The Yellow Man
by Philip Ivory
Table of Contents|
parts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Allan drew a breath and swam back down. First he slowly hauled up the other two boxes, one at a time. Then he dove again. It was mostly dark now without the boxes, but there was a tiny remaining sparkle of golden light in a different alcove, where he found a glass jar. It was opened so that water could flow in and out of it. He reached inside and found three golden keys.
Soon he was standing on the floor of the basement again. The feeling of the warm water dripping from his clothes was not unpleasant in itself, but it gave him an eerie feeling, as if it were a moment he had lived before.
He looked at the boxes, which he had placed on the white wooden table. Water spread from the boxes onto the table but was drying rapidly.
It was strange to think the boxes held parts of him he had forgotten. Had wanted to forget. A voice was telling him it was smarter, safer, to leave them inside, forever.
No, Allan thought. Being like this is not better. He needed to know the truth.
“Which one first?” he said.
“Whichever one you open.”
Allan opened his mouth as if to argue. Weren’t there different things in the three boxes?
Instead, he shrugged and chose one of the boxes. The first key he selected opened it. The cords fell away, dissolved into nothingness. He looked at the Yellow Man, troubled by a new, thought. “Is this real? Am I... crazy?”
The Yellow Man’s face was grim. “You’re not crazy. That box is where that bastard shrink put your memory. The one he called the ‘Precipitating Incident.’”
He was talking about Dr. Sands. “Why do you call him ‘bastard’?” asked Allan.
“Because he ruined your life. Open the box.”
There was a lid like a golden tile on top of the box. Allan lifted it.
The memory rushed in.
Light bled in under the door and into Allan’s shared hospital room. The room was dark otherwise, curtains closed against moonlight. He was seven and had had his tonsils out that morning.
There was a screen in the room and a woman was on the other side of it. Breathing. Allan had not seen her because he’d been unconscious when they brought him in the room earlier in the day after his operation. The breathing was a slow two-part process, a low hissing intake, and then a ragged exhale that sometimes almost sounded like words and you could sort of hear what the woman’s voice must sound like. There was a very low beeping sound that came every minute or so from a machine in her room.
His mom and dad had visited him with Melanie that afternoon soon after he woke up in bed. His throat hurt a lot; it was very hard to speak. While they were there, the doctor, a man with a rugged face and neat white hair, stopped by and said everything had gone fine, but Allan’s throat would hurt for a few days. He had a slight temperature, which was expected. Maybe he’d be able to go home tomorrow if the temperature was back to normal.
All during the conversation, he could hear the woman breathing.
It hurt to talk. But after the doctor left, Allan told his mom he was afraid of when it would get dark and he would be alone in the room listening to the woman. He had never been away from home overnight. His mom seemed to understand but said there was no other way, and they would be in to see him first thing in the morning. He should just try to relax and sleep.
Melanie, who was five, became restless. So his family left.
It was hard to follow his mother’s advice and go to sleep. The breathing was a little different each time. Sometimes the first hissing part was very long. Sometimes you could barely hear that part at all and wondered if it was there. Sometimes the ragged vocal part was calm and drawn out. Other times it was angry sudden bursts.
And then it stopped. No breathing. After a minute or so, Allan realized the machine had stopped beeping too. No sound.
He realized that was not good. He was wondering what to do when he heard feet rushing toward the room. They entered the door that led right into the half of the room where the woman was. Two men were speaking in low tones. Allan realized they were hoping not to wake him up.
“Get Dr. Barron, man,” said one, a high male voice with a pleasing accent that made Allan think of tropical islands.
“All right, but she’s dead already. You know it,” said another voice, low and gruff like sandpaper.
One left. Allan could hear anxious breaths from the man left behind. Then more footsteps; the man who had left returned with someone else. There was silence, but then a different voice, not whispering but older and quiet and calm, said: “Turn her, please.”
More silence. It sounded like one of the men was blowing air into the woman. Then sounds of blows, a fist landing on naked skin again and again.
More silence. Then the older voice said: “Time of death, 1:44 a.m. Take care of it, please.”
The man who had just spoken left. Sounds of sheets being wrapped.
“I’ll go make the call,” said the high voice.
He returned a minute later saying, “We got to leave her a while man. Nobody answering at receiving.”
The gruff man seemed exasperated, but spoke very quietly: “What about the kid?”
There was a rustling at the screen and a hand appeared. Allan closed his eyes to pretend sleep. Through the slits of his eyes, he could see a brown face peering around the screen at him. Then it was gone behind the divider again.
“Everybody sleep, man” said the high voice in reassuring tones. “We come back in half an hour.”
They both left.
Time passed. Allan could not see a clock. The absence of the woman’s breathing was like a presence itself. Instead, as he thought of the woman being dead only a few feet from him, he could hear his own heart beating.
He heard a gasp from the dead woman’s bed.
Suddenly the woman was shrieking. “Oh, God, help me.” She wailed in horror. “I can’t breathe. Oh, get this off me. I’m not dead, goddamn you!”
Allan found himself on his feet. He crumpled to the floor, cringing against the side of the bed, hoping to hide within himself, hands covering his head to block the sound.
“Is there someone there? Help me. Why don’t you help me?”
