Short Fiction Contest Winner: Bob’s Bones

I’m very excited to share with you the winning story of the short fiction contest written by Kelvin Woelk! Enjoy.


I claimed the last two top beside the big window, since no other tables were open. Maybe a cute girl would come in. I could offer the empty chair.
The door opened and a skeleton entered, toe bones clacking loudly across the wood floor.
 
I looked around. No one else seemed to notice as the skeleton approached the blackboard menu, the items written in white as if it had scraped them onto it with its own bony finger. It stepped up to the ordering counter, and the barista nodded and tapped her own finger against a screen, her face bathed in a light blue aura. The skeleton stepped politely to the side. I noticed it had offered no form of payment, nor seemingly had one been demanded.
 
A minute later, it crossed into the room where I sat, its head turning this way and that, plate and cup held in place with bleached curled knuckles. I realized, with mild panic, that it was looking for a place to sit. I looked down, hoping to avoid giving any kind of signal, hoping a seat might open somewhere far away.
 
But we had made whatever substitutes for eye contact when you look at a skeleton and it looks back at you with round black empty sockets. It clattered over, setting the cup and saucer down and placing a bony hand on the empty chair.
 
“Do you mind?” The lower jaw moved like a bad special effect. Before I could answer, it pulled the chair back and slipped between it and the table, with a sound like someone losing at Jenga.
 
“I’m Bob,” it said, finger bones extended, thumb bone pointing up. I could see only those two empty circles, black as night, but it seemed to be seeing me just as I was seeing it.
 
This is how it ends, I thought. In a coffee shop, shaking the offered hand of death who, frankly, can’t even come up with an interesting fake name. Probably moonlights as tech support. Of course, if you’re Death, it probably matters even less what you call yourself.
 
I reached out and felt the cold hard bones wrap around my own warm, soft flesh.
 
“I love the smell of coffee, don’t you?” the skeleton said, releasing its grip and raising its two empty nostril holes.
 
“More so than the taste,” I said calmly, expecting each word to be my last.
 
“Spoken like a tea man,” it replied, directing its two black voids toward my hands wrapped around the white porcelain cup. “Coffee’s not to everyone’s taste. But nice on a day like today.”
 
It raised its cup to approximate lip position and held it there.
 
It took me a few seconds to realize that it was blowing—or trying to—across the steaming liquid. It made no sense of course. But the day had already pegged high on the weirdness scale.
 
I watched with cringing fascination as it took a long sip. The dark liquid dropped out the bottom of its skull, splashing its spine, ribs and pelvic bones before dropping wetly onto the chair and floor. The skeleton looked down, then at me, shrugged and said, “It’s alright, they know me here.”
 
Feeling I had nothing to lose, I took a deep breath.
 
“So”, I said. “As much as the whole cloak and scythe thing seems a bit tired, it’s what most of us are conditioned to expect. However, I find this in between motif kind of half-hearted. No offense.”
 
Genuine puzzlement seemed to emanate from inside those black round voids.
 
“What?” it said, its jaw moving slightly and emitting a single clack. “What, the death thing again? I’m just a regular Joe, like you. I was coming from an appointment with my orthopedist when I spotted this place. I thought a coffee sounded nice. Not that my opinion matters, but you’ll live out the day, I’m pretty sure.”
 
“And tomorrow?”
 
It shrugged again. “Beats me. But no one gets out alive, am I right?”
 
“Anyway,” I said, “the orthopedist bit is pretty funny.”
 
The look now directed at me, combined with accompanying silence, was most unnerving.
 
“Lack of soft tissue is no joke, my friend,” the skeleton said. “Walk around without cartilage for a couple of days. You’ll regret it faster than than you can crack your knuckles. Would you excuse me for a moment? That’s the one thing about coffee I don’t love. Goes right through me.”
I easily stifled my laughter this time. The skeleton slipped from behind the table and headed toward the bathrooms. People in the ordering line moved aside, politely letting it pass. As it turned the corner out of sight, I considered going straight home to lie down. Maybe when I woke up—if I did—things would make sense again. But almost immediately, the walking boneyard was back at the table.
 
