At first, I went along with my parents so I could see him. We talked about his brother, how Henry would’ve left home if he survived the fire, would’ve left Ed and their Ma all alone. I guess it still made him sad, because that kind of talk only went on until we had somethin’ else to talk about—like how he got his shrunken heads.
“I’m not a kid,” I said one time, “you can tell me. Did you get ‘em in the war?”
Mom said it was a shame no woman ever settled down with him since he and I got on. When I started high school, he told me if I ever needed somebody in my corner, he’d be it, and he was. He never lied, never pretended I was too young to know things — he just wouldn’t tell me about the heads. I guess there had to be one big secret left between us, one thing to keep me from leavin’ him all alone.
My dad killed a deer when he went hunting one time. Ed met him at our place and I helped him skin it. Ed was good—real good, and he couldn’t stop findin’ uses for the hide.
“You gotta be one of the best hunters in the world to know all that,” I’d said. My dad just shook his head; he thought it was hero worship. He didn’t know what it was like to really mean somethin’ to someone.
“Nah,” Ed replied while he cut the meat off with his big knife, “I grew up with the best. I’m all right, but my old man, Henry, they were better.”
“You’re the best I’ve ever seen,” I’d said.
He’d nudged my arm with his elbow, so I gave him a little smile like we were partners in crime. “I’m the best at somethin’, but it ain’t shootin’ at deers.”
“Nothing useful,” Dad joked.
“Applied knowledge,” Ed replied. “A goose and a duck ain’t much different, but usin’ what you know about duck to dress a goose, that’s a skill nobody understands.”
I thought he meant just what he said, so I didn’t think too much of it. Old guys had their things. That was why Ed closed off whole rooms at his place—‘cause he was getting old and he wasn’t that good at fixing up houses.
I’d only been over a couple times. He liked adventure books. That was how we got to the shrunken heads.
I was sittin’ outside with him while he fixed up an old chair with new leather when he said, “Alright.” I didn’t pay no mind until he kept going. “You really wanna know how I got the heads, huh?”
I held on to my knees. He never took his eyes off the seam. Maybe I was too excited; it’d been a mystery for almost two years. “Yeah,” I said, “Please.”
“One sick son of a bitch made those,” he finally said. “Overseas. I had a cousin serve in the war; he bought those for me. You know why I keep ‘em out where everybody can see?”
I didn’t. He ran his hand over the seat like he was making sure it didn’t feel like stitches in your rear.
“They used to be people. Isn’t that somethin’? You spend your whole life a person, and then you’re no better than a deer.”
“You think somebody ever shrunk a deer head?” I asked, and he laughed.
“Dunno. There are plenty of people in the world, somebody probably thought of it. There’s not enough hair to hang it up by. Wouldn’t look as good.”
“They’re shrunk,” I said. “They don’t look like they used to anyhow.”
I was gonna see him that day. It was cold and rainy, and Ed said he’d finally show me what he figured he was the best at. I waited all day. He never showed.
I knew something was wrong; he never blew me off before. Good luck trying to convince my parents, though. White bread old folks don’t understand when people have a connection.
For half the night, I hardly slept. I was sure the phone was going to wake me up, and Ed wouldn’t be there anymore.
They knocked at seven. My parents must’ve been worried or we would’ve already been up for church at nine. I didn’t want to go and not see Ed there. I knew the pastor would call for our attention and say we lost a brother, and every movie, every baseball game, every lazy summer afternoon takin’ pot shots at empty soda cans from his back steps would be gone. I didn’t move for a while. Nobody came up, so I went down. Just like I thought, there were cops in the living room, seated across from my parents like they did when they had to break bad news.
“The house was decorated with body parts,” one said, low and quiet. Their faces didn’t know how to settle between grief and shock.
“You mean the shrunken heads?”
They all turned. My mother looked like she’d pass out.
“Excuse me?” the other cop said.
“The shrunken heads on Ed’s bookcase? You mean the shrunken heads, right?”
They stared like they didn’t know what I was talkin’ about.
“His cousin got ‘em in the war, brought ‘em back for him.”
“Son”—the cop that had been talking to my parents leaned forward on his elbows like he was getting ready to spit—“those weren’t shrunken heads.”
“What are you talking about?” my dad asked, “What shrunken heads? He showed you some shrunken heads?!”
“No,” I replied. “They’re hung up on the bookshelf. They’re shrunken heads, they’re from the war, his cousin brought ‘em from overseas somewhere.”
“Those weren’t shrunken heads,” the cop repeated a little louder, like he didn’t think I’d heard him the first time. “Those were masks of human skin. He put them on and wore them around the house, especially when…”
My mom’s hands went over her face.
So what if Ed had weird stuff? So what if they were human? Where was he? What happened to him? Did somebody kill him for them?
“He made them, probably from the women whose graves he dug up. He cut off parts of them.”
“Sometimes he took the whole body-”
They were wrong.
“The furniture’s made of skin. There are tools in that house made of bone, human bone, probably from those women.”
I didn’t say anything. My dad watched me for a second before he asked, “Was there anything else?”
Sitting on the back porch with Ed, watching him sew in a nice, straight line, the way his hand ran over the stitches to make sure they weren’t obvious. Nice leather. Leather, not skin. They were wrong. Ed wasn’t a killer.
“A lampshade. A waste basket. Some things made of bone. The masks, there may even be a suit; we haven’t finished with the house.”
He never really looked at them. They were just shrunken heads. He didn’t make them. He didn’t do it. He was innocent. Ed didn’t do it. Ed didn’t do anything.
“There was a box of…” the cop stopped to look at me, “and a belt.”
“Did you know him well?” the other cop asked.
Ed Gein wasn’t a murderer. He was my friend.
Nikki Fier has been twice published in an award-winning small press literary magazine (EDDA), and is currently polishing a series of four novels for publication. This is her third year in the Fiction program at Columbia College Chicago.