Sonny, his cousin, was from Houston, but being from the city wasn’t why Witt found him interesting. It was that while Witt believed in everything—God, the Devil, spooks, not spilling salt without throwing some over your shoulder—Sonny believed in absolutely nothing. Not 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination, not heaven or hell. The way he talked, Witt sometimes wondered if Sonny believed in him.
“Those are dolls, you psycho hillbilly.”
“They don’t look it at night,” said Witt. “At night it looks like a whole cemetery in those trees.”
Sonny had to give him that. There were at least a hundred small dolls nailed to the apple trees around the old man’s yard. There were even a few on the porch and the low picket fence that surrounded the property.
“It’s called hoarding,” said Sonny. “These old assholes, their dog or their wife dies and their brains turn to Swiss cheese. They can’t let go of anything. That’s why we’re here, right?”
“I know. I’m just all of a sudden amused that after all these years, I’ll finally see inside the place for real. You know, we wouldn’t ride our bikes by here at night. We’d go clear around the block to avoid it.”
“What a great story. Promise me you’ll write a memoir. You ready to go?”
“Hell yeah,” said Witt, trying to sound more ready than he was.
It was just after two a.m. Witt had set the interior light on the Malibu to not come on when they opened the doors. Sonny carried the bag with their tools. They wore sneakers and latex gloves from the Walmart by the freeway. Sonny pulled on his ski mask. Witt kept his in his windbreaker’s pocket. The night was hot and humid, and the mask had itched like a son of a bitch when he tried it on in the store. He’d put it on once they got inside.
Sonny was the first through the picket fence. He held the gate open for Witt, not because he was polite, but because he didn’t want it to slam shut. That’s the other thing Witt liked about Sonny. He was a thinker.
It was only about thirty feet from the fence to the porch, and even though it was night and he was wearing a mask, Sonny kept his head down. Witt followed him, covering the side of his face with his hand. Witt stepped onto the front porch gently. He didn’t want the old boards to squeak. Sonny turned and looked at him.
“Where’s your fucking mask?”
“In my pocket.”
“Put it on.”
“There’s no one here.”
“What if he has automatic lights or security cameras?”
“Cameras? You think this old son of a bitch is James Bond?”
“Just put the damned mask on.”
While Sonny got out his lock pick tools, Witt took the mask from his pocket and pulled it down over his face. He was sweating and itching in seconds. There better be something inside worth stealing, he thought. Gold coins or silver candlesticks or a goddamn treasure map from back when the hovel had been the nicest house in town, eighty some odd years ago. The old man had lived there by himself for as long as Witt could remember. No one had ever seen him take anything but the trash out, and even that was a rare thing. Witt hoped it was cash inside. He wasn’t a pirate. He wouldn’t know what the hell to do with a bunch of gold. When it was over, maybe he could buy his dad’s Malibu and get it fixed up. That would be sweet. He was about to ask Sonny what he thought about the idea when Sonny said, “Well, damn.”
“You were right. The old man isn’t exactly security-minded.”
Sonny put the picks back in the bag and turned the knob on the door. It opened.
“The hayseed doesn’t even lock the place.”
“I told you,” said Witt. “Folks don’t like it here. There’s no reason they’d want to go inside.”
“But we’re not just folks, are we?”
Witt smiled. Sonny reached up and pulled down a doll held with wire over the doorframe. He handed it to Witt. The doll was about eight inches long. Its body was straw, and the head was made of rough, untanned leather, with button eyes.
“Toss it,” said Sonny. “Time to grow up. This is no cemetery. It’s a flophouse.”
Witt threw the doll into the yard, and it felt like a hundred pounds of bullshit lifted off his back. He’d been afraid of the house for so long, he took it for granted that he’d be spooked forever. And now he wasn’t. The old wreck, with its rotten gables and broken windows covered with cardboard, wasn’t Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. It was just a prison for a pathetic old man. Witt all of a sudden sort of felt kind of sorry for him, but sorry didn’t mean that he and Sonny weren’t down for business.
Sonny pushed the front door open and Witt followed him inside.
The stink hit Witt hard, an overpowering combination of mildew, spoiled meat, and something like copper, with a sour sting that brought tears to his eyes.
“Jesus. Does this old fuck ever flush his toilet?” said Sonny.
“Sometimes in these old places, rats or raccoons will get in the walls and die there.”
