The Yellow Man
by Philip Ivory
Table of Contents|
parts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
“No!” Allan glared with wild, desperate eyes, hoping for some other explanation, any other. But there was no other.
He doubled over, as if he were going to be sick. But nothing came forth. He stayed that way for some time.
Then he sat up again. “That voice... that woman.”
Suddenly, he heard it again, as if coming long distance on a phone, or through the fog of a dream: “Just smile, and I’ll know you want to be free.”
“You said it was Melanie,” said Allan.
“She sits by your bed. Our bed.”
“She’s grown up?”
“Yes, of course. You’re in... I mean, we are in... a place, Allan. A kind of hospital. She comes to see us. She’s the only one. Our parents moved away long ago.”
“How can you know this? How can you see things, if you’re stuck in here with me... if you’re me?”
“They let in just enough light so I could understand, and make you understand.”
The Yellow Man spread his hands, as if to say: How can I explain?
Allan persisted: “How did... how did we get this way?”
“Listen! You can hear her.”
The voice again, and this time Allan recognized something, a particular insistent tone. Melanie. It was a piece of her personality that could not be changed or muffled by layers of time.
“Did I put you here, because I talked to you that night, about what happened? About Sherri? I didn’t mean to set you off. Whatever happened, happened. If you...” Her voice trembled. “I don’t care what you did or didn’t do. You thought no one loved you, no one in the whole world cared, but you were wrong. If I put you here, I’m sorry. You can be free. Just give me a sign.”
“What does she mean, did she put me here? What night did she talk to me about Sherri? I don’t remember.”
The Yellow Man nodded at the two remaining boxes. Allan saw that, for both of them, the golden cords were not still. They writhed and twisted.
“You must,” said the Yellow Man.
Allan reached for the one nearest him. The one further away began to writhe more violently, as if the cords meant to strangle the box. For a moment, Allan seemed to hear the hissing of snakes.
He drew his hands back. “Are these different from the first one?”
The Yellow Man gnawed on his lip. He seemed to be trembling.
“Are they... worse?” said Allan.
“Yes,” whispered the Yellow Man.
What could be worse than what he had already remembered?
Allan reached again for the near box and grabbed it. Ignoring the shifting motions of the cords and the hissing sound, he opened the padlock using one of the golden keys and lifted the lid of the box.
A memory rushed upon him like flame engulfing a withered tree.
He knew the memory was real at once, although he didn’t expect to see himself this way. He was 16. His cheeks were marred by acne. He was half propped up on his bed in a flannel shirt, caressing an old cigar box of his dad’s which Allan used to store guitar picks. This day, in addition to guitar picks, it had a small baggie of pot, rolling papers and six Quaaludes, all brought from this guy at school, Cameron. Later, Allan was going to put Pink Floyd’s “Animals” on the turntable and take one of the pills.
That was how he preferred to spend his time now. By the time he’d turned 13, the visitors in the basement, even Sherri, came less frequently. He had lost interest in them. They could bring nothing new, but play the same games and have the same conversations over and over. By the time he was 14, they had stopped coming, and he had hardly noticed. By the time he was 15, he began to think of all their visits as parts of some weird recurring dream that had finally faded away. Now he hardly ever thought of them at all.
The door opened. It was his sister.
“Whoa,” she said. She seemed to be reacting to the pot and unwashed laundry smell in the room. “God, it stinks in here.”
He blinked at her, annoyed and puzzled. Melanie never came in his room, nor he into hers. This was strange. Fortunately, he was still a little stoned from the joint he’d shared with Cameron right after school, so he felt a calm detachment, observing this intrusion as if it had happened to somebody else.
She moved a guitar and some jeans and T-shirts from a chair and sat down without speaking. Allan slid the cigar box stealthily under his pillow.
“Yeah, real smooth,” said Melanie. “Whatever.”
They had entered different worlds the last few years. She was A minuses and B pluses and on the school paper. He had his stoner friends and hung out at the arcade.
“I have to... are you listening to me?”
He focused on her. “Yeah. Yeah, what is it?”
Melanie seemed unsure how to start.
“Did you ever notice, like, how out of it Mom is pretty much all of the time?”
Allan could not help but yawn. He knew what his mom was like. But that was not his business. How long till Melanie left him alone so he could enjoy the contents of the cigar box in peace?
“I mean, how she’s kind of spacey? Especially after dinner. And depressed. And all. You know?”
She was looking at him so intently that he felt he had to give some kind of answer. “Yeah. I mean, she takes stuff. Pills. For her nerves and stuff. I mean, it’s from her doctor, so it’s... whatever.”
The glassy-eyed look would come upon Mom sometime after dinner. Allan didn’t add: And she drinks too, until she falls asleep.
“Do you remember when she started doing that?”
