Skeleton Key by Jess Mowry: all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission and in violation of copyright law.
Thirteen-year-old Jarett Ross has been no more than a ghost for months, crying alone in the darkness where no one can hear him. A drug-dealer put the moves on his mom, got her addicted to heroin, and now rules their small apartment in a rotting Victorian house. Jarett's only refuge from the man's brutality has been his tiny room, its door locked by a skeleton key, Then, late one rainy night, even that protection fails him.
After a nightmare of cause-and-effect, Jarett is battered, near death, and running from the police. He finds himself at the iron gates of an ancient graveyard where he waits to die, to be delivered from this world without hope. That's when Robbie, a homeless boy who lives in a crypt, arrives. Robbie encourages Jarett to try to build a future from the bones of his past. But wouldn't it be easier to just stay in this peaceful place of the dead forever?
COPYRIGHT © 2011 Jess Mowry
"Sleepin’!?! Don’t give me no shit about sleepin’! The only place that boy gonna be sleepin' is six feet under the ground!"
Jarett's eyes flew open. Had he been sleeping? It was hard to tell anymore. Half asleep or half awake, he only felt half alive.
"He’s lyin'!" yelled the man from outside Jarett's door.
Yeah, thought Jarett, struggling into consciousness like a drowned body rising through dark murky water. I am lyin'! Lyin' here tryin' to sleep! But you never let me!
He rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands. They burned with the desperate need for sleep. He was always tired, nodding in class, his teachers thought he was doing drugs. As if he had any money for drugs! Even drugs that could let him sleep.
The man's voice roared in the living room: "What you tellin’ me, ‘thirteen dollars?’ Boy holdin' on me, what he doin'! He probably buried my money somewhere!"
Jarett squeezed his eyes tight shut, though they felt as if they were packed full of sand. Wish I could bury YOU! he thought. Wish I may, wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight. He came close to praying. I wish he was dead! I wish he was dead in a dirty old grave!
Then came his mother's voice: "Leave him alone. ...Please. Why can't you leave him alone for one night? He got school in the mornin’. My boy need to rest."
Her tone sounded gentle, even loving. Once upon a time, Jarett had believed that her love could protect him. Just like the moms in those fairytale stories she used to read by his bed at night. But now he knew that her words, like those stories, were nothing but lies. Only the needle she stuck in her arm was on the real anymore.
"School!?!" yelled the man. "Don't give me no shit about school! Boy got no time for no stupid-ass school! Boy gotta work for a livin’!"
Work! thought Jarett, scowling in darkness. He would have worked like a slave for his mom, but he had to sell crack for the man. He wished he could lie down in peace, pull the blanket over his face and go to sleep forever. His body was so tired it hurt. He remembered something he'd heard on TV: that it "shouldn't hurt to be a kid.” But that was shit from Sesame Street, made for kids in a fantasy world, over the rainbow, behind the glass in the make-believe land of a picture tube.
His mother's voice again: "That's what he gave me. Every last penny, I swear it to God."
The man blew out a snort of disgust. "Thirteen dollars, my ass! If that really all he made today, he gonna be real unlucky tonight!"
Jarett stared up at the shadowy ceiling. Thirteen dollars. One no-account dollar for every year he'd been alive. Almost worthless. Like the pennies they put on dead people's eyes. He winced despite his weariness when a wine bottle smashed on the door to his room. Were you ever too tired to be afraid?
He pushed off the blanket and slowly sat up. His movements were stiff like a zombie’s as he lowered his feet to the floor. Except for his puff-coat lying nearby, he was dressed for the only world he knew in ragged jeans, battered sneaks, and a grimy white T-shirt that reached his knees. He hadn't been out of those clothes for a week, and his toes felt slimy in sweat-stiffened socks. The teacher's nose had wrinkled today when she'd shaken him awake in class. He probably smelled as dead as he felt.
Again came his mother's voice: "Can't you let him rest for once?"
