The Skellington Key
By Mitchell Tierney
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Chapter One: Break the Silence
‘Loretta,’ she said. ‘Don’t talk like that.’
‘Talk like what?’
‘You know what.’
Loretta pulled her face away from her mother. They had been arguing since they left the house.
‘The sleeping all day. The leaving at night. We don’t know where you are.’
‘I always come back.’
‘You did last time, but I worry there will be a time when I check your room and you won’t be in there. I don’t want you leaving at night anymore.’
Loretta no longer huffed and crossed her arms like a child. She was no longer one. There would have been a time when she didn’t speak to her mother either. She remembered a time when it went for three weeks. Neither of them said a word to each other. Their father would eat by himself in the kitchen and leave them at the table. Neither one of them broke their silence.
‘You’re not old enough to do what you want.’
‘What do you want me to do? I’m not a kid anymore. I do things that would make you cringe.’
Her mother shook her head and stopped at the red light.
‘Do you want me to tell you, Mum? I can. All the stuff I get up. I can tell you everything.’
‘When did you become like this?’
‘Like what, Mum?’ she snapped. ‘I grew up,’ she added, her neck snapping back to the window. ‘But you never did.’
Her mother knew the tears rolling down her cheeks were real and not the fake ones she had tried to use so many times to guilt her daughter into listening to her. Her husband knew it was teenagehood, but, that can’t be the reason for everything, she told herself. She knew her daughter would grow up, and it feared her to her bones.
‘I can’t stand this anymore, Loretta.’
The light turned green and the car moved across the intersection.
‘Pull over there and I’ll get out.’ She wanted to walk to school anyway, but the only way her mother could not worry during the day, was if she dropped her off. The constant texting and calling drove Loretta insane.
‘No, I’m taking you all the way to the gate.’
‘You’re the only one that drives their kid to school still.’
‘Not everyone has a car.’
‘No, but not everyone has an overbearing mother who doesn’t trust her only daughter either.’
‘You can call me overbearing or anything you like, but I’m your mother and I’ll always worry about your safety.’
Loretta felt like crossing her arms, but stopped herself from doing it. The sun peaked through the over-manicured lawns of the suburban streets. The hedgerows looked far too perfect to be done by a human hand. She looked in her bag for her books, she had forgotten one. She arched her neck to look at the bench seat in the back of the car.
‘What is it?’
‘Did you forget something?’
‘No. Just leave it, Mum.’
The next intersections light turned red and her mother padded the breaks and rolled to a complete stop. She tapped on the steering wheel with the bottom of her hand, nervously.
‘You can’t keep talking like that. You can’t tell me to leave it.’
‘I know you and Dad are getting a lock for my room window. I heard you talking about it.’
‘You were listening?’
‘You’re in the next room, Mum!’ she yelled. ‘I hear everything. You put a lock on my window and the next time I get out I’m really not coming home.’
The light went green and the car pulled out in to traffic. A car flew through its read light, speeding and swerving. Mother heard the screeching of tires and Loretta could smell the brake pads burning as it tried to stop. The collision was the loudest noise either of them had ever heard. The front of the car rammed into the drivers’ side door and pushed the car onto its side.
The airbag exploded in a cloud of dust, temporarily making them both deaf. Loretta screamed and flayed her arms around trying desperately to grip anything as the car was pushed onto its roof. The impact was so furious that it spun around, facing the other direction. Metal scrapped against asphalt, sparks arching into the air. Glass smashed out and cut Loretta’s hands and her mother along her face and arms. The airbag popped like a balloon and her mother gargled as her throat slammed against the steering wheel, breaking several bones in her neck and sending her head upward, into the ceiling.
A second car came from the left, hitting them again and sending them rolling against the first. The front hood buckled inwards and came through the glassless, windscreen frame. It broke her mother’s arm, snapping the bone from its skin. The screams stopped as the car rolled again, her mother a motionless doll; her limbs flapping and falling without care. Loretta tried to reach for her, but the car spun and landed on its roof with a crashing, explosion of glass and igniting the engine. She smelled the fuel and then smelled the fire. She screamed for help. She could hear people in their cars yelling and calling out.
Time seemed to stand still, if only for a moment. Someone, somewhere was crying. Loretta breathed in and could feel something burning. Her hair was on fire. A fiery ball of metal had come through the front and landed in the backseat. She bashed it out with her hand, but she was upside down. She cried and screamed, panicking at the thought of her hair being burnt off. Her lungs hurt, and her hands felt like they were sticky. She looked down and saw they were covered in blood. She turned to her mother.
Her face was bleeding and her eyes were open, but she wasn’t moving.
Chapter Two: The Ward
‘Do you still get nightmares?’
Loretta nodded. ‘Every night.’
‘You need to speak to me, Loretta. That’s why you come here. We talk through it. It helps with the healing.’
