Episode #50: “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” by Bennett North

February 24, 2018

Smooth Stones and Empty Bones

by Bennett North

 

 

 

There’s a skeleton in the chicken coop. It’s some bare collection of abandoned bones, maybe a former fox, and it’s slishing through the pine needles and bumping liplessly against the gate. The chickens, for their part, don’t look concerned.

Mom is still in the house, folding laundry. I take a watering can from where it’s sitting next to the potted mums and haul it out to the coop. When I dump it on the skeleton, it shivers like a wet dog but doesn’t retreat.

I glance over my shoulder at the house again, then open the gate to the coop. The skeleton doesn’t appear to notice, so I get behind it and shove it out. The skeleton stumbles around like a dog with vertigo.

“Shh,” I say when it clacks its teeth. If Mom sees this, I’m in so much trouble.

 

[Full transcript after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 50 for February 20, 2018. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm back with a reprint of "Smooth Stones and Empty Bones" by Bennett North.

By day, Bennett North maintains computer labs at a local university. By night, she writes both short and long format speculative fiction (when she’s not too busy playing Minecraft or Fallout 4). She likes to think of herself as a runner and a rock climber, although she doesn’t do either of those things nearly as often as she’d like. She lives somewhere between Providence, RI and Boston, MA.

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Smooth Stones and Empty Bones

by Bennett North

 

 

There’s a skeleton in the chicken coop. It’s some bare collection of abandoned bones, maybe a former fox, and it’s slishing through the pine needles and bumping liplessly against the gate. The chickens, for their part, don’t look concerned.

Mom is still in the house, folding laundry. I take a watering can from where it’s sitting next to the potted mums and haul it out to the coop. When I dump it on the skeleton, it shivers like a wet dog but doesn’t retreat.

I glance over my shoulder at the house again, then open the gate to the coop. The skeleton doesn’t appear to notice, so I get behind it and shove it out. The skeleton stumbles around like a dog with vertigo.

“Shh,” I say when it clacks its teeth. If Mom sees this, I’m in so much trouble.

Its vertebrae are sharp and don’t look to be held together by anything tangible. I haul the thing out of the yard, stepping over the low stone wall that rings my mother’s property and marching out into the pine forest until I can’t see the house anymore.

The further from the house I get, the less the skeleton moves, and by the time I’m down by the river, the skeleton is shedding bones like breadcrumbs. I drop it and it doesn’t get up again. I rub the indents on my palm left by sharp bone-points and hunch my shoulders a little.

I hope it was the only one.

When I arrive back at the house, my mother is hollering out the door for me. I shout a reply and then collect the eggs I’d originally been sent to get.

My mom is a witch, or at least that’s what the people in town call her. She dyes her frizzy hair black and when she’s working she gives herself full drag-queen makeup, with the blood-red lips and glittery green eyelids. Right now, though, her face is washed clean of makeup and she looks old. She’s sitting at the table, the newspaper spread in front of her. Coffee is perking and strips of bacon sizzle in the pan. I put the basket of eggs on the counter next to the open bag of ground coffee.

“How do you want them? Over-easy?” I ask, hoping she won’t ask why it took me so long.

Mom hums. “Poached,” she says. “I’m watching my weight.”

I fill a pot with water and put it on a burner. The bacon is crawling with white foamy grease.

“How late are you working today?” Mom asks.

“Just until three.” I dash some vinegar into the water and don’t look at her. “I think I might hang out with Mariposa after work, though.”

My mother beams. “I’m glad you’ve found a friend,” she says. “I was afraid you wouldn’t meet anyone new after you dropped out.” She rises from the table and plants a kiss on the top of my head, then grabs some tongs to flip the bacon.

My name is Helena. I’m seventeen years old.

Tonight after work I’m going to show my girlfriend how to raise the dead.

 

 

I work in the local Gas ’n’ Go. Business is pretty slow, so I mostly spend the day reading the newspaper. The local news headline is about the continued search for a nine-year-old boy who went missing in the woods a few days ago. It’s been cold these last few nights, nearly down to freezing, so it’s becoming less and less likely that they’ll find the kid alive.