"No rest for the wicked on this earth, bitch! Ain't you never read that in the Bible?"
Jarett crept to the door. A street lamp's glimmer seeped in through the window, bathing his room with a sick yellow glow. He saw himself in the chest of drawers mirror: shaggy dreadlocks smothered his shoulders, framing an angular V-jawed face with full pouty lips and a wide snubby nose. He wore the long shirt like a funeral shroud that hid everything but his face and forearms, though his chest muscles jutted like two small bricks in bold relief beneath the old cotton. Was this how a wicked boy looked, he wondered?
Almost hidden under his hair were big haunted eyes that seemed guilty of something. He moved like a panther he'd seen in a movie, wounded by a cowardly hunter who'd been too afraid to track down his prey and finish the job of killing it. The man's voice cursed him into a grave, but the threats had lost most of their meaning because Jarett had heard them so often. Besides, you could only die once -- so he'd heard -- and he almost didn't care if he did.
The ancient West Oakland Victorian house had tall heavy doors with old-fashioned locks. The key was in Jarett's door now; a big brass thing called a skeleton key. Despite its spooky-sounding name, it had once been a favorite toy of Jarett’s; a magical key to secret places with buried chests of treasure and jewels, like in the stories his mom used to read. The key had seemed huge in those long-ago days, gleaming like gold in his little black fingers. But he'd been a baby then, clueless enough to believe any lies, and small enough to lie peacefully down in the long bottom drawer of his battered old dresser... a solemn young Egyptian prince at rest in a golden sarcophagus.
"He gonna be gettin' his 'rest'!" yelled the man. "Down in a grave when I done with him!"
Jarett took hold of the key in the lock. Its smooth old shape felt familiar and warm. "Please," he whispered, and turned it softly. His mom used to scold him for locking the door. How could she save him if there was a fire? Maybe she could have saved him then, but now she couldn't even save herself.
He eased the key out of the lock and slipped it into his pocket, where it nestled beside his box-cutter knife. The man howled in rage when Jarett did this, but all he could do was pound and kick until he got tired or finally passed out, while Jarett shivered awake and in fear with the blanket pulled over his face.
Jarett picked up a model airplane from the top of the chest of drawers. It had once been a part of his little-kid dreams. But then he put it back down. He didn't need dreams, he just needed sleep! He gazed at the drawer that had once been his refuge, a safe place to hide from make-believe fears, like werewolves, vampires, and skeletons. He wished he could crawl inside again and sleep where nothing bad could get him. The wounded panther had finally found peace: it had crept down into a dark secret place, and there it had quietly died.
The doorknob twisted viciously. The man's fist pounded the thick old wood. "Open this door, you lyin'-ass punk! Where the rest of my money?"
The pounding continued. The kicking began. The old door shuddered and creaked in its frame. But, Jarett only walked to the window, turning his back on the cursing and rage, pressing his palms and nose to the glass like a little kid checking a toy shop. The outside was dusted with specks of glitter, more than mist but less than rain. They gleamed like gold in the street lamp's glow, and water drops clung to a spider's web, making a necklace of amber sparks. Two stories down and beyond the front yard, the sidewalk glistened like polished gunmetal. Dim lights shone in a few other houses here and there along the block, but they only made the night seem darker and Jarett feel more alone. What good were other people around when no one would help you and nobody cared?
He watched as a car rolled slowly past, a long ancient car like a black station wagon and almost as big as a truck. A chill ran suddenly down his spine when he saw it was a hearse! The house next door was a funeral home, a rotting Victorian twin to his own. It looked like most of the other old houses on Jarret's street, except for a small faded sign on its porch that said Eternal Rest. But, the place had been closed before Jarett was born, its windows boarded, its yard a jungle, its paint peeling off like a mummy’s skin. There were childish rumors of worm-eaten corpses and skeletons lying on basement slabs, but no kid had ever been brave enough to bust the place and go inside.
The hearse swung into the funeral home’s driveway, nosing through weeds and decades of trash as if Death had returned from a long vacation.