“Smells like it was Noah’s whole goddamn ark.”
Sonny flicked on a small LED flashlight and Witt did the same as they went deeper into the place.
They were in a wide foyer. The floor was covered with a carpet turned black with grime and mold. To the left was a parlor. Wallpaper peeled from the walls like burned skin. To the right was a dining room. A hallway led off from the foyer. A door to the kitchen in the distance. A closet. Another door under the stairs that Witt thought led to a basement. The place was even worse than he imagined.
“You sure there’s anything left in here worth taking?” he said. “I mean, it smells like the damned dump.”
“Spend a lot of time out there, do you?” said Sonny. “You said the family were bankers. People like that, they know what to squirrel away for a rainy day.”
“Damn right you do. Now, let’s get to work. Don’t forget what I told you. Slow and steady wins the race. Take your time, but don’t get lazy. Don’t make noise, but don’t go so fast you’re going to miss valuables.”
Witt nodded. He wanted to breathe through his mouth, but he didn’t want to look like a pussy in front of Sonny. He swung his light into the parlor.
“As good a place to start as any,” Sonny said, and they went inside.
They went to opposite ends of the room. The plan was to work their way in and meet in the middle. It sounded good when they’d talked it over, but now Witt wasn’t so sure. What the hell was he looking for, exactly? He was sure they weren’t going to find a pile of hundreds just lying around the place.
He looked at the dusty paintings. Generations of the old man’s family, each more mean and joyless than the last. It eased Witt’s conscience a little.
Witt checked the bookcase and drawers on rickety old end tables. Picking up some old books, he wondered if they were worth something. Or one of the lamps. His grandma had an old gilt lamp from France that she swore was worth more than his granddad’s soul. Witt shook his head. No. They weren’t there for lamps or shit like that. He checked around the cushions on a sofa that kicked up enough dust that it looked like a west Texas sandstorm.
“What are you doing?” said Sonny.
“Searching. What do you think?”
“What are you looking for, bus fare? Leave the sofa alone.”
Sonny played his light over the room. Witt checked his watch. They’d been in the room for fifteen minutes, but it felt like an hour. I might not be cut out for this life, he thought, but he kept his mouth shut.
Sonny pursed his lips like he was going to spit.
“There’s nothing in here. Let’s check the dining room.”
They went across the hall and inspected the room the same way they’d done the other. The dining room was even less interesting than the parlor. Just a big table, some chairs, and a sideboard. There was a crystal chandelier in the center of the room, covered in cobwebs. That was probably worth something, thought Witt, but how would they get it out of there?
It was Sonny’s voice. Witt went and looked over his shoulder. He had one of the sideboard drawers open and was holding up a shiny butter knife. Sonny handed it to Witt.
“You know what that is?”
Witt shook his head.
“Gold-plated silver. Old, too.”
Witt turned the knife over. It was pretty, and it reflected a buttery light onto his jacket where the flashlight caught it. It was nice, but it didn’t seem like a fortune.
“Is this what we came for?” he asked.
Sonny took the knife back and shook his head.
“It’s a start. We’ve got a few thousand dollars here easy. I know people who love this kind of shit. They sell it to antique dealers and designer fags for a fortune.”
Sonny put the knife back in the drawer.
“Aren’t we going to take it?” said Witt.
“It’s heavy. We’ll get it on the way out. But this is exactly what we’re looking for right now. Smalls. The old man will know where the big ticket stuff is, but for now remember to keep your eyes out for cash or watches or rings. We’ll finish down here and go upstairs to roust Granddad.”
A few thousand dollars already, thought Witt. Maybe I am cut out for this after all.
Sonny went ahead down the hall, and Witt followed him inside an office. There was a heavy wooden desk with an old-fashioned typewriter on top. To the side, an office chair with bad springs. It sat low and leaned back at a funny angle. There was a hat rack with a moldy fedora and ancient lacquered file cabinets so swollen with moisture that some of the drawers were twisted and wedged tight. Sonny started to work on them while Witt looked through the desk.
It was one of those old kind you see in movies, with lots of cubbyholes on top. He shone his light in each one and stuck a finger in the holes where he saw something. All he found were a few dead roaches, some rusted paper clips, and mouse turds. The drawers weren’t any better. Letterhead stationery, old pens, and a rusty letter opener. In one of the bottom drawers he found a dusty bottle of bourbon. He was tempted to take it until he saw that the seal had been broken. Did whiskey go bad like beer? He didn’t want to take a chance, so he put the bottle back and opened the top middle drawer.
