For nearly every night of the past year, Simon Page has stumbled, half-blind and terrified, through the morphing liquid maze of horrors that are his chronic nightmares. Ever since the nightmares began, he could never understand why such a terrible fate had struck him of all boys: he didn’t use swear words when hanging out with his friends, he didn’t slip five-dollar bills out of his father’s wallet in secret, and he didn’t stuff plastic-wrapped chocolate cupcakes into his underwear and walk out the front door of the neighborhood convenience store. No, he didn’t do any of the nasty, illegal things the other boys in his school did on a regular basis. And yet it was he, instead of them, who found himself, night after night, stumbling through the sharply twisting hallways of a lightless underground crypt while a cunning, invisible hunter clopped close behind, Simon’s legs lurching as thick and immobile as concrete skyscrapers, his hands swinging at the ends of his long arms as heavy and unbalanced as rocky planets, the dizzying corridors around him glowing an oily, luminescent black, the steamy air thrumming with the diseased heartbeat of the living darkness. From night to night, most aspects of the nightmares would be different: different locations, different levels of light and dark, and different bodily abnormalities; but the most terrifying parts would always be the same: he was always running, but he never traveled more than a few inches from where he started; he was always being chased by a humanoid of some kind, a being he knew to be vastly more shrewd than he; and his mouth was always fused shut, rendering him unable to scream out for help. This last aspect always stood out as the most cruel and harrowing of all, because in each dream he always had the overwhelming feeling that help was so close; that just behind the next corner stood his clever, protective mother and his brave, invincible father; and if he could just somehow call out to them, he would be saved.
But that was last year. That was the old version of Simon. Those things had happened to the outdated model, the obsolete build. Today is the first day of fifth grade, and this is the new Simon. This is the Strong Simon, who can do twelve full push-ups without stopping or resting his knees on the ground; this is the Brave Simon, who conquered three of his biggest fears over the course of the summer: he opened his eyes underwater for the first time, he walked up the stairs from the basement without getting scared and running, and, he even rode a full-size roller coaster without shedding a single tear. And now, as he rode the bouncing school bus with these new achievements in his pocket, his daily nightmares of the past year were the last thing on his mind. No, the only thing he was thinking about on this morning of Thursday, September 1st, 1994, was if the rumor he’d heard over the summer was true. And so before the bus even turned out of the development, Simon slid across the aisle and asked Mike Barrett what he had heard.
“Hey Mike, did you hear about the picture Will’s brother hid in the library before he graduated last year? Do you think it’s really true? They probably took it out by now, right?” Simon said, shaking his head, trying to sound skeptical and uninterested, above it all; he tried to talk the way he thought this new, cooler version of himself should talk.
In response to this question, Mike turned and looked at Simon with a tight upward curl of his chapstick-smeared mouth. Seeing that smile, Simon felt his face flush hot and his heart slam hard behind his ribs, because he knew in an instant that the rumor was true and the picture was there. Now he just had to extract from this weirdo the title of the book that held that incredible treasure within.
Mike drove a hard bargain. He demanded Simon’s lunch snack of Cool Ranch Doritos for the next two weeks, plus Simon’s chocolate milk for the next four Fridays, but he gave up the information. The picture was stuck between pages 312 and 313 of an art history book called Europe and the Humanities, written by a man named Hanson (Simon had to write all of this down in order to keep it straight). Once this information had been revealed, Mike went on to explain that there were rules regarding the picture: Simon was not allowed to steal the picture for himself or take it out of the library to get it photocopied. The picture was not allowed to leave the library, period, under any circumstances. Simon was not allowed to hide the picture in another book for his own use. He was not allowed to brag to anyone about it being there. And most important of all, he sure as hell wasn’t allowed to tattle to the teachers or the librarians about it. If he broke any of these rules, Mike would make sure everyone in school would know who did it.
With that message very clearly received, Simon exercised extreme caution the following week when he spent his study hall in the library and searched for the book.
The library was nearly empty during that second week of the school year, with most of the kids still heat-drunk and sluggish from their wild antics of the summer, and Simon used this quiet to his advantage by securing the most private desk in the library.