Jarett's door creaked as the man slammed against it. Mrs. Davis across the hall had a son who was nineteen and six feet of muscle. He had often come to Jarett’s rescue like a knight in ebony armor. But he was in the Army now and fighting terror in other lands. Mrs. Davis didn’t fear the man, and had ordered the landlord to call the cops whenever he tried to get at Jarett. But the cops wouldn't come anymore. They had finally said not to call them again... "unless the kid really got hurt.”
Jarett studied the ancient hearse though the hazy curtain of drizzle and mist. A tall slender figure, dressed all in black, emerged and seemed to scope out the ‘hood. It was too dark to see many details, but the shape was clad in a long leather coat and was almost too slim for its height. Jarett couldn't see a face, which must have been the color of night beneath an Afroish halo of hair. The shadowy movements were masculine, though graceful somehow and suggesting youth. Casually parting the waist-high weeds, the ebony figure walked to the house, climbed the steps to its sagging porch and vanished in the darkness.
Jarett remembered the funeral last year for his one real homey, his only true friend, a boy who'd been shot in the street for no reason. "Random violence,” the cops had said. But they probably thought he'd deserved to die. The kid had looked so cool in his coffin, so peaceful and cared-for and clean... which wasn't at all how he'd looked when alive. He'd looked safely asleep in his very own box, soft satin-lined and just the right size to peacefully rest in forever.
Jarett shivered, still scanning the hearse while clutching the key in his pocket. His room smelled of dampness and ancient decay... a grave would probably smell like that. But, at least underground and safe in a coffin, nobody was trying to kill you.
The man slammed a shoulder against the door. "Where’s my goddamn money, punk!"
Jarett spread helpless, long-fingered hands and turned to face the door. Trying to reason just made it worse, but he couldn't stay silent forever. "I give it to mom, like always."
"Liar! You made more’n thirteen dollars today!"
Too tired to think, Jarett clenched his fists. His voice rose high before he could stop it. "That shit you make me sell! Who gonna buy it ‘cept dumb little kids! What kind of money you figure they got?"
"You DEAD, boy!" roared the man.
Jarett’s hand went to his pocket again, gripping the key in cold sweaty fingers. "Please," he whispered. "Somebody help me!"
But no one could hear him. Or cared if they did. He might as well have been in a grave and crying for help under six feet of dirt. The air in the room seemed to ripple with rage. The door panel cracked with a gunfire sound as the man crashed against it again. Jarett stared in sudden horror as a jagged gash like a lightning-bolt appeared in the age-blackened wood.
Jarett spun back to the window. Grabbing the handles, he struggled to raise it, but a week of wet weather had swollen it shut! Sweat broke out on his body while tears trickled hot down his cheeks. He battled the window with all his strength, but it wouldn't open! He shot another a look over his shoulder... light leaked in through the battered door. He heard the man stagger to ram it again. Jarett swung a desperate fist and smashed the gold-speckled glass, but shards ripped his arm when he jerked it back. For a second he stared at his own dripping blood while steam wavered pale in the cold. Then he lifted his eyes to the hole in the glass and the razor-edged daggers still stuck in the frame. Should he throw himself through like they did in movies? But, what if he cut his throat?
At his back came a crash as the door burst open! Dim yellow light fanned into the room, and a shadow stretched over the dusty floor, lurching in Jarett's direction. What did it matter now? he thought. Throwing an arm in front of his face, he poised to leap through the window.
A hand grabbed his shoulder. "Dead boy!"
Jarett struggled savagely like something wild in a trap. The man aimed a kick between Jarett's legs, and the sickening pain seemed to suck out his strength. The man's grip loosened little as if he thought he'd won, but Jarett had expected that. He tore himself free and scrambled away. The man caught a handful of Jarett's shirt. Jarett fought like a panther, kicking, scratching, trying to bite. The old cotton ripped, and again he was free! He dashed for the doorway, his shoulder bleeding, clawed by the man's fingernails.His mother sat on the living room couch, seemingly lost in the TV world... he caught a glimpse of kids at McDonalds begging their parents for Happy Meals. He didn't waste time by running to her; she couldn't help him anymore. He darted past to the hallway door and fought with the three heavy bolts. One slid back, but he heard the man coming! Then he got the second bolt open. He saw his mother turn to him.
