Why did he have to be so serious? Couldn't he have smiled, at least at the end? Maybe given me a few moments to mull over the story once it was over, then let me know it was a joke. It obviously was.

If something like this did happen, which it can't, it wouldn't be something you tell strangers who come to your trinket store. You'd tell the police. The F.B.I. would've gotten involved. Scientists, prestigious or fringe, would have published something. Maybe it wouldn't be all over the news, but there would be something somewhere. There's just no way I'd hear about it straight from him and never anywhere else. There are holes in the story anyway. What happened to the skin? The wreckage? Why did it take the driver so long to get out of the truck? Why didn't they, or any bystanders, see any of this? It just doesn't hold water. But it killed me the way he told it so seriously. It kills me to this day.

As much as I try to forget, damn near every detail of that stupid impossible story is indelibly stamped in my brain. I heard it on one of our family trips out west. I must've been thirteen or fourteen. It was at this shop in the middle of nowhere. You've been places like this. The places people call "quaint" when they mean "terrible." You see a hand-painted sign by the side of the road, turn on to a dirt path, and end up at some shack where an overly talkative yokel is selling miscellaneous junk.

This one had a worn-out wooden Indian at the door. Sold arrowheads, crinoid heads, Mercury dimes, calcite crystals, and ugly paperweights of every description. Devil's corkscrews and bottle cap mosaics on the walls. Jackalopes left, right, and center. And at the far end was this decrepit old man at a mustard-colored desk with the short end propped up on a one-horned buffalo skull.

I took a look around. I wasn't exactly entranced by the stuff he had for

Assorted marbles (

sale, but it was a nice break from the monotony of the long car ride. There were tons of marbles, including a few somewhat interesting ones I thought about adding to my old collection. Now I'm really showing my age. The old coot told me he had some marbles in the back that would interest me, and that's how it started. No. It really started when I mentioned to my brother that this looked like Uncle Willy's place from Gargoyles. The old man must've overheard this, and once he knew I was the kind of kid who was scared by Creature Feature he figured I was the perfect audience for this story.

He spoke to me in a very deep voice. The voice and the man seemed mismatched. Here was this lanky, deeply wrinkled, nearly bald geezer with thick glasses and an almost comical little mustache speaking with this riveting baritone. Something about the timber made it feel like every word held a lot of weight. I can still hear it in my head.

"Now, I got some other marbles you'll want to see," he said. "They're not for sale, but if you really want 'em you can have 'em."

He walked into the storage room at the back of the shop, rummaged around for a moment, then appeared back at the doorway empty-handed.

"Now, before you have a look, I ought to tell you how I come about these."

God, I know he'd rehearsed this.

"It was a good many years ago," he began, then he gave me some forgettable background info about whatever small town he was living in and what he did there. I think he said he was on his way to a concert in the park some Saturday or Sunday afternoon when it happened. There was something about the trains not running. I can't remember how that was relevant. But once the story really got going, he had my attention. He was really driving it into my brain.

"I heard crying and I saw a girl about your age sitting on the sidewalk with her head hung down and her hand over her eyes. The other hand was feeling around the aggregate."

He proceeded to describe a girl straight out of an old comic book. As I remember, she had very fair skin and curly brown hair, and was wearing a green skirt, yellow blouse, green shoes, yellow socks, and a green bow in her hair. I don't know. Maybe people really did dress like that. I wasn't around.

"I asked her what the matter was," he continued.

"'I've lost my marbles,' she says. 'I dropped them right here and I don't know where they went.'

"Now, she looked awful old to be crying over marbles, but you can't get out o' feeling sorry for a crying girl.

"'Don't cry,' I says. 'I'll help you find 'em.'

"Well, I didn't see any marbles around. I found a lot o' other things, like how it always works when you're hunting for something. I asked her what exactly I was looking for, color-wise and such, and she give me an answer that wasn't really an answer.

"'They're my best two marbles. I can't go home without them.'

"Now, her means of hunting wasn't too effectual. She was sitting on the ground feeling around without hardly looking. When she'd covered all that ground she could reach, she'd get up and sit down on a different spot. One hand would feel the ground, and she covered her face with the other. Sometimes she'd lift it up to look at the ground a bit, but it never came too far up off her face. I figured she didn't want anybody seeing her with tears in her eyes. Girls can be real self-conscious, 'specially at that age.

"'I don't think they're anywhere on this block of sidewalk,' I says after a good long hunt. 'They're not on the curb either. I think they either rolled a long ways or they went down the storm drain.'

"She cried worse. I tried to cheer her up.

"I says, 'I did find seven cents, and I'll give you a dime on top o' that. That'll buy you a lot o' marbles.'

"She says, 'No, thank you. I can't buy marbles like these. They're special.'

"I says, 'You ought to run along and forget about these marbles. If they're gone, they're gone.'

