The Skeleton Man

A message blared over the school PA system. A monotonous female voice.

Lock out commencing in ten minutes.

This wasn't a drill or anything. They just did this every day. Every day at nine all the school gates shut and locked. You had to be within school grounds before the nine o' clock lockdown. Otherwise they wouldn't let you in.

I walked over to the lobby outside the art room, where I usually waited for my best friend Stanley. Stanley was already there, bouncing a basketball against a brick wall. He was standing stiffly, his eyes locked onto each movement of the ball. I was about to call out 'hey, what's up?' when I noticed the cause of his discomfort – Jerk and Moron were hanging around the stairs. Well, their real names are Jack and Monty, but we call them Jerk and Moron because Jack's a moron and Monty's a jerk.

"Hey, bugger off!" I called out to them, borrowing a phrase from my dad. They just cackled at me.

"Oh, it's her," Moron rolled his eyes. They never referred to me by name, not even with an offensive nickname. Stanley said I was lucky because of that, but sometimes it felt even more hurtful not being called anything.

Jerk strode up and shoved Stanley. "Need a little girl to pick all your fights, Mousey?"

"Hell yeah," I said, coming up to him, "he's a professional fighter, and I'm his secretary. I can schedule you in for a fight with him, but we'll need a mop and lots of plaster casts – for you."

Instead of a witty repartee, in response I got a ball of scrunched up ball of paper to the cheek.

"Shove off, sister," Moron said.

"I'm not your sister," I glared. "Though your mum probably wishes I was her kid, instead of you."

This time I got a glob of spit to the shoulder, before the boys burst into laughter and sprinted off. Oh yuuuuck. My stomach was churning but I somehow managed to look calm and cool. I hope.

Stanley snarled silently after those retreating cowards, then looked at me with tired concern.

"Are you okay, Margot?" Without waiting for a reply he pulled out some tissues to help me wipe off the boy slime.

"Yeah, I think so. Actually no, I think their saliva's contaminated with all kinds of infectious germs. I think I'm going to grow lots of greasy hair all over my body and turn into one of them."

"Heh. Seriously, Margot, you don't have to get involved in my fights."

"Why not? I'm your friend, that's what friends are supposed to do."

"Because you don't have to. They don't have a problem with you, they have a problem with me."

He had a point. He was an easy target for bullying. Some of those nasty boys in our year level teased him and called him 'mousey', I think because he's small and has really fluffy greyish brown hair. But I think he's the bravest boy I know in school because one time they dared him to go into the haunted house at the end of Hyde Row, and he did even though he was crying and he stayed in there even after there was a thumping sound from the second storey. He stayed in there a full twenty minutes even, and when he came out he was pale and his eyes were slightly crossed but he didn't even scream or say anything scared him, in fact he didn't say anything at all, even when we called his name. Later, a doctor even said he'd suffered a bad concussion and he didn't even react because he's so brave. I reckon those boys just teased him because they're jealous because they were too scared to go into the house. If one of them got a concussion they would probably pee their pants from being so scared.

"It's still not right," I said. "It's always two of them against one of you. You need two people for it to be fair, you need me."

"Fighting is never fair, no matter how many people are involved."

"I guess so. But what am I supposed to do?"

"You could tell a teacher while it's happening. They might believe me if they witnessed it."

I scoffed. "What are they going to do? Wag their fingers at us? You know what they should do?" I said suddenly, excitedly, "On people like Jerk and Moron they should use pepper spray, like the cops on TV."

"If they did that they'd get sued."

"I wish Mr. Cole would get sued," I said, and Stanley nodded. It was a common fact that Mr. Cole was a crud teacher. He would 'accidently' drop a pencil or something in front of the older girls and when he bent to pick it up he would sneak a look down their tops on the way down. He would then sneak a look up their skirts on the way back up.

Together we took turns bouncing the ball off the brick wall. Nearby I heard a couple of much younger girls playing a hand clapping game in time to a song I'd heard kids handclap to only a zillion times before. In full it goes:

In darkness when the moon won't show

I knock 3 times on my window

And if I wait and watch and stand

In will come the skeleton man

I've heard variations of it but that was the most common version.

