Charlie Bumpers vs. the Squeaking Skull (4 page)

9
The Long-Fingered Man

The next day was Friday.

Only one week until Halloween, and still no costume!

Everybody in class talked about what they were going to wear. Sam Marchand told me about some kid who was going as a rhinoceros, which sounded like a winner. But I knew my idea was great, if I could only figure out how to do it.

I could have done something easier.

But I wanted to be a bat.

That night, our family played a board game together and watched a movie and then it was time for bed. After Mom and Dad said good night,
I turned off the lamp on my bedside table and snuggled down under the covers. Ginger curled up right by my bed like she usually did.

Just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard my door creak open. Someone came over to my bed and grabbed my shoulder.

I kept my eyes shut.

“Hey,” Matt said.

“What is it?” I said.

“Are you ready?”

“For what?”

“Your first de-scaring. We only have a week to get this done.”

I wasn’t sure I really wanted to be de-scared right then. “Maybe tomorrow morning,” I said.

“No,” Matt said. “You can’t do it during the daytime. You have to do it at night when it’s already a little bit scary.”

“I’m kind of tired,” I said, sitting up in my bed. “Will it take long?”

“Not tonight,” he said. “We’ll just start off with
a shorter, slightly scary story. They’ll get scarier and longer as the week goes on, until finally they’re absolutely bloodcurdling and terrifying.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but maybe by then I would be de-scared enough not to care.

“Okay,” I said. I reached over and turned on my lamp.

Matt switched it off again. “We need it nice and dark.”

“Then I want Ginger up here on the bed to protect me.”

“No!” Matt hissed. “You have to be alone for it to work!”

I lay back and pulled the covers up to my ears. “Okay,” I said. “I’m ready, but hurry. And don’t wake me up completely, or I’ll have trouble falling asleep.”

“All right,” Matt said. “Here we go.” He slid closer to me on the bed and lowered his voice. “Many years ago, there was this guy who lived over on Fernglade, and he—”

“Fernglade?” I said. “I know where that is. It’s just a couple of blocks over, close to Tommy’s.”

“Exactly. That’s where this happened. This guy lived all by himself and he never came out of his house unless he absolutely had to, because—”

“Wait,” I said. I was really awake now. “Is this true? Are you just making this up?”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“Really?”

“Yes, the house is still there. It’s painted white now, but when he lived in it, it was painted all black.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

He shrugged. “All right. But you’d be a lot better off if you knew about this house in case you walk over there. Want me to go on?”

“Okay,” I said, “but don’t make it too much scarier.”

“I’m just telling you what happened. So, there was this guy who lived all alone in the big black house and almost never came out. He was really, really thin. So thin that if he stood sideways he almost
disappeared. You’d barely notice he was there, and he could sneak up on people without them—”

“Wait,” I said. “I thought you said he never went outside.”

“I said ‘almost never.’ And anyway, no one ever saw him go outside because he was so thin. And he was really quiet, too.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, who was this guy?”

“I’ll tell you if you’ll just listen. His name was Simon Purslip.”

“That’s a weird name.”

“He was a very weird guy. The most important thing about him was his hands. You see, they were not normal …”

Matt stopped talking. The room was dark but the door was open a little and some light from the hall was shining through the crack. I looked around for Ginger but couldn’t see her. Matt was holding up his hands and slowly waggling his fingers. I wanted to shut my eyes, but I couldn’t help looking. “Instead of five fingers on each hand,” he whispered, “Simon
Purslip had six, and his index fingers were really long.”

“How long?” I whispered.

He held up his index fingers and moved them back and forth in front of my face. “A foot long.
Twelve long inches.
And he would slide up to someone, ever so quietly, and he would take those long fingers and he would … WRAP THEM AROUND YOUR NECK!”

Matt reached over and grabbed ahold of my neck like he was going to strangle me.

“AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!” I screamed.

I jerked up, my heart pounding out of my chest, and knocked Matt off the bed. He hit his head against my nightstand and landed on the floor with a big thump. Ginger started barking.

“OWWW!” Matt yelled, but
then he started to laugh. “You should have seen the look on your face!”

“It’s not funny!” I screeched.