"Don't forget your jacket, honey."
The last bolt slid back. Jarett flung the door open, but a hand shot out and slammed it again! Jarett leaped sideways and dug in his pocket, grabbing his box-cutter knife. The man swung a fist but Jarett ducked, then whipped out his blade and slashed the man's arm. The man roared in pain but drunkenly dodged as Jarett tried to cut him again, his own wounded arm spraying bright ruby drops. Jarett retreated, yanked the door open, and dashed down the hall to the staircase. The man burst out to clumsily follow, stumbling, staggering, slamming the walls. Jarett slipped at the top of the stairs and grabbed the rickety banister post. The man's fist caught him square in the back, knocking him down in a cart-wheeling tumble of wildly flying arms and legs to slam the wall of the landing below.
His head hit hard, scattering chunks of plaster that clattered like brittle old bones. Sparks exploded somewhere in his skull. The box-knife slipped from his bloody fingers. For a moment he was lost in darkness. But he fought his eyes into focus again, gritted his teeth and rolled on his back. His wounded arm was pouring blood, smearing the floor as he sprawled in the corner.
In the hallway above the man swayed on his feet, almost falling himself. He lurched against the banister and grabbed the post, tearing it loose. Jarett lay gasping for breath, trying to make his body work, to force it up and run.
The man slowly hefted the wooden post. "You a dead boy tonight!"
A light bulb silhouetted the man as he stalked unsteadily down the stairs. Jarett struggled to rise, but something was wrong... it hurt like fire to move his left foot! Sobbing, he managed to get on his knees. He searched for his knife in the shadows... there! He grabbed it and tried to crawl down the steps, but a hand clutched his sneaker, dragging him back. He heard the hiss of the club cutting air, and frantically flung himself aside. The club missed his head but grazed his arm, bringing a new shock of pain. He lashed out hard with his other foot. The man yelled a curse and let go.
Jarett tried to dive down the stairs, but the man grabbed the ragged remains of his shirt and whipped back the club to hit him again. Jarett curled up, protecting his head, but the club hit the wall and plaster rained down. Jarett crawled into the corner, huddling there as the club swung again but missed by an inch. He slashed out blind with his razor knife, feeling flesh rip across the man's thigh. The man dropped the club and clutched his leg, stumbling against the banister. Rotten wood splintered. The man let out a terrified scream and toppled into the stairwell.
The crash seemed to take forever in coming. Jarett collapsed in the corner, gasping, crying, fighting for breath. His shirt was in shreds like zombie rags, and the boards beneath him were slick with his blood. His ribs felt like the banister looked, matching the pain between his legs, while his ankle burned with bolts of fire. He heard the club roll down the stairs, thudding slowly one at a time like a severed head in an old horror movie. A minute passed while he fought to breathe. Finally, he got to his hands and knees and crawled to the edge of the landing. Dimly seen in the darkness below, the man lay sprawled on his back.
"Please," Jarett whispered, not sure what he meant. The man moved a little and moaned. His fingers clutched empty space like a baby’s. Then, Jarett heard Mrs. Davis above furiously pounding the landlord's door:
"Call 'em!" she yelled. "...I don't care what they said! Tell 'em he's killin' the boy this time!"
There were other voices below, confused, angry, wakened from sleep, afraid to open their own locked doors to help a wicked and worthless kid.
Forgetting his knife, Jarett gripped the remains of the banister and pulled himself to his feet. He almost screamed from the pain in his ankle, but clenched his teeth and made it support him. He started down, dragging a shoulder along the wall and leaving a bloody smear. More blood from his arm dripped a glistening trail.
