Monday, October 27, 2014

"Talebones"

Note: The following story is part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas' annual Halloween short-fiction roundup. It also represents something of a departure for me, having been composed within 48 hours and subject to minimal editing. Be kind, enjoy, and have yourself a very spooky All Saints' Eve.

Bones spoke to Jenny.

She discovered the gift -- if gift it was -- at the age of five. Her brother, Samuel, had been excavating in the backyard with a red-bladed Ames True Temper shovel. A foot down, he accidentally disturbed the grave of one Fluffymump, a former favorite feline. Some surreptitious digging, a quick bend and snatch, and he whirled, shouting, "Hey, Germy, catch."

Fluffymump's sepia skull landed in Jenny's outstretched hands.

Naturally, she screamed and ran upstairs to her room. Naturally, Jenny's father bent Samuel over his knee and given him three sharp whacks. Naturally, Jenny's mother followed close after to offer consolation and chocolate chip cookies only just taken from the oven. But that was where expectation ended. Jenny's mother couldn't get in her room, because the five-year-old had somehow wedged her dresser against the door. When Jenny's father finally managed to shove it open (toppling the dresser, which gouged a fist-size hole in the drywall), he found her curled in the corner, rocking. She was inconsolable, screaming when anyone touched her, whimpering when they didn't. They'd whispered about doctors, but within half an hour or so she asked for a glass of milk, told Samuel she'd forgiven him. Her parents were relieved. A disturbing reaction, but understandable given the thoughtless prank and a little girl's sensitivity.

Of course, they got it entirely wrong.

Stop and imagine the scene. Jenny's hands coming up instinctively. The feel of a strange, hard smoothness smacking skin. Then the sour-sweet stench of decay, the thing thought to be a ball rearranging itself into a terrible orb of fur-flecked bone. Your own experience can probably carry you that far. What it can't impart is the sound of shrieking brakes, the feel of your spine shattering under an impossibly huge and heavy blow, the salted-iron scent of your life's blood spreading across tarry blacktop. Jenny experienced all of it in an instant and suddenly knew Fluffymump didn't die in her sleep as her parents had said. Sensitive? Hardly. Only her innate girlish grit kept her sanity from snapping right then and there.

Not that the experience left her untouched. Within weeks, she became an uncompromising vegetarian who shuddered over baby-back ribs and fish fillets, although not for the reasons which others imagined. On a field trip to the science museum, she gagged and clutched at her throat after playing with the sealed sensory box, writhing on the floor until the EMTs arrived. (She soon recovered, and an investigation of the box revealed it contained only jacks, dried beans, a twist of burlap, and a chicken femur polished shiny by countless small hands.) She passed high school biology with a C-, owed entirely to her unwillingness to participate in any dissections. She refused to attend her grandfather burial, unable to convince herself that the faint murmurings she heard while walking a stone-stippled graveyard were entirely in her imagination.

College proved better. College offered more in the way of options. Jenny went out of state. She stayed far away from the physical sciences and majored in accounting. She roomed with a pair of vegans in the town's historic district, dwelling in an old row house with red-brick walls, three tiny floors, and a basement so old the concrete had begun to crumble. Linebacker-large Lana and pixie-petite Maryanne wouldn't think of questioning her choice of diet. They were older and activists. They wore hemp and unbleached cotton. They argued passionately for global implementation of China's one-child policy and the outlawing of all forms of animal testing. They were political in a way Jenny had never experienced.

"Look, I know it's a cliche," Lana said more than once over meals of tofu or edamame or spaghetti squash. "But think about it. Personhood is defined by the ability to enjoy your existence, to prefer to continue your life. Why restrict that definition to just humans? Can it be for any reason other than speciesism?" Her first thundered against the table. "Meat really is murder. Maybe our society needs a taste of it to understand."

"Don't mind her," Maryanne always said. "She's all talk."

Jenny didn't mind. Her choice, though, owed less to ideology than psychic survival. She acknowledged the benefits of easily available protein and loved a juicy hamburger. But any fleck of marrow secreted in ground chuck might bring the stunning thunk of a slaughterhouse bolt gun to her forehead. Not that she wanted to explain. Such a cross wind of opinion would surely whip stormy Lana in a full-fledged tempest and (she suspected) agitate even serene Maryanne.

So she said little and listened much. She attended to her studies. And in her junior year, she met a boy.

Dr. Soumitra Ghosh had a reputation amongst accounting majors for being tough but fair -- but mostly tough. Still, Jenny wanted to graduate early, and it fit into her schedule, a once-a-week night class. "I do not hand out A's," Dr. Ghosh said during the very first class. Jenny skimmed the syllabus. Deferred compensation, depletion, gross income exclusions -- everything she'd studied before, simply in more detail. She glanced at the other students scattered around the room, only a dozen, a bad sign for a professor's popularity. Her gaze lingered on the square-shouldered young man sitting to her right. His curling hair was the color of coal, his high cheekbones cut as if with a chisel, his eyes slate gray. While she watched, his pen beat a staccato tattoo on the desk and his shoulders clenched, relaxed, clenched again. Nervous.

While Jenny was packing, she heard a throat being conspicuously cleared.

"Uh," said the young man. "Hi. Um, look, I'm embarrassed to ask this, but you seemed to know what's going on."