Loretta looked up. Her eye was still bruised, and her arm was in a white wrap.
‘Every night, I feel like I relive it.’
‘I don’t remember anything before it.’
‘Your Dad said your Mum was taking you to school.’
‘I remember the smell of my hair burning.’ Loretta said, running her fingers through her shortened hair. It was dyed black now. She didn’t like it black, but it hid who she once was.
‘What else do you remember?’
‘I remember lying there, looking at my mum covered in blood. Her eyes were open, and I remembered thinking she was dead.’
‘But she’s not dead.’
Loretta’s eyes turned in their sockets, upwards at the woman talking to her.
‘She may as well be.’
‘Loretta, your mother is getting better with every week that passes. The doctor told you that.’
‘She can’t speak yet.’
‘No, that may be a while yet. But she’s out of the woods.’
‘She’s still in intensive care.’
‘What else do you remember?’
‘I remember being upside down. My seatbelt wouldn’t come undone. I remember hearing people talking and grabbing for me through the window. The fire was spreading through the car.’
‘I woke up here. I had a tube down my throat. Dad was crying.’
‘Do you think you’ve progressed in the three months since it happened? You have more memories then you did before.’
Loretta looked down at her fingernails. She had painted the pinkie nails red. She blinked and looked away.
‘I don’t know. I guess so.’
‘You guess so?’ Loretta shrugged. ‘I’ll see you again next week, yeah? We can talk about your recovery and see what else you can recall. Okay? Is your dad coming to get you?’
‘I have to call him from the front counter when I’m ready.’
‘Are you going to see your mum before you go?’
Loretta stood up.
‘I’ll see you next week.’ She walked out to the hallway. It smelled of high-grade bleach and sterile equipment.
Loretta knew her way around the hospital now. She could manoeuvre through the hallways blindfolded if she had to. Slowly, she made her way to the front section and signed out. The young boy at the desk took a second look at her and shook his head. She stared at him, but thought not to ask. Her footsteps echoed softly as she walked through the automatic doors and outside. It was cold. She stood and stared up at the pregnant, grey clouds and wished for rain.
Home was nearly an hour walk, but her father wouldn’t be able to handle it if he didn’t pick her up. She went back inside to the counter and took the phone off the receiver. Her fingers automatically started dialling the number and stopped. She placed it back down. Looking down the long hallway, she could see that it disappeared into the heart of the hospital. Her feet were walking almost by themselves.
The hallway leading up to the care unit was almost entirely vacant. It was dead quiet except the hiss and thump of machines. Each foot step sounded like a stomp. She weaved her way down several corridors until she got to the front desk. There was a woman behind it watching a small, portable TV. The sound was off, and she was staring at her nails. Loretta walked passed her, expecting to be asked what she was doing here, but the woman didn’t say anything, nor did she look up.
Her mother’s room was at the very end. She slowed her footsteps as she approached the room and looked in. The curtain was drawn across her bed, making it impossible to see her. Loretta could hear her mother’s heart monitoring machine gently beeping to itself.
Loretta stepped into the room. She could see the blinds were drawn from the window, but the light coming in was soft and grey. Loretta moved around the curtain to the foot of the bed and looked at her mother. Her head had been shaved and the stitches only recently removed. Several long, fleshy, strings of scar tissue ran around her head, from her left eye, up to the crown of her head and over her left ear. One eye was taped shut while the other remained closed. Her fingers were still in a metal brace; bars going into her wrists and fingers to keep them straight. Loretta began to cry. Bandages wrapped her right arm, all the way up to the elbow and a plaster was covering her right foot and shin. Bloodied bandages lay on her chest and throat.
‘Mum,’ she said.
There was no answer. She turned away and held her head in her hands. She left the ward without saying another word.
Chapter Three:The Bone Cage
Loretta’s father sat and stared at his spaghetti and meat balls. He twisted the pasta around on his fork and brought it up to his mouth. His lips parted, but he was no longer hungry. He hadn’t been hungry since the accident. He put the fork back down and pushed the bowl away. Loretta looked at him.
For a moment she thought he hadn’t heard her. He finally looked up as she was about to say it again.
‘Are you okay, Loretta?’ he said, a worried look on his face. His eyes brows were bunched together.
‘Did you see Mum today?’
He nodded. ‘I went before work.’
He shook his head and looked at the empty space in front of him.
‘Not yet. The doctors say she should wake up soon. Her brain activity is spiking. They think it will…’ he stopped half way through his sentence and took a deep breath, ‘they think it will ignite something in her brain to wake her up.’
‘They said she may never speak again.’
He looked away, towards the dining room window. The curtains were pulled across. He stood up and tucked his chair in, then went to walk away. He turned and came back to the table and sat back down.
‘Sorry, I forgot you hadn’t finished eating.’