The search for the book didn’t take long. It helped that the word HANSON was written across the spine in big, capital letters, just like Mike had said. And so with the heavy book clutched tight in his trembling hands and his stomach tingling with a nervous flutter mixed with a cold edge of fear, Simon sat down at his secluded desk and slowly thumbed through the shiny, scrunching pages of that giant book about art. For the next few minutes he purposely took his time, drawing out the anticipation so the payoff would be that much sweeter, his breath hissing shallow and quick in his prickling chest, his tongue smacking dry and tacky against that weird ridge of ribbed flesh running along the roof of his mouth. From here he imagined just how incredible she would look like that, with nothing on, with nothing hiding them from his hungry stare, not the white curtain of a tightly wrapped bath towel or the pulled up sheets of a bed like they always do in the movies, as if purposely trying to drive him mad with lust; and then he suddenly couldn’t wait anymore so he skipped way ahead, straight to page 312. But when that giant book flopped open to that page and the glossy paper peeled lightly apart with a sticky crinkle, he didn’t see the picture he was looking for; instead, his eyes snapped onto a wide, full page picture of some painting from hundreds of years ago. And before he could even feel angry at that bastard Mike for tricking him, he found himself unable to tear his gaze away from the picture of this painting. And that was because the painting looked like someone had watched his nightmares of the past year, and had painted the horrors held within.
A massive pile of human bodies lay sprawled in the center of a chaotic battlefield as an army of skeleton soldiers stood behind large rectangular shields painted with black crosses. Flesh-bound skeletons armed with swords and sickles stabbed and slashed at defenseless people whose faces contorted into twisted masks of terror and pain. Burning buildings coughed black smears of smoke into the stone-gray sky hovering above the corpse-riddled terrain.
Each corner of the painting held a fresh nightmare, whether it was a skeleton dog gnawing on the cheek of a helpless infant, or a woman lying limp in the arms of a pair of skeletons about to toss her into a moat.
Looking at these terrors, Simon’s lower back twitched violently on its own, as if anticipating the piercing stab of a sword held by one of the skeletons in the painting. Feeling this he quickly smacked the book closed and pushed it away with the heel of his hand; but the images hovered stubbornly in his head, as if they’d already been carved into the stone slab of his long-term memory.
Two minutes later, he stuffed the book back onto one of the library shelves, not caring if he’d found the right place or not. He just had to be away from that painting for good.
But even after he banished the terrible painting from his sight, he didn’t feel any better. For the rest of the day he felt anxious, restless, and generally disturbed; and disturbed was exactly the right word for how he felt, because no matter where he went and what he did, that painting, and those heavy, black feelings of fear were never truly gone from his mind.
Once school was finally over, the rest of the afternoon was blissfully free of homework and open to be spent however he pleased. So he went with Evan and Manny to the playground at the end of the development to ride the tire swing. Thanks to the luck of correctly calling three coin flips in a row (tails, tails, heads), Simon won the chance to ride the swing first while Evan and Manny pushed.
Simon stepped up to the tire and rested his hand on the rough black rubber baking warm and smelly in the hot September sun. A few dry crumbs of rubber stuck to the pads of his fingers; he felt a springy bounce when he pressed his thumb and pointer together. Wiping the crumbs on his shorts, he inspected the hairy rope tied through the tire’s hole. It sliced through the pale blue sky and wrapped around the base of a thick tree branch twenty feet overhead. But as he stared up at that place where the rope wrapped around the branch, he felt the sparkling tingle of a cold, numbing syrup dripping down his throat. Moments later, when he tried to lift his leg to slide it through the tire’s hole, his body wouldn’t move. Instead, he saw himself swinging on this tire just as he had hundreds of times in the past, just as he had a few days ago, before the summer ended; but this time, he was not alone in the park with his friends. Up above, one of the flesh-bound skeletons from that terrible painting straddled the branch to which the tire swing’s rope was tied. Clutched in the skeleton’s bony hand was a hacksaw. And now, as Simon stood and watched, paralyzed as if trapped in one of his nightmares, the skeleton sawed away at the rope holding up the tire swing. As this was happening, the other version of himself sat in that tire and gripped the rope and swung back and forth, yelling with glee, shouting at Evan and Manny to push him higher and higher. Seeing this, Simon tried with all his strength to scream a warning to his other self about the skeleton, but just as in his nightmares, his mouth was fused shut. His arms would not move. His eyes could not close. His head refused to turn away. So he stood there and watched the skeleton saw and saw and saw at the rope. Then, when his other self was at the highest point of the swing’s high-flying arc, the skeleton’s saw split the rope and bit into the bark underneath. The rope went limp; the fluttering tail fell to the grass; the tire kept flying. From here Simon watched in sickened horror as the tire flipped backward and smashed the back of the other Simon’s neck into the ground with the force of a car hitting a wall. Simon felt a frozen shudder tear through his body as the impact crushed the other Simon’s skull, cleaved his spine, and left his body as an annihilated ruin of splashed blood and scattered brain matter. Following this horrible sight, Simon’s paralysis left him for a moment; in this short interval, he looked up and saw the skeleton in the tree staring right at him, the real him, the one standing as a paralyzed spectator to this horrifying vision.