"'I don't have that choice,' she says.

"Then she stood up and really looked around for the first time. She cupped her hands around her eyes, which was a funny thing to do 'cause it was just a shade above gloomy that day. She must've seen what she thought was a marble or two over yonder, cause...well, she started like she'd spotted something, then she just up and dashed across the road. Didn't notice anybody coming.

"'Look out!' I says. Well, when she heard me holler, she stopped in the middle of the road and twisted around to look at me. It wasn't a real smart thing to do. I didn't even have time to gasp before a blue Ford half-ton pickup smacked square into her. I'll never forget what I saw right then as it knocked her sideways.

"Well, it took a couple ticks before I made sense o' what I was seeing. This little lady was broken up real bad, but...well, she wasn't dying like any regular person. Bubbles come out her mouth, slimy strands come out her eye sockets, and a big glob come right out her chest. It tore open the front of her dress when it burst out o' her skin, probably owing to all the sharp spurs. She was still crying, but it was in and out, like a weak radio signal. She was bubbling, too, like a pot o' stew boiling over. She'd left a strange mess on the chrome grill of the truck that wasn't blood at all. No, she wasn't dying in a regular kind o' way. She wasn't dying at all, to tell the truth.

"I tell you, it was quite a sight. Her skin'd split clean open from her waist up to her chin. A silver doodad was hanging out her neck. She got right back up, but not real easy. She kind o' wobbled around like a newborn calf. One leg didn't want to behave. But she got up on a leg and a half, and must've remembered that I was there noticing her. Her eyes, which looked like a pair o' wet shoelaces...well, they come alive. They twitched and twisted around like they couldn't get along with each other, then they both sat still with their ends in the air. Looked like two little snakes ready to strike. I couldn't see any eyeballs on 'em, but I knew I was gettin' looked at real hard. She brung her hand up and touched the thing in her neck and the crying stopped. Then she just shed herself o' all her skin and clothes.

"Her eyes flicked right into their sockets like a couple o' snake tongues, and they came back out the hole in her neck with a whole mess o' bubbles and foam. Her neck...the neck inside the neck...well, it come out two or three times as long as a neck ought to go. The rest o' her upper parts just fell away. You could see all the meat and gristle and bones, like she was a skinned rabbit. But the girl squirmin' around there half-out o' her skin...well, she didn't look like any carcass I seen. Bones steeped in vinegar, so they go all rubbery. That's what the skeleton looked like. And the meat wrapped around it was all slimy. There was a sort of a pink and brown pudding, a glaze, you could say, all up and down her body. 'Cause that was her real body, o' course. That skin had no life to it.

"The arms inside the arms had paws. Flippers, almost. Big finger bones, like thread spools, all laced together with sinew and joined up with this thin hide. The arms had little armlets, too, up near the trunk. One leg emptied out and looked just like the two arms. The other leg stayed like it was. I could see the little knobs and geegaws where it ended inside the hip. It wasn't part o' her body.

"Everything that was her stretched and shook and popped. It was snapping back into what I have to guess was its natural shape. Those funny little eyes kept a watch on me. At least one o' them was always on me. I just stood there like a bird charmed by a snake. I could've almost been sick from what I seen there, but it was the hardest thing to look away. I did 'er, though. I snapped back to my right mind and ran to the truck that was stopped, just so I'd put it between me and her.

"Well, by the time the driver got out, she was gone. Down the storm drain, I figure. I didn't see her slip away, but that's the best way she could've. Just like those octopuses on T.V. There was a fellow or two who caught the accident from a distance, but I was the only one to get an eyeful of the victim. Now, I didn't make too much of a fuss about what I seen, but it shook me up real bad.

"After the hubbub died down, I went home. I didn't feel like being 'round people anymore that day. Well, I headed on home, and it wasn't long before I happened upon the marbles that girl was looking for. They'd rolled clear across the road and down the gully stretch. Well, I picked 'em up and I kept 'em with me. Nobody or nothing ever came 'round to collect 'em. I have 'em right here."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the marbles he'd fetched from the back room. He held them out in his right palm, then moved them with his left index finger so they both pointed the right direction. They were marbles made to look like eyeballs. Exactly like eyeballs. I could see every blood vessel in the whites, every hazel-tinted fiber in the irises.

He wasn't through showing them to me until he'd held them up to the antique hanging lamp. Under the bright light, I saw the pupils contract.

Then he held out his hand and offered them to me while adding an epilog to the story.

"I reckon there's a lot o' these around, worn by a lot o' people who aren't people."

I couldn't even begin to formulate a response to what I'd just seen and heard. I think I just stood there dumbstruck for a few moments, then skittered away without giving the old man the courtesy of a single word.

A scary story's a scary story, but why did he have to be so serious?

Written by Lee Sherman (Floyd Pinkerton)