THE QUIET MAN
by NICK KIMBRO
he air was turned up way too high in Mrs. Forche’s office. Everyone thought it was a scare tactic, the way the cold made you hunch into yourself, feel smaller in the squeaking chair before her polished, wooden desk. It was late October and my face was painted white, black rings circling my eyes. When she asked about the Quiet Man I opened my mouth and began to lip sync a response.
“Enough, Zachary. Enough games. Answer me out loud, please.”
My face grew more emphatic, stretching to show my frustration as I explained again the story of the Quiet Man.
She pretended to lean back, although the fingers on both hands splayed on top of the desk. Something in me had clicked; I was shouting now—shouting without making a sound—carried away on a swell of silent anger and no longer bothering with the Quiet Man. Mrs. Forche must have recognized some of the words because finally she picked up a stapler and slammed it on the desk so hard a bent little piece of metal ejected, like a period on the end of a long, unspoken sentence.
My cheeks flushed.
“Now,” she said after a moment, more calmly. “What have you been telling the other students about the Quiet Man?”
I hesitated, but told her what I knew: the Quiet Man loved children, although children did not love him. That there was nothing wrong with his face, nothing you could notice from a distance, just no lines in it, no wrinkles where it twisted into a smile or a frown. He looked like something a little kid might draw, just a circle for a head and two dots, a bent line curving upwards. You had to be right up close, him kneeling in front of you, to realize it wasn’t a face at all but a copy, like a rug stretched tight over a dark pit, painted to look like grass. A trap. No sooner would you open your mouth than he would lift his hand, like he was about to do a magic trick, and your voice would be gone. Your mouth would still be open, the muscles in your stomach all tight like you were screaming, although no sound would come out. Your last words already spoken.
This is the point where he would snatch you up, take you back to his workshop. Maybe he’d gut and stuff you. Maybe he’d take his knife and peel your smooth little face off, wear it until the following year, pretending to be you.
This part changed each time I told it.
The one thing that stayed the same was what I didn’t know: what he did with the voices. It was a detail I could never seem to work back in. Sometimes I would imagine him sitting in his workshop, surrounded by skinned faces and stuffed little boys—all the versions of the story crammed together in one room—an antique music box sitting on the bench in front of him, wound up tight, filling the room with slow, warbled screams played on a rachety loop.
Mrs. Forche sighed and looked at me. “I just don’t understand why you would want to scare people like that.” All morning, when anyone asked what I was supposed to be, I’d been opening my mouth wide and trembling like I was screaming. She removed her glasses and laid them on the desk. “After all that’s happened to you. What would your parents think?”
I wanted to tell her that they wouldn’t think anything; that, like every year, they would be spending Halloween locked in their bedroom, moping.
“I understand how fascinating these things can be for a boy your age. You have to keep in mind though that, to some people, they’re not just stories. Things like that actually happen in the world, Quiet Man or not. I wouldn’t think I’d need to tell you that.”
She looked at me significantly, but I didn’t respond. Her fingernails tapped beside her phone, although I knew she wouldn’t call my parents. Not today. I looked outside her window: already the moon’s pale outline hung in the sky, rocking between bare branches. She sent me back to class, although she made me wash my face off in the bathroom first. I put it on again as soon as I got home.
Barry and Samuel came over around seven. Barry was dressed as Jason Voorhees and carried a plastic machete. Samuel wore a mask he probably thought made him look like a serial killer, but which I recognized was the one the gimp wore in Pulp Fiction. They were going to spend the night after trick-or-treating, and since my parents would be locked in their room we were free to stay out as late as we wanted and to gorge ourselves on candy and scary movies when we got back.
When I knocked on the bedroom door to say that we were leaving, just the sound of the mattress squeaked back. No one said anything. I waited a moment, aware of Samuel and Barry behind me, eyes blinking through their killer masks. The back of my neck felt hot. I forced myself to shrug, said they must be celebrating early, although Barry and Samuel weren’t willing to risk a laugh.
The air was filled with high-pitched cries and the syrupy scent of candy; the stink of over-ripe gourds and half-rotten teeth. We started on the east side of the neighborhood, which was where the action was. The houses were bigger there and everyone decorated. The Hendersons even built their own haunted house each year that led from the driveway around to the back yard. Most of the scares were props, although Donald and Kara, their kids and my classmates, would surprise you by hiding in dark corners and popping out screaming.
