This is something I wrote over a year ago for coursework submission, and it ended up getting selected for publication in an anthology my university publishes every year. I feel like my writing has matured since then but it’s something I can’t let go of, because this is the first piece I saw in print.
I went home after a year of travelling. It was always in the back of my mind that things wouldn’t be quite as I left them whenever I returned to my family home. Suza always liked to keep changing things. She might have repainted the kitchen, or switched it out of its previous code of organisation and reinstated entirely new rules of what-belongs-where. And people tend not to stay the same.
The entire journey home I had been thinking about the phone call. Until then I’d managed to push it to the back of my mind. There was a chance nothing would come of it. I had fervently tried to recall the feel of being caught under a thumb to distract myself and to lessen the shock of the return.
For the first time that year I fumbled for the house key on my key ring. The door still made the swish it always did on the door mat, but the door was a different colour now. Red seemed an odd choice. Eye-catching.
“Hullo!” I called experimentally. No one answered, although that didn’t mean no one was home. I decided to make a tour of the house to see if I was truly alone or if a headphone user had missed my greeting. First I poked my head into an empty and reorganised kitchen. Nothing had been repainted but some coloured utensils and wall hangings had begun to cover the room’s monochromatic skin. And again it was the red. Next was the living room, a likely location for my sister to have curled up in if she was home.
Instead I found the skeleton.
Its body drooled languidly across the sofa, hard bones somehow poised so it gave off an impression of soft laziness. Large blank eyes acknowledged me and held not even a trace of abashed apology for its morbid presence. In fact it gave so little indication of something here being wrong that I began to believe that there was nothing out of place.
“Hullo,” I said again, hollowly. “I’m back.” Looking the skeleton over wasn’t pleasant: the twig fingers at the end of branch arms, the great teeth that reared in a constant rictus. And the legs! Like the wooden framework of a building, meant to hide underneath, out of sight, they were casually propped up on a footstool for all to see. I did not know what else to say so backed out of the room and went upstairs, feeling a little like I’d just ridden on a Cage Ride. As I unpacked I calmed down, focused on organising my things, and definitely did not think about what was sitting downstairs. I pottered about my room, fastidiously wiping away flecks of dust and lulled myself into thinking other insignificant chores required my immediate action.
When at long last Suza came home she didn’t mention the skeleton and neither did I. It still sat among us in the living room, clenching its teeth in a quiet chuckle every now and again while Suza and I caught up. I quickly learned that we didn’t talk about the skeleton. All my efforts to carefully bring it to the forefront of our attention were without success. And I didn’t think I could just talk to the skeleton about being a skeleton. Everything was ludicrously normal; Suza trimming her polished fingernails as the television chattered at us to stave off the quiet.
Meanwhile I was trying to sort out my own feelings about being at home again, which had gotten worse with the skeleton’s unexpected appearance. There was tension surrounding it, the kind that is infectious and made me want to curl my toes. Again I thought about the phone call.
The skeleton began to edge its way into my life until it was hardly something to notice. It was always there, and not seeing it would have been the stranger thing after just a week of being home. That isn’t to say that I became entirely comfortable with the presence of the skeleton. Like a spider dangling out of reach in the corner of a room I got used to it, but I didn’t have to like it.
Something Suza and I could agree on was that sharing words with the bundle of bones was quite the mental workout. What did you say to such a thing? Would it be offended if I spoke of food, or that I was trying to lose some weight? Even looking at the skeleton was difficult. My attempts at polite glances were always more of snatched glares. Those big vacant eyes were always so hard to judge, and the rigid body itself too much of a distraction to think at all about its body language. Exhaustion followed any conversation with it, accompanied by a little bloom of relief when I realised that I no longer had to speak to it.
I wondered: just how long had Suza been living with the skeleton? There was always a stiffness in her posture that never used to be there during her sacrosanct ‘quiet time’ in the evenings. Asking her that question, or in fact any question, is simple in theory. In practice, it is like looking over a cliff edge with only half a chance that there is a rope attached to your ankle.
So I took to eavesdropping. The house I’d grown up in lent itself well to this unsavoury business. I often claimed that the walls were made of paper, given how easily noise carried between them, and shutting the front door could send tremors throughout the rest of the house.
Most conversations I overheard between Suza and the skeleton reminded me of a particular event in music class many years ago. I’d seen a school-owned guitar propped against a desk and, like most children, couldn’t resist rolling my fingertips across the strings one by one. E, A, D, G, B, and SNAP.
The sixth E string had broken at my gentle pull, for being wound too tightly, as tight as the tuning peg would allow. No doubt someone had thought this rather amusing as they twisted on the peg over and over again, stretching the poor string like a maniacal torturer in charge of the rack. I knew that it hadn’t been my fault that the string broke; I hadn’t known that it had been wound too tight. But I still felt I should have noticed.
Conversations between Suza and the skeleton were just like that guitar string. As indelicate as the two of them were they would never be able to see when the other was wound too tight. And the gentlest tug, the smallest comment or misworded sentence, would cause the other to snap.
Every argument took place in the kitchen, which suited me well from my eavesdropping nest at the top of the stairs. Both the skeleton’s glum murmurs and Suza’s fierce demands carried nicely up there. Sometimes it sounded like the skeleton would cry. Could the skeleton still cry, or had it lost that along with almost every other thing that made up a healthy human being? I tried to imagine the skeleton shedding tears and thought it would be a disaster for it to lose anything more.
