The skeleton stormed down the road as the sun came up. Normally he’d be turning in at this hour, like the rest of the ghouls and goblins, but today he was dressed up for a good time and he didn’t intend to go home until he had found it.
He had discovered a dead body in the empty house on the hill and, though it was a size too big, he slid his arms down its sleeves. Like an old woman slipping back into her wedding dress, he felt an old thrill as the fabric brushed against him.
He walked into town in his new suit, occasionally stumbling as his bare toes caught on sharp stones, or he toppled on the edges of his soles. The corn in the fields on either side bent and swayed, rippling like whispering girls in the warm morning air as he passed them.
He felt proud of his fine coat, but he worried for a moment that the village folk would recognise him inside it. He wished the thought away. He swatted the air in a style he’d seen done in the theatre, and the gesture convinced him of the stupidity of the idea.
The first row of shops appeared at the next bend in the road, and a car came round the corner. The skeleton was walking directly in its path, but it simply slowed and swerved around him. The skeleton was annoyed. The driver didn’t even sound his horn. He could see from the state of his feet that he was as corporeal as any man would be, so it wasn’t that he was being ignored. Dammnit, he thought, if a skeleton’s going to struggle into a man, he should treated at least as roughly as a vagrant in his position. Being silently swerved at was as bad as being looked-through.
In the village, shopkeepers were opening their shutters and setting out their signage as he passed them. The first, an old woman in an apron and curls, glared at him briefly but said nothing, instead hauling a basket of apples onto the folding table outside the shop. He glared at her as fiercely as he could, but she refused to look at him again. He glowered at her as she stooped to pick up the top of her left sock, which had slid down to her ankle, and tugged it over the hunk of her calf before turning back to her work. There was a time his glare would have left her quaking with terror. But these borrowed eyeballs didn’t have the same power.
The fishmonger ignored him too. When the skeleton passed him he was rolling up his shirt sleeves and pouring gobbets of ice into the shaded front window of his shop. The fishmonger laid out six dead-eye trout and turned his back on the skeleton to fetch a steel tub of langoustines. The butcher, the baker, and the furniture maker all ignored the rogue too, so he sloped down the street to the end of the village for the shop where they used to sell moonshine.
He hammered on the door, impressed by the clout of strange fist-flesh on wood.
The door opened.
‘Yeah?’ said the lump-lipped woman who opened it. It was the girl he used to screw, the daughter of the old man who used to keep the drink shop. He first clapped eyes on her when she was still in school, and after she left her studies she must have worked there all her life. She wore a ringless hand, and her breasts sagged. Her shoulder was all stooped over, and brown hairs sprouted from her chin. Why, the skeleton wondered, she looks even worse than I did.
‘What do you want?,’ she asked, her flat voice a dry bone in her fat throat.
He tried to ask for a flagon of cider but his mouth was parched, his tongue unruly, and his teeth knocked together like blind men. The request emerged as nothing more than a grunt.
‘No way,’ she replied, ‘it’s too early for you.’ Then she spat in the dirt before she turned her back on him and went back into the house.
‘Wuh,’ he drawled as he found his voice. ‘Wai. Waid. Wait.’
She stopped and turned back on him.
‘Did you say, “Wait”?’
‘It’s early,’ she replied curtly, but she didn’t turn away from him this time. She asked in a low voice, ‘Got money?’
He nodded, reached into the dead man’s trouser pocket to produce a few coins. He would have bought him the booze with a kiss a few years ago.
She huffed, put a hand on her thick hip and held out her palm. He pressed the coin into her grubby flesh and she jumped when he touched her, as if pulling away from a hot brand. Then she snatched the coin.
She eyed him strangely, and he realised too late how hot her flesh had been to his cold touch. She went inside, bolted the door on herself, and brought him back the drink.
She stood staring at him a few beats longer, then moved as if to speak. At last, she said:
‘I saw you,’ and looked at him as if trying to check the colour of his eyes. ‘I saw you at the inn last night.’ He shook his head and looked at the feet. They were in a bloody state. When he looked up she was inspecting the sorry state of his toes. ‘Lose your shoes, did you?’ she asked. She was trying to mock him, but he could feel the hunger of her curiosity picking away at the flesh on his bones.
He turned his back and walked home the way he’d come – past the furniture maker, the baker, the butcher, the fishmonger and the grocer. He bought a pipe and tobacco, then left the village the same way he’d walked in that morning: much ignored.
Back at the house on the hill, he walked around the left side of the building past a tall red-trunked fir tree, whose boughs heaved down around the side of the house. At the back, there was an overgrown yard with a view of the valley below. He didn’t want to go back inside the old house, because he could already smell the parts of the cadaver he had thrown out to get inside the skin. He lit his pipe, and smoke shushed the whispering scent of dried blood that escaped from under the back door of the property. After a few puffs he had snapped the wax head off the flagon, and began to get drunk as the sun rose in the summer sky.
At about midday, he heard steps trampling through the grass and gravel at the right side of the house. Before he could shout, ‘who goes there’, the drink shop woman’s face appeared in the dappled sunlight. She started when she saw him again, but as he struggled to get to his feet, her stiff posture relaxed. She looked disappointed, or pleased, to have found him a sot like the rest.
