I never meant for it to happen.
I know what little good that does now but I have to say that every day otherwise I’ll totally lose it. If I don’t remind myself that it was an accident, the careless actions of a little boy who had no idea the hurt he could do, that last shred of sanity will slip away like a scrap of paper caught in the wind.It was 1993. I had recently turned 11, that age where boys start to get hair in strange places and become incredibly mean to somehow compensate for it. I hadn’t gotten it quite yet – the hair nor the meanness – but I could sense it spreading through my classmates like some exotic virus. A few of them shot up a few inches in height, towering over me in gym class; Jeff Porter was sporting what he called a mustache but was really just a few weird kinky sprouts above his lip.
I waited for my own transformation with barely concealed impatience. The only comfort seemed to be that my best friend Kevin was in the same boat, bobbing sadly behind our peers on the treacherous sea of puberty. He used to joke that at least we didn’t smell as bad as the others, and that was true – they all seemed to reek like skunks, as though growing up caused you to develop stink glands along with underarm hair.
I liked Kevin. He could always make me laugh.
I liked him. I never meant for it to happen.
It was late October, a few days before Halloween, when I invited him to my house for one of our weekly sleepovers. We’d been having them since we were little kids and they seemed as natural to me as dinner at 6 o’clock every evening.
“Tomorrow’s Friday,” I told him as the school bus lurched its way towards our stop. “Sleepover at my place?”
Kevin was shouldering his bag when I first saw it, the flicker of unease that passed over his features. For some reason Jeff Porter snickered in the seat behind ours.
“Yeah man. Maybe. I dunno.” Kevin got to his feet before the bus braked, almost sending him hurtling towards the front.
“Yeah, or I dunno?” I looked from Jeff Porter, that shitty mustache like pubes above his lip, and Kevin. Trying to figure out the joke I’d missed. The door of the bus opened with a metallic shriek and Kevin was already down the stairs, around the corner, heading down the street towards our houses. “Hey, wait up!” I called, hurrying after him.
Kevin slowed a little and allowed me to catch up. He watched with wary eyes as the school bus pulled away.
“What’s your problem?” I demanded when I reached him, winded.
He took a moment to choose his words as we walked.
“The sleepovers, Jason. I mean… we’re kinda old for those now, right? Don’t you think?”
I was confused. We were 11, we weren’t too old for anything yet. In fact, I often felt too young – the things I wanted most were usually met with that exact response: R-rated movies, a later bedtime, a sip of dad’s beer.
“No,” I answered flatly, then backpedaled when I saw the distress on his face. “Well, I mean, do you think so?”
Kevin kicked a rock without enthusiasm.
“Maybe. It’s just, I dunno, a baby sort of thing. We did it when we were kids, we’re in middle school now.” He shrugged a little, then looked back up at me. “Jeff Porter has a mustache.”
“Jeff Porter eats shit,” I spat, angrier than I meant to be, but it made Kevin laugh so that was good. I was still trying to figure out what was happening here.
“Sure, you’re right about that,” he said, grinning. “I just mean things are changing, you know? Things are gonna be different and we gotta be ready. If the other guys find out we’re still having sleepovers, they’re gonna say–” Kevin stopped abruptly. That look was back on his face. I didn’t like it.
“They’re gonna say what?” I stopped walking. After a few steps, Kevin stopped too and turned back to me.
“Never mind.” He sighed deeply, then put a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t like that either, like he was so much older and wiser than me. My birthday was a month before his, for god’s sake. “One last one? One last sleepover, tomorrow night, we’ll do it right with popcorn and movies and shit. Like old times.”
“Okay,” I said, even though I wasn’t aware the old times had passed. I thought old times wouldn’t be a real thing because Kevin was my best friend and isn’t the saying best friends forever? Isn’t that what the bracelets say?
Bullshit. Only girls get those dumb things, I guess.
“Okay,” Kevin agreed, and then we walked the rest of the way home like everything was fine. Like old times.
Friday night came and so did Kevin. He brought his faded old red duffel bag, just like always. My mom made pizza rolls for dinner – she was unaware that this was THE LAST SLEEPOVER, as I’d come to think of it in important capital letters, but she was a great mom and she also rented a VHS copy of “The Mighty Ducks” for us. We made popcorn. We watched “The Mighty Ducks”. We laughed.
You’d think I’d remember the good parts the most clearly, right? That those cherished memories would’ve been etched in my mind forever so I could, at least, relive those last moments of my childhood when I most needed them.
Nope. Not fair, but still, nope.
The night had reached that wonderful time when parents went to bed and the sleepover went on, the door to my bedroom closed and our voices lowered. We could stay up for hours this way and often did. It made me sad to know this was the last time, that from now on I’d be staying up late without anyone else for company on Friday nights, no one to read comics with by flashlight or ask, “Are you still awake?” long after we should’ve been.