Regardless, there was no opportunity for me to see if it was actually making those wretched sobbing sounds. At the barest hint of my presence conversation and arguments alike would cease. I never really argued with Suza anymore, and couldn’t remember the last time my sister and I had a proper fight, not matter how much she used to try to instigate them. She hadn’t done that once since I’d come back.
The first time Suza and I had a meaningful conversation was exactly three weeks and two days since I had been home. By then life had smoothed out into the vapid monotony that is so comforting yet so stifling.
While travelling I had become accustomed to a life of spontaneity, as contradictory as that may be. My routine had been the security of knowing that there was no routine. In Suza’s domain there were rules and schedules. Bedtimes and mealtimes, times for play, times for cleaning, time devoted to family and time devoted to ourselves. At first I had laid in bed at the designated bedtime, staring at the ceiling and telling myself that I would surely be mad after three months of this. But I’d lived like this before. So amongst the suffocating, squishy re-established routine I no longer felt so much turmoil at the incoming bedtime of a decadent nine-thirty.
The skeleton often left us earlier, retiring around eight o’clock and unfailingly remerging every morning before I did. I had mused to myself that some monsters liked to plague the night, but it seemed the skeleton was a daytime phantom. And far worse was the apparition that roamed the daylight.
So it was just me and Suza that evening. I lazily read a magazine, ignoring the clicks and snaps from the other sofa as Suza tended to her fingernails. And then out of nowhere:
“You know about what’s been happening with Bernie?” Of course I did. I thought about mentioning the phone call, but decided against it. “Sometimes I think I might burst into tears over it,” Suza continued, eyes flicking between the television and the bulbous right thumb she was sawing away at with a file, “But I don’t. She wouldn’t appreciate that.” I made a small noise of agreement before venturing to ask:
“Is she getting worse?”
“It’s hard to tell.” Part of me was very eager to keep this conversation going, I wanted to talk about my sister, yet a different part told me not to push this issue. Besides, Suza never took well to having her flaws pointed out. “I think you should talk to her,” Suza said. A strangled noise came from me that time. The thought of talking to my sister made large bubbles of anxiety pile up in my stomach all at once.
“I don’t know whether she’ll want to talk to me…” I mumbled, the nervous feelings inflating. Suza didn’t say anything more, resting her head back on the sofa, face drooping like melting wax in her daily struggle to remain awake in the evenings. It was probably for this reason that Suza and I didn’t have stimulating conversations very often. It was far easier to watch the television.
During my last month at home the skeleton decided to talk to me. We were both sat in the living room, steadfastly ignoring each other as usual, when the skeleton directly faced me and said, “We should talk.”
I let out a stupid giggle. “Sorry, that just sounded funny,” I remember admitting. “It’s like something out of a video game. The characters come up to you and say they want to talk. Does anybody really start a conversation like that?”
The skeleton only looked at me with tired incomprehension.
“Sorry,” I said again, “What do you want to talk about?”
The skeleton paused, looking conspiratorially around the room as if anticipating Suza to be hiding behind one of the house plants. She had gone out that evening, leaving the skeleton and I to each other’s dismal company.
“I haven’t really talked about this with anyone before. Not on a personal level,” the skeleton said, angling itself so its whole body was turned towards me instead of the television. It crossed its legs and I tried not to observe the hardness of them, painfully aware of the brutally diminished softness of human fat and muscle. I turned the volume down on the television, but not off, wanting to feel like there was someone else in the room. “I’m guessing – well, I don’t know – how much do you know about what’s going on?”
The vagueness of that question was dangerous, leaving me to decide what it was talking about. I didn’t say anything for a moment, wondering if there was a right or wrong answer.
“I don’t think I know, um, everything. But I, er, know about-” I faltered, wondering if it was okay to say the word. I puzzled over it for a second too long before succumbing, finding the word too much for me. “About the, ah, weight issue.” I could have laughed at myself as I stumbled around the words, tripping over nouns and falling into hesitations. It was a little off-putting when I only got a laconic,
“I see,” from the skeleton. “How long have you known?”
The phone call resurfaced in my mind. I didn’t even consider whether I should tell the skeleton about it. I just did.
“Since I got home. But I knew something was wrong since last Christmas. Suza phoned me…” I trailed off. Suza had told me that phone call was in confidence. That was the reason I had never asked about it before coming back home.
“I didn’t know about that. What did she say?” The skeleton asked, resting a sharp jaw on a precariously brittle hand.
I sighed, knowing I had to finish the story now.
“She told me you were ill, but she wouldn’t tell me what was wrong,” I admitted.
The skeleton pondered this before managing a severe grin.
“It was what you’re looking at right now.”
I didn’t like that grin. I didn’t know it. My sister had never had such a nasty smile.
“Bernie, you know you can talk to me? Anytime, about anything?” I asked quietly. Words that sounded so pretty and so sweet, and indeed they flaked as easily as pastry.
“Yeah, I know.”
The time came for me to leave home again. I hugged the skeleton goodbye, cradling it delicately in my arms, somewhere between holding a baby and embracing an old crone, afraid you’ll hurt them if you grip too tightly.
There was something terribly wrong about leaving the skeleton behind, like walking away from a crippled animal knowing it was going to die unless you interfered. I can’t now remember how the skeleton looked as I left. What is clear in memory is the large thumb resting on its hard shoulder. As I drove away I could have sworn I felt the press of that same thumb lifting off of me.