A moment later, Simon heard Manny’s impatient voice calling his name. Following the sound of Manny’s voice, Simon looked to his left and saw his two friends standing next to him, glaring at him with anger. He turned away from them and looked up at the tree branch overhead, but it was empty; the skeleton was gone. And it was in this moment that he understood the terrible hidden message of that awful painting, and of the world itself: the skeletons are invisible. That’s why no one in the painting can fight them off. That’s why no one in the real world can avoid all the awful things that happen every day. That’s why all those businessmen and lawyers and nurses step onto the train just before the derailment. That’s why the boy climbs onto the tire swing just before the rope snaps.
From here Manny started to say something, but Simon silenced him with a hard punch to the arm. Manny let out a surprised yelp of pain and went quiet. In that quiet, Simon closed his eyes and listened for the skeleton. Even if they’re invisible, he thought, they still might make some kind of sound.
A few seconds later, Simon felt a sharp, painful blow to his arm. He looked to his left and saw that Manny had punched him back in retaliation for the earlier hit. Glaring at him with angry expressions, both Evan and Manny told Simon to get onto the damn swing already if he wanted to be pushed at all. When Simon didn’t answer, they told him he had five seconds before he would lose his turn; then they started to count: five, four, threeeee . . . but Simon ignored them and instead looked around the park frantically, trying to find the skeleton, trying to hear where it had gone, to discover any evidence of its departure; but Manny and Evan kept counting. They just didn’t understand what was happening here. They didn’t know what would happen if that skeleton got away.
Soon they shouted, one, zero! and both burst out laughing. Taking a step back in unison, they thrust their fingers in Simon’s face and shouted, you lose! Then Manny turned around and took three long strides toward the tire swing, but this was too much for Simon; he couldn’t bear to witness another horrible accident. He couldn’t listen to the flat, damp crunch of the body impacting the ground, of the bones cleaving apart. Just before Manny reached the tire swing, Simon turned around and ran away.
As Simon ran back to his house, sticky strings of spittle flew from his mouth and slashed across his taut lips and red face. When he finally got home, he tramped up the stairs and stomped, heavy-footed and sore, into the bathroom. Once safely inside, he locked the door and sat on the chilly, closed lid of the toilet. He pressed his knees against his chest. He wrapped his arms around his legs. He interlocked his fingers at his shins. A long, silent moment passed. Then another. It was in this quiet that he realized the bathroom was the only place he felt safe. Because of that awful painting, all the courage he had earned over the summer was worthless. For the first time in his life, the waking world had become even more terrifying than his nightmares.
Simon’s nightmares finally stopped three weeks into the new school year, but his paranoid visions of the skeletons did not. He saw them hiding in the newspaper and on television, in the pictures and descriptions in his textbooks from school. Their dead, fleshy skulls grinned with glee as they pushed helpless people in front of oncoming cars. Their empty black orbits stared with lust as they splashed trails of gasoline from fireplaces to Christmas trees. And their thin, clawed hands worked with precision as they drilled tiny holes in the windows of airplanes flying thirty-thousand feet above the ground.
With each new vision, Simon’s anxiety worsened, and soon his fear expanded into a bottomless chasm from which he could not escape. As the years passed and Simon graduated from middle school and went on to high school, he slinked through life forever on alert for the terrible danger that loomed everywhere he looked. He refused to learn how to drive, due to his fear of an unseen skeleton reaching over his shoulder and steering the car into a wall, impaling him on the steering column. He refused to get a job, due to his fear of the skeletons lacing the fabric of his uniform with flesh-eating bacteria and dissolving his skin from his bones. And he refused to look at colleges, due to his fear of one of the skeletons stashing a fully-loaded rifle in the dorm room of a violent, mentally unstable student.
During these years, the bathroom remained the one stronghold the skeletons could never penetrate. Everything about the room made him feel protected: the gleaming whiteness, the smooth round surfaces, the open visibility; there was nothing overhead except ceiling, nothing terribly dangerous that could destroy his body or ruin his mind. He knew of course that this was not totally true, and that accidents happened in the bathroom all the time, but he believed those accidents were just that: accidents. Just a slip of the foot on slick tile, a slide of the hand on wet porcelain. These were accidents the skeletons didn’t cause. And he could live with that.
But the worst part of it all was the isolation. He couldn’t tell anybody what he saw each day, or what he knew about the skeletons. He didn’t know if the skeletons had the ability to impersonate normal people, so he didn’t dare tell anyone about them. Not his parents, not his friends, not the teachers at school.