Quarter to three, one of the high school coaches comes in. I vaguely remember him from back when I still attended school, although I was never in any sports. He picks through a rack of cookies for a few minutes and I continue reading my magazine until he comes up to the register and tosses a pack of Oreos on the counter in front of me.

“Forty bucks on number nine,” he says. I ring up the Oreos and the gas as he roots in his back pocket for his wallet.

“That’s forty-two ninety-nine,” I say.

He fishes a couple twenties and a five out of his wallet and nods at the newspaper rack. “They come by to talk to you yet?”

“What?” I glance at the rack, too.

“That missing kid. Fucking suspicious, if you ask me. Kid goes missing, I say to start with the Satanists in the woods and their animal sacrifices. ”

“We had nothing to do with it,” I say stiffly.

He snorts and waits for his change. Once I give it to him, he adds, “If another kid goes missing, I think a couple of us might take matters into our own hands. You tell your mother that.”

He leaves the store. I stare at his retreating back and wish I were a witch like my mother. I’d make him piss sugar ants.

The mental image keeps the sick feeling in my stomach at bay until Geoff shows up for the next shift. I try to wash off a bit of the stale coffee and gasoline smell in the bathroom, then head outside. Mariposa’s car is just pulling into the lot and she waves at me as I approach her.

She’s borrowing her mother’s car, which is a teal Ford Taurus that’s probably as old as me. There’s a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror between two pine-scented air fresheners. I slide into the passenger’s seat and close the door.

“Hi,” I say giddily. I reach across the seat and she grabs my hand. It’s the most I dare to do within sight of Geoff in the gas station.

“Missed you,” Mariposa says.

“It’s been ages,” I say, and we both laugh. We’ve spent more time together in the past week than we have apart.

She exits the lot and onto Reservoir Street. Technically we shouldn’t be driving together since we’re both under eighteen, but I don’t think anyone’s going to catch us.

“How’ve you been?” I ask as she drives. “Any . . . news?”

Mariposa shakes her head and her mouth tightens. She’s got lots of glossy black hair and perfectly plucked eyebrows, and even when she’s upset, she still looks like a movie star. I can’t comprehend how someone can be so attractive.

“Nothing,” she says. “My mom’s arranging a vigil. She still thinks they’ll find Javi alive.” Her breath hitches. “And I mean, I do, too, but I think . . . I don’t know. It’s like some kind of nightmare.”

I squeeze her hand tightly. She squeezes mine back.

“I don’t want to think about it,” she says. “Every time I do I just feel helpless. Distract me.”

I tell her about work, although I don’t mention the high school coach. I don’t have many interesting stories, so I make some up and get her to laugh. By the time we arrive at her house, the two of us are giggling.

Mariposa’s house borders the woods just like mine does. The same woods that her little brother has disappeared in. A bunch of cars are parked in the driveway and along the side of the road.

“There’s a group of local guys looking for him,” Mariposa says. “They leave their cars here.”

I think of the coach and then look down into my lap. “Um, want to go somewhere else?”

“Like where?” She looks at me. “Oh, Helena, it’s fine. They’re not going to be jerks to you.”

I’m not so sure. “I just sort of wanted to go somewhere . . . private?”

She looks at me and her cheeks turn a little pink. “Okay,” she says.

“The reservoir,” I say. “Let’s go there.”

 

 

There’s a kayak launch on the reservoir behind a row of houses. Mariposa parks there nearby and then we pick our way along the shore until we find a little rocky beach. There’s a ring of scorched stones here where some teenagers lit a beach fire. The fire pit is filled with a couple half-burnt potato chip bags and broken Heineken bottles.

We sit on a patchy bit of grass at the edge of the beach. The air is sun-warmed but has that mid-autumn chill to it that means tonight will be cold, too. The trees towering behind us are all red and yellow. A damp burnt smell lingers over the fire pit. Mariposa huddles under my armpit and clasps my hand between hers, trying to warm it up.

“I feel like . . . like television lied to me,” she says, and then sort of laughs in a way that doesn’t sound happy.

“What do you mean?”