I wanted it to go on forever. I didn’t want to go to sleep and have it be done with. THE LAST SLEEPOVER.
I came up with the idea while Kevin was in the bathroom. We could tell scary stories. That always got us wired up, too scared to go to sleep but too brave to admit it. It would get me a few extra hours with Kevin, at least. And that’s all I really wanted.
“Okay, scary stories,” I said when he came back into the bedroom, situating himself inside the sleeping bag beside mine. It read ‘KEVIN’ in big bold Sharpie letters near the part where it unzipped because his mother was convinced someone would steal it when he went to sleepaway camp three years ago. I knew that because we were friends and friends told each other everything, like how their mothers ruined their sleeping bag.
“Jason.” He said it in that same infuriating tone that he had used when we were walking home. Like he knew so much more than me.
“We haven’t told any in a long time,” I protested. “Listen, I’ve got some really good ones, I’ll go first–”
“Jason–” Looking at the clock.
“There was this couple who went to park at Lookout Point to make out–”
Now he gave me a smug glance.
“Hook on the handle.”
I thought for a minute.
“So this girl is at a party and they dare her to go to the graveyard–”
“She put the knife through her skirt and thought it was a ghost and died of fright.”
“Dammit, Kevin,” I said, frustrated. He laughed.
“That one’s stupid anyway. Who dies of being scared? Not even possible.”
“Okay, shut up, I know I’ve got a good one. Let me think.” I was losing him and I knew it. I rifled through my mental files and folders, trying to come up with the right thing that would keep his attention, that would keep him awake.
“I’ve heard all your stories,” Kevin said, turning over in his sleeping bag.
And then I had it. A new story, one I’d heard over the summer when he was at sleepaway camp with his ruined sleeping bag and I was at Boy Scout camp. Kevin wasn’t a Boy Scout so he wouldn’t have heard it. I was sure that would get him.
“Bet you’ve never heard of the Skinstealer,” I said slyly. Kevin, who’d turned his back on me, was quiet for a moment.
I straightened a little and cleared my throat, assuming the role of the storyteller. This one couldn’t be rushed. I had to tell it good.
“Okay. Legend has it that there was this undertaker, a really weird dude.”
“Most undertakers are weird,” Kevin muttered, his back still to me.
“But this guy was extra weird. Real skinny, real tall. He lived in the basement of the funeral home where he worked and he never left. For a long time people left him alone and didn’t bother him unless, you know, someone they knew died. Then they used his services. And he was pretty good at it. Even though he was weird, people said he could make their dead family members look almost like they were ready to get up out of their caskets and walk away.”
I paused for dramatic effect. Kevin didn’t say anything. He didn’t move. I went on.
“What they didn’t know was that he was sick. He had some sort of blood disease, or maybe cancer. Whatever it was was eating him away. He was getting skinnier, looking worse all the time. And then came the car accident. That’s what started it, they think.”
Kevin rolled over in his sleeping bag and stared at me. It felt good to have his attention. I went on like I hadn’t noticed.
“Someone brought in their daughter who’d been killed in a car wreck. The undertaker worked on her for days and finally told the family that she was too mangled in the accident to fix properly. He suggested a closed casket funeral, and the family agreed.” I paused again.
“And?” he asked.
“And,” I said, “suddenly, every funeral was a closed casket. Every body that was brought to him, he said he’d ‘done his best’ but they just weren’t fit for viewing. Some people thought it was because he was getting sicker, that he had lost his touch. They were partly right.”
“Finally, one family brought him a woman who had died pretty young in childbirth. They said she was beautiful in life and she was beautiful even when she had died and they wanted to see her. He tried to stop them from opening the casket but it was too late.”
“What was inside?” Kevin asked. His eyes were wide.
“Nothing but bones,” I said, and his eyes widened a little more. “Bones and stones to weigh the casket down. See, he’d been taking each dead body and stripping the skin from it. He still did his undertaker duties by disposing of the organs and the blood, but all he left was the bones.” I licked my lips, then added, “They found the skin he’d stolen from all the bodies. It was in the basement. He’d sewn all the pieces into a big blanket with thick black thread connecting each patch, like a quilt.”
“Shit,” said Kevin.
“Shit is right,” I agreed.
“Why’d he do it?”
“That’s the thing. When they asked him why, he said, ‘I’m so cold, and it keeps me warm at night.’ And then, he said, ‘They weren’t using it anyway.’”
“Jeez.” Kevin seemed to consider this, then sat up in his sleeping bag. “So what happened to him?”