The man's eyes were open, but smoky and glazed in the glow of a feeble light bulb. Like his fingers, they seemed to be searching for something, but they didn't seem to see Jarett as he reached the foot of the stairs. Jarett stood for a moment, panting for breath. He scanned the man's face in the dimness but the empty eyes seemed to look right through him.
He became aware of voices again, fading in and out on the edge of hearing like a distant radio station at night. Strange-looking shadows moved on the walls. Jarett was too tired to be much afraid, yet he knew he had to get out of here. The man was dying -- Jarett knew that without knowing how -- and he was the killer! The cops wouldn't care about anything else; he was just another ghetto-boy to catch and lock up in a cage! He stumbled away, dragging his foot, struggling toward the house’s front door. Then he was out in the drizzly night. The cold and dampness burned his wounds. The door clicked shut and locked behind him, but that was better than being locked in.
He almost fell, but caught the porch rail. He clung there a minute, panting. His jeans had slipped low on his blood-slicked hips, and his half-naked body was chilled by the night. His rasping breath made smoky puffs that floated in front of his face, while steam curled up from his bleeding arm. He wondered if the thickening mist was incoming fog, or just in his mind. The street lamps were eerily pale. A siren sounded somewhere in the distance, echoing hollowly in his ears.
Jarett scanned the deserted street as best he could with his fading sight. The mist was rising up the stairs like a silent river in flood. Then it crept icily over him, blurring his eyes, choking his lungs, making it even harder to breathe. But the siren was coming closer! His bloody hand went to his pocket, gripping the friendly old shape of the key. It felt warm to his touch... the only warm thing in the world. New tears burned his eyes again as he limped down the rickety steps.
The houses around him were tottering shapes that seemed to lean over, about to fall. The street lamps were nothing but yellowish blurs. Jarett fled from the oncoming siren, along the broken and weedy sidewalk, a hand groping out like a blind boy lost. He slammed into something; a big looming shadow of night-colored steel beaded with droplets of drizzle and fog. He saw it was the ancient hearse and lurched away in horror. He would have run if he'd had the strength, but could only stumble on.
An alley gaped like a black empty mouth. The siren sound had faded away, but someone was probably after him. He staggered into the alley. Rotting garbage slid underfoot. Rats scuttled squeaking unseen in the dark. He stopped at a Dumpster, clutching its coldness, pressing his chest to the wet rusty iron. He wondered if he could hide in there like trash among trash. But, something about those double lids was like a ghostly memory and terrified him as much as the hearse. The alley's far end was a pale shade of black, and he limped toward the light, faint as it was.
Out on another shadowy street. Why were all the lights so dim? He could hardly see the sidewalk. A car went by in a mumbling blur. Its headlights seemed no brighter than candles, but left the night darker when they had passed. He wondered why he wasn't cold -- his dreadlocks wetly framed his face, and his shirt was no more than a sodden rag -- and yet he only felt tired. All he wanted to do was sleep, but he stumbled on from nothing to nowhere.
Something smashed into his face! Staggering back, he crashed to the ground. The man's words echoed again in his ears: dead boy!
Too tired to care, he closed his eyes and quietly lay on the cold concrete like a corpse on a slab in a morgue.
Time crept by like coffin worms slowly eating a corpse. It might have been hours or could have been years, but nothing hit Jarett again. Maybe he actually slept for a while. But at last, and almost reluctantly, he finally opened his eyes. His vision came into focus like the opening scene of a movie. For a minute he lay there flat on his back in the pale glow of a dim street lamp on a drunkenly leaning telephone pole. He heard the sputtering buzz of wet wires and the soft liquid sound of trickling water. He became aware of pain again -- his ankle, his arm, between his legs -- as he raised his head to look around.