"That's not even really true," Stanley said suddenly. "Apparently the skeleton man has wings so he doesn't even need permission to come into your house. He just flies onto the roof and climbs down the chimney."

"He sounds related to Santa Claus," I said, trying to act unimpressed, but on the inside I was a little creeped out. "Who said he could fly, anyway?"

"Jeremy Fischer. And you know what else he told me? He told me that he's seen the skeleton man with his own eyes."

"Where? In his house?"

"No, but near his house. Did you go to his birthday party last year? You know how he lives near that swamp? He said he saw a tall skinny pale man walking around there one evening."

"So? That could have been anyone."

"He said the man was naked though. What kind of person walks around naked?"

"On Upper Side? Like no one. But if you include Lower End, I'm not so sure."

Stanley nodded in agreement. "My dad says there's a lot of weirdos in Lower End."

"Freddy Johannes is from Lower End," I began in a low voice. "Remember, how he kept throwing the tennis ball up into the air when we were learning about gravity, and it kept hitting him in the head, and when the teacher asked what he was doing he said 'I'm Newton'. And then the tennis ball cracked a hole in the ceiling which kept getting bigger until a person could fit through it. And when they finally hired a repairman to fix it on the weekend they found Freddy up there crawling around in an air conditioning duct, hissing and clawing, and he said 'I'm a raccoon'.

Stanley nodded again. "He's definitely from Lower End."

A voice chimed out over the PA system. Lock out has commenced.

We heard, from far off, the grind and clank of the mechanical locking system of the school gates. It was nine o' clock. A yard monitor then approached us, Ms. Gibson, wearing a fluorescent yellowish-green vest, like all the other teachers wore every day. Around her neck was a lanyard with keys and a whistle. The vest made her look impressive, but that was practically all it was good for. Most of the teachers at my school were pretty bad at actually getting the kids to follow discipline.

"What are you children doing all the way over here?" she chided us. Then she stopped and fixed us with a long piercing look. "Get off to class. You better hurry. Run."

Without a word we grabbed up the ball and hurried away. It was better not to argue, unless you really liked the taste of garlic. As we drew close to the other students, forming lines outside their classrooms, I threw a cursory look over my shoulder. Ms. Gibson was just standing there, still staring at us.

After school I got my homework done earlier than usual, so my parents let me watch TV longer than I was usually allowed. In actual fact, I was given no homework that day, but my parents didn't have to know that part. In the evening they were going to some meeting, and weren't going to be back until it was quite late. They didn't want me to be home on my own unsupervised, despite my protests, but they liked my suggestion for Stanley to come over. I knew this was because he's a boy and I'm a girl and the only child and my parents are protective over me and he's supposed to look out for me and yada yada whatever, but I said 'yay!' because we were nearly done building the tree house out in the orchard, and once it was finished it was going to be super awesome.

Stanley's mum dropped him off at our house around four thirty. We went out into the orchard and got to work on the tree house. We only had to finish painting it now, and we had to hang the sign on the front, which said 'Secret HQ' in big bright red letters that stood out for miles. When it got dark we trudged back inside and watched TV. Stanley's older brother dropped us off some takeaway around seven o'clock. When the movie we were watching ended it was around nine o'clock, which meant that it was still an hour until my parents would get home. So we went into my bedroom and Stanley tried to teach me poker, which his older brother had taught him. Either he was a bad player or his brother was, because he kept getting the rules mucked up. Eventually I suggested we see who could make the biggest house of cards and keep it standing. Stanley gave up quickly because he – no offense – sucked at building card houses, so I worked alone to try to make a big house using all the cards. I didn't use all the cards, but I did end up making a pretty impressive little manor. I stood up and moved away from it so as not to disturb it.

"Hey, check this out," I said, looking around for Stanley. He was peering between the curtains, looking out the window. He didn't move.

"What are you looking at?" I asked.

"There's no moon tonight," he said conspiratorially. I waited for him to turn and admire my card house, but he didn't.

"Yeah. So?"

He smirked back at me. "I dare you to summon the skeleton man."

