Featured Story • January 2017

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Interred with Their Bones

 

Morris Tanafon

 
 

The reconciliation with her mother doesn’t go too well for Kathryn.

“I really feel like you and Dad didn’t care about me.”

Everyone has problems, anyway, does Kathryn still own that old farmhouse? Is, perhaps, the guest bedroom free?

“Nope,” Kathryn said. “No room for anyone but me.”

Her mother’s lips pucker into a sour little line and she points out the stupid things about that comment. It’s selfish, utterly selfish. The farmhouse wasn’t one of those big, rambling things, but it’s big enough for two people. Kathryn owes a duty to her mother, and if she refuses then her mother will have nowhere to go when she gets out of prison. It will definitely be Kathryn’s fault if she winds up toothless and starving on the street. Besides, she adds, her eyes drifting to Kathyrn’s waist, a closet would be enough room for Kathryn. She’s remarkably thin.

“Thank you.”

It wasn’t, it turns out, a compliment. Her mother wants to know if Kathryn is one of those stupid girls who starves themselves and throws up all the time.

“I’m a grown woman, Mama, I don’t have to answer that.” Kathryn leans forward in the creaking folding chair, lowering her voice confidentially. “And the thing about the farmhouse is—it is full. Just of creatures that only I can see.”

Her mother gives her a look that, like any picture, contains a thousand words. Behind her, the Thing looming in the shadows giggles and sways from side to side.

“I’m serious,” Kathryn says. “There’s one right behind you. It has no arms and three eyes and a mouth that goes all the way around its head.”

As per usual, telling the truth is enough. Kathryn’s mother no longer wishes to stay with her when she gets out of prison.

* * *

She finds the recommendation list a woman from church wrote her of doctors in the area when she flips through her appointment book. It hangs from her fingers for a moment before she rips it apart and throws it into the backseat, scraps of paper catching on the oily skin of the Thing back there. The Thing that’s been living in her backseat since a drunk driver crashed into her first car stares at her fixedly in the rearview mirror like always. Like always, Kathryn checks all her mirrors around it and tries to not be distracted.

Blackness kisses the edges of her vision, and for a moment she feels like she could kill someone for a sandwich. A brownie, maybe, like Amanda used to mix up when they were teenagers, back when Kathryn stole food instead of ignoring it. Scrambled eggs, a piece of toast, a fucking coffee with real milk. She leans her head against the windshield and breathes, trying to remind herself of her goal. Purity.

Sometimes, she envies the Things. The Things are never flabby; they’re bone-pale and bone-thin, sometimes limbless to an alarming and yet lovely degree. Kathryn gives the one in her backseat a self-conscious smile when she accidentally catches its eyes.

“Want a drink,” it croaks, the only thing it ever says.

“No,” Kathryn says firmly. It’s the one thing she still feels confident in—denial. “Alcohol kills.”

* * *

At home, she looks in the fridge. There’s a head of wilting romaine lettuce, half a package of fries and a bunch of vitamin bottles, and something goopy that’s melted all over the bottom of the small white space. She pulls a face and closes the door, ignoring the rolling pain in her belly, and the Thing briefly lit by the fridge light watches her with its four glassy eyes, knitting its long yarn-like fingers together.

“Good, good,” it says, warm with approval. “Good. Have you lost weight?”

“Not enough,” Kathryn says. “Not yet.”

“Good, good.”

* * *

When Kathryn was nine she came out to this pint-sized sloping farmhouse to live with her grandmother while her mother and father were “out on some adventure,” a term which when she got old enough to know turned out to mean “on the run from the police.” Gramma Kit was tiny and feathery and disturbingly coiffed for a woman of seventy-five, and she always looked Kathryn up and down with a particularly sharp eye. “You’re the beauty of the family,” she told her, looking right past Amanda. That made sense to Kathryn. Amanda had square brown bangs and her teeth went at wonky angles in the corners of her mouth. “Hope you’ve been taking care of yourself.”

“I’ve been running and climbing and putting the lotion you made on my face.”

“Good, good.”

The first Thing came out of Garretet Lake when Kathryn was thirteen and picking worms out of the mud among the tree roots for Kit to use as lures on her fishing lines. It was twice as tall as an adult, so much taller than a kid, with a bulbous head and twenty neatly ringed eyes and arms that had grown smoothly into its body so they only wiggled a little when it tried to move them. Kathryn sat with her mouth open, watching it as Amanda picked worms in oblivious bliss, until it turned to her with its dripping mouth and said, “Don’t have time for you.” It had a rich, deep, male voice, and after that sauntered away into the blueberry-studded pastures on all its nine legs.

Kathryn accidentally killed a worm, but kept looking for them anyway. She was too numb to do anything else. It took her days to get over what she’d seen, so that the news of her father’s death in some far-off river was small potatoes by comparison. Amanda cried, big ugly sobs, but Kathryn just nodded and thanked the police officer who had come to tell them.

“Good girl,” Kit said. “You’ll ruin your face with crying too much. Quiet, Amanda.”

* * *

Kathryn nibbled on the romaine lettuce as she wandered around the house, trying to figure out what she should do next, until a phone ringing broke the silence. She hovered over it for a while, trying to figure out who was calling, whether they’d stop, but as soon as the phone stopped ringing it began again.