He was sprawled on a sidewalk that was buckled and cracked. The slabs were tilted at crazy angles by the roots of tall and twisted weeds, and the cold was seeping into his bones. He realized that no one had hit him; he'd only walked blindly into the pole. He grasped its rotting wood and dragged himself to his feet. His ankle burned with needles of fire but he tried to ignore the pain. He checked his arm, which only seemed to be oozing a little, then scanned around again. A stab of panic shot through him when he found he didn’t know where he was.
The street was in no better shape than the sidewalk, its pavement a jagged mosaic of cracks that told of long neglect. The gutters were choked with years of trash, and the weeds had grown unchallenged. It was an empty, dead-end street; and a new chill suddenly traced his spine when he saw where it dead-ended at...
The tall iron gates of a graveyard!
The place was ancient and looked forgotten in a dark deserted neighborhood of boarded-up houses and old factories. Beyond the cone of the street lamp's glow were the massive, rusted, wrought-iron gates. They were set in a seven-foot wall of brick, covered with moss and slowly collapsing but still defending the slumbering dead. Jarett limped painfully up to the gates and grasped the cold bars to look in.
The graveyard was small and a jungle of weeds, grass gone wild, and blackberry vines. Tilted tombstones reared up through the weeds like crooked fangs in an animal skull. Scattered among them were tottering statues mostly clad in robes of stone. Jarett supposed they were meant to be angels, but none looked friendly there in the dark. A pond glimmered back in the shadows, with another small statue set in its center. The trickle of water echoed, and except for the crackle of wires overhead it seemed to be the only sound. Among the leaning monuments stood little stone houses of various shapes. They didn't seem to have any windows... but no one inside would need look out. And yet they seemed to offer safety, protected by walls and defended by gates. One little building way in the back even had a tiny front porch.
Jarett gazed in through the cold iron bars and suddenly wished he could go to that house, to sleep among people who couldn't hurt him. He studied the gates as he thought about that, but he was too weak to climb over, and they were held shut by a massive old chain secured with a huge padlock.
Jarett sank down with his back to the bars. Wherever he was, he'd come too far and there was nowhere else to go. He drew the skeleton key from his pocket, not knowing why except it felt warm, the only warm thing in the world. "Please," he whispered to no one.
"Yo!" called a voice in the darkness.
Jarett jerked with a new stab of fear. But his moment of panic passed away when he realized the voice was a kid's. He turned around and peered through the gates. A chubby boy sat on a mossy tombstone.
Trying to fight the pain in his ankle, Jarett pulled himself to his feet. The street lamp's glow didn't reach very far, and the boy sat in shadow cast by the wall, but he didn't look older than Jarett.
Jarett stood there gripping the bars, not even sure if the boy was real or something called up by his own battered mind. "Um... S'up, man?" he finally asked.
The boy smiled and opened a palm toward the sky. "Moon, stars, an' us right now."
Jarett stared at the chubby kid sitting so casually cool on the tombstone, then looked up to see only darkness. "It's kinda rainy tonight."
"Moon an' stars always up there, bro, even if you can't always see 'em.”
Jarett tried to smile back, which seemed to take every bit of his strength. He wished he wasn't hurting so much so his smile could be more on the real. His voice sounded hollow and strange in his ears, as if he was talking from far away and only hearing an echo. "Well... um... guess there's some things you don't gotta see. But they there anyhow, like you said."
"Maybe like God?" asked the boy.
Jarett shrugged, though it hurt like hell. "He never believed in me, so why should I believe in Him? ...Do you?"
"Sometimes," said the boy. "But I ain't very religious."
Jarett forced another smile. He knew he looked like a bloody corpse, and he didn't want to scare the kid. "Um... I be in somebody's ground, man? I guess I’m kinda lost."
Far from being freaked by Jarett, the boy only smiled again, as if talking to bloody, beat-up kids was something he did every night. He glanced around the misty graveyard. "Ain’t nobody here in this ol' ground gonna cap your ass for trespassin', dawg."
Jarett felt the boy's friendliness like a warm breath of breeze in the night. "Guess not, huh. ...So, how you know I was out here?"
"Seen you from my window."