There was a doll inside, like the ones in the trees. A goddamn funny place for one, Witt thought. He reached in the drawer and picked it up. It hung for a second, like it was caught on a nail, but it came free with a little tug.
Something black boiled out from the drawer and spread across the desktop, up the walls, and down onto the floor. Witt almost shouted, but kept himself under control. Some of what writhed on the desk hopped off and landed on the legs of his jeans. He pointed his light down.
There were spiders, pouring out of the desk and trying to crawl up his legs.
“Fuck!” he yelled, and shook his legs like he was barefoot dancing on coals. Someone grabbed his jacket collar and pulled him into the hall.
Sonny turned him around and looked him over.
“Spiders,” whispered Witt.
Without missing a beat, Sonny bent and brushed the spiders away with his sleeve. When they hit the floor, he stepped on them like it wasn’t anything at all.
“Thanks,” said Witt. “I’m scared shitless of those things.”
Sonny slapped him across the face.
“Don’t you make another goddamn noise, you hear me?” he said.
Witt was still trying to catch his breath. His cheek stung, but he nodded. Sonny walked over and closed the office door. Seeing the spiders locked inside, Witt relaxed a little.
“You got a thing about those bugs?” asked Sonny.
“So did my old man. Turned to jelly at the sight of ’em. That’s okay. You just better hope the old man didn’t hear you and call the cops.”
“Maybe we should leave?” asked Witt.
Sonny shook his head. Stood quiet for a minute, listening for footsteps or a phone.
“No. We’re just getting started,” Sonny said.
Witt looked around.
“This place is huge,” he said. “It could take all night.”
“No. When you’ve got a big place like this, what you do is hurt somebody. In this case, the old man.”
“Because he’s obviously crazy, and we’re going to want him back on planet Earth for a while. Don’t sweat it. I’ll handle things. You just watch and learn.”
Witt waited while Sonny walked down the hall. He wasn’t sure how he felt about what Sonny wanted to do. Witt had been in plenty of fights over the years, but they were always stand-up, man-to-man things, not slapping an old cuss around. Still, the gold up front was awfully pretty, and he didn’t think Sonny was the kind of man who was going to be talked out of a plan once he’d set his mind to it. Witt knuckled his cheek where Sonny slapped him. Better the old man getting hurt than him.
He realized that he was still holding the doll. It was like the others. A few inches long and with a leather head. There was a piece of string around its waist, trailing off to a frayed end. Witt remembered the feeling of the doll getting snagged on something in the drawer. Then he thought of something else.
Sonny was halfway down the hall, headed for the kitchen. Witt came up behind him and grabbed his shoulder.
“I think it was a trick,” he said.
“The spiders. Look.” He held up the doll so Sonny could see the string. “They could have been in a bag or a net or something, and when I picked up the doll it let ’em loose.”
Sonny looked at him and a smile crept across his face.
“Be cool, man. You’re just spooked. We’re about done down here. We’ve got the kitchen and if there’s a basement, maybe give the downstairs a quick once-over. Then we go upstairs and we’re out. Okay?”
Witt wanted to agree. He didn’t want Sonny mad at him, but he didn’t want spiders even more.
“I still think it was a trick,” he said. “Something the old man set up.”
Sonny glanced upstairs.
“I doubt this old guy can find his way down to the shitter. Stay focused and do the job.”
Sonny started away and Witt wanted to say something, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. He played his flashlight over the walls and floor.
“Stop,” he said.
Up ahead, Sonny did. He dropped his head a little. His shoulders were tense like he was about to hit something.
“What?” he said.
Witt didn’t get any closer to him. He kept his light pointed at the floor a few feet in front of Sonny.
“Look down there.”
Sonny took a couple of steps forward and stood for a moment, then went down on one knee.
“I’ll be goddamned,” he said.
Witt came to where Sonny knelt. Their lights illuminated a length of monofilament fishing line across the hall about six inches off the ground. Sonny grinned up at Witt.
“What do you think? More spiders? Maybe ninjas’ll fall from the ceiling?”
