“Do you know why you’ve come to me?”
As he walks, as he talks, the bones in the pouch at his hip clack together. He fingers the pouch without looking at them. He walks without looking at me, leaving me to steal sidelong glances at his profile. It’s all angles and harsh lines, skin pulled tightly over his skeleton. He looks like he hasn’t ever seen enough food. He looks like he doesn’t totally belong in this world.
Maybe he doesn’t.
Maybe I don’t.
“It’s not because I’m the last one you can turn to with this,” he answers when it becomes obvious I’m not going to. “It’s because I’m the only one you can turn to with this. Which means I own you.”
I stop walking, shoving my hands further into my pockets. The cold is pervasive, seeping in through my jacket, my hat, my boots. My soul, maybe. If I have one left. If it’s mine, anymore.
“That can’t be right,” I argue.
“It’s either I own you or they do. The choice is yours. Accept your fate, accept their rule, or take a chance with me. Either way, you aren’t your own anymore.”
I glare, because it’s all I can do. Despite my protest, I know he’s right. I may not like it; point of fact, I hate it.
“No need to decide now,” he goes on, jingling the pouch at his side, rattling the bones. “But soon, yeah?”
He stops as we reach a roadside coffee stand and buys two, offering me one. I take it, watching the steam rise from the cup. I hold my face over it, inhaling. I catch the smell, rich and full and inviting, but I feel no heat. Drinking it, I can’t taste any of it.
He must see the dismay on my face, because he winks and says, “Very soon.” The bone boy turns to leave and is gone like he’d never been.
I’m left holding the coffee I can smell but not taste in front of the coffee stand. People walk past me, but no one comes directly into my line of traffic. They could be avoiding me, or they could be avoiding the space I’m taking without realizing that they’re avoiding it. It’s hard to say, and after so much time spent experiencing this, I hardly wonder about it anymore.
Home is a barren place, a small collection of rooms in washed out greys. I let myself in and set the paper cup on a counter in the kitchen. Light filters in past the curtains to mingle with the electric light from the lamps to produce more shades of grey. The battered loveseat in the living room-slash-bedroom doubles as my bed, and I go there now, curling up on its cushions, pulling the blanket over my head. Once, the woolen fabric held a pattern, but that faded years ago. I can feel the fibers against my skin and I welcome their scratching. It’s one of the few tactile experiences I have left to me.
The darkness behind my eyelids is more refreshing than any food, any drink, any nap could ever be. Black – rich, deep unending black. The novelty of it, every time I close my eyes after unending shades of grey, is the only thing that fully pierces through the shroud of numbness that has leeched all life from my existence. I sink into it, releasing all my fears, all my worries. I surrender my weariness and let myself fall.
I don’t fall very far or very long before I’m caught. The blanket is torn from me, pulling me back to myself. I’m on my feet and halfway out of the room before I see the intruder. Dressed in dirty, tattered clothing, the man is already in my place on the couch, wrapping himself in my blanket. A worn bag is at his feet, the outline of the bottle clear. Drunk and half asleep, he has dismissed me from his mind as if he hasn’t just evicted me.
And maybe he hasn’t. Maybe he can only see a vacant couch and an unused blanket. Maybe the house can no longer hold me.
Even the night is grey to me. Light comes from everywhere — streetlights, storefronts, the moon, the stars, car lights. I retrace my steps from earlier, hoping to come upon the bone boy once more, but he isn’t anywhere to be found. My feet find their way to the park in the northern part of the city, and before long I’m sitting on a bridge over the river, my feet dangling, my toes in the water. I can feel the sensation of the water moving, but even the coldness is fading away from me.
A woman walks past me, staggering as she goes. For a second she looks at me, and then away. Her breathing is labored, and her eyes wild. Her breath forms plumes of vapor around her as she walks.
Despite all this time, I feel a thrill when her eyes meet mine. I feel afraid for her, out at this time, alone. I wonder what has happened to her, that she’s so scared.
Water tinkles in a quiet song as it moves under my feet. I stand and shrug out of my jacket. I walk to the bank of the river and start to remove the rest of my clothing before I catch myself. If it makes me cold, then I’ll welcome the cold.
It’s such a strange sensation, feeling the movement without feeling the wetness. There is pressure against my jeans, against my top, against my skin, but that’s all it is. I wade in until I’m hip deep and then, I sit down. I don’t float like I should. I breathe, and water fills my lungs, but I don’t cough. I don’t choke. I don’t feel oxygen-deprived, and yet, I’m not actually breathing.
I don’t know how much time passes before I start feeling the discomfort, and it’s so intense, so strong compared to everything I’ve known lately it makes me cry out in with joy. The discomfort grows, and with it, excitement. Could this be the way out?
Before I have a chance to find out I’m pulled from the water. I hit the bank and lay, dazed. A face looms over me. The bone boy, with his bones at his side. He cocks his head at me and frowns. “You never remember, do you? Girl, you give too much of your power to them.”