"...Oh." Jarett scanned the deserted street, where the only car was a burned-out corpse. He checked the handful of boarded-up houses among the tumbledown factory buildings. No lights shone anywhere in this ‘hood except for the one feeble street lamp, and none of the houses suggested life, but he'd met a few people who'd cribbed in worse places.
The boy hopped down from the moss-covered stone and sauntered casually up to the gates. He looked somewhere between twelve and fourteen, with skin of a honey-bronze shade. He wasn't exactly fat, but calling him chubby was being kind. He had that wobbly shapeless shape of baby-fat draped on a small skeleton, and his boy-breasts bobbed like melons of Jell-O. His belly hung out of a tattered black T-shirt, displaying the funnel-like cave of a navel. He wore ragged jeans with one ripped knee, tightly outgrown, mostly unbuttoned, and baring the brassy moons of his butt. His feet looked cartoonish in huge ancient sneaks that seemed to be falling apart and were wrapped with electrical tape on the toes. His hair was a natural bush of curls that shadowed a cheerfully chubby-cheeked face with a wide button nose and full pouty lips.
Jarett thought of a fat lion cub, though he tagged the kid as a solo street-rat who didn't belong to anyone's posse. Still, it was safer to ask: "Are you in a gang?"
The chubby boy leaned against the gates and rested an arm on the big rusty chain. He had gold-tinted eyes that now seemed to sadden. "Used to be. But, not no more. Shit happens, y'know."
Jarett nodded. Hurt as he was, it still felt good to have someone to talk to. "Got that right, man."
The boy studied Jarett. "Looks like you got in some serious shit. How you doin', doggie-bro?"
Jarett fought back tears, not wanting to cry and look like a wuss. "I'm alone, man. Know what I sayin'?"
The chubby boy nodded. "Down with that, doggie-bro. ...Um, it cool if you wanna cry. I still do sometimes."
"Nah,” sighed Jarett. “Seem like a waste of somethin’. ...So, you got a crib around here?"
The boy aimed a thumb over his shoulder. "That little stone house with the porch. See, what it is, I'm alone, too."
Jarett peered into the shadow-filled graveyard. In spite of his thoughts of safety and peace, a skeleton finger ran down his spine. "You sayin' you live in there?"
The boy giggled. "Ain't much of a goin'-on neighborhood, huh?"
"Well... " said Jarett. "'Least nobody beatin' on you." He shivered again, and his teeth almost rattled. Then he felt a flicker of hope. "Could I come in an' spend the night? I don't got nowhere else to go."
The boy checked Jarett out once more, and a sad look crossed his face. "This might not be the coolest place for somebody in the shape you in. Hate to say it, doggie-bro, but I can almost see right through ya."
Jarett didn't know what that meant, but he didn't like the sound of it. He glanced down at himself, seeing the ribbon-like rags of his shirt, his jeans wet and bloody, about to fall off. "I probably look like a zombie, huh?”
"I seen scarier things than you,” said the boy. “But if I was you I'd find some help."
"There ain't no help for me," said Jarett. "I’m lost, man. Let me come in with you. ...Please?"
"I help you all I can," said the boy. "But, how you gonna get in?"
"Well," said Jarett. "How'd you get in?"
"I don't think you're up for that tonight."
Jarett studied the gates again, knowing he couldn't climb over with his wounded arm and twisted ankle. "Can you help me?"
The boy spread his hands. "How?"
"Well... could you come out an' give me a boost?"
"I don't think I can do that."
"Why not?" asked Jarett.
"I ain't very physical, see?" The boy struck a body-builder pose, flexing his chub-padded arms. His shirt climbed high above his belly and now looked a bit like a bra.
Jarett would have laughed if he could, but it seemed to get harder to make his voice work, and it sounded even more like an echo. "Please, man!"
"Why don't you try that?" asked the boy.
"Huh?" Jarett looked down at the big brass key still gripped in his slim bloody fingers. "This? It only open the door to my room."