The overhead light switched on. Dad was standing in the doorway. I was sitting up in bed clutching my pillow and Matt was rolling around on the floor, holding his head and laughing. Ginger was still barking.

“What in the name of Pete are you two goofballs doing?” Dad asked.

Neither of us answered. My brother was still crouched face-down on the floor, rocking back and forth, moaning and laughing at the same time.

“Matt, get out of Charlie’s room and let him sleep. And Charlie, quit beating up your older brother. It’s not nice.”

“I’m not beating him up,” I said. “He hit his head.”

“Whatever,” Dad said. “No more funny stuff or you’re both in big trouble.” Then he turned off the light and left.

Matt got up. Ginger came over and licked my face.

“I didn’t like that,” I said in the dark.

“Wait until tomorrow night,” he said, still holding his head. “It will be even scarier.”

10
Completely Creepy

When my mom hung up, she didn’t look happy. I had been standing there for a long time, waiting for her to get off the phone. “Mom, can you help me with my costume?”

“What?” she asked, like she hadn’t heard me.

“My costume! I told you about making me a bat costume. We only have a few days left until Halloween.”

She shook her head. “Charlie, I don’t know how much time I’ll have. The agency just called and they’re short on nurses. I’m going to have to work a couple of weeknights this week, and probably next weekend.”

“On Halloween?”

“I hope not, but I can’t promise anything.”

“What about my costume?” I asked.

“Maybe we could pick something up at the store. Wouldn’t you like that?”

When I was little I used to pester my mom about getting a costume from the store because I thought they were cooler. But not now. I would never win the contest with a store-bought costume.

“But you’re going to help Mabel with hers,” I said.

“Yes.” I could tell by the frown on her face that she was feeling bad. “But that’s easy. Making a bunch of grapes is just attaching purple balloons to a purple turtleneck. Your costume sounds kind of complicated.”

“But, Mom!” I whined.

“I don’t know, Charlie. I’ll try to find some time. We’ll see.”

There was that answer again.
We’ll see.

“Okay,” I said in a way to let her know that it wasn’t okay.

That night, Matt snuck into my room again and perched on the edge of my bed, holding a flashlight. He turned it on and shone it under his face, which made him look completely creepy. “Time for the next chapter in ‘Simon Purslip, the Long-Fingered Man,’” he said, speaking in a low, raspy voice.

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t think this—”

“Come on,” he said. “Don’t give up so soon. It just takes a little time. That was a good start last night, but you didn’t even really hear the story. You freaked out before I could finish it.”

“Okay,” I muttered. “But no wrapping your hands around my neck.”

“But that’s what the Long-Fingered Man does,” Matt said. “It’s part of the story.”

“Just tell me, don’t do it. And turn off the flashlight.”

“Sorry, it’s part of the de-scaring process,” Matt said. “Are you ready?”

“Sort of,” I said.

“I told you that Simon Purslip lived alone. But he didn’t always. Once, he was normal. He was married and he had a son. And he had a good job, working for a secret government organization that tracked bad guys.”

“Was he skinny then?”

“No,” Matt said. “Let me tell the story.”

Ginger got up and walked out of the room. I guess she wanted to sleep.

“So,” Matt went on, “one day his wife and his son, who was nine years old, went missing. One of the bad guys had kidnapped them. Simon asked the government people to look for them, but they
wouldn’t help. After a while, he quit his job. He began to get really weird and stayed in the house a lot. He got angrier and angrier, but in a quiet way.”

I thought the idea of being angry in a quiet way was really disturbing. Who knew what an angry quiet guy might do?

Matt leaned really close to me. “Then, people started seeing him out at night, walking up and down the streets, like he was looking for someone.”

I was definitely getting freaked out. “Is this almost over?” I asked again.

Matt moved the flashlight a little closer to his chin. “Not long after that,” he whispered, “strange things started happening. This kid who was exactly nine years old was walking his dog one night, and just when he least expected it … AAAAAHHHH!”

Matt yelled really loud—right in my face.

I screamed bloody murder. “AAAAAAHHH!”

Matt started laughing. Ginger bounded in and started barking.

My heart was beating like crazy. “I didn’t know
you were going to yell so loud,” I said. “That wasn’t funny!”

“It wasn’t supposed to be funny. It was supposed to scare your pajamas off. Mission accomplished. You’re almost cured.”

