a rotting, collapsed eyeball from its socket. He turned it over and then dropped it onto the floorboards. It made a wet sound.

Gabe looked into the floating face and saw the torn lips opening and closing, making bizarre shapes that might have looked like words if there’d been a jaw beneath it. A whoosh of warm, toxic air hit Gabe in the face and then the skin father collapsed to the floor.

Exhausted, Gabe dragged his feet over to the ancient record player and lifted the needle from the disc, bringing the strange lulling music to a stop at last.

When he turned, he saw that Matthew and Timothy had crawled up the stairs after him, and now Matthew floated toward him with alarming speed. He wrapped his arms like wet paper around Gabe’s middle, and Timothy did the same with his ankle. Gabe smiled down at them and tried not to show his revulsion.

The silence was shattered by a racket of heavy footsteps and collapsing chairs downstairs. It was followed by a high pitched creak and something that sounded like tearing cloth and splintering wood. Russ had found the skin mother.

Gabe took two steps to the attic door and then saw Matthew rise up in front of him and wave his arms to stop. A hideous scream erupted from below and a pane of glass shattered – Gabe guessed from one of the front windows.

‘What? What is it?’ Matthew’s arm floated, pointing behind him. He looked around and saw that in his haste he’d actually left the mother’s corpse behind, propped up beside the record player.

By the time he’d picked it up in both hands and turned again, the tearing sounds were coming from outside and Gabe made for the attic window instead. When he looked down, he was met with a scene that would stick with him for the rest of his life.

Russ had just fallen over backwards and was climbing to his feet, one shaking hand holding his knife in front of him. He was almost completely naked, and huge strips of his skin were missing around his arms and chest, making his body a collage of red and white. He was staring at the front door directly beneath Gabe.

‘Get the fuck away, get away! Monster! Monster!’ His screams were childish and soaked in terror, and with every word he stepped clumsily back in the snow. He was nearly out of his mind with terror, and when the skin mother stepped out of the shadow of the house, Gabe saw why.

The skin she wore was not one but many. Large portions of it were, Gabe was sure, taken from the same original body, but there was far too much to be all from one person. She was a head taller than the logger and had a long flowing gown of skin that drifted behind her and trailed in the snow. It was solid but almost haphazardly put together. Streaks of hair ran here and there, intermingled with scars and faded tattoos and stretchmarks, to make a revolting mosaic. Wiry grey hair flowed down to her shoulders. Gabe could not see her face as she had her back to him, but judging by the look on Russ’s face he didn’t want to.

As he watched, Russ lunged in with his knife and tore a cut about a foot wide in her left arm. He managed to dodge aside as she swiped with that hand, but her right caught him a moment later and when he pulled up from the snow he was missing half his face. One eye stared wildly from a red mask. It saw Gabe.

‘GABE! Help me!’

The sound of his name broke his paralysis and Gabe grasped the mother’s corpse by the neck and held it as far as he could out of the window.

‘Hey bitch!’ he shouted. ‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’

The skin mother turned to look up at the window and froze Gabe’s heart in his chest. Her face was a mess of stitches and gaping holes. Her eyes were as wide as fists, and she’d managed to stitch her mouth into an impossibly wide permanent smile.

‘Mother of Matthew and Timothy! This is you! You’re dead! Go back to where you belong and let your family lie in peace! GO NOW!’ He thrust the corpse as far out as he dared and waited.

He was sure she knew now, beyond all shadow of doubt. Was there acceptance there, somewhere in her twisted visage? Dawning realisation, or memory?

Endlessly grinning, she turned away from the house and flayed the rest of the skin from Russ’s face and most of his chest in a single movement. It made a sound like ripping fabric. Russ fell onto his back, screaming and heaving. Gabe looked on helplessly as she floated over almost ponderingly, and finished the job.

He listened to the tearing and watched as strip after strip of skin she flipped over her shoulder. He was sick to the depths of his stomach, but the worst came when she turned back to the house again and the screams hadn’t stopped. They were weak, sure, but the red thing flailing in the snow behind her was certainly still alive – Gabe could see the whites of its eyes in the dark.

The skin mother disappeared into the house without another glance in his direction. Gabe stared at the corpse in his hand, shocked. He turned to face the two children behind him.

‘What happened?’ he said.

In reply, Matthew raised a finger and pointed it first at himself, and then Timothy. It was little, but Gabe understood instantly: She would never leave without her children. It had never been her own death she couldn’t accept, but theirs. So he needed the bodies of the children. And where were they? Downstairs on the kitchen counter.

Gabe swore.

Some part of him knew it was too late, but he had to try. He raced for the trapdoor and threw himself down the stairs. He sprinted down the hallway and out on the landing. And then he stopped. She moved quickly for all that skin, but not quietly. Before he reached the top of the stairs he heard her dragging heavily up the stairs and brushing against the rough bannister. She was on her way up.

Was it possible to hide here in the dark, or would she sense him somehow? Should he risk the jump from the attic window and hope the snow cushioned his fall? Hope he wouldn’t look up an instant later to see her floating easily down, her skin cloak flapping in the air above her?

From where he stood he could see a door adjacent to the attic hallway that opened on a small bathroom, and without another thought he stepped inside and slid into the bathtub. It was damp and slippery with mould, but he didn’t care. He was invisible here, unless the skin mother could smell him.

There was a tiny circular window above the bath, and through it he could make out the moon almost perfectly. He wondered if it would be the last thing he ever saw, and decided that if it was, it was a damn sight better than the hideous grin of the skin mother.