In the times of his most desperate, frightened despair, times when he would find himself sitting in the empty bathtub with his knees pressed against his chest, his arms wrapped around his legs, and the hissing wash of the overhead ventilation fan drowning out the sounds of the world, he knew he couldn’t ask for help because he would be labeled as crazy, insane, and mentally ill. He would be laughed at and mocked. He would be called a coward and a pussy. But in these same moments he understood, with lucid clarity, that he had a serious problem. He knew something had gone wrong inside his head, because the rest of the world just didn’t make sense! He couldn’t imagine how it was humanly possible for anyone to laugh or smile or see a movie or go swimming or be happy with the knowledge he had about the skeletons. But that was the problem: he couldn’t stop his mind from seeing the skeletons everywhere he looked, and from fixating on all the horrific deaths they caused each day.
And even when he did somehow manage to work up the courage to step onto the school bus in the morning, he could never escape the violence and death and disaster of the world. At school he was forced to read about the butchering of Native Americans, the blood-drenched crusades, the utter devastation of the world wars, and the deadly science of nuclear weapons.
But since he knew there had to be something wrong with him, and since he could no longer bear the isolation of the bathroom, at the beginning of his senior year of high school, Simon finally gathered the courage to ask his parents to schedule him an appointment with a psychiatrist.
So on a warm Tuesday morning that September, he climbed out of the empty bathtub in which he had spent the night (he no longer slept in his room, it just wasn’t safe), and walked downstairs to where his parents ate breakfast every morning with their respective newspapers. But today they were not sitting in their usual spots at the kitchen table. On this morning, Simon found them both sitting on the couch in the living room, his mother’s hand pressed over her gaping mouth in horrified surprise, his father’s cheeks glowing pink and glistening with two trails of shining tears. Simon watched for a moment as the tears nosed into the gray lawn of stubble clinging to his father’s cheeks; seeing this display of deep emotion from his stoic father, he knew something terrible had happened. So he turned to the television and saw a column of black smoke churning into the sky from the raging fires burning away in not one, but two of the tallest buildings in the city. The moment Simon saw this image he knew it was the work of the skeletons. In an instant he tried to look away from the horrible sight so his brain wouldn’t have time to remember the details, but before he could turn his head, his eyes snapped onto a tiny speck of something falling down the length of the building. As if mirroring his gaze, the TV camera zoomed in on the speck and followed it for a few seconds before abruptly cutting away, back to a static shot of the buildings; but in the snapshot moment before the TV camera cut away, Simon felt a prickling wave of horror sweep across his skin, because he understood that the speck had been a person. Driven by the flames into the cold air, the helpless body tumbling through the blue as fragile as a carton of eggs, weightless for those short seconds, just long enough for that person to understand what was going on, for them to feel the same terror that had been slashed across the contorted faces of the massacred victims in that terrible painting: it was the terror of insight, of knowing; it was a terror borne from the crushing knowledge of the skeletons, of their invincibility, of their omnipresence, of their bottomless hunger for death, of their thirst for the cleansing wash of blood, of their indifference to class and race and age and power and influence and money.
Simon followed the black smoke with his eyes as it climbed into the sky. Eventually his gaze crossed the threshold of the TV screen and he found himself staring at the blank wall behind; only then did he regain control over his thoughts. But it didn’t matter anymore. He knew this was the end. He would never be able to ask his parents for the psychiatrist. He would never be able to tell them the truth about his fears. In this moment he understood he would never again feel safe anywhere in this world, but the bathroom would have to do. There was nothing else he could do. The skeletons could never be defeated, never eluded, never tricked.
Turning around without a word, Simon walked back upstairs. He locked the door, slipped off his clothes, and laid them on the toilet seat. The soap-crusted knobs of the shower squeaked; a ragged bar of cool water crashed against the sloped wall of the tub. Five minutes later, he turned off the water and lay on his back on the floor of the tub. The water swallowed him whole, flooded his ears, and muffled the drone of the overhead ventilation fan. His eyes slipped closed. In his mind he saw the colossal steel height of the burning tower lurching in and out of his vision. He felt his body plunging head over feet as the ground flew up underneath him. After a time, he saw a skeleton float down beside him with a parachute strapped to its narrow, notched spine. The skeleton watched him with its twin dark voids of empty bone, waiting for the moment when body meets ground. Seconds later a red object screamed up beneath him and the world disappeared in a deafening smash of shattering glass.
Simon sat up with a jolt. Cool air licked his forehead, his neck, the point of his dripping chin. For the next few minutes he looked around the tiny room and calculated every weakness, every possible place the skeletons could breach his sanctuary: the toilet, the faucet, the ceiling vent, the showerhead; the bathtub spout, the outlet, the electrical wires, the door. Once finished with this appraisal, he nodded. He can work with this. He can definitely make this work. Cracking his wet knuckles, he realized he wanted the skeletons to come for him. And that was because he would be the first person in history to be ready for them.