“Whenever bad things happen on TV, it’s because someone was doing something wrong.” She laces her knuckles between mine. “Like the kid goes missing because his older brother was smoking pot while babysitting. The girl gets raped because she was underage drinking. And it’s always some moral lesson. If you don’t do anything wrong, bad things won’t happen. If you do something wrong and apologize, you get a second chance. But it doesn’t really work like that, does it?”

“People don’t want to hear about bad things harming good people,” I say.

She’s silent for a moment, looking down at my hand. I can see that her lashes are wet.

“Do you think this happened because we slept together?”

I hug her tightly against my side. “No! Of course not. Real life isn’t like that.”

“If my mother knew about it, she’d say I was responsible for this.”

“She’s dumb. Sorry. But that’s just . . .” I shake my head. “It’s so stupid. There’s nothing wrong with us being together. It’s not like we’re going to get pregnant or diseased or anything.”

“But we’re both girls,” she says quietly.

I feel shaky and cold. “I know that,” I say. I want to take my arm off her shoulder, but she’s still holding my hand.

“Do you think it’s wrong?” I ask.

She shakes her head and then lets out a sob. “No, but I’m so afraid that they’re not going to find Javi.”

She rests her head against my chest and falls silent. I have a knot in my throat like I might cry. It’s not as if I haven’t had these thoughts before. Most of my life I’ve been told that being queer is wrong. Maybe it’s becoming more acceptable in the world at large, but I live in a small town and they have small minds around here.

“I don’t regret it,” Mariposa says finally. “I just . . . I get scared sometimes when I’m praying with my mother.”

“I want to show you something,” I hear myself say.

She lets go of my hand and I disentangle myself. The box is in my purse. I fish it out and then just clutch it in my hands for a moment. Shit, shit, shit. My stomach clenches. There’s no going back.

“So, um,” I say, my mouth dry. I swallow and tongue the welt inside my cheek. “So you know how my mom is a witch?”

Mariposa nods. Of course she knows. Her mother started a campaign to have mine evicted after my mother set up shop in town. There’s a strong Catholic community in town and they don’t like it when people claim to read fortunes and inflict curses.

“Mostly she just reads palms and stuff,” I say. “She makes charms and things. That stuff’s not usually real. But sometimes it is.”

I look up at her. Her dark eyes are serious.

“Okay,” she says cautiously.

I’m still clutching the box. It’s just an old cigar box, water-stained and dirty. I’d mostly brushed off the clumps of soil when I dug it up in the yard, but it had been buried for so long that the dirt had gotten into the grain of the soft wood.

Maybe I can back out now. Make up some story. But I want to tell her. I like her a lot. I’m still not sure about that other L-word, but I think this relationship is pretty serious. She should know.

“Do you believe in magic?” I say, stalling for time.

After a pause, she nods. “I think so.”

I set the box down. “You have to swear to never tell anyone about this. Ever. My mother would kill me if she knew I was showing this to you.”

“I swear.”

I flip open the lid of the box. Mariposa stares inside, a frown creasing her brow. It’s filled with maybe a dozen smooth river stones, each the size of my thumbnail.

“These can raise the dead,” I say.

She looks from the rocks up to me, waiting for me to explain. I swallow.

“If someone dies, you put one of these in their mouth, and it will bring them back to life.” I close the lid of the box again. “It’s not . . . not real life. Not completely. They’ll be conscious and able to walk and talk and they’ll even have a heartbeat, but it’s temporary. The stones are like batteries—they keep someone alive for a year or two, but then you need to put in a new one.”

She looks down at the closed lid of the box, then up at me again. “Prove it.”

I chew my lip. “I don’t really want to waste them. Once we run out of these, they’re gone for good. Just think of them as . . . a second chance.”

Her eyes widen slightly. “They would work on Javi?”

“It depends on how long he’s been—” I don’t want to say the word “dead.” “If he’s too . . . far gone . . . these won’t work that well. The stones can only do so much.”

Mariposa claps a hand over her mouth. Her eyes are shiny and wet. “So if they find him soon—”

“I don’t want to make any promises. He would only live so long. He’d need a stone a year, and I can’t give you all the stones. My mother would notice.” She’ll notice if I even give away one stone, but Christ, I’m willing to take that risk.