“Don’t touch it,” said Witt as Sonny hooked a finger around the wire and pulled. It snapped. Witt froze. Nothing happened. Sonny looked up at him, then stood.
“I’ve got to give you points, man. You were right. Grandpa has been up to some funny games. But he’s still an addled old man. This one didn’t work.”
Witt looked around the hall, expecting more spiders to come raining down. But nothing happened. He pointed at something shiny near the ceiling.
“What’s that?” he said.
Sonny saw it, too. He moved closer, pulling a pistol from his jeans. He used the barrel to brush the tiny specks of light above his head. They made a small sound swinging against each other, like tiny wind chimes. It was fishhooks. Dozens of them hanging at eye level on more monofilament.
Sonny swept the gun barrel through the hooks, sending them swinging.
“This is good news. Know why?”
Witt shook his head.
“Because it means there’s something in this house worth protecting. We’re going to make ourselves some money tonight.”
Sonny ducked under the hooks and stood when he reached the other side. He turned all the way around, checking the floor and walls for wires. When he was done, he motioned for Witt to follow him.
Witt hated creeping under the hooks almost as much as the spiders. He darted through and didn’t stand again until he was past Sonny.
“We do the job just like we planned,” he said. “Just keep your eyes open for any more pranks.”
“Yeah. Okay,” said Witt.
“And get rid of that fucking doll. You look like an idiot.”
Witt looked down. He was still holding the doll with the string. He tossed it back down the hall the way they’d come and flinched, afraid it might set off another trap. But nothing happened.
“There’s another wire up ahead,” said Sonny. “I’ll go that way. You check the closet.”
As Sonny moved off, Witt checked the ceiling for hooks, and moved his light slowly over, around, and below the closet door frame. Ran his fingers around the doorknob feeling for a trip wire. He didn’t find one. He looked down at Sonny, wondering if he could just say he’d checked the closet. But Witt knew he wasn’t a good liar. There was nothing he could do.
He put his hand on the closet doorknob and turned. It opened. Nothing happened. He swung the door open the rest of the way and shone his flashlight inside.
The closet was full of rotting coats and rain boots, some umbrellas and a couple of canes with silver tops. Those could be worth something, he thought. There were boxes on the floor and more on a shelf above the coats. He checked around for more lines but didn’t see any signs of them. The canes first, he thought, and reached for one.
A board under his foot sank a couple of inches. Witt froze. There was a metal-on-metal squeak. He pointed his flashlight at the floor. A board with long butcher knives pushed through it hung a foot away from his legs. It was supposed to swing out when he stepped on the board and hit him in the knees, but the house had betrayed the old man. The hinge the board hung from was caked with rust. Witt was so happy he wanted to laugh, but he didn’t want to piss Sonny off by making noise. He grabbed one of the canes and stepped back. The board under his foot rose back up into place.
And another board swung out, this one chest-high. Witt jumped back, slamming his head into the wall opposite the closet. He went blind for a second as light exploded behind his eyes. When it cleared, he saw the second knife board, embedded in the closet door. It had missed him by a few inches. The doll he’d thrown away earlier lay by his side. He kicked it into the closet.
Footsteps pounded down the hall.
Sonny pushed him out of the way. He looked over the scene and then at Witt.
Witt nodded, but he was still a little light-headed from his collision with the wall. Sonny grabbed his shoulders and pulled him to his feet.
“Fuck this,” said Sonny. “Let’s find him.”
He was already on the stairs when Witt saw it.
“Stop!” he yelled.
He ducked as Sonny’s foot broke the fishing line.
A shotgun blast ripped across the hall, right by Sonny’s head. It looked like an old sawed-off was inside the wall, hidden behind a flap of wallpaper, now scorched and torn by the blast. Sonny stumbled down the stairs, holding a hand over one ear. He pulled his hand away and checked it. There was blood on the palm.
Witt came over.
“You okay?” he said.
Sonny looked at him for a second, then snapped out of it.
“I think I’m fucking deaf in this ear. I think that fucker blew out my eardrum.”
“Maybe we should get the knives and forks and just go,” said Witt.
Sonny took out his pistol.
“We’re not going anywhere. I’m going to find out what that old fuck has and kill him.”
Under normal circumstances, Witt would argue about something like killing a person, but these circumstances were damned far from normal and the old bastard was kind of asking for it, Witt thought. He followed Sonny up the stairs. They weren’t quiet as they went. The old man had to have heard the shotgun. There wasn’t any point in being quiet anymore.