I rolled my eyes. "Pfft. Why don't you summon him?"

"What, are you too scared?" Without waiting for a sarcastic response from me, he yanked the curtains right open, revealing the backyard, the blue-grey lawn, barred with the stretched shadows of trees. The night sky glittered from between the trees, and I quickly scanned it for the reassuring white orb I knew I wouldn't find. The trees stirred at a gentle wind. Thankfully, Stanley had his back turned to me again, and didn't see me jump.

"Close the curtains already," I grumbled, "I'm way too old for this."

"I'll close them if you do it," he said firmly. I stared at him dubiously but he didn't relent. I expelled a gush of air.

"Okay. Fine."

I took measured steps toward the huge black rectangle of the window, until the transparent reflection of the bedroom faded and the backyard beyond the glass became clear. Lifting my hand, I knocked three times, slowly, against the glass pane. I moved my hand gently but the sound was still hard and cut through the quiet. After the third knock, I unconsciously took a step back, but Stanley put a hand on my shoulder to still me. I stiffened.

"You have to watch. You have to stay right up against the window so you can see your whole backyard," he reminded. "It's no good if he comes but you miss him."

I sighed, keeping my gaze on the backyard. "How long do I have to watch for?"

"A whole minute," he said ultra slow, making it sound like a million years. I inhaled deeply, and was embarrassed to hear my breath tremble. Behind me, Stanley's soft footsteps retreated until he'd sat down on the end of my bed.

"How long has it been?"

"Ten seconds."

I started counting; eleven, twelve, thirteen...

We were both silent and still. When I reached thirty I heard a tiny flutter on the ground a little behind me and to my left. The house of cards had collapsed.

"Did you move?" I said quietly.

"No," he replied. "How weird."

My chest tightened. Outside, the trees shivered. After working to unclench my jaw, I asked him, "How long has it been now?"

"Um...forty seconds I think."

"This is so dumb," I said, after forty seven. My eyes had since adjusted to the dark outside. I could make out the yard in more detail, though it was hard to say that it made things any better.

As I hit sixty, I heard the bedroom door groan. The sneaky idiot was trying to escape! He thought I was going to shove him for making me do that. I twisted my head right around, but Stanley was still sitting on the bed, and he was staring at the door. My parents weren't home yet either.

"Who...?" I began, but my throat dried out before I finish.

The door kept moving inward at the slowest pace. It had a horrible dull creak, like the soft moan of pain of an elderly man.

"Holy..." Stanley whispered.

We both remained rooted in place as the door opened wider, wider, and finally gaped to expose the darkened empty hallway. I sidestepped to the side of the window and pulled the cord, closing the curtains again.

"Close the door," I said, then added lamely, "It's cold."

Stanley warily obeyed, and then inspected the pile of cards. "Damn," he said. "Hey, do you want to make a really huge elaborate house of cards, but secretly keep it together with see-through tape and show your parents?"

"Okay."

"With towers and turrets and stuff."

"Cool. We can take a picture of it to show and tell."

Unfortunately, my parents came home before we could finish it, and when my mum walked into the room, half of the structure fell to bits. My dad shortly dropped Stanley off home. It was eleven o' clock, and my mum told me to go to bed.

I lay in my bed, unable to fall asleep for a little while. I heard my dad come home, some faint clattering in the kitchen, and then quiet. Outside, the wind rose, wailed, and then dropped. Every time I hoped it had died, it started again. There was also a quiet knocking sound against the window.

Tap tap tap...tap tap tap...

It was probably just a branch rapping against the window. But I didn't want to push the curtain aside and make sure.

The next day, before class, I met with Stanley. He looked very serious. He stared hard at me as if searching for something in my expression.

"What is it?" I said.

"Did you hear what happened last night?" he said staidly.

"No. What?"

Lock out has commenced.

He looked at the ground. "Um...I'll tell you during recess." He began to walk very quickly towards he line-up area. I chased after him.

"Oh, come on!"

"No, seriously. I'll tell you later." He was off with his own troubled thoughts, blocking me out. It scared me. He never acted like this.