Mariposa rubs roughly at her cheeks. I can’t read her expression. Something scrapes over the rocks to my right. We both look and then Mariposa shrieks and leaps to her feet. Half of a chipmunk is sitting up on the rock, sniffing the air. It’s matted with dirt and blood.

“The box . . . leaks,” I say.

“Holy fuck,” she says, backing away. “It’s dead.”

“That’s not like how he’d be,” I say. “It’s just because the box is here. It’ll die again as soon as we leave.”

She’s making little gasping noises, hunched over and hugging herself. I get to my feet and then stand there awkwardly. I think she might scream again if I touch her.

I shouldn’t have shown her the box. For all I know, they won’t find Javi in time. And how will I even get access to him if the searchers find his body?

“So what do I do?” she says. She sounds like she’s having trouble breathing. “How does this work?”

I pop the lid open and remove one stone. I hold it out to her. “I don’t know. It might not even work. Just take this in case you get a chance.”

She doesn’t reach out for the stone. “I can’t take that with me. It’s witchcraft, Helena. If my mother knew—I mean, fuck, we buried my dead dog in the backyard. Is that going to get up if I take this stone home?”

It might. I close my fingers over the stone. “Well then, um. If you hear news, call me? I could try to get there quickly . . .” It’s not going to work. It’s so obvious now that this was a mistake. But if it does work, and Mariposa gets her brother back, she’ll be so happy. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life than to make Mariposa happy.

Mariposa continues hugging herself. Her face is wet. She’s staring at my closed fist. She slowly nods.

“Okay.”

I put the stone back in the box and bury the box in my purse. Something splashes in the water, a fish, and I wonder if that’s dead, too.

We both stand there in silence a minute, and then she creeps forward. She wraps herself around me. Surprised, I hug her back. She presses her face into my neck.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

 

 

When I get home, Mom has a client. The living room of the house is where she does her work. The walls have been painted dark purple and the windows are hung with lacy black curtains. The furniture is all old, dark wood and the room is lit with antique lamps. People wouldn’t believe my mother’s fortunes as much if all the furniture came from Ikea.

She’ll be busy for a while, so I go out into the backyard. Our yard is always in twilight because of the tall pines that surround it. In the back, by the stone wall, there’s a flat piece of slate with a potted lily on top of it. I move the slate aside and look at the soft, freshly turned dirt.

My mother keeps the box in here because the dirt muffles the power of the stones and stops dead things from crawling out of the woods. I scoop a hole in the dirt with my hands. It’s still loose from when I dug out the box last night. When I get down about two feet, I shove the box into the hole and push the dirt on top of it. I put the bit of slate on top of that and sit back on my heels.

I brush the dirt off my hands and look around. My stomach is still tight. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing. I suspect that I haven’t.

 

 

That night, Javi comes out of the forest.

I hear the noise through my bedroom window, which is open a crack to let in the cold air. I’m reading a book, my head propped up on a couple pillows. There’s a scritch-scratching in the yard, which catches my attention immediately. I’m afraid it’s another dead fox or something and I don’t want my mother to notice it.

But when I step out the kitchen door and into the yard, I can see the hunched form of a little boy. He’s squatting in the dirt by the wall, pawing at the pine needles. He doesn’t appear to notice me.

“Javi?” I whisper. My mother’s bedroom is on the other side of the house, and I’m grateful for that.

He stops pawing in the dirt. I can see pine needles and leaf mold all over the back of his shirt, as if he’d been laying down recently. The only light I have to go by is what’s spilling from my bedroom window, but I think his dark skin might be mottled and bruised.

“Javi, are you okay?” I inch forward, knowing he isn’t. When I touch his arm, his flesh is glacial. He turns his head blindly to me and I see more dirt caked on one side of his face. His eyes are opaque white. He’s been dead for days. The hypothermia must have got him the first night he went missing in the woods. My carrying the box around must have woken him.

He makes a distracted humming noise, just air flowing over vocal cords with no intent behind them. I pull back, feeling a surge of horror in my throat. It’s one thing to see animals like this, mindless puppets of the stones, but it’s different to see a child I once knew.