Then he got up and walked out before Mom or Dad could catch him.

Stupid older brothers. I really couldn’t tell if Matt was de-scaring me or just enjoying himself. I made Ginger get on the bed with me, then settled back on my pillow and shut my eyes tight. I hoped I wouldn’t dream about the Long-Fingered Man. Or the Shrieking Skull. Or even the squeaking skull.

Or all of them together in one dream. Yikes.

11
She Loves Weird Stuff

On the way into school Monday morning, I talked to Tommy about my costume. “I’ve got this great idea, but I don’t think my mom is going to help me.”

“Bummer,” said Tommy.

“Is your mom going to let you glue hair on your face?”

“I hope so,” Tommy said. “But I might have to do it by myself.”

I nodded. Moms usually didn’t glue hair on their children’s faces. Or make bat wings.

“I can’t do the bat wings myself,” I said. “I need someone who doesn’t mind doing weird stuff and is
good with costumes and things like that.”

“You need a weird grown-up,” Tommy agreed.

As soon as he said that, I knew who to ask. I looked at Tommy. His eyes were open wide and he had a big smile on his face. I could tell he was thinking the same thing. We both said it at the same time.

“Ms. Bromley!”

“Yeah!” Tommy said. “She’ll help you.”

“Fabulous!”

“Tremendous!” Tommy cackled.

“Tremabulous!” I said. “I’ll ask her after lunch. She always hangs out in the art room during her free time.”

“Stupific!” Tommy said.

I found Ms. Bromley sitting on the floor of her art room, surrounded by ripped-up pieces of paper. She seemed to be making some kind of collage. She was wearing these crazy tights—one leg was striped green and yellow and the other one was red with big
black dots all over it. Her hair was pulled up in one big bunch so it looked like she had a purple fountain on top of her head.

Bizarro.

“Hey, Bumpers!” she said. Then she went back to gluing the scraps of paper onto a big poster.

“Ms. Bromley, could you help me? I have this great idea for a Halloween costume, but I don’t know how to make it.”

Her eyebrows rose up over the top of her funky glasses. “Ooooooh!” she said. “What’s your idea?”

“I want to make a bat costume using broken old umbrellas for wings.”

“That is so way cool!” she said.

I tried to imagine Mrs. Burke saying something was “so way cool.” I couldn’t.

“Did you think of it yourself?” Ms. Bromley asked.

I nodded.

“Good thinking, Bumpers!”

“But I can’t figure out how to do it.”

She jumped up and went over to her desk. Before I knew it, she was back with a notepad and some markers. “Okay. Tell me about it.”

While I did my best to describe it to her, she sketched on the notepad. She tore off the first sheet and did another sketch. “Is this sort of what you had in mind?”

It was better than what I had imagined. But it looked even more complicated.

“I don’t know if I can do this at home,” I said. “My mom usually helps me, but she’s kind of busy this week.”

“Why don’t you do it here?” she said. “We’ll make a little corner in the room where you can work.”

“Wow,” I said. “Thanks, Ms. Bromley.”

She scribbled something on the sketch and tore off the page. “Here’s a list of things you should bring in tomorrow.”

old black sweatshirt or jacket broken black umbrella twist ties from garbage bags

I folded up the sheet of paper and put it in my pocket. As I was walking out the door, Ms. Bromley called, “Hey, Bumpers.”

I turned back.

“This is strictly a DIY project, you know. DO IT YOURSELF. I’ll be around, but you’ll be doing all the work.”

That night at dinner, I could hardly wait to tell everyone about the costume. I was pretty proud that I’d figured out how to solve the problem myself. I had Ms. Bromley’s sketch in my pocket so I could show everyone.

Matt went first. Then Mom said Dad should go next, and he told us Mr. Grimaldi had actually said something nice to him. Mr. Grimaldi’s
his new boss. Dad doesn’t really like him.

Then the Squid went. Forever. First she told about how Brady Bernhart, this kid in her class who always used to bug me at recess, had stuck a marker in the pencil sharpener. Then she told how Mrs. Diaz had dressed up like a witch one Halloween and put her cat in a little gym bag and carried it around.