“Well, I think I better get going.” It again raised its cup, teeth clinking against the edge, and I watched the last of the coffee follow the predictable path, with predictable results.
 
“I kind of barged in,” it said putting the cup down, “but you seemed like a nice guy. Perhaps we’ll meet here again sometime.”
 
It stepped in the puddle as if hardly noticing it, turned and walked toward the door and opened it. A blast of outside air moved across my body, sending a cold shiver through my flesh. The skeleton stepped over the threshold, and I heard the latch quietly engage.
 
A girl approached pushing a yellow bucket on wheels, holding onto a long wooden mop handle. The wheels made a pleasing sound as they rolled over the wood floor. It was, finally, time to go.
 
 The girl began mopping around my feet. I stood up and gazed out the window, hoping to convince myself of what had just taken place. But no tracks appeared in the snow that was re-painting the sidewalk white, and I did not see the skeleton then or ever again.

SONY DSCKelvin Woelk has throughout his life held various job titles including, but not limited to, grocery clerk, hospital clerk, electronic technician, and technical writer. He currently lives in northern Colorado where he helps maintain the website for a small independent bookstore and to connect people with good books. Kelvin also enjoys photography, sending and receiving hand-written letters, playing ping pong, and trying his hand at writing short stories and non-fiction for younger readers. You can find a few other examples of his work, for better or worse, at www.birdseyetravels.wordpress.com.
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Guest Story: Insubstantial

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone! In honor of today, please enjoy a story written by my wonderful friend and writing buddy, Kate Sheeran Swed.

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Image from Pixabay

 

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.

It is the sensation of waking with one arm splayed on the pillow, the limb drained and temporarily useless—only it tingles throughout her body. She can’t convince her numb fingers to grasp the doorknob.

The window is open, and she sneaks onto the slope of the roof more easily than ever before. Though she can’t manage her usual grip on the gutter, her ankles don’t smart when she lands.

She is weightless. She almost giggles, thinking of how she will surprise her mother by walking in the front door. But a cold feeling against her spine stifles her laughter. It is like getting up to use the bathroom at night, when the darkness convinces her to waste no time in returning to her room, lest the monsters should realize there’s a morsel out of bed.

If she loses her grip on the earth she will fly away, a balloon without a tether.

Calliope gives her head a shake, willing the dizziness to pass. Soon she will go inside, where her mother will press a cool hand against her forehead and check for fever. For now, she scans the yard for something familiar. The trees tilt, and she blinks to set them right. The flowerbeds wobble from daffodil to snapdragon, a double exposure in her brain.

Through the chaos, she catches sight of her lunchbox, anchored in the grass. She tries to remember the last time she held the handle, but it’s hard to distinguish the difference between days and years.

It should not be here. It belongs on the kitchen counter, jaw unhinged, waiting to be sated with peanut butter sandwiches and notes from her mother: Don’t forget to hand in your lunch money! Always with a heart.

On the street, kids hurry by, backpacks quivering as they cast wide-eyed glances at the house. Calliope kneels before the lunchbox. She expects damp knees, but no sensation leaks through her jeans.

There are two boys beyond the fence now, poking noses and fingers between the bars and whispering, jabbing one another with elbows. Calliope cannot hear what they’re saying. She wants them to leave her alone.

The lunchbox is decorated with a unicorn. There are rainbows on the thermos. But the hinges are rusty, the unicorn’s horn all but faded away.

Calliope reaches for the clasp.

One of the boys squeezes between the bars of the fence, pauses, looks back to his friend. The friend urges him on with a bright red sleeve.

“What do you want?” asks Calliope. The boy looks past her and swallows, then darts toward the porch.

Calliope decides to pay him no mind. She touches the tip of her index finger to the clasp on the unicorn lunchbox.

