There was an old man who liked to do bad things to little children, and he lived on the corner of the street. They called him Skinny Legs because he’d prowl the area in a pair of tight red shorts that revealed far too much of his sagging, sallow thighs. Brown sandals over grey knee-length socks and a musty, cracked leather jacket finished his creepy ensemble. Oh, and there was his sea captain hat – squashed and scuffed, dirty with a dozen different stains, sitting atop his bald head. It was only up-close that you could see the faded green ink of the homemade tattoos that covered his face like some awkward, sprawling birthmark.
Rumour will easily attach itself to such men, who live alone in houses with dirt-streaked windows and nicotine-stained curtains. Those brave enough to venture up to the peeling front door for a peek through his letterbox may have reported seeing any number of unusual things in the gloom. A child’s imagination will quite happily turn a bundle of coats into a hanging collection of human skins, or the eerie whisper of breeze through a hollow house into a muffled cry for help.
There would be those who claimed to have actually spoken to Skinny Legs while on his lecherous journey, though accounts of dialogue were strongly debated. Was it possible for even the most disciplined child to withstand the stench of him? That they could endure that wretched odour of shit, piss and something else too strong to merely be sweat? And what did an old man, who did awful things to the local kids say? He said: Do you love your mum? Do you love your dad? Good, that’s good. And what about me? Do you love me? No, of course not. Well listen to me little one, you listening? One day, when mum and dad pop out to the shops, I’m gonna come by your house. And if I knock at your door, do not let me in, do you understand? Because if I should happen to get into your house, I’m going to hurt you. I’m going to hurt you bad and you’re going to scream. Maybe that’s what he’d say. And, as an afterthought under his foul breath, he might add: keep your doors locked, and stay away from your windows.
For now, just picture this man in your mind, and remember him well.
Today, Jamie is sick with what his mum says is just a cold, but is actually the flu. It could be pneumonia for all she knew, but give the boy some Night Nurse and he’ll sleep it off no problem. He’s tucked up in bed and she’s bored with the TV and, well, the bingo hall is only around the corner. He wasn’t going to wake up anytime soon; he was having one of those still, ill sleeps; his face glowing like a lantern. Cigarette in one hand, clutch bag in the other, she leaves. It’s only down the road, she tells herself. He’ll be all right – he has water by his bed, a roll of tissue, and his room smells so strongly of Vicks that she can breathe easy from downstairs.
Jamie wakes up – not because of the noise in his garden, (no, he didn’t hear that. The fever still had him locked in a dream at that point) but because he needs to pee. On polystyrene legs, Jamie somehow finds the strength to pull himself free of the duvet cocoon and untangle himself from the sweat-soiled bed sheet. Each step brings glassy pain as he pads along to the bathroom, but on the landing he stops. It doesn’t take him long to realise that what he sees isn’t a hallucination, and that borrowed strength, although in short supply, flees his body immediately. Jamie collapses, groping at the banister for support. At the bottom of the stairs there is a man smiling up at him, wearing strange clothes with what looks like felt-tip pen scribbled all over his face. The man slithers up each step, running his yellow fingernails along the wall, licking lips which are shiny with saliva. In his panic, Jamie opens his mouth to scream, but along with his mucus-clogged sinuses, the fear steals his breath. That unreal terror prevents him from standing; his heart is slamming wildly in his chest and black dots keep exploding before his vision and he’s too hot, much too hot and …
… and mercifully, the fever takes him before the man with the skinny legs reaches the top step.
Jamie will not be conscious while Skinny Legs does what he is rumoured to do best. And if there is any good in the world, Jamie will never wake up again, will never have to live with the memory of that man standing over him, with those horrible, dreadful eyes.
Whispers will breed with stories of what happened to Jamie that day, and in time, the tales will dilute and lose their potency. And of course none of it is true, anyway. Just something to tell the kids to keep them quiet and make sure they don’t talk to strangers.
But just in case, always lock the door and stay away from the windows.
WRITTEN BY SAMUEL BONNER
ILLUSTRATED BY JAN MOAT
Samuel Bonner’s debut novel Playground was released through Empiricus Books. He was the runner-up in the This Is Horror and Spectral Press chapbook competition.
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