Like everybody, we went there first.
The air changed immediately as we ducked through the front entrance. It was dark and filled with fog machine smoke. The theme music for Halloween played from speakers on either side of the curtain and up ahead the sound of gleeful screams wafted back to us. We made our way past the familiar props from years previous—cemetery scenes with rumbling mounds of dirt and mad scientists on metal tracks—although it wasn’t until near the end that we discovered this year’s addition: a huge, smiling jack-o-lantern, probably five feet tall, in the middle of a room partitioned off by curtains.
There was probably three feet of floor space on either side and we had to scoot around to get to the exit on the other side. An orange light flickered inside, illuminating a silhouette struggling against the walls, trying to get out. There was some creepy music, and deep, recorded laughter, then a sudden a crash of cymbals and whomever was inside—it turned out to be Kara—burst from the top covered in pumpkin guts and seeds and fake blood, a writhing thing in a mess of afterbirth. Her torso hung over the side, clawing like she was trying to get out, and I thought I saw her notice me—her look of horror softening momentarily, the ghost of a smile passing over her face. She looked like she might even be about to say something before the deep laughter sounded again and she was sucked back inside, like something had grabbed a hold of her legs and yanked just once. My chest leapt as she disappeared.
We found Donald afterwards talking to some people in the driveway. He was dressed all in black, and we guessed he was taking a break from the haunting. “Hey,” he said. “Did you go through already?”
We said that we had.
“Damn. I wanted to get you. What did you think of Kara?” He grinned.
I stuttered something about how cool it was, about how it was the best scare they’d added in years. I didn’t ask how it felt to watch his sister disappear over and over again. I suppose he didn’t have to watch.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “Can’t tell you how much it cost. Mom went to stay with her sister when he brought it home.”
We laughed. “Think she’ll come back?” Barry asked.
“I’m sure. Probably wait till he’s taken everything down though. She won’t want to ruin Thanksgiving. What about you, Zach?”
He looked at me.
“What are your parents doing tonight?”
I told him the usual
“Is it weird ever?” he asked.
Was what weird?
“You know,” he looked around. “Halloween. Going out. Do you ever think about it?”
I shrugged, explained that my parents were the ones who’d found her. That I’d never actually seen anything.
“Do you ever worry he’ll get out and come for you? Like Michael Myers or something?”
I laughed. Honestly, I couldn’t even remember him very well. They’d only been dating two months when it happened, and in my family we didn’t bother learning their names until at least three. I remembered random details, something he’d said one time, something stupid about music: “No one’s a grown-up until they realize that The Doors were never really that good.” And his boots: tall and dirty, without laces. I imagined them sometimes when I heard footsteps coming down the hallway at home.
Donald changed the subject. “What are y’all supposed to be?” he asked, pointing first at Barry, then at Samuel.
Samuel shrugged. “Just something scary. A killer.”
“He’s not a killer,” I said. “He’s that guy from Pulp Fiction.”
They looked at me wonderingly, although I couldn’t explain the joke. Wasn’t fully in on it myself.
“And what about you,” Donald pressed, motioning to me now. “That’s the paint Mrs. Forche made you wash off earlier. What’re you supposed to be?”
I started to lip sync an explanation. He leaned forward, as if I might have just been talking quietly. “Huh?”
I pretended to be frustrated, speaking more emphatically now, mouth stretching wider, frowning at his inability to comprehend, until finally I was screaming, silently, frantically, somehow having made the transition from frustration to unspoken terror. He backed off a little and looked at Barry and Samuel. Their grins remained hidden behind their masks.
“Oh, I get it,” he said at last. “The story. The Quiet Man.”
I smiled, strangely happy to hear someone else say his name. He asked why I didn’t dress up as the Quiet Man himself, rather than as one of his victims. It would have been cooler. I explained that no one knew what the Quiet Man looked like. That, if you ever saw him, it was the end of you.
“Then what are you still doing here?” he asked, voice rising with superior logic. “If he stole your voice you must have seen him, right? That’s why your face is so white.”
I opened my mouth to rebuke him, my face calm and collected, although my rebuttal again was silent. Donald pssshed and waved me off, changed the subject again.
We tried to convince him to ditch the haunted house and to come trick-or-treating, but he said no. Said his dad would shit the bed if he found out he wasn’t in there right now. Mr. Henderson was seated on a throne at the end of the maze, dressed as Satan with a bowl of Red Hot candy in his lap (Milky Ways hidden beneath his chair, in case anyone complained).