He heard her drag up onto the landing and then move into the hallway without a moment’s hesitation. She was moving fast, hoping to catch him in the attic or jumping out of the window. That was good, because if she took the time to look out of the attic window, he might stand a chance after all.

He stepped out of the bathtub and waited until he heard the trapdoor close before he went to the stairs. It took all of his self-control not to rush, or to take them three at a time and pound the wood. He didn’t think he’d be able to outpace her in the dark even with a head start.

He heard the trapdoor open again before he was halfway down the stairs. Damn, she moves fast. He began to take the stairs two at a time, then three, then twisted his right ankle and tumbled the rest of the way.

His head ringing, he turned and saw her floating at the top of the stairs. Her arms were suspended in the air on either side of her and in the moonlight Gabe caught a glimpse of Russ’s hunting knife in one hand. In the other she had what looked like a shard of bone, sharpened to a razor edge.

After that everything was a blur of sound, darkness and terror. He spun around and lurched to his feet, barely feeling the agony that shot up his right leg. The kitchen counter was less than four meters away now, and he could see the semi decomposed skeletons resting on it.

It occurred to him then that it was possible that the skin mother had become so insane that even the sight of her two dead sons would not stop her. Worse, that she might see him as the murderer and flay him slowly before she killed him. Gabe’s ankle rolled under his weight and he fell again, screaming.

Her skins were loud in his ears, practically on top of him now. He pushed up from the floor, ignoring the pain of a hundred splinters as they pierced his hands, and threw himself onto the counter. He threw both arms around the cold bones that were heaped there and rolled over the other side just a hand lashed out and tore the shirt and jacket from his back, taking a narrow strip of skin as long as a finger with it.

He was huddled against the cabinets beneath the sink now, holding the corpses in his arms like a shield and staring the skin mother in the face at last. As she drifted over the counter and raised her delicate arms, he accepted with terrifying clarity that it all came down to this: the difference between a universe of pain and survival depended on the word of a dead boy. Confront her with the truth. Plees help me.

She stood over him for a moment, seeming to leer at him, and then swept both arms down in a blur of movement. Gabe closed his eyes and waited for agonizing death.

He felt the blades brush over the bare skin on his arms, briefly. Then the corpses were pulled from his arms and he opened his eyes, not daring to breathe.

She lifted the two rotted bodies to her breast and stared down first at one and then the other. Matthew and Timothy floated into the room behind her, and Gabe nodded at them. ‘Look,’ he croaked.

She looked, and when she turned back to him the skin on her face had drooped so dramatically that the grin had was now a frown and her eye sockets were ovals of black. As he watched, she dropped the two bodies and bent to pick Timothy up with one long arm, while the other wrapped around Matthew.

They huddled like that together for a minute, and Gabe heard a long, deep sigh as the hot air rushed from inside and the skins slumped more and more. At last, only a heap remained on the floor.

***      ***      ***

He found shreds of Russ’s clothing in the partially demolished front room. He used pieces of splintered wood as well as some of the old whiskey in the basement to restart the fire. It was more for warmth than light, as the first rays of dawn were streaking the sky.

He’d gone to find Russ first, but the twisted body he found out in the snow was long dead. There was no need to bury him – the softly falling snow was doing the job for him.

He spent the early hours of the morning by the fire, rubbing his hands and trying not to think of anything. When the sun touched the horizon, he went through the house and looked at the fallen skins, hoping that daylight would reveal them for the hallucinations they were. It didn’t. They lay cold and empty on the wood.

***      ***      ***

Gus Hanson was on the last leg of his overnighter when he saw the most dishevelled, haggard looking hitchhiker he’d ever seen. The man was hunched over against the cold, wearing tattered clothes and an expression like what Gus had seen on death row inmates when he’d worked in Washington State Penitentiary. The poor guy didn’t even bother to lift his thumb or look around when he heard the truck coming.

Gus pulled over and opened the passenger side door. The guy walked a few steps more before he looked up and made eye contact. Jesus, this guy’s been through hell, Gus thought. Probably a war vet or something. ‘You need a ride, buddy?’

The guy nodded and pulled himself with apparent effort into the passenger seat and closed the door. He was shivering and his eyes were bloodshot and circled with black bags.

‘You been walking all night?’

He nodded.

‘Say, you wouldn’t be from that house way back there? Looks like someone made a bonfire of it or something. There wasn’t anyone inside was there?’

The guy shrugged. ‘Wouldn’t know,’ he croaked. ‘I passed it by this morning, was still burning a bit but I didn’t see anyone.’

‘Weird in this weather, huh? Anyway, I’m Gus.’ He put on his friendliest smile and extended his hand. The guy shook it and Gus smelled him for the first time – something like iron, whiskey and wood smoke. He didn’t like that much, but something told him the guy was telling the truth.

‘I’m Gabe, Gabe Yeats,’ the guy said.

‘Nice to meet you, Gabe. So where you headed?’

‘Nearest civilisation.’

‘Yeah? Sure you don’t need a hospital, man?’ only half joking.

‘I’ll be alright.’

After a while, they got to talking. Gabe said he used to sell cars and started hitchhiking up North, looking to get away from the cities and work somewhere quiet. It sounded alright, but somehow Gus didn’t quite believe him. He was leaving something out. Maybe he’d been in prison or some horrible war, but a tough guy like this? No way you’d find a guy like this just selling cars.

Gabe got out at the first little town they passed, and the truck driver waved goodbye and watched him go, and wondered.

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