Jenny raised an eyebrow. "It's just tax accounting."

He grimaced. "I know, right? But that example on property dispositions had me completely confused."

"Didn't you take ACG 6730?"

"It wasn't listed as a prerequisite."

"Everyone in the department knows you need it if you're going to take anything with Dr. Ghosh."

He sighed. "Great. See, I'm not from the department. I'm on the entrepreneurship track, but I was hoping to graduate this semester. It's the only class that fit."

Jenny found a smile teasing the corner of her mouth at the utter dejection on his face. "Looks like you're going to need a tutor."

"Guess so. Maybe the registrar has a list or something."

Jenny swallowed, her heart suddenly stuck six inches above her sternum. "Or I could ... help you out with the basics. It's not too hard once you get the hang of it."

He beamed like a cloudless sunrise. "You are awesome. Got time now? I'm starving, and there's a KFC on campus. My treat."

Jenny hedged. "How about coffee?"

His name was Marc. His mother was British, his father Iranian, and he'd shocked them both by deciding to go to school in the states. He'd shocked them more when he said that the U.K. was an economic train wreck waiting to happen, had miserable weather and worse food (unless you counted fish and chips, and you couldn't eat that for two meals a day each and every week), and he only planned to return on holidays. He'd already sketched out a plan to open a Culver's franchise in every state on the eastern seaboard within a decade.

"I have a bit of an aggressive personality," he explained. "So, we can do this again? And, by the way, you know you have beautiful eyes, right?"

They accomplished very little in the way of studying.

Marc insisted on walking her home, and tried kiss her. Jenny waved him off, laughing. After their third rendezvous, she let him. After the sixth, the thing that broke their lip lock was Maryanne whipping open the front door.

"Cute guy," said Maryanne once they were both inside. "You going to marry him? Have a bunch of kids?" Her small shoulders shivered with ill-controlled rage.

"I don't know. I just met him a few weeks ago. What's the matter with you anyway?"

"The matter with me? Haven't you been listening to what we've been saying? The reproductive drive lies at the root of anthropocentrism, the nexus of all the major problems this planet is facing. And there you are, living with us, listening to us, and then acting like a breeder behind our backs --"

"Maryanne, stop, please," Jenny interrupted. "You're starting to scare me. Where's Lana?"

Maryanne turned away, placed her hands on a side table bearing a jumble of keys, a heavy pewter candlestick, a bowl of stevia-sweetened mints. "At one of her meetings."

"Do you know when she'll get back? Because I think we should talk about this. I respect you both and your ideas, but I need to live my life."

Maryanne chuckled, a sad sound. "Talk. It always comes down to that. Lana likes it, talking about small steps and incremental change. She's all talk. I told you so."

"Incremental change doesn't sound so bad."

"Exponential is better. Pull out the weed by the root. I'm not all talk."

And her hand closed around the candlestick, whipped around, and struck Jenny on the head.

Jenny awoke in the dark with a blood-red pulse hammering behind her eyes. She knew her hands and legs were bound. She knew she was in the basement. She knew Maryanne, with her normally quiet demeanor, was stone crazy in a way that went beyond politics. She knew she would soon come down the steps with a box cutter.

She knew all this because the bed of bones upon which she was pillowed told her so.

Five women all approximately her own age. Five drawn by the allure of cheap rent in the historic part of town. Five women either supportive of, indifferent to, or repulsed by their roommates' beliefs. Five women whom Maryanne had found were in romantic relationships. Five women who, for the sake on an idea, were secreted away in quicklime in a crude ossuary cut into the basement's concrete floor and covered by boards and gravel until another was ready to join them.

Their bones spoke to Jenny. They poured out anger and outrage, horror and hurt. And Jenny, teetering on the brink of madness, did something she'd never done before: She talked back. She explained the rope around her wrists and the gag in her mouth. She told them about Marc and her studies. She described her parents and Samuel and Fluffymump as she'd been when she was alive. When words failed, she began to cry. And when the tears ceased, she realized that even the bones had grown silent.

She felt something move underneath her. She heard a sound of clicking, as if of the mandibles of some enormous chitinous creature. She saw a rectangle of light appear around the door at the top of the stair, saw it widen as it opened, Maryanne's silhouette framed within it.

Then things began to happened.

Later, the police officer tasked with the unenviable task of writing up the report would concoct a theory about a group of mysterious assailants who had broken in to the bungalow, although their motivations remained a mystery. It had to have been a "they," because position of the victim's body -- if victim you could call her -- showed she'd been flayed alive with her own X-Acto knife. (The officer so surmised, because forensics could find only her prints on it.) Reconstructions of the scene indicated at least a half-dozen assailants and that the death had been ... prolonged. The strangest part, though, were the bones that had been scattered about her, a jumble of remains from the murders of missing college coeds over the past three years. Their appearance had the authorities baffled. The sole survivor, one Jennifer Hartswick, could shed no light on the matter, claiming to have been unconscious throughout the whole thing.

3 comments:

Eric Douglas said...

Very nice! Or not so nice...hehe

Elizabeth Gaucher said...

Jeepers creepers, Loren! Spooktackular. *shiver*

Loren Eaton said...

Eric: Thanks for hosting it! It was a lot of fun.

Elizabeth: *clatter click clack*