HOUSE OF BONES - AJ HAYES
Once – when the world was just a little younger and more dewy-eyed – there was a boy. He was twelve years-old and lived in a white house, with blue railings and roof, in a sun-flooded neighborhood of pastel-painted houses and cinnamon-colored sunsets. His summer blonde hair hung down, in shaggy bangs, over blue eyes that seemed to hold every dream of every boy who ever lived. The scatter-smatter dusting of freckles across the bridge of his snubbed nose added random exclamation points to the blue of his eyes. All in all, he was the perfect boy.
Perfect – except, that he knew something that other people did not know and saw things that other people could not see.
He had not always known these things. He had not known them when he was younger. He had not known when he used to chase butterflies with his sister (herself a bright, poly-hued, soaring butterfly of a girl) across their oh-so-green front yard. Nor had he known when he went to bed at night, to dream of elves and knights and magic circles in the wild wood. Until, one night, he dreamed a very strange thing.
He dreamed he woke with a startle to something that felt like a bite from a crystal bee with a diamond stinger on his shoulder. He suddenly felt another sharp pain, a much larger pain – in a different place. He looked wildly around his room. His father was there, but his father looked different. His father’s eyes were not their usual blue. They were green, an emerald, glittering green with yellow starbursts in their depths. The pain made it difficult for him to see things exactly, but he thought that his father’s ears had grown longer, more pointed. His father’s hair had become glossy black and seemed to cover much more of him than the boy remembered. Then, the pain grew so large that it pulled him down into darkness.
As he had left the house to meet the school bus the next morning, something caught his eye – a gleaming, shiny spot on the porch railing. He crossed the porch to inspect it. It was a white shadow under the surface of the glossy blue paint – a vague, thin shape, slightly curved. It looks like a bone, he thought.
He had never noticed it before.
That night or the next night, he did not dream. But, on the third night, he felt the bite of the crystal bee again. This time he saw more clearly the green eyes and pointed ears and shaggy hair – the white, sharp teeth. A picture he had seen somewhere sprang into his mind. A wolf, green-eyed and glossy black. His father was a wolf. Pain blossomed through him again; too sharp to be a dream.
In the morning, he rushed from the house and straight to Mr. Malley, the crossing guard.
Mr. Malley, glowing in his yellow raincoat with red stripes, listened to the boy’s frantic babble, patiently. “Well now, lad. So your father is a wolf, is he? In your dreams? I think it’s too much candy after dinner we’re talkin’ about here.” He chuckled and offered the boy a mint. “And your daddy a doctor and all; he should be knowin’ better than anyone about that. There’s your bus,” he said, pointing across the street.
The bus was too crowded with children laughing and shrieking for the boy to ask the driver for help. His teacher listened to him after school, but offered much the same opinion as Mr. Malley had. He knew that his mother would not understand, either. She loved the wolf, whom she thought a man. No help from the grown-up world, he realized. He was on his own.
That afternoon, he noticed shadows under the bright white paint of the house – long, slender shadows, knobby at the ends. He knew what they were. Bones – carefully concealed by the wolf, unseeable – unless you knew they were there.
The boy’s world shrank. He no longer flew kites, played marbles or any of the other things he had done before. He spent every afternoon in the library, reading about wolves. He read about real wolves, mythical wolves and fairytale wolves. He read every book he could find on them.
He learned wolves are clever and good at concealing themselves; and that the ones with green eyes and black fur and white, sharp teeth are the cleverest of all. He read of the many methods adults and children had used to outwit or kill other wolves. But there were no stories of defeated emerald-eyed wolves. Emerald-eyed wolves always won and usually those stories ended, “So, the wolf ate them all up!”
The afternoons passed in wolf study. At night, the dreams – and the pain – continued. The boy, though despairing, remained resolute – somehow, he would find a way to stop the green-eyed beast in the house of bones.
In his desolation, there was only one bright place. After the library, he would return home and his butterfly sister would greet him. Her laughter and squeals of delight, as they chased birds, made faces out of the clouds and played hide and seek, made him almost forget – almost not see the shadows of the bones under the paint of the house.
Then, one night, the dreams stopped. A week passed, then a month and then a year with no dreams (though he still felt the bite of the crystal bee almost every night). The boy wondered why and began to look for the reason. He pretended to sleep deeply. Sometimes when he did that, the crystal bee did not bite him. When the bee did not sink its diamond stinger into his flesh, he saw clearly. He prowled the house, listening, watching – and sensing the bones beneath the surface of the walls. Late one night, he heard it – the reason the dreams had stopped.
From the butterfly’s room came a murmured cry – like twigs breaking from dead trees in a winter chill – and the low growl of the wolf.