“Every time she went to someone’s door, she opened the bag a little and the cat stuck her head out and meowed,” the Squid said. “Meoooow! Isn’t that funny?”

“That is completely hilarious,” Dad said.

“How funny!” Mom said.

I remembered Mrs. Diaz telling that story when I was in first grade. I had told my parents about it then. But either they had forgotten or they were pretending to hear it for the first time.

“Okay, Charlie. You’re next,” Dad said. “What’s new with you?”

“Well,” I said, “I figured out my costume.”

Mom frowned. I could tell she was worried since
she’d told me she couldn’t help.

“What is it?” the Squid asked.

“He’s going as himself,” Matt said. “Absolutely bloodcurdling.”

“Ha ha ha,” I said. “Maybe I won’t tell
you
.”

“Forget your brother,” Dad said. “What is it?

“Well, I’m going as a bat and—”

“Been there, done that,” said Matt. “Dime a dozen.”

Dad pointed a fork at Matt. “Would you like to be banished to your room for the rest of your life?”

“No,” said Matt, “but—”

“Then let Charlie talk,” Dad said.

Matt rolled his eyes. But he closed his mouth.

And then I thought about a TV show I’d seen on
Animal Planet.
It gave me an even better idea.

“Actually, I’m not going as any old bat. I’m going as a
rabid bat
.”

Dad nearly choked on a bite of meatloaf.

Milk sprayed out of Matt’s mouth.

Mom looked horrified.

Right then I knew it was a good idea.

“What’s a rabbit bat?” the Squid asked.

Matt was cleaning up the milk, Dad was still coughing, and Mom was shaking her head.

“Not
rabbit,
” I said. “
Rabid.
It means it has rabies.”

“What are those? Are they like babies?”

Everyone else was still recovering. I was suddenly the expert on rabid bats. “It’s a disease that animals get sometimes. It’s really bad, and it makes them act crazy. They foam at the mouth.”

The Squid turned to Mom. “Are you going to make Charlie a rabbit bat costume?”

I answered before Mom could feel bad. “No,” I said. “Ms. Bromley said I could do it in art class. I just have to bring in the materials.” I took out the sketch and held it up.

A smile spread across Mom’s face. “Charlie, what a good idea! I could never have come up with a design like that!”

“I’m mostly going to do it myself,” I said. “She’ll just be there to help. I have to bring in the stuff to make the costume tomorrow. The most important part is the broken umbrella.”

“Like mine with the rainbows and frogs!” the Squid chimed in.

“No, a black umbrella. I have to find one.”

“I happen to have two broken black umbrellas in my car,” Dad said. “I knew I shouldn’t just throw them away.”

“I want to be a bat!” the Squid said. “Only a
purple
one.”

“One bat in a house is enough,” Mom said.

“I agree,” Dad said. “Anyway, you’re already a bunch of grapes.”

“I hate to admit it,” said Matt. “But this is actually a pretty good idea. Maybe I’ll use it, too.”

“No way. It’s my idea,” I said. “Not yours. I’m
the
only
bat in the house. And I think the rabid bat might win the costume contest at school.”

“Really?” asked the Squid.

“Really,” I said. “I might just win the movie tickets.”

“Do rabbit bats hop or fly?” the Squid asked.

Matt’s stories about Simon Purslip were getting scarier and scarier. I didn’t know if I was going to make it until Friday. If the de-scaring got much worse, maybe I’d have a heart attack and then I would be dead and I wouldn’t have to go watch a movie about the stupid shrieking squeaking skull.

By now, the Long-Fingered Man was grabbing everybody—not just nine-year-old kids but also moms, dads, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, dogs, hamsters, and kittens. At a certain point, I knew the stories couldn’t possibly be true. If they were, there would be nobody left in our town.

“I don’t believe this,” I said to him in the middle of the story about a pet shop owner. The Long-Fingered
Man had taken all the furry little animals from the shop, one by one.

“It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not,” Matt said in his disgusted older brother way. “It’s true.”

It drove me crazy. This is exactly what I hated about scary stories or movies or books or scary anything. You were almost 100 percent sure that they weren’t true and that they were just dumb stories made up to scare you.

But there was always just that little bit left.

The teeny tiny part you couldn’t be sure about.

And that was the part that scared my pants off.

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