“People say he just disappeared, but some think that members of the town got together and took care of him on their own. You know, as revenge for what he did to their loved ones. They swore each other to secrecy and to this day, the Skinstealer walks the night, looking for more skin for his blanket. He’s still… so… COLD!”
When I shouted ‘cold’ I grabbed Kevin by the shoulders, executing the classic jump scare at the end of our ghost stories. You didn’t do it every time, see, because they’d sense it coming. But if the story was good enough, and you did it just right, it could be both terrifying and hilarious.
Kevin jerked out of my hands, a look of disgust on his face.
“Don’t!” he spat.
I felt like I’d been slapped. Maybe he thought about it. He looked like he wanted to.
“What is your problem, man?” I demanded, trying to sound angry rather than close to tears.
Kevin ran a hand through his hair, exhaled sharply, then looked up at me. His face was softer now but he still looked different, just like the day before on the bus. Just like he’d looked since school started, if I was honest with myself. Something had happened. Where was my friend? The person I knew?
“Look,” he began, and from that very first word I knew it was going to hurt. “We… I don’t think we should hang out so much anymore, okay?”
I sat there. My palms were sweating onto the crinkly material of my sleeping bag but I didn’t move, didn’t want to betray how I was feeling.
Kevin waited for me to say something. When it became apparent we were in a standoff, he sighed again.
“You’re just… you’re too close to me. People notice. Guys in class notice. They think – they say we’re—“
“I’m not gay,” I said, but it was just the first thing out of my mouth. I didn’t know yet, hadn’t had that special moment where I knew if I liked girls or guys, I just knew I liked Kevin, and at that very moment Kevin was tearing my heart out of my chest.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kevin said, waving a hand in the air like he was swatting away a fly. “They’re calling us fags, they’ve been calling us that since school started up again this fall and I can’t take it anymore. I could actually be popular if it weren’t for this, you know? Until they started calling you my boyfriend I actually had a shot getting Christy Wilkins to the Halloween Dance.”
“Who gives a shit about Christy Wilkins?” The words burst out of me like I’d been holding my breath the entire time he was speaking. Maybe I was.
“You’re being selfish, Jason! You can have other friends, we just can’t hang out anymore, until maybe they drop the whole gay thing—“
“I don’t want other friends!” I said, and now I was sure he could hear the tears in my voice, they were threatening to spill and wouldn’t that be fucking grand, he’d all but called me a faggot to my face and there I sat weeping like a little girl. I tried to turn the situation back to my stupid scary story, desperate for the distraction. “I didn’t even tell you the best part about the Skinstealer, the part where you summon him like Bloody Mary—“
“I don’t want to hear the rest of the story, Jason,” Kevin said, and he sounded very tired, and at that moment I thought I could kill him. I really did.
I liked him. I liked him so much.
We stared at each other for what felt like a very long time. Finally I opened my mouth and even though I was sure I was about to start sobbing, what came out instead was, “Okay.”
Relief flooded Kevin’s face.
“Yeah,” I said, my voice seeming very far away and very small. “It’s fine. This is the last one anyway. The last sleepover. It’s fine. It was fun.”
“It was,” he agreed. I felt it again, the cold stab of hatred because I liked him and he was abandoning me, he was turning his back on me just like when I’d started to tell the Skinstealer story.
“It’s fine,” I said again.
“Cool. Thanks man. I know it sucks, but I bet if we don’t walk home together, if we just kinda back off—“
“—they’ll back off too and maybe we can hang out again.” He was settling back into his sleeping bag. He was going to sleep. He was going to sleep while I was breaking in two.
“Maybe,” I echoed, and I pretended like I was going to sleep too, I rolled over in my sleeping bag and turned my back to him and Kevin said something else but I didn’t hear him because my heartbeat was pounding thick in my ears and I’d already decided what I was going to do next.
It was really stupid. It was a dumb, stupid thing to do but I was angry and it wasn’t supposed to work.
I waited until Kevin fell asleep, listened for his deep measured breaths, then slipped from my sleeping bag and tip-toed to the bathroom. I didn’t switch on the light, and that was scary, but I didn’t switch it on because you were supposed to do it in the dark.
I gripped the clammy edges of the sink to ground myself. I stared into the darkness where I knew the mirror was. I inhaled through my nose.
“Skinstealer skinstealer, come and steal my skin today. Skinstealer skinstealer, I wasn’t using it anyway.”
I said the stupid rhyme three times. It’s what the kids at camp said you were supposed to do, if you were brave enough. It was supposed to be a dare. If you could do it, you were brave.
Then I did the last part.
“Kevin,” I said, because you were supposed to say your own name. So he would know whose skin to steal.
It was stupid, like I said. But I stood there for a long time. I wanted the Skinstealer to come and scare Kevin, I wanted him to be scared by my story and I wanted him to pay just a little bit, maybe cry like I almost did. The idea felt good, like a warm heavy stone in the palm of my hand.