The three of us hit the rest of the houses on the east side before working our way west, where it was quieter. The laughter sounded far off, like steam rising in the distance, and the Hendersons’ scary soundtrack piped at low volume into the streets. Here the houses were dark mostly. A few cardboard jack-o-lanterns sat glowing on the porches, although some didn’t even have those. Our parents had taught us to avoid those houses. Probably didn’t celebrate, we were told. But we knocked on their doors anyway, rang their doorbells. If they didn’t celebrate, that was their fault.
There were a few other trick-or-treaters: small groups of kids about our age, laughing and riffling through their sacks, already counting the spoils. We spotted a group of three just around a bend in the sidewalk and I had an idea. I crouched behind a set of trash cans and Barry and Samuel did the same, huddling behind me so that all three of us were concealed. We waited for them to get close, inching around as they came near, then, right as they were about to pass, the three of us jumped out shouting, causing them to leap off the sidewalk and into the street. They screamed like girls and we bent over laughing so hard.
“You idiots!” one of them said, climbing back onto the sidewalk. I could tell he was trying to think of something smart aleck. “You… you retards!”
There was nothing to say. We’d gotten them. Defeated, they shambled off down the sidewalk, heading back toward the east side of the neighborhood.
We walked on. Soon all we could hear was the wind moaning, dried leaves and candy wrappers dragging over the asphalt. The moon was high and full, pale like a round, white face. The only indication that it was still a holiday was a small, jagged grin flickering on a porch several houses down.
That’s when the footsteps sounded.
We could hear them coming from around the corner, dragging heavily and without rhythm, as though whoever it was might be injured. On the other side of the Westmorelands’ fence, a black bowler hat bobbed up and down, and there was whistling, a low, warbled tune I vaguely recognized as something by The Doors. I grabbed Samuel’s elbow and pulled him down behind another set of trashcans. Barry followed. My heart was pounding, and when I looked at them crouching beside me I could see that they also weren’t sure about this. They were afraid. I was afraid. Although something about that fear made me more reckless, desperate to pass it off, to get rid of it.
We waited, and the footsteps got louder, seemed to scrape along the pavement as though the man were wading through fallen leaves. He was nearly on top of us and we inched around like we’d done before, not daring to hazard a look, just listening, feeling him draw near, until finally we jumped out and there was nothing.
I thought, What’s going on? and wondered if maybe I’d forgotten to yell. I tried again, but there was nothing. I looked at the man standing in front of us now and the first thing I noticed were his boots: tall and dirty, no laces. They disappeared beneath a dark trench coat and as my eyes drifted upward I could see that his face was white and round and smiling—like the moon behind it. No lines, no creases. No eyes staring out of those coal-dark pits. He looked like a cartoon. Just a wide, cheerful smile staring down at us.
I felt Samuel and Barry draw away on either side. The Quiet Man was quick though, and reached right then left, snatching them up before either could take a step. He stood then, my two friends kicking under each arm, mouths stretching, bodies trembling, but quiet, and I saw his brow furrow with a look of confusion, like a witch streaking across the moon. He looked at Samuel and Barry under each arm and seemed to consider how he was going to carry me as well.
I stood still, feeling trapped inside a fantasy, a story I thought I’d invented, trying to feel my control returning.
He knelt in front of me, hiking Barry and Samuel further up under each arm, and stared at me. For a moment, I thought he might cry. His eyes were dark and pitch black, his brow lifted in the center. His smile faded and I almost felt sorry for him, he wanted so badly to bring me with him.
Then, taking in a sharp breath of air, his mouth stretched wide and he screamed. The sudden force of it blew the hair out of my face, and it was impossibly high-pitched, like a child. The dogs bayed in their fenced-in yards and behind closed doors, and several sets of lights came on in darkened houses, the ones that weren’t decorated, the unbelievers. I closed my eyes. He screamed so loud and long that it rattled my own throat, felt almost like I was screaming myself.
Nick Kimbro’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Weird Tales, Danse Macabre, Space Squid, Surreal Grotesque, Fogged Clarity, Heavy Feather Review, and others. His horror novella, SURFACE INTERVAL, was published by Jersey Devil Press. He lives in Denver with his wife. He received his MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
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