“Careful,” Witt said.
A few steps up, Sonny said, “There’s another doll and another wire. Duck.”
Sonny bent over and when he was through, Witt followed him. As Sonny stood Witt saw the other line, the one strung so if you missed the first, you’d hit the second. Witt closed his eyes and what felt like a thousand pounds crashed down on them.
They were pinned to the steps. Sonny cursed and thrashed. Witt tried to push the weight off, but every time he moved, the net ripped into his skin. He managed to get his flashlight turned around and finally understood what had happened. The net they were trapped in was made of barbed wire. And they weren’t alone. There was a body with them. A bag of bones and rags. Some other poor asshole who’d wandered into the old man’s house and never left. Behind him, Sonny cursed and growled about all the ways he was going to murder the old man.
“Hold it,” said Witt. “Stop moving a minute.”
Sonny thrashed for a few seconds more and stopped.
“Barbed wire don’t weigh much, but this net has got big weights on the ends,” Witt said. “We keep thrashing, we’re going to wrap ourselves up and die here like Mr. Bones.”
“Who the fuck?” said Sonny.
“Turn your head.”
Sonny did. The net dug into Witt’s skin again as Sonny jerked back from the body.
“Fuck me,” said Sonny.
“What are we going to do?”
“One of us has got to get out. Then he can hold the net up for the other to get out.”
“So who does what?” said Witt.
“I hate to admit it, and if you repeat it I’ll deny it, but I think you’re stronger. I can’t lift for shit flat on my back here. You get me out and I can help you.”
“Okay,” said Witt. “Can you help push a little?”
“I’ll do what I can. Just keep those goddamn bones away from me.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“I don’t know. Forget it. Just push.”
Witt got hold of one of the weights holding the net in place. The problem was that it was wrapped in barbed wire. Each time he grabbed it, the metal barbs tore into his fingers and palms. On his first try, he moved the weight up about six inches before the pain got to be too much. The good news was that it allowed Sonny to turn and wriggle up next to him. They both got ahold of the weight and lifted it just high enough for Sonny to crawl out. Witt dropped the net back where it was. Sonny lay on the stairs, panting.
“Think you can start helping me out of here? I don’t want to spend the night with this dead boy.”
Sonny got to his knees and came up a step to where the weight lay. He put his hands on it and yanked them away.
“What’s wrong?” said Witt.
“That dead fucker touched me.”
“Use your jacket,” said Witt. “It’ll help with the barbs, and you won’t feel the bones.”
Sonny looked at him like Witt was speaking Chinese. Then he took his jacket off and wrapped it around his hands. Taking hold of the weight, he pulled up, leaning back against the staircase railing for support.
There was a spark and a thump. The weight came down, almost smashing into Witt’s hand. Sonny flopped on the stairs next to it.
“Sonny,” said Witt. “You all right?”
Sonny opened his eyes and looked at the banister.
“The railing is electrified. Zapped me good,” he said.
“Can you lift the weight without touching it?”
Sonny reached up and pulled off his ski mask. His face was slick with sweat. He wiped it out of his eyes with his jacket sleeve.
“No, I can’t,” he said. He looked over. Witt knew Sonny was staring at the bones more than looking at him. Sonny frowned.
“I think I’m about done here, hoss,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
Sonny put his jacket back on.
“I’m done. I’m over. The old fucker won.”
Sonny stood and pulled his ski mask back on. He jerked back when he almost touched the railing and shook his head.
“I’m sorry, man. I can’t help you.”
He turned and started down the stairs.
“Sonny,” yelled Witt. “Please!”
Sonny kept walking. Witt yelled after him. “You can keep my share of the forks and stuff. Just don’t leave me.”
Sonny stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Witt waited for him to come back up. Sonny said, “Sorry, man.” He turned and headed for the door.
Down in the dark, Sonny cursed.
“What is it?” said Witt.
“The goddamned door. It’s locked.”
Witt listened to Sonny walk around downstairs, cursing and punching things.
He came back into the hall.
“The windows are barred from the inside. What the hell kind of house did you bring me to? This is your fault, you hayseed prick. I hope you fucking rot up there with your dead pal.”
Witt watched as the circle of Sonny’s flashlight disappeared down the hall.
