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.”
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.
Kelvin 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.