I wanted him to be scared because I was scared. I didn’t have any friends now, no one on my shitty boat anymore, everyone thought I was gay and what if I actually was gay, what if they were right? It was all too much to take at once and I was fucking terrified.
The story wasn’t clear on how the summoning was supposed to work. That’s the problem with urban legends, I guess, they end up twisted and parts fall off and get lost, no one remembers how they got started in the first place. The Skinstealer was just supposed to come.
But of course he wouldn’t, so I turned on the light and took a leak before going back to the bedroom.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the door was how dreadfully cold my room had become. I thought maybe the window was open, maybe Kevin had cracked it a little when I went to the bathroom, but Kevin hadn’t moved from his sleeping bag.
The second thing I noticed was the dark form crouched over him.
My mouth fell open and a dry little gasp popped out. I couldn’t have stopped it any more than one can stop their own heartbeat, but the form turned towards me with a sharp snap of their head.
He was beyond skinny, beyond gaunt – the angles of his face were severe, cheekbones standing out like rocky crags. His eyes were set deep in his head. The circles surrounding them were dark and puffy, painful looking. His thin lips curled out, giving them a grotesquely seductive pout. He was bald. Moonlight shone off the stretched-tight skin of his skull. He reminded me of the photos in our history books when we learned about the Holocaust.
Around his shoulders was something that resembled a quilt of many squares. The squares were uneven, different shades and textures. They faded as they reached his shoulders, as though those pieces were the oldest. Those looked like they would feel like paper if you could bear to touch them.
The Skinstealer’s livery lips parted, revealing a crooked row of teeth that made me think of old tilted headstones in untended graveyards. He pointed at the Sharpied name on the sleeping bag where Kevin lay slumbering.
“Kev-iiiinnnnnnnnn,” he whispered, drawing out the last syllable. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever heard. I was afraid he’d never stop and the sound would drive me crazy.
“Yeah,” I said when it finally did. “It’s fine.”
He grinned again. I think it was a grin. All those crooked, tilted teeth.
“Good little patches,” he murmured, turning back to Kevin and releasing me from that hideous smile. “Good little patches for my blanket, he will make good little patches. He will be warm. He is not using it anyway.” I couldn’t see what he had but there was a quiet sound of metal on metal as the Skinstealer fished out some sort of tools and all at once I knew what was going to happen and I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not going to lie to myself because I can’t, I was happy to hear those tools coming out of his bag because I liked Kevin and Kevin had hurt me.
Kevin never cried out. I don’t know if he even woke up. The Skinstealer worked quickly and quietly, his bony fingers moving with the fluid ease of someone very good at what they do. Then the wet, slippery sounds started and everything began to grey at the edges and I fainted dead away just as he peeled a long flap of skin off of my best friend’s limp, lifeless forearm.
I didn’t see what happened after that because when I woke up, the Skinstealer was gone. Kevin was gone.
There was a small bulge under the sleeping bag, just near where it read “Kevin”. Other than that my bedroom was just as neat as you please, no evidence that anyone had ever been there at all.
It was almost 2 in the morning and it was freezing outside but I took the bones to the woods that edged my backyard. It took me almost an hour to dig the hole but it wasn’t too bad because the Skinstealer had made it easy, Kevin was in good little pieces and the hole didn’t have to be that big to fit all his bones. I buried them deep. I did it like I’d been doing it all my life, then I went inside and washed off the shovel. I washed my hands. I took another leak and I went back to bed.
In the morning, when I woke up at 10am (customary for most Saturdays), I asked my parents if they knew where Kevin was.
I don’t know if they ever found him. I guess not, since after we moved away we never heard anything from his parents again. His mother, clutching his sleeping bag where it still read “Kevin” in big Sharpie letters, wept to my mother and said she had been worried about him lately. Since school started he’d been moody, unlike his usual cheerful demeanor. She blamed herself for not seeing the signs. She thought he’d run away but she was sure he’d be back, 11 is such a difficult age for boys, their changing bodies and their confused minds. He had just turned 11 and he was going to come back.
I know you don’t believe me but I never meant for it to happen. Kevin was my friend. I liked him.
I liked him so much.
I have to live with it every day, the fact that I killed my best friend because I was angry that fear had driven him away from me. I have to look at my face in the mirror and know what I did.
And each time I do, each time I grip the edges of my sink and stare deeply into my reflection, I have to stop myself from switching off the light and saying the words. The words that will make my bedroom dreadfully cold, will conjure the Skinstealer from whatever dark realm he exists in until he’s called upon by someone stupid enough to issue a dare.
Because when I do, I know I’ll say my own name this time.