Witt lay on the stairs sweating. He pulled his ski mask off, too. He tried wrapping it around his hand to keep the wire from tearing into his palms, but when he lifted the net, the barbs cut into him and he couldn’t hold on. His hands were ragged and bleeding. He lay there, breathing hard and trying not to completely lose his mind. Sonny was a thinker, but he lost it. Be a better thinker. What would a better thinker do?
Witt’s elbow brushed against the skeleton. He reached over and twisted one of the bone hands and, with some sweating and swearing, snapped it off at the wrist. He’d torn up his shoulders doing it, but it was worth it. He found the dead man’s other arm and snapped off the second hand. That’s when he noticed a doll duct-taped into the dead man’s mouth. Witt elbowed him away and turned back to the weight.
Balancing the skeleton hands over his palms, he grabbed the weight. When he pulled, the barbs dug into the bones, but didn’t touch his hands. It took three tries, but he finally got the weight high enough to set it on the step above him. Slowly, he crawled forward, using the skeleton’s hands to hold up as much of the net as possible.
He cut his legs up wiggling, but finally, he was out. Witt lay on the stairs facing the dead man. Another thief, he wondered? It couldn’t be the old man. Maybe his family were embezzlers and it was someone from the bank come to confront him. That meant Sonny was right all along. There was a treasure somewhere in the house, and now neither one of them was going to get it.
Witt stood and started down, careful not to touch the railing. A gunshot boomed through the house. He went down the stairs as fast as he could and crouched by the wall, keeping low. The place was quiet now.
“Sonny?” whispered Witt. “Sonny?”
He looked down the hall and saw an open door. Warm light, like dawn over a river, lit up the walls and floor. Yeah, he thought, Sonny was a yellow dog piece of coward shit, but if he left now, that would make him just as bad. Witt started down the hall. He’d lost his flashlight on the stairs, so he went slowly, looking for any trip wires he might have missed earlier.
The basement door was open. A doll was perched on the top step, nailed in place through the stomach. Witt looked at it for a good long while, searching for monofilament, funny floorboards, or electric wires. He didn’t find any, but he couldn’t make himself step past the doll. Maybe Sonny wasn’t close enough family to go searching this crazy-ass dump after all.
A voice echoed up the stairwell. Witt looked downstairs.
Something hit him in the back of the head and the building seemed to tilt, swing around, and hit him in the face. His vision collapsed to a tunnel and went out.
• • • •
Witt awoke handcuffed to a rough stone wall. His hands tingled with pins and needles, and his face hurt like fire. He tried to say something, but it hurt so much he screamed, only there wasn’t any sound. His lips were sewn shut.
The basement stank. The moist reek of decay down here was why the rest of the house smelled like Death shitting in a Dumpster. The blow on his head made it hard for Witt to see clearly. The glare from the bare bulbs strung along the ceiling hurt his eyes. He heard a splash, like someone was dragging wet laundry across the floor. Witt blinked, shook his head, and tried to focus.
Sonny hung on the wall like Jesus on the cross, held there with nails through his hands. A scrawny old man in overalls and a barbecue apron that read I LIKE MY PORK PULLED was gutting him with a long, curved butcher knife. The old man sawed his way up Sonny’s stomach, stopping when he hit the breastbone. Then he made a cut across Sonny’s belly, set down the knife, and reached inside, yanking out a long tangle of intestines. The old man let them flop into a plastic trashcan pushed up against the body. Sonny’s head moved from side to side as the old man worked. His eyes opened, showing the whites. Witt’s breath caught for a minute. Sonny was still alive. He wanted to scream, but remembered the pain.
The old man glanced at him, then turned back to his work.
“I’m not ignoring you, son,” the old man said. “It’s just that I’m a little busy right this second.” His voice startled Witt. He expected an old coot, but the voice was strong and cultured, like someone in one of those ancient-aliens documentaries on cable.
The old man pulled Sonny’s stomach wide, pinning the folds of skin to the wall with hooks and monofilament line. Sonny’s abdomen was splayed open like a wet red flower. The old man took the knife and cut a couple of more things from Sonny’s gut and dropped them into the trash. When he looked at Witt again, the old man’s gaze lingered on him.
“I suppose you’re wondering what’s going on,” he said, and smiled. “Since you’re in no position to ask questions, I’ll do my best to guess what you’d like to know.”