I back away. He doesn’t follow, not even when I run to the piece of slate with the potted flower on top.

It takes me five minutes to dig up the box. The whole time, I’m composing text messages in my head. I’ve found him. He’s okay. Mariposa, sobbing, thanking me.

My fingers hit wood and I scrabble the box open. The rocks clatter inside in my haste. I pull one out and toss the box on the pile of dirt, then jump with a tiny yelp when Javi bumps into me. His face nuzzles against my arm, but only because I’m in the way. He’s drawn to the rocks.

“Open your mouth,” I whisper and touch his cheek. “Shh. Open it.”

He doesn’t know enough to obey, so I push my thumb between his teeth and shove the stone in. I can almost feel the power behind it. It pulls at me as much as it pulls at him. I hear it clack against the back of his teeth. He sways a little on his feet and shakes his head.

“Javi?” I whisper.

His cold fingers clutch at my arm. He wheezes, a dead tongue moistening his lips.

I wipe the dirt and leaves from his face. “Javi, do you remember me? Can you hear me?”

His eyes move in their sockets but they’re still blind-white. I poke my fingers up under his chin, searching for the pulse in his neck. There’s one dull thump, and after a pause, another, but then nothing.

Too far gone. He’s been dead too long.

I can’t tell Mariposa. But . . . I can’t report finding him, either. Me, finding the missing boy when half the town is convinced my family is behind his disappearance?

I found him but the stones didn’t work. I can almost taste the sickening disappointment of that. Mariposa won’t forgive me for offering her hope and taking it away.

I sit down on the ground and hug my knees. Javi stumbles away from me. It makes me feel physically ill to watch him.

What if I just hide his body? The rescuers might not find him. Mariposa and her mother won’t know what happened to him. Is it worse to find his corpse, or never find him at all?

My mother might know what to do, but I have a feeling she’ll just contact the authorities. She would lose business and maybe even face police harassment, but I don’t think that would stop her. She wouldn’t want another mother to go through the horror of not knowing what had happened to her child.

I tongue the welt inside my cheek and watch Javi make his slow way in circles around the yard. The stone will keep him in a state of suspended animation, never growing, never needing to eat or sleep. Never getting worse, but never getting better, either. He’ll be nine years old forever . . . or rather, for as long as the stone lasts.

What if it were Mariposa who had gone missing? Would I rather she not be found? Or would I want a chance to say goodbye?

 

 

Mariposa arrives half an hour after I send the text. She must have parked down the street and walked because she comes through the woods. I can see the bobbing light of her cellphone flashlight through the trees. I take Javi by the hand and wait for her.

She steps over the wall into the yard and spots me, then comes to a dead stop. She keeps the flashlight pointing down at the ground, and I think it’s because she’s afraid to look at Javi directly.

“Is he . . . ?” she says. “Is it . . . gruesome?”

I look down at Javi. Apart from his eyes, he just appears to be sleepwalking. The few beats of his heart have cleared a bit of the bruising away, forcing his sluggish blood to circulate.

“No,” I say.

She raises the flashlight a little. The light dances over my feet, then up a bit until it’s shining on Javi’s face. He doesn’t respond to the light at all; doesn’t even seem to notice it.

There is a long pause, as if Mariposa is steeling herself. Then she comes forward. She reaches out and touches his cheek, then flinches back.

“He’s cold,” she says. Her voice is tight, as if she can barely force the words out.

I say nothing. She reaches out again. He turns slightly into the touch, maybe responding to the warmth of her hand. She catches her breath at the movement and then pulls him into a hug.

“Fuck,” she whispers. “Oh fuck, oh fuck.”

He stands in her embrace with the patience of the dead. He doesn’t hug her back, but he doesn’t try to move away, either. Is there something in him that recognizes her? I can’t tell.

“I’m so sorry, Javi. So, so, so sorry.”

Mariposa rocks, pulling him into her arms like he’s a rag doll. I watch, wishing I could do something, but there’s nothing I can contribute here.

“Is it cumulative?” Mariposa asks quietly.

“Pardon?” I say.

“The stones. If you gave him more, would they help? What if you gave him the whole box?”

I hesitate. She sees it and goes alert.