Even through his fear, he realized it was wrong not to try to help. Allan rose, trying to stand steady, feeling woozy, his limbs trembling as if they no longer belonged to him. He tried to say, “I’m here,” but no sound came forth.
The woman was moaning. There were sounds of thrashing. He rushed forward and pushed aside the curtain, hoping he could help her and make the noise stop. The plump body of a woman in her fifties was trying to unwrap itself. Her face with curly strawberry hair appeared through the covering sheet as Allan appeared before her.
“Call for help!” she screamed, and in her flailing, she tottered forward from the bed where the rails had been lowered. She screamed, “Jesus!” and crashed to the floor face down and was silent.
Allan stood frozen. In a moment, the high-voiced man with the brown face burst in, looking shocked. He gaped at the woman on the floor, then at Allan. He knelt by her. Put his head to her mouth and listened.
“She’s dead. Really dead.” He turned to Allan. “Don’t say nothing. Look at me, boy!” His voice was no longer gentle, but sharp and commanding. “Don’t say nothing of this, we both get in hot trouble, you hear? Doctor catch hell, I catch hell. You say nothing, right?”
Allan was frozen. He could not bring himself to nod as the man wanted. He saw the fear and frustration in the man’s eyes. The man didn’t believe Allan wouldn’t talk.
“Listen, I tell you something nobody else tell you. But is God’s truth. The dead ain’t always dead, that’s what you saw. Don’t speak of it, or they come to you. The dead, they come for you, man, wherever you are, in the night, they take you back with them to the cemetery, and keep you in the grave with them, like a pet. You want that?”
Allan’s head was whirling. The words burned into his brain.
“I spoke to you, boy! We understand each other?”
Fear gripped Allan’s body. Finally he was able to nod.
The man looked grimly satisfied.
Another set of feet running. A stocky man with olive-colored skin entered, spoke in the sandpaper voice Allan had heard before, stared at Allan and the woman on the floor.
“What the hell? What’s he doing?”
“Nothing. Her nervous system firing off, you know. Post-mortem electric boogaloo, man, fall off the gurney.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” The gruff man spoke, not unkindly, to Allan. “You all right?”
“Just get back to bed, boy,” said the high-voiced man. “Morning you think this all a dream. A dream, you hear?”
Allan went, dove under the sheets. He tried to block out the remaining sounds, the men groaning as they lifted her back on the gurney. Sheets being wrapped. Wire attachments unplugged. Machinery folded and put against the wall. The clicking of one of the wheels as they took her away.
Then the cold empty stillness of the night.
The Yellow Man was staring at him as if trying to peer into his mind, to see if Allan understood.
The horror of it was in him, in his belly, like a sickness, a poison he could not vomit out. It had been better not to remember, not to know this was part of him.
Allan remembered how he had not slept the rest of that night. Even safe in his own bed at home the next night, he could not help thinking about, trying to make sense of, the woman coming alive again, then being dead again, and the warnings of the high-voiced man about the dead coming for him. He remembered knowing he dared not tell anyone, not even his mother. It was too terrible to speak of.
“There’s a part of the brain tells us you can’t be dead and alive at the same time,” said the Yellow Man. “It doesn’t work in you. You could hide the memory. But not the damage it had done.”
Allan remembered fainting at Aunt Grace’s funeral two years later, certain that her body would rise up and protest at the thought of being buried. That was when they took him to the therapist, Dr. Sands, who found a way for Allan to lock the memory away, safely forgotten.
Allan looked around the dark space of the basement. He was reaching for something, another understanding. “The dead people who came to see me here... Mr. Lansing and the others... ”
He remembered all the time he had spent with them, right here.
“That was real. Wasn’t it?”
The Yellow Man seemed to consider.
“Those were real times in your life.”
“But the people... they were here, right?”
The Yellow Man said nothing, and Allan knew the answer he’d given was not right. There was only one other answer. It was hard to say the words, so they came out in the smallest of whispers:
“So they were never really there... were they?”
The Yellow Man smiled, but for once it didn’t seem to be an ugly smile. It was a relieved smile.
“No, they were never there. You just pretended.”
“But Sherri. Sherri! She was there.”
“No! She wasn’t. Yes, she died. But she didn’t visit you. No one did.”
It was hard, painful, for him to let go of the idea of her having been there, having visited him willingly. Why was that so important?
“Didn’t you ever realize it wasn’t really her, it couldn’t have been?” said the Yellow Man. “It didn’t have her spirit, her hope. Her connection to others. Those things you never had.”
“But why? Why did I do it?”
“Because you needed them. The dead can’t move, and they can’t talk, not to us anyway. Dead is dead. But you pretended. Everyone needs to have friends.”
“And this place? Here, now? It isn’t even really the basement? It’s all in my head.”
“Yes. You’re beginning to understand. You’ve been trapped in your own mind for a long time.”
“Look at me, Allan. How old do you think I am?”
“Old,” said Allan.
“I’m old and sick. I haven’t moved from my bed for 31 years. Do you understand?”
Allan looked at the sickly face, the paper white skin, the thinning scarecrow hair.
He looked at the eyes. The eyes looked back at him. And he realized. Oh God, Allan thought. “It can’t be true.”
“Tell me what can’t be true,” said the Yellow Man.
The Yellow Man nodded.
Copyright © 2016 by Philip Ivory