The old man tossed the knife onto a worktable and pulled off bloody dishwashing gloves, dropping them next to Sonny’s gun.
The man’s face was creased and yellow, like a kid Witt remembered from grade school. The one with hepatitis, and they’d all had to get shots because of him. The man’s knuckles were swollen and bent like he had rheumatism. His teeth were gray. Still, as beat-up as he was, the closer the old man got, the more Witt saw something hard and ferocious in his eyes.
“First of all, nothing you see here tonight is about torture or cruelty, though Lord knows you boys deserve a little of both, showing up here with a gun,” said the old man.
He turned and pointed to a couple of little dolls lying on his worktable.
“My eyes and ears,” he said. “I saw you two coming a mile away.” He looked at Witt. “Made all these dolls myself. A trick my grand-mère taught me long ago and far away. Made them out of ambitious boys like you and your friend.”
The old man wiped sweat out of his eyes and pushed back wisps of thin white hair.
“On the other hand, I’m grateful you’re here. If it wasn’t for boys, and a few girls, like you two, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” He held out his arms like the filthy basement was Hollywood Boulevard. “That was a joke,” he said. “Don’t try to laugh. It’ll hurt.”
When he got close, the old man held open each of Witt’s eyes and looked at them, like a doctor examining a patient. His breath smelled like a swamp and he wheezed a little. Witt tried to squirm from his hands.
The old man looked away for a moment, as if he was lost in thought.
“Did you ever think about living forever?” he said. “I don’t mean like fluttering off on angel wings and sipping tea with Jesus on a cloud, but living forever right here. Like a man. Well, I’m here to tell you, it can be done.” He smiled wide, showing his rotten teeth. “Now, I know what you’re thinking. If living forever looks like me, you’re not interested. But you see me, this body, it’s only a part of the story.”
Sonny moaned, and the old man walked back to him. He put on his gloves, picked up his knife, and got back to work, cutting into Sonny’s stomach. He talked as he worked.
“Immortality isn’t what you think it is. It’s not like in movies where you stay young and pretty forever. It’s harder than that, and in a way it’s more poetic. You live your life and grow old and when the time is right, you’re reborn in new flesh. A bit like a phoenix.” He turned to Witt. “You know what a phoenix is, don’t you? Surely even a crude lad like you must know that.”
Things from inside Sonny fell into the can.
“Your young friend here is my phoenix. When I shrug off this old meat, I’ll be reborn in his. But first,” he said, “I have to clear away the clutter.”
He winked at Witt and pulled out more of Sonny’s insides, until Witt could see his cousin’s spine.
“The heart and the brain. That’s all I need. They’re the only things I don’t take out.”
The old man stood, kicked off his work boots, and started to undress. He moved slowly, like each joint was stiff and painful.
When he struggled to get the apron up over his head, Witt pulled at the cuffs holding him to the wall. The ring that held the cuffs in place felt loose. He put slow, steady pressure on it, not wanting the old man to notice what he was doing.
Finally, the old man was naked. His skin sagged like it was melting off his bones. Patches of white, stiff tumbleweed hair bristled on his crotch and under his arms. He picked up the knife and looked over. Witt stopped moving.
“I know you think what I did to your friend hurt him, but consider this: At least he didn’t have to do it to himself. Watch this.”
The old man took the butcher knife and reached behind his head. He made a deep cut at the base of his skull, dragging the blade up and over his head to just above his eyebrows. This time, Witt screamed, and the pain brought tears to his eyes.
The old man’s hands were shaking when he set down the knife. He reached behind his head with both hands and pulled. The skin slid away from his skull like he was skinning a dead deer. He kept pulling, and the flesh came down over his face, his neck, his chest, and down his legs. He moaned the whole time, but the old man’s pain didn’t give Witt any satisfaction. He pulled on the ring that held his handcuffs to the wall. It turned a little. He kept twisting, wondering how long it would take the old man to snake all the way out of his skin, and if it was enough time to get free.
It wasn’t. Witt was still pinned tight when the last of the old man’s skin hit the floor. He stepped out of it like he was kicking off dirty socks and fell against his worktable, panting. A glistening wet mass of sagging muscle and bone, the old man reached over and picked up Sonny’s pistol. He pointed it at Witt.
