Chuck Wendig does occasional flash fiction challenges on his blog. Wanting an excuse to stop fretting over the novel I’m bashing my head against, I decided to give it a try.
A row of skulls stared back at him, all alike in death. Without muscle to move them, they sat immobile, teeth turned up in grim smiles, never again to frown. Hollow sockets hid the emotions of the spirits that had filled the bones, impossible to read without the eyes that had been removed. No more laughter. No more fear. No more condescension.
Each one had been a person, filled with the animating breath of the universe. A lifetime of memories in each brainbox, now hidden in the ghostly otherworld of the afterlife. He put a hand to the forehead of the largest skull as if he were feeling for a fever. The bleached bone was cool to the touch, but a subtle vibration quivered through the calcium phosphate. Though the soul could not animate its prison, still the remainder clung to the physical world like a bird hesitant to leave its cage through an open door. He wanted to talk to them, but the words would never come to his lips. He might as well be like the shattered skeletons, soul trapped in the corporeal world afraid to fly.
He shivered. Though they often kept him company in his lonely life, there were times like now that he felt their toothy grins mocking his deformity. His fear turned to rage, but he released the skull before his emotion could bring him to violence. Thirteen skulls laughed behind his back as he fled the basement, past buckets of chemicals marked with biohazard symbols. At the top of the narrow wooden stairs, he closed and locked the basement door behind him. He did not fear the skeletons would follow him from their subterranean cell. He was not crazy. More that he wanted to protect his sanctuary from the cruel visitations of the world of the living.
He sat down on the cracked vinyl seat of the single chair at the green formica kitchen table. He pushed aside the carefully folded stack of last week’s papers and unplugged a tablet from its wall charger. The black surface was cracked in a Y pattern, with tiny fractures around the endpoints that reminded him of the wrinkles of his mother’s eyes when she smiled. His face was reflected from the darkness, like a spirit in the other world, a ghost trapped behind glass. The features in the reflection were pleasant if somewhat unkempt. He didn’t believe the lies of mirrors. That’s why he’d long ago removed them from the house. The deformity he could so clearly feel was never visible in reflections. He quickly turned on the tablet, and the image of a face that felt like another person’s disappeared in a flash of light. It was replaced by the picture he had taken yesterday of a girl in a blue dress with blonde pigtails.
The girl was the youngest he had considered to join his family. The others had been adults. Their disgust had turned to mocking stares before devolving into fear. Only when their bones were all that remained did they look upon him with acceptance. Much like his parents. The words of his father, overheard during one of their many fights, before the fists had begun to fly, before his father had a black eye, before the sickening crack of his mother’s radius bone, the words returned to him over and over, “You should have had an abortion.” He beat his temple with the palm of his hand until the voice faded away.
The blonde girl stared at him through the cracked surface of the tablet. She had a kind face. Maybe she would have been his friend when Mom and Dad were fighting. He touched the tablet, but it was nothing but cold glass. If he brought her back here, she could be his friend now. None of the others in his family had understood. They all said that he needed help. The nice lady with the round face had meant it. He had believed her, but when she reached for her cell phone, it had been so fast. He had been scared, and he’d hit her so hard with the tire iron. Her skull had been cracked when he removed the skin, brain matter oozing through the bloody bone. He had cried the whole time he’d prepared her skeleton, for breaking her crown.
But the little girl would be different. Children were different. They never did anything to startle, only huddled in the corner until the fighting and the shouting and the breaking of bones stopped. With the help of the little girl, he could free all his family from their cages, and then he could leave this house and fly.
The thought of leaving his family made his stomach clench. Maybe the little girl would stay here and help him take care of the bones. He could show her how to clean them. She could help him pick new family members. It would be like he had a daughter. A smile creeped onto his face, cracking his lips, it had been so long since he felt joy.
A knock at the door disturbed him. Probably the local church handing out pamphlets to save his soul again. He had sat in their pews and watched their bloody martyred God while the preacher’s words washed over him like the static of a dead radio station. What had the bleached skull of Jesus looked like? Could you still feel the vibrations of God’s power trapped within when you touched it?
The fist on the door pounded. He felt the tremor in his head. The headaches were returning, and he would have no peace until another skeleton had joined the thirteen below. No, the little girl was going to be his friend. It would be the fault of the people from the church if he had to put her in the basement with the rest of the family. He gripped the thin flesh of his forehead and pressed through to the bone beneath.
The front door shattered. It was nothing like the sound of bone breaking, but it sickened him as much. The noise of his mother’s broken bones haunted him, although not as badly as the time he had stepped on the tibia and fibula of a skeleton he was cleaning. He had been catatonic for a week.
Men in uniforms disturbed his house, knocking over piles of papers and books and take-out containers filled with chicken bones stripped of meat and skin. One of the men was a woman. He sometimes had difficulty telling the difference. We all look the same on the inside. She wore a suit instead of a uniform. She said his name.
“We have a search warrant.”