‘It’s okay, Dad. You can go. I’ll finish in my room.’
He remained seated.
‘The doctors say a lot of things. No one is really sure. She may walk again, she may speak again, and it could be any day now… no one knows for sure.’
Loretta nodded. She picked up a meatball and noticed she had lost her appetite as well.
‘You go to bed, I’ll clean the kitchen.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah, it’s just packing the dishwasher. I’ll turn it on and you can unpack it tomorrow. I’ve got to study anyway.’
Her father nodded and left the table. Loretta waited and listened for his footsteps up the staircase and along the wooden floor to his room. She heard the door shut. The room was quiet and still. She emptied her plate in the bin and packed the dishes like she said she would. Checking the front door and all the windows, she then turned the lights off and made her way to her room and shut the door behind her.
Loretta hadn’t actually been back to school since she left the hospital and came home after the accident. Her father was barely home, he was either at work or at the hospital. He was grateful that she was home when he got home and never, ever asked about school or where she had been during the day.
She checked her social media, but found the contents lacklustre and uninteresting. It was hard to see the smiling faces and photos of great food and the beach when she had been through a horrific accident. Having fun, or seeing others having fun just made her mad. She shut her laptop and climbed into bed. The room light remained on and it had been that way for months. Not since she was a small girl had she left the lights on. It wasn’t because of imaginary monsters, or moving shadows, it was letting the night know she was still awake.
She dreamt of the old car. In her dreams she was little, far younger than she was now. She was in the backseat and her parents were in the front. They were arguing. She remembers them arguing a lot when she was younger. As she grew, the bickering lessened, or they just got better at hiding it. The car moved forward into traffic and suddenly she was in the front seat. She turned to her mother, but she was gone. She was staring at herself driving. Cars came from each direction, as fast as they could drive. She started to scream out, her hands went to her ears and she braced for impact.
The silence of the house was broken by the phone ringing. Loretta sat bolt upright. She looked at her phone, it was after 2 a.m. She heard her father move about the house, so she got up as well. She went to the hallway. Her father walked past her without saying a word. He reached for the phone in the hallway.
‘Yes, hello?’ Loretta could hear scrambled voices. ‘Yes, this is Henry Davis. Okay, yes, I’ll be straight up.’
He hung up the phone and looked at his daughter, who looked equally distraught. He had tears rolling down his face.
‘Your mother has woken up.’
They barely got dressed; only throwing on robes and a pair of shoes with no socks and ran down to the car. Her father was so scared his hands were shaking. He clicked the button to open the automatic door as Loretta slid into the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on. She had barely been in cars since the accident and every time she did, it made her heart beat a little faster. She put her hand on her father’s hand to steady him.
‘It’s okay, Dad. It’s going to be okay,’ she told him.
He took a deep breath and looked at her. She could see he was scared.
There was no traffic on the road, and they got to the hospital far quicker than normal. Loretta noticed an abundance of ambulances around the emergency wing. She rushed to follow her father who was heading towards the elevator.
‘What if she’s…’ he started.
‘Not the same?’ Loretta finished for him. ‘Don’t worry, Dad. She’s awake, that’s the main thing.’
They sprinted down the hallway, Loretta already in tears. They made it to her bedroom and ran in, both of them struggling for breath. A doctor was beside their mother, her hand in hers. She was taking her pulse. She looked startled as the two rushed in.
Her mother had one eye open. The other was still taped shut. Her stare moved from the window to her daughter and instantly filled with tears. Loretta ran to her and could only feel one of her mother’s hands on her back, it had no strength at all. Her father hugged her and kissed her. He wiped away tears and sat on the chair beside the bed, pulling it as close to the bed as he could.
‘How are you feeling? I can’t believe you’re awake.’
‘She can’t speak still,’ the doctor explained. ‘The bone cage around her vocal chords was damaged. It will take some time to get her full voice back. She should be able to whisper in a few days.’
‘Oh, thank you, thank you.’
‘It’s your wife Mr Davis. I’ve not seen many people pull through and wake up from this many injuries. She’s a very tough woman.’
‘Can she come home?’ Loretta asked, sitting on the foot of the bed.
‘Not yet, I’m afraid. She still needs regular bandage swaps and monitoring. My estimate would be a week at the very earliest.’
Loretta looked at her father, they both smiled.
‘Now, I’ll let you be with her for a few minutes longer, then she has to get some sleep. You can come back tomorrow in the normal visiting hours.’ The doctor jotted down the vitals on the clipboard and left the room.
They held hands and wept, staring at each other in bewilderment. She tried to communicate, but her body was too weak. They stayed and spoke to her, holding her hand and telling her how worried they had been. Loretta wanted to say more, say something to her, but she couldn’t find the words.
They stayed longer then allowed and then finally left when she fell asleep. They got home at day break.