“Stop that wiggling or I’ll do double worse to you what I did to your friend,” he said. “Besides, you’ll like this next part. Slithering out of my old skin isn’t fun, but I’m used to it. This next part is what really hurts.”
He pushed a stool under Sonny’s ass, then used a hammer to pull out the nails that held his hands to the wall. Sonny’s body dropped onto the stool like someone cutting the strings of a marionette. The old man eyed the opening in Sonny’s stomach like a Peeping Tom looking through a window, thought Witt.
The flayed man bent over, stiff and arthritic. When he was down as low as he could go, he grabbed his head and yanked it forward. Witt heard his neck snap. The old man screamed, and his head hung like it was held in place by spaghetti. Then he reached his arms around in front, like he was trying to hug himself. He jerked hard, dislocating both of his arms at the shoulder. Another scream. Witt closed his eyes, afraid he might throw up and drown inside his sealed lips.
The old man continued with whatever it was he was doing, the ritual coming to Witt as a series of horrible sounds. A wet tearing of muscles and snapping of bones. The old man’s screams. When the noise stopped, Witt opened his eyes a fraction of an inch. He couldn’t believe what he saw.
The old man lay on the filthy floor. He’d folded himself up like a goddamned origami bird. His legs were up around his shoulders, and his head was buried beneath his ankles. The only thing that still sort of worked were his arms, and even they were kind of loose and dangling. Groping blindly, the old man’s skinless hands went up Sonny’s body, finally stopping when they found the opening in his stomach. They got a good grip on the edges and hauled the rest of the old man’s body up and into the hole.
Witt knew that what he was doing would never work. There was no way he could get his whole body into Sonny’s stomach. And yet, as Witt watched, the old man did it. By whatever magic or skill or madness he’d learned over the years, the old man kept squeezing and squeezing his body tighter and tighter until he’d worked his way completely inside Sonny. Then he reached out and pulled the loose stomach flaps closed. The slits he’d cut into them healed as Witt watched.
Sonny twitched. His body went stiff. His eyes fluttered. He relaxed and his head fell forward. He pissed himself. Then he laughed.
“That always cracks me up,” Sonny said. “I start off each new life by pissing myself like an infant. It’s all right. It’s how I know all the plumbing is working.”
Sonny stood, holding himself with his hand against the wall. He took a stiff step. Then another, his balance coming back to him. He breathed deeply, as if relishing this new, younger flesh.
“Que penses-tu de ma nouvelle poupée?” he said, then, “What do you think of my new doll?”
As Sonny came over to him, Witt braced himself against the wall like maybe if he pushed hard enough he could pass through solid stone.
When Sonny reached him, he held Witt’s head in his hands.
“The worst part is over. Don’t worry about me gutting you like your friend. All I need from you is your head. I just pull out the skull, scrape the fat from the inside of the skin, and shrink the rest of it down for one of my dolls.”
He looked around the basement.
“These dolls are old. I’ll be moving on soon, and I’ll need new ones. You’ll be the first in my new life. Try to relax. It’ll hurt less if you’re calm. Be extra good and I’ll kill you quick with the gun.”
The thing that used to be Sonny went and picked up the old man’s skin from the floor. He dumped it into the garbage can with Sonny’s insides. It took him a while to drag the can over to an ancient gas furnace. He didn’t quite have the hang of the new body yet.
While Sonny had his back to him, Witt pulled as hard as he could on the ring holding the handcuffs. He picked his feet off the floor, using his body weight to pull down. The cuffs felt like hot metal digging into his wrists. He gritted his teeth and swallowed so he wouldn’t make any noise. He felt the ring move an inch. Then another. But the pain was too much. His vision started fogging again, and he was afraid he might pass out. He put his feet on the floor and looked over. The old man had the body parts in the furnace and was fiddling around with the controls. He touched handles and gauges randomly, like he was having trouble remembering how they worked. Good, thought Witt. He still had some time. If he could get to the table, he could get the gun. That’s all I need.
Witt took a breath, getting ready for the pain when he pulled his feet off the floor. Hanging there, his hands turning dark with trapped blood and feeling like they were going to pop off, he raised his head.
He stopped what he was doing when he saw the doll nailed to a beam a few feet above. That’s why the old man was taking his time. He knew everything Witt was doing. He wasn’t going anywhere. And probably, he thought, he wasn’t going to get that quick death after all.
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