by Andrew MacRae
The Mystery of the Grinning Skull was first published in the October, 2011 issue of 2011 of Stories for Children Magazine.
This is a companion children’s mystery short story to Andrew’s story, The Mystery of the Whispering Ghost, also published here in KRL. Mystery of the Whispering Ghost is our top hits for a short story in 2013 so seemed perfect to end the year with it’s companion short story.
It was Saturday morning at the Evans house. Mom was making bread in the kitchen; twelve-year-old Paul sat at the table with her and worked on the comic book he was drawing.
The screen door banged as Morgan, Paul’s five year old sister, came into the kitchen. “There’s a monster in Mr. Appleton’s kitchen,” she announced happily.
“That’s nice, dear,” Mom said.
“It’s a skeleton,” Morgan told Paul. “Well, not a skeleton, just the head?”
“You mean a skull?” Paul flipped through his comic book. He knew there was a skull somewhere. Skulls are good to have in comic books. He found his drawing and showed it to Morgan. “You mean like that?”
Morgan glanced at Paul’s picture. “Well, sort of, but not really. This one is cooler. It smiled at me and it has pretty flowers in its eyes.”
“Hmmph,” snorted Paul. “That doesn’t sound scary.”
“I didn’t say it was scary. I said it was a monster. Monsters don’t have to be scary, right, Mom?”
“I suppose so, honey.” Their mother placed the bread dough in the oven. “Where did you see it?”
“In Mr. Appleton’s kitchen. I peeked through the fence.” Mr. Appleton lived behind the Evans “It was moving around in his kitchen. I think it was making breakfast.”
“How can a skull make breakfast?” asked Paul.
Morgan shrugged and left the kitchen.
Paul thought. There couldn’t be a large skull making breakfast in Mr. Appleton’s kitchen. But what did Morgan see? He got up from the table and went into the backyard. Paul climbed onto an overturned wheelbarrow next to the back fence. He had a good view of Mr. Appleton’s kitchen windows and rested his chin on his fists and looked.
Mr. Appleton’s kitchen was empty. Then Paul saw something! Something moved below the window with only its top showing. It sank down, out of sight. Then it came up again. It rose higher. Paul gasped. It really was a skull and it really was grinning! The skull looked right at him and Paul saw flowers in its eyes. Paul yelled and tumbled off the wheelbarrow. He ran back inside.
Paul’s mother was checking the bread in the oven.
“Mom!” shouted Paul as he ran inside. “It’s real! I saw it!”
“Saw what, Paul?” Mom asked as Paul danced around, tugging on her arm.
“There’s a big skull in Mr. Appleton’s kitchen. It’s huge. It looked right at me.”
Morgan came into the kitchen. “Morgan saw it too. Didn’t you Morgan?”
“Actually,” said Morgan, “I saw it first. It smiled at me.”
“Come on, Mom,” Paul pulled his mother toward the front door. “Let’s go find out what it is!”
Morgan chimed in, “Me too! I want to go too,” and she hurried to catch up.
During the walk down the street Paul wondered, was Mr. Appleton a mad scientist? Did he invent a living skull? Paul wasn’t certain such things were possible. In comic books, yes, but in the real world?
Soon they were at Mr. Appleton’s door. Mom rang the doorbell.
“Good morning, Mr. Appleton,” said Mom. “I hope we’re not disturbing you?”
“Not at all, come on in,” replied Mr. Appleton with a smile. “What brings the Evans family to this side of the block?” Mr. Appleton was a short man with a gray beard and hair that spilled over his shoulders. He wore thin glasses that sat halfway down his nose, causing him to tilt his head back to see through them. Paul thought, “He doesn’t look like a mad scientist,” as they came through the front door.
“Mr. Appleton,” said Paul. “I saw a monster in your kitchen.”
“I saw him first!” added Morgan.
Mr. Appleton raised his eyebrows. “A monster, you say? I don’t think I have any monsters in my house.”
“It’s a skull,” explained Paul. “I saw it through your kitchen window.”
“It smiled at me,” added Morgan.
Mr. Appleton clapped his hands. “Of course! You saw Morty!”
“Morty?” asked Mom, Paul and Morgan.
“Yes, yes. He is in the kitchen. I’ll go get him.” With that, Mr. Appleton left.
In just seconds he was back, walking backwards, holding a ribbon that stretched back beyond the doorway, as though pulling someone or something.
A large skull came floating through the doorway.
“It’s a balloon!” shouted Paul. It was a large, skull-shaped balloon with a painted-on grin and flowers for eyes. Mr. Appleton untied the ribbon. The balloon floated a few feet from the floor.
“This is Morty,” Mr. Appleton said. “Morty, these are the Evans.” Morty bobbed up and down. Morgan giggled.
“But, what is it for?” asked Paul.
“Oh, I find Morty easier to take care of than a cat or a dog. A helium balloon made of foil will float for a long time if you are careful.”
“Why do you call him Morty?” asked Morgan.
“He’s a Day of the Dead decoration, or Día de los Muertos, in Spanish. That’s an important holiday in Mexico. So I shorted Muertos to Morty.
Morty began sinking. “Why is he going down?” asked Paul.
“It’s your body heat,” replied Mr. Appleton. “Morty is very sensitive to changes in temperature. With three more people in the room the temperature has gone up.” Morty sank until he was brushing against the floor.
“Oh, poor Morty,” said Morgan.
“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Appleton. “He only needs to feed a little.”
“What does he eat?” asked Paul.
“He feeds on sunlight,” answered Mr. Appleton. “Here, watch what happens when I let sunlight in.” He walked over to a window and pulled a cord. The window curtains opened and the morning sun streamed in and covered Morty with bright sunlight.
The effect on Morty was fast. The children heard a crinkling sound as the balloon puffed up. Morty began to rise, slowly at first and then with a burst of speed touched the ceiling and bounced against it. Morgan clapped her hands.
“You see, Morty converts the heat from sunlight into energy,”
Morty skittered across the ceiling until almost to the wall, then dropped as fast as he had risen.
“Why is he coming down again?” asked Paul.
“There’s an air current over there that’s heading downward.”
Morty came down level with Paul and Morgan. He moved across the room toward the children.
Morty brushed Morgan’s hair and she giggled. Paul pursed his lips and blew air as Morty passed. Morty turned and looked at Paul. “Sorry,” he said to Morty.
“Oh, Morty doesn’t mind,” reassured Mr. Appleton. “Do you, Morty?” Morty bobbed up and down, then turned and drifted toward the kitchen. “He likes it in there,” explained Mr. Appleton.
Mom looked at her watch. Paul said, “Thank you for showing us Morty, Mr. Appleton.”
“Goodbye, Morty,” called Morgan.
Mr. Appleton waved from the front door. “Stop by anytime,” he invited. “Morty and I like company.”
On the way home Morgan clung to Mom’s hand and chattered about how she wanted a balloon like Morty. Paul was quiet, his mind already working on how to use Morty in his next comic book!