It rushes back at me, as it always does when he’s around. I gasp as I sit, dripping river water from my hair, from my clothes. Even if I could feel these things, I wouldn’t, lost as I am in my newly re-found memories. The gamble. The debt. His bargain. It all returns to me and I’m left weak from the onslaught.
He rolls his eyes and sighs at me, as he always does. He takes my elbow, the bones of his fingers painful against my flesh, and gets me to my feet. “Time is running against us now. I need an answer from you.”
I could cite a hundred different reasons why the choices before me aren’t fair. The game was rigged. I didn’t fully understand the stakes. I didn’t fully believe how real it all was. Except, at the time, I did, and anyway, it doesn’t matter. Power is in your word, in your promises. Oaths are oaths. How far we’ve come in our world. So many people have forgotten the power of names, the power of words.
They haven’t, though, and they have ways of making it binding.
I liked games. I liked risks. I loved the thrill of a challenge. Once upon a time, I suppose humans were warned away from such encounters. Again, words have power. Stories have power. A lack of stories translates into a lack of power. The bone boy is right; we’ve given away so much of our power.
Win the game or forfeit my place in the worlds.
I never knew they meant it so literally. I couldn’t die, couldn’t fully live, and, slowly, ever so slowly, I realized I was losing my ability to experience things. My memories began to leave me and existence grew hazier and hazier. Experience was numbed, my thought-process was numbed. I belonged nowhere, was wanted nowhere, and yet, I wasn’t fading, not really. Not from my own awareness, at any rate. I figured I’d be left with just enough to know what had happened to me.
At first, he treated me just like anyone else. He knew, I think, even before I told him my story, but he never pried. He never offered any information, either, not until I asked him for his own story.
His story cost me my name. What did I have left to lose, really? What could he do with my name, when I belonged nowhere and was ever-fading?
That’s the night he told me about the war of lands, an on-going, never-ending war between . . . well, the lands. I still didn’t know what lands, but I knew why they were fighting. It’s why we all fight: for territorial gain. The territory could be anything —land, power, wealth. The particular territory in question, in this case, was, apparently, me. He still hasn’t explained that one, which is why I put off asking him for help.
I remember our last meeting, and I remember that I had sought him out. Which meant I had had a glimmer of awareness. I remember asking him for help, and I remember his conditions.
How did I know that submitting to him wouldn’t land me in a worse off position? How did I know I could trust him?
It’s small, barely a room, what with the one wall missing, but with the pile of blankets and pillows and the small fire in the barrel in the center of it all, it’s the most welcoming sight I’ve seen in a long time. I hold my hands over the fire, willing the flames to burn my flesh. The bone boy chuckles, shaking his head. His hands are on the bones at his hip, but for once they’re still and silent. Hushed, awaiting my answer.
The flames lick at my flesh. I can feel the pressure of the fire, but it’s not hot. It doesn’t burn. I curl my fingers into a fist.
“It gets worse,” he says. “You think it won’t, but it does. I’ve seen it before.”
“And you do nothing to stop it? Nothing to help?”
The bone boy shrugs a bony shoulder at me. “Why should I help? It’s not my risk, not my loss.”
The words, though, they don’t ring as true as they normally do. I don’t press the matter. Time is running out, and I’m not big on risking my last hope.
“So, how does it work?”
He rolls his head as if working knots out of his shoulders. I can see his collarbone as the skin flows over it, a hint of color over a stretch of bleached off-white. He closes his eyes, lost for a moment in some thought, in some world far away from here. Without warning, he moves, his fingers snaking over the flames to seize my wrist. The sensations are sharp, bone digging into bone, skin bruised, muscle twisted, blood flow stopped. I gasp, shocked more from the sensation than from the violence.
His fingers grip harder, crushing, and the sensation goes from pleasure to pain, until I cry out. Still he doesn’t release me, though he doesn’t press harder.
His other hand removes the pouch of bones from his side. He rattles them over the fire, and through my connection to him I can feel the heat on them, warming them.
“You have one word left to give me.” Firelight flickers in his eyes, across his skin, casting everything orange. Oranges and yellows, with a hint of blue. I stare at the dancing colors, mesmerized.
He squeezes harder, calling me back to the moment. “One word left. Choose it well.”
The warmth from the bones, from the fire, disappears as if it never was, when he releases my arm. The colors fade back to muted tones. The blankets, the pillows, his room; they all shift out of focus. There is a split second of agony, and then the numbness returns. I stagger, reaching out before I forget myself utterly, and all thoughts of questions, of hesitation, of doubt leave me. What does it matter, the cost?
“Yes,” I tell him, though I’m unsure if I actually speak. I’m unsure if I can speak.
“Good,” he says, and the colors return. The warmth thaws me, robs me of the strength in my legs. I sink to the floor.
He follows me, sitting cross-legged next to me. The bag of bones is between us, unopened and ominous. “You know what you must do.”