“Hello?”

It was a woman she didn’t recognize, who said she was Amanda’s friend.

“Oh,” Kathryn said. “We don’t talk much. Why are you calling?”

She wanted, in the foggy mood she was in, to complain to the woman about what a terrible sister Amanda was, how she started picking on Kathryn when they were ten and never really stopped, how every nice comment had a dozen barbs waiting behind it, but the woman kept talking and wouldn’t shut up; started crying, in fact. Amanda was dead.

“What?” Kathryn brushed away the clinging tendrils of the Thing in the kitchen and went to the fridge. This was a special occasion, she would indulge herself with a few fries. “Like, in an accident or something?”

No, apparently, it was suicide.

“Oh.” Stupid of Amanda to do that, when they had both known how much bad she held. “Well,” Kathryn said aloud, “if you’ll just let me know when the funeral’s going to be—”

The woman finally did, through the tears, although they’d mostly dried by the time Kathryn hung up. She seemed to think that Kathryn was taking this too calmly. Kathryn did not have time to worry about what the woman (whose name she did not catch) might think; she put the fries in the oven and went in search of black clothing.

“You’ll make yourself fat,” the kitchen Thing said, leaning disapprovingly over the fridge.

“I’m going to a funeral,” Kathryn said, “so don’t worry. People often lose weight after a death in the family.”

* * *

Amanda’s funeral is full of people who Kathryn doesn’t know and doesn’t care to, because in all honesty she’s here to test a theory. She’s pretty certain already, but this should provide the crowning bit of evidence—the last nail in a coffin of fact.

Amanda might have been proud of that. Amanda was some minor sort of celebrity in the scientific community, which Kathryn hoped might have been a comfort to her after Kit left Kathryn the house, the money and everything. A lot of people give speeches that involve molecules, and the universe, and the Circle of Life. Kathryn stares at the coffin as if she’s waiting for it to get up and try to sneak away, her vision blurring. An iced coffee on the ride over, nothing else and it’s already noon. But she refuses to black out; this is important.

The Thing, in the end, doesn’t come from the coffin. It comes from Amanda’s phone, which her girlfriend (the teary woman who’d called Kathryn) is turning over and over in her hands, crying over, the phone that Amanda had used so many times to call up Kathryn before Kathryn blocked her number. The Thing is lopsided and skinny-perfect, with long dark eyes that stripe its body from top to torso. They blink sideways at Kathryn.

“If you weren’t such a bitch, you’d have friends that cared about you starving yourself,” it informed her kindly. “Fatface.”

That’s classic Amanda, with all the occasional nice bits stripped out. Kathryn acknowledges it with a nod, then gets up and leaves in the middle of a speech.

* * *

“Gramma,” Kathryn asked once, lying on Kit’s bed and having her hair braided, “what are ghosts?”

Kit crossed each strand tightly over the other, making each row neat and perfect, and told her what ghosts were. God, according to Kit, was so generous he wanted to take sinners up to Heaven, but not so tolerant he wanted them sinning while there. Heaven had a no-sin policy. So before a soul was admitted the bad was stripped right out of them and thrown back down to earth, to echo whatever ill they’d done in their life.

The Thing from the well at the bottom of Kit’s farm lay on the floor and grinned up at Kathryn. It had two mouths and a bulging crotch.

“Gramma,” Kathryn said, “did anyone ever die in the well?”

Owen, Kit’s husband, had died near there. Broke his neck while drunk, died with a strange perfume on his collar and his pockets full of cash he didn’t rightfully earn. That was one man, in Kit’s opinion, who wouldn’t be getting into Heaven.

“I don’t know,” Kathryn said, watching the Thing. “Maybe if they took out a lot.” The Thing was very, very big, after all.

* * *

Kathryn goes home and sits by the edge of Garretet Lake, not ready to go inside, not yet. The sun feels good on her thin skin and brittle bones, and the lake murmurs to itself pleasantly.

She’s the good one of the family, she tells herself. No room in her skin and bone for sinning. No sex, no booze, no food, and it’s all going to be worth it. Someday.

There is a saying in the area that if you take a mirror and stand knee-deep in Garettet Lake and look in the mirror at noon, you’d see the shadow of your own ghost behind your shoulder. Kathryn hasn’t done it for a while, so she does it now, and ignores the distant ringing of the phone as she nervously contemplates the reflection.

There’s definitely still a Thing there, she concludes, and maybe it’s got a few more jutting, bonelike nubs and broken, ugly teeth that show when its mouth gapes open, but it’s thinner. Definitely thinner. That’s good, good, and if she can keep it up someday it’ll be all gone.

Inside the house, the phone finally stops ringing.

 
 

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tanafonMorris Tanafon lives in New England, home of many monsters. He has previously published stories with Crossed Genres, Vitality Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction.

He says that “‘Interred with Their Bones’ is one of the most obvious stories, in terms of inspiration, I’ve ever written—a few weeks before writing it, I did some research and finally admitted to myself that I had an eating disorder. ‘Interred’ dug at the roots of that and found some interesting and ugly Things.”

 

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