Frightened that she would smell the blood, the skeleton moved himself and his flagon down the yard on a slope that led down to an old orchard. He found a big felled log and sat down on it, setting his pipe and matches beside him. He didn’t turn to check on her but, sure enough, a few moments later he heard the grass rustle. She sat by him, and took up the pipe and matchbox. He heard the scratch of the match head on the sandpaper, the soft flare of the phosphorus, and the crackle of the flame as it slid up the tinder towards her fingertips. He could even smell her sweat, her smoky clothes, and the soap perfume of her hair.
While she smoked, she turned to him and said nothing. She looked all over him very closely.
‘You’re not from this town, or the next one,’ she remarked, nodding her head up the valley.
He tried to ignore her question but she persisted.
‘Are you?’ she said, without taking her eyes off him. She had always been nosey, and he felt a tingle across his skin, that she would still be so naive to come behind an abandoned house with him.
She stared into the eyes, searching the man’s face. She couldn’t recognise him at all.
They smoked together all afternoon, and then they lay down together in the reeds. He couldn’t love her, in this body, but he could make her happy in the old ways.
As he touched her body he felt like he was walking through the home he grew up in, where no-one lived anymore.
As the sun fell in the sky, she asked him why he couldn’t love her. In his still-slurred tongue he hesitatingly began to explain that it was the drink, and his body felt unfamiliar. She shook her head.
Unable to leap to the gestures that would deny what she had said, he let his head loll. He falteringly admitted that he was no man at all, that he had already passed. He said that had found a man in the house last night, and that he had possessed him. He didn’t tell her the man had been dead.
She tore away from him in horror, backing away on her hands and arse, but couldn’t look away from him.
‘Who are you?’ she cried.
‘You know,’ he said eventually.
‘It can’t be,’ she whispered.
‘Only until the sun sets.’
She stood up unsteadily, her hands limp at her sides. He looked down at the body he’d stolen, but felt no regret. He had still enjoyed himself that day, even if his treasure was starting to sag and smell.
‘Even in death, you’re a bastard,’ she choked, and stumbled away.
He lay back and listened to the grind of her feet on the gravel fading away. He turned back to the flagon and began to drink again. In the quiet of the afternoon, he watched the shadows of the trees stretch out and reach towards him as the evening came, getting up to piss once or twice.
He was smoking the pipe again when, behind him, he heard the grasses rustle. He turned quickly to see two teenage boys walking into the garden. They giggled and glanced at each other, hanging back in the shadow of the fir.
‘What do you want?’ he slurred at them, but they didn’t reply. One nudged the other hard, so he stumbled out into the back yard.
The skeleton said nothing, but turned back to the view of the valley and the sun stepping down in the sky towards the hilltops.
The boys crept towards him, and the bigger one asked for his pipe.
‘No,’ the skeleton replied, looking the sapling boy up and down with disdain.
‘Go on,’ the boy badgered him again, standing beside him. The smaller boy sat down on a log a few paces away and picked a grass stem to strip and worry.
‘You’re not from round here,’ the boy said, eyeing up the body’s ragged feet.
The skeleton ignored him.
‘Go on,’ said the boy, suddenly grabbing for the pipe.
The skeleton swept the pipe out of the way, but fell over onto his face doing so.
‘Give it to me,’ the boy repeated when the skeleton righted himself. The sun was setting, and his grasp over the body was growing slippery. But he wanted to finish the pipe before he had to leave it.
The boy was quick. He swiped again, this time grabbing the pipe with both hands and wrenching it away.
His friend jumped up and joined him, laughing and pawing to see the prize.
‘Give it back, you dog,’ the skeleton snarled, incensed. The boy mockingly put the pipe to his lips, and puffed. He coughed, and gave it to his friend.
The skeleton dragged the body to its feet with some effort, and lunged after the bigger boy. But he was drunk and useless, and fell down. The boys ran in opposite directions through the long grass, cackling.
The skeleton followed the bigger one. He chased the boy to the end of the yard, where the apple trees had grown wild, and the grass grew as tall as a screen. The skeleton heard the branches rustle to his right, and leapt with all his might on top of the smaller body. He caught the boy underneath him, though their faces were full of grass, and wrestled to get the pipe out of his hand.
But the boy’s hands were empty.
‘The other one’s got it!’ The boy shouted desperately, and the skeleton gave a bellow of desperation before clouting the boy in the face.
There was a loud crack behind him as the smaller boy swung from a tree branch, and knocked the skeleton onto the ground. Both boys began to shout and stormed through the grass towards him. The smaller had a rock in his hand, and the bigger one grabbed the man’s legs while his friend beat the man’s skull.
The sun began to set, and the skeleton felt the body give out underneath him. As the head split open, he felt like he was shrinking. He slid out of the skull like fruit from a skin, and felt the sleeves of the man’s arms coming away from him too. His toes slipped out of the feet and like a newborn animal, fell out of the flesh forever. The sun set behind the mountains. He watched dispassionately as the boys clubbed the skull and face with rocks, raining blows that broke the ribs in, leaving the corpse in a worse condition than he’d found it in.
Ellie Broughton is a features editor and journalist living in London. As well as appearing on Queen Mob's, her writing has also been published on The Cadaverine, New Nature London and in For Books' Sake's *Tongue in Cheek* anthology.