I shiver despite the fire.
It’s an alleyway I’ve been to a dozen times in my short life. I half expect for them to have moved on since that night, but the club is there as it always was before. I slip around the line of people waiting to be admitted, past the dancers on the floor, and down to the gaming rooms. No one notices me, because I’m not supposed to be there, because I’m not fully there, not yet.
Their game isn’t running tonight but they’re there anyway, making merry with the customers, with their future victims. Where’s the fairness, messing with humans like this? They have no idea, none of them, the likes of people they’re running with. Now, lost in-between as I am, I can see their masks on their faces, hundreds mingling with hundreds more, so that no one true face is shown. That alone would have been enough to warn me away, however long ago it was that I fell victim to them. If I had had but a glimmer, but an inkling. But, no.
I wait until I’m immediately before them before I take the bone from my pocket. They jerk as I appear before them. They move to defend themselves, weaving spells, casting wards, pulling weapons. I don’t move, not at all, and this confuses them. It piques their curiosity. Their weakness, that curiosity.
“We know you,” one says, his face becoming one I recognize. His laughter was what pulled me into the club in the first place. Generous, warm blue eyes, caring smile. Such lies. Such illusions.
“You cannot be here,” he tells me.
I shrug and release the bone in my hand. It hovers in the air a moment on its own and then, faster than I can see, faster than they can see, the bone flies at them. Something happens somewhere, somewhere I can’t see, and the worlds shudder. I feel it so strongly I wonder how I’m left in one piece afterward. The worlds lurch. They flex, and contract, and then I’m in the club, in the room at the lowest level, by myself, with four bones sitting in a circle on the floor. The worlds changed, because of me, though I have no idea how or why, or what it means.
The bone boy arrives out of nowhere and my stomach churns. He walks past me, bends down, and gathers the bones up into his bang. They clank as they join the others. He doesn’t look at me at all, doesn’t even acknowledge that I’m there, and I have to wonder if I am there. The wonderment comes and goes. I find that I don’t want his attention on me at all.
The coffee in my hand steams into the cold and I can feel the heat burning through the paper cup. Down the street the bone boy squats on the curb, looking around, rattling those damned bones. I feel them knocking together as if they were my own bones tied at his hip.
I make my way to him slowly, watching as other people move around him, ignoring him, not seeing him. I hunker down next to him and hand him the coffee. His eyes alight with surprise but he takes the cup and nods at me.
“I suppose you want a better explanation,” he says to me.
“Is it going to go back to the way it was, before?” The cup is warm, the coffee is hot, the day is cool and damp, and people move around me as if I’m not there. It’s better, but it’s not perfect. It’s not what it was once.
“Nothing ever goes back,” he says. “Things, once changed, never unchange.”
I think of the worlds shuddering, of the change I helped happen.
“So, this is what I have to look forward to. Caught in a half-life.”
The bone boy caresses the bag of bones and his eyes grow distant on me. I wonder what he sees, where he goes, but I don’t ask. I don’t know that I really want to know.
“It’s a full life,” he tells me, “as full as any other life might be. It’s a matter of how you choose to live it.”
I feel his hard fingers on my skin as they trace over the bone.
“And what choices do I have?”
“Not as many as you used to have, more than you could have had.”
“Between them and you.”
The bone boy’s hands grow still on my skin. I shiver, lifting my eyes to meet his, and in them I see nothing even remotely human. There is depth to be found there, a darkness that goes beyond primitive. I’m caught, naked and vulnerable, helpless, defenseless. For a second I can’t breathe, cornered as I am by a power so ancient its name has been forgotten. Only his hands on the bag at his hip hold me up. Then, air rushes back into my lungs, crisp and sharp, and light dances within my vision, flooding my brain. His narrow fingers move again, and suddenly I find the sound of the rattling bones soothing.
“Do you truly wish to have that conversation now?”
I find that I don’t. I shake my head.
He cocks his head to one side, regarding me. For a long while, he says nothing. Then, he hefts the coffee cup at me in a salute and gets to his feet. “Thanks for the coffee,” he says, and then he’s gone.
It’s getting better, every day. Sometimes I can get people to look at me. Mostly kids. The squatter that took over my home left, uncomfortable by my presence I guess, and no one else moved in. I eat and drink and ramble around, finding things to occupy my time. Now and again I see the bone boy, and like everyone else, I walk around him as if I don’t see him. He pretends he doesn’t see me, though I know he does. For now, he seems to content to let things be. I remember the shuddering of the worlds and I can only hope his contentment lasts.
[Jolene Dawe is a polytheist devoted primarily to Poseidon and Odin. She is the author of Treasures from The Deep, a collection of Poseidon’s myths retold, and The Fairy Queen of Spencer’s Butte and Other Tales, and maintains a blog about Poseidon (Strip Me Back To The Bone ) on WordPress. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, a horde of cats, three spinning wheels, and one lonely dog.]