"But, it's a skeleton key," said the boy. "They can open a lot of things."
Jarett studied the huge padlock, brass like his key but green with age. The keyhole did seem about the right size. He slipped his key in, surprised when it fit, but paused before trying to turn it. "Um... so it's cool, man?" he asked. "Me comin' in if this key really works?"
"I can't think of nothin' else you can do. Hate to say it, doggie-bro, but you probably gonna die tonight if you stay out there all wet an’ cold."
Jarett shrugged, still holding the key but making no move to turn it. "Maybe that's better. My life wasn’t much to begin with.”
The chubby boy looked sad again. "I used to think dyin' was a way out, too. When I was all alone by myself."
A tear slid coldly down Jarett's cheek. He suddenly blurted, "I killed somebody tonight, man! It was a accident, swear to God! But the cops gonna call it murder!"
The chubby boy didn't seem surprised. "I figured it was somethin' like that. You got a haunted look."
Jarett let go of the key, leaving it in the lock. He turned away and shrugged again. "Maybe I should just sit down an' die." He looked over his shoulder and scowled. "You gonna watch?"
The chubby boy also shrugged. "Guess there’s nothin' else I can do. If that's what you really want. I seen some other kids die before, an' I couldn't do nothin' about that either."
"So, what if my key don't work?"
"Then you done all you can, I guess. But it's stupid if you don't try it, man, 'cause you don't look no older than me."
"What difference that make?" asked Jarett. "Kids die every day all over the world."
"How can you think about dyin' when you don't really know about livin' yet?"
Jarett spit on the sidewalk. "I know livin' hurts, an' I'm tired of hurtin'. I call that knowin' enough, aight? Guess I'm just wicked, is all. Maybe dyin's the only way I can rest."
"You don't look wicked to me.”
"Aw, leave me the hell alone, man! Let me die in peace at least."
"If that's what you want..." The boy returned to the tombstone and perched his rolly shape on top. He pulled out a crumpled pack of Kools and fired one with a wooden match. The flame lit his face like a study in bronze. He puffed a ghost of smoke at the sky, then spread his arms to take in the graveyard. "A lot of these people never found out what their keys could open when they was alive."
"Now what you babblin’ about?"
The boy aimed his cigarette ember at Jarett. "Did you have a choice of where you was born?"
"You wack or somethin'?” said Jarett. “’Course I didn't! Who in hell does?"
"An' who your folks was? An' where you come up?"
Jarett snorted. "An' what color I wanted to be?"
The chubby boy giggled. "Well, give that boy a big cee-gar."
"Oh, shut up, man!"
"But you gots a key an' you ain't even tried it."
"You crazy, man!" Jarett suddenly yelled. "Talkin' 'bout keys an' cigars an' shit when I'm dyin' out here an' you won't even help!"
"This is me tryin’ to help," said the boy. "But I can't throw your ass over them gates. Check yourself, man. Standin' out there with a key in your hand an' cryin’ you ready to die."
"I ain't cryin’, fool!"
The boy shook his head. "Dumb-ass like you don't deserve any rest. 'Wicked'? My ass! Y'all just a snotnose baby, man! You just like them dope-frontin', G-rappin fools! Bitchin' you got it so hard in life but not doin' nothin' to change it!"
"I can’t change it, fool!”
The boy blew a smoke ring, pale in the dark. "Where there's life, there's always hope."
"That's just an' old sayin'."
"Just 'cause somethin’s old don't mean it ain't true."
Jarett shivered. It seemed stupid to be dying and arguing about it. He grabbed the key and turned it. The lock fell suddenly open. The chain clanked loose against the bars. The chubby boy plopped down from the tombstone and came to the gates with a smile on his face.
"So, what you waitin' for now, dawg?" The boy waved around at the statues." Think these angels gonna sing?”
Jarett shoved on the rusty bars, and the gates swung slowly inward with a gritty scream that echoed for blocks. The chubby boy giggled again. "Careful, man, you'll wake the dead."