Allan rolled his eyes. Come on, he thought. How am I supposed to remember that, and what does it matter now?
“It was about five years ago. It was about the time Sherri died. You remember Sherri, right? Your friend?”
Allan frowned. He didn’t want to think about Sherri. That pain was long behind him. Long forgotten.
Melanie’s eyes locked on his for a few moments. “Did you... have something to do with... Were you there when she died, Allan?”
The shock of the question shook off some of his remaining high. “What? Are you crazy? You know I was home that night!”
“No. No, I don’t Allan. I don’t know where you were. I was watching TV with Dad. Mom was doing laundry and stuff. But I didn’t see you around. I’m pretty sure I heard somebody come in at the back door.”
“What the hell is this all about, Melanie?” He sat upright, as if by doing so he might intimidate her into leaving, but she stayed perfectly still.
She sighed. “I don’t know what it means. But I heard Mom on the phone today. I got home from school early and she was in the kitchen and didn’t know I was there. And she was talking to somebody. She sounded desperate. It was, like, one of those help lines, or emergency lines, like when you need to talk to somebody, you know?”
Allan was feeling nervous now. “Well, what was she saying, if you think it’s so important?”
“She wasn’t giving her name or your name or anybody’s name, but she was talking about the night her son’s friend drowned at the pond years ago, and how that night she was doing laundry and she found his clothes in the hamper, and they were wet.”
“Wet?” said Allan. He was beyond nervous. He didn’t know why. He was very afraid of what Melanie would say next.
“Not just wet, she said. With green stuff on them. Like algae. And they smelled like a pond.”
And in that moment, the world he existed in, the world of small pleasures and routines that arose from half paying attention in school, hanging out at the comic book store or arcade in the afternoons, and then coming home and getting stoned in this room... that world seemed to crumble to pieces.
“She hung up after that,” said Melanie.
“Like a pond,” he said in a whisper.
“What does it mean? What does it mean, Allan? Were you at the pond with Sherri?”
Allan could not answer. He was stunned. He had remembered everything. Oh God. “Sherri,” he muttered.
“What about her, Allan?”
But he could not speak.
“Listen,” Melanie said, more gently. “You can tell me, whatever it is. I don’t think you meant to do anything bad. I know you wouldn’t hurt anyone. If you saw the accident and it scared you, that’s important, you know? Maybe... maybe it accounts for why you’re the way you are now.” She made a vague, frustrated gesture at him, at his room.
Melanie went on: “Maybe Mom thinks you did something bad. If you didn’t, why don’t you tell her? Tell her the truth. And then maybe she can be okay again. We can all be okay.” There were tears in her eyes.
Allan could not tell her. He could not speak it. He couldn’t tell his mom or his dad either. He didn’t want to see their faces when he did.
What could he do?
Then he realized. The idea. Terrible, sobering, shocking. But also an old friend, an idea that had whispered in his ear long ago, now doing so once again, more urgently and persuasively than before.
“Listen,” he began, and the words came slowly and painfully. “Okay. I can’t answer you now. I will give you and Mom and Dad an answer tomorrow. I promise. I just... I have to think about something first. Is that okay?”
He could see the doubt in her eyes. She was never easy to trick, even when little. She wanted to know now. But then she nodded. “You better,” she said, wiping her eye.
He could not sleep that night. He thought about it in every way he could. There was no other answer.
The next day, he went to school, but left after one class and returned home. By then, the house was empty. Melanie was at school, his dad at work, and his mom at her Wednesday lunch meeting for the Library Volunteer Board.
He went into his mom’s medicine cabinet and took five different prescription bottles. He also got the Quaaludes from his room. There was a half empty pitcher of lemonade in the fridge that his mom had made the night before. He filled the rest of it with water, then added all the pills, and waited for them to dissolve. It took several minutes.
He had locked it away, the memory of how Sherri died. Locked it away because he knew how to do that, thanks to Dr. Sands. But Melanie had brought it back when she mentioned the wet clothes. That had brought back the pungent wet pond smell. And everything else. He could not live with the memory. He had been right all those years ago when he first thought of dying.
He drank deeply of the lemonade and lay down on his bed.
But he did not want to die thinking of those thoughts. As he waited for the drugs to take effect, he did what Dr. Sands had taught him. He locked away the new memory of the conversation with Melanie in a box. He concentrated really hard on the idea of it being in the box, until he could only see the box and not what was inside. He tried retrieving the memory then, and found he couldn’t. It shifted ever out of reach.
He felt relieved. That left only the earlier resurfaced memory of the pond itself. He locked that one away too. It took a greater effort as the memory fought against him. But he succeeded.
Now it was one of three golden boxes locked up in a dark corner of his mind.
Copyright © 2016 by Philip Ivory