“Would it be enough?”

“I don’t . . . I don’t think so.” I don’t know. It might. Each new stone, erasing a little more of his death.

“Let’s do it. Where are they?”

I don’t look toward the box. “We can’t. Fill his mouth with stones? One’s hard enough to carry around.”

“He’ll be alive, Helena.” She gets to her feet, sweeping the light over the grass. “You keep it outside, don’t you? I saw the dirt on it.”

“What happens in a year or two? Use them all now and they’ll all run out at once.”

“Can you make more?” She pulls Javi by the hand as she stalks through the grass. “Where did you get them?”

“There aren’t any more. This is it.” I chase after her. “Mari, please. You can’t.”

She turns to me. “He’s my brother. I can’t leave him like—” She shakes his hand in her grip.

“I know,” I say helplessly. “But you can’t fix him, either. You have to let him go.”

Her eyes flick over my shoulder. I tense.

She lets go of Javi’s hand and darts around me, sprinting for the box. It’s still laying on top of the pile of dirt where I left it, the wood pale against the dark mud.

I run for it, too, and we both arrive at the same time. Her hand knocks the box over and it spills into the dirt. She scrambles to pick up the stones but I just go for her hands, trying to grab her wrists.

“Mari, no,” I beg. “I can’t spare them all. I need them.”

“I’ll scream,” she says. “I’ll tell everyone I found Javi at your house.”

“Mari—”

“I’ll—” She stops and looks at me. “Need them for what?”

“We don’t have many left,” I say.

“Helena. What do you need them for.” Her voice is very flat because she already knows.

I tongue the welt inside my cheek where the stone has rubbed my flesh raw. “I was only gone for a couple hours,” I say. “I had a heart condition. My mother found me.”

Her wrists lie still in my grip. She’s not fighting me anymore. She’s just watching me, her eyes wide.

“These are all the years I have left,” I say.

“Please let go of me,” she says.

I do.

She opens her hands and lets the stones fall onto the dirt. Her expression shifts slowly from shocked to angry, and then to cold.

“Why do you get a second chance and he doesn’t?” she asks quietly. “What makes you deserve that?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

She rises to her feet, leaving the stones on the ground. Javi has wandered halfway across the yard. She goes to him and takes his hand.

She doesn’t say anything to me as she leads him out of the yard.

 

 

My mother finds me sitting at the kitchen table the next morning, resting my head on the smooth wood surface. She rubs my back and then goes to the percolator to start a pot going.

The TV is on mute. The news flashes back and forth between pictures of Javi when he was alive and footage of an ambulance moving slowly away from the edge of the forest. The words “Body of missing boy found by search team” scroll at the bottom of the screen.

“Hard night?” she says.

I roll my eyes up to look at her.

“I heard a bit of it near the end, when you two got loud.” She looks over her shoulder at me, pulling a new filter out of the bag. “I’d have come out if I thought it was necessary.”

“I didn’t want to tell her like that,” I mumble.

She sighs. “It wasn’t the best way to go about it, no.”

For a few minutes there’s nothing but the sound of cooking breakfast. Mom hums as she works, fixing her coffee just right.

“Why did I deserve a second chance?” I say finally.

She pauses in the middle of spooning grounds into the filter. “Oh, hon,” she says. She puts down the spoon and sits in the chair next to mine, wrapping an arm around me. I lean back against her shoulder.

“You deserved it because you’re a good person and I love you,” she says. “And because I’m selfish and didn’t want to lose you. I had the option of bringing you back. Most people don’t.”

“I could have given her Javi, if she’d taken all the stones,” I say.

“I’m not willing to give you up yet,” she replies. “I know you love Mariposa, but I don’t think it would have been doing her a favor.”

“She’ll never speak to me again.”

“Maybe. Maybe it’s a good thing, learning to let someone go.” Her voice is sad. She rubs her hand through my hair. It hasn’t grown since I died two years ago. My nails are stubby and short and will never get any longer. I’m stuck in the same body I was in when I died. “I never did have the knack for it.”

 

END

 


"Smooth Stones and Empty Bones" was originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine and is copyright Bennett North, 2016.

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