Her finger disappears. When she pushes forward, alarmed, the rest of her hand follows.

She jerks it back.

The boy reaches the porch, touches the bottom step. For a moment, the house settles in Calliope’s vision, and she sees it as if for the first time.

The porch swing hangs drunkenly from one chain. The welcome mat is gone. The kitchen window is broken, mold-black curtains hanging dirty and frayed.

It’s disorienting, like stumbling into a carnival and searching for a familiar strain through the cacophony of clashing tunes.

The boy hurtles back down the walk while his companion giggles.

Calliope is heat. She pours it into her fingers, curls them around the handle, and hurls the lunchbox with all the substance she has left.

The boys scream when the box hits the fence. They run.

Calliope sinks once more to her knees and tries to piece it all together, her thoughts no more solid than the ground beneath her feet. She will grow too heavy for the surface and descend through layers of earth, forget her place in time and fall through the years, until everything exists at once. She will hear the reason for the cockroaches, and how they keep the melody of the world from tilting off key.

The day slinks on.

*

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.


Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Following an idyllic childhood in New Hampshire, she completed degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca College, then moved to New York City. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. You can find her at katesheeranswed.com or on Twitter @katesheeranswed.

The Monsters Among Us

I originally wrote this story for Jolene Haley‘s Halloween Showcase on her blog last year. I’m reposting it here to kick off October!

 

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The rhythmic sound infiltrates my dreams, blending with the hatchet chopping through the bathroom door, until I come to my senses enough to realize that the bloody tool I held in my dream isn’t making that noise.

With a sigh, I roll over and pull the covers over my head, trying to find my way back into my dream. The blood doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve gotten used to it.

The thin comforter does nothing to block out the noise, though, so I get up and turn on the light. My spacious room is dimly lit by faux-gaslight lamps, the only signs I’m staying here are the four-poster bed rumpled by sleep and my small suitcase sitting near the bathroom door.

I pad over to the window and peek out of the curtains of my first-floor room. The silvery moonlight illuminates a dark shape almost right outside my window.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The shadow’s shovel scrapes and bites into the damp earth. Over and over, digging a hole deeper and deeper.

I hold my breath, as if the figure might be able to hear me, but he keeps digging, oblivious to his audience. I let my breath out and continue watching, curious.

After another half an hour, he pauses and wipes his brow. The hole seems sufficiently deep for him now, an arbitrary decision from what I can see, and he rolls a sack into it before beginning the long task of refilling it.

The mid-morning sun shines through the gap in the curtains right into my eyes. I glare at the light before rolling onto my back and stretching out, feeling the silky sheets against my skin. The expansive bed envelopes me and holds me in its safety.

They’ll never find me here.

The thought swells within my chest and I laugh at the sheer exhilaration of freedom. I wrap my arms around my chest and roll back and forth on the bed.

I am safe now.

Still grinning, I dress in the only set of clothes I own. A sensible brown dress and sensible shoes. Everyone knows that “sensible” really means “ugly” but in this moment, I feel like a queen.

Gliding down the hallway toward the main lobby, I nod to the peasants who stomp past me. I forgive them for their ill manners. They don’t know what it’s like to be free.

“Miss Crawford,” the concierge says as I walk past. I glance around and then realize he’s using the fake name I gave last night. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, sir,” I say, magnanimous, my coy smile hiding my momentary lapse. “I was hoping to find some breakfast.”

With a smile of his own in return, he directs me into the dining room.

I like this man. He’s kind and pleasant. I look at the name placard placed on the countertop, proudly proclaiming him to be MR. HENRY WILKINS.

A good name for a good man.

I float into the dining room and the hostess seats me at a table on the glass-enclosed patio. The walls shimmer in the sunlight, making the dying gardens surrounding the room a hazy dream.

The hostess frowns at my clothing when she thinks I can’t see. I do not like her, but I didn’t look at her nametag before she left. I give her up as a lost cause. She’s not that bad and not everyone can appreciate true beauty.

Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes. A feast the likes of which I’ve seen but never had cause to eat before. This, truly, must be heaven.

The gardener pushes a wheelbarrow full of fallen leaves past the glass wall in front of me. He looks like he’s in pain, hunched over the handles and limping. His mouth is parted, his breathing labored, and sweat drips down his brow.

Last night, when I arrived in the darkness, the air was tinged with a faint promise of winter. The gardener must be working very hard to be sweating so much in the cool autumn air.

I finish my breakfast and the gardener scoots by again. The wheelbarrow is still filled with leaves, but pushing it doesn’t look as difficult anymore.

With a smile, I resolve to meet this gardener. He seems like an interesting man.

Leaves crunch under my sensible shoes as I walk just outside my room’s window. If I didn’t know the ground had been disturbed, it would be easy to miss, but I look for the edges of the hole and find them beneath the leaves.

“Miss,” a gruff voice says from behind, “You shouldn’t wander off the paths.”

I turn and face the gardener. His graying hair is cut short and mostly hidden beneath a cap. A grizzled beard hides his mouth, but I can tell he’s nervous from the way his dark eyes twitch.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” I say, pitching my voice into the girlish incompetence he’s expecting of me. “It’s just that I’m staying in this room,” I gesture to my window, “and I wanted to see these pretty views in the daytime.”

“In the daytime…” He narrows his eyes at me, like he’s trying to figure out what, if anything, I saw.

“I got in late last night and couldn’t see much in the darkness.”

He grunts and shuffles his feet.

“Well, as you can see there’s not much here, miss.”

But the way his eyes keep darting between my face and the hidden hole next to my feet tells me a different story. I smile at him.

“You’d um… best be finding your way back to the path.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

I march past him without a backwards glance, proud of myself for the restraint I’m learning to show.

There are no holes dug outside my window tonight. I know. I sat next to my window waiting for him to come back, but he didn’t. Not tonight.

Men’s voices rumble urgently outside my door, their footsteps thudding dully on the carpet. I creep over, as quiet as I can, and press my ear to the cold wood.

“–no one here by that name,” MR. HENRY WILKINS says.

“Harrumph,” another man says.

Ice freezes my veins. I know that voice.

He’s here. They’ve found me.

“Do you have a photo?” The concierge asks.

My breathing is shallow. I can’t seem to catch my breath.

My hunter grunts and I imagine him patting his pockets, looking for it. Their footsteps recede.

“…seem to have forgotten it…” His voice fades.

My breathing eases. I can’t stay here much longer, but I have a little time. He’ll come back with that horrid photo they took of me. The one where my hair’s all matted with blood they wouldn’t let me clean off.

“It’s evidence,” they said when I asked if I could wash the blood off.

But they didn’t understand that what I do is necessary. The man who came after me understood least of all.

One more day here. That’s all I need before they come back with the photo and the concierge won’t be such a nice man anymore.

Deep breaths calm my frantically beating heart. This will all end up okay. I know it.

I didn’t come all the way here to not remain a free woman.

I like living in the space between invisible and not-quite-noticed. My plain clothes and quiet ways lend themselves to not really being seen. People interact with me, answer my questions, be polite, but as soon as I step away, I’m forgotten.

Not so with the gardener.

I can feel his eyes tracking me when I walk the winding paths outside. The only place I’m free of him is inside the walls of the Thornewood Hotel, but I enjoy being outside. The chill air wakes me up, reminding me of who I am. What I am.

And I’m going to enjoy my final day here, no matter what.

The gardener stalks, waiting, watching.

I bide my time, pretending at being oblivious.

This is the part I love the most.

Damp earth squishes between my fingers sending the scent of dirt and darkness upward. I push my hand down, reaching deep into the soil until my fingers touch the gardener’s prize.

I wanted to be sure before…

Most people need to dig up the whole damn grave to be sure, but I don’t need to. I know the feel of dead skin.

The gardener is a very bad man.

Unfortunately for him, I’m worse.