It doesn’t want me anymore, he thought, it wants her.
He raced to the door of his mother’s room, pounding on it, hurting his hand. She appeared in her doorway, swaying. Her eyes were funny looking. On her shoulder he saw a mark he recognized, the mark of a fresh bee bite. He shook her frantically, yelling into her ear. He saw understanding creep into her dulled eyes.
His mother ran from him, to the door of the butterfly’s room. Throwing it open, she stood in the entrance. Saved, the boy thought, saved.
“You!” she screamed. “You promised! Never again, you said. No more girls. I’M the only one. You promised me. I’M the one. You need ME! Because you love ME! Is that why you made me have this little whore? So she could be your next? You bastard!
There was a snarl and a sound like a softball makes when it slams into a catcher’s mitt, a loud, hard, smacking of leather into leather. His mother fell to the floor, crying in a voice like the dusty rustle of leaves blowing in a bleak wind on an icy sidewalk. “You...promised.”
The wolf stood in the doorway, growling. Its eyes, shining with deep-sea phosphorescence, found the boy. It turned to a corner of the hall and opened a black satchel standing there. It came towards the boy with something glittering in its hand. It growled a warning and the boy stood still, feeling the bee bite his thigh. The familiar darkness took him. But, before it swept him down, he felt a fierce joy. In its red rage, the beast had made a mistake.
The boy knew where the creature kept the crystal bees.
A single word sprang into his mind. A word that all wolves fear – even the emerald-eyed ones. His grin as the darkness took him down was a feral one.
He had a plan.
The next morning, he opened his bedroom door to find that the wolf had dropped all pretenses. The house glowed white, bare of illusion. The floor was made of overlapping bones as were the hallways and the railings. The stairs glowed with the soft ivory and white of bones. Wrist bones, small and delicate, supported tabletops made of rib bones, curving with a polished grace. The walls were thighbones, hard and strong, reaching for the ceiling, which was made of shoulder blades. The stairs were footbones and knucklebones, inlayed with backbones rising for banisters. Everywhere the hard gleaming white of skeletal purity reflected the morning light. His breath steamed in the chill.
Downstairs, at the table, the wolf sat – its eyes following the boy as he descended the bleached gleam of the stairway. When, stepping slowly and cautiously, he had reached the table, the Wolf growled softly. Its luminous eyes swept over the leaf - tumble figure of his mother in the corner of the room. Turning its muzzle, the wolf moved its emerald stare lingeringly over the gray moth that the butterfly had become. The beast growled again, low. The boy knew the meaning of that growl: “Tell and I will kill.”
The boy missed his school bus on purpose. He watched from where he hid in the thick branches of the hedge as it disappeared around the corner. His hand made a small waving motion that might have meant goodbye.
His father, leaving for work, in a light gray suit and tie, never saw him. His mother, when she rustled by on her way to the store with his sister – held hard by the hand – did not see him either. As their station wagon passed his hiding place he looked through the car window at the gray moth. Soon, he thought, you’ll be a butterfly again.
When the automobile vanished, he hurried into the house. Straight up the stairs – the knucklebones making a cracking sound under his rushing feet – to the satchel in the corner. He fumbled open the clasp and reached inside. There! He felt the brittle crystal hardness of the bees. Carefully, he removed four of them from their nest in the worn leather satchel.
He raced back down the stairs, the chill of the house seeping into his body, and opened the refrigerator. There! Slabs of meat glistened in their wrapper. The wolf’s was, naturally, the biggest. (Blood rare, the wolf always said, blood rare.) Quickly and carefully, he opened the wrapper and inserted the shining stingers of the bees into the redness of the meat. His thumb thrust the plungers down one by one and the fluid within the body of the bees flowed into the supper of the wolf. Another trip upstairs and the empty bees were replaced in the satchel. Nodding with satisfaction, he left the house and used the side door to enter the garage.
In the cool darkness, he found what he sought – a rounded dome, bright red and pungent. When he picked it up, it made a soft sloshing sound. He carried it to the yard and hid its oily metal symmetry behind one of the rosebushes near the front door. The large red and pink flowers, heavily sweet, masked the sharp odor of the can nicely. Now, he thought, waiting is all I have to do.
At dinner that evening, the wolf tore at the dripping meat, snarling softly, mopping the juices with a thick slice of bread. The boy watched closely. Only when the last of the glistening red moisture had crossed the wolf’s lips did he relax.
Later, he lay in his bed, ears reaching out in the silence for sound. Wolfsteps approached his door and the knob turned. He held his breath, terror stricken – the plan had not worked. The door opened and phosphorus eyes met his. Fear frozen, he watched as the wolf approached him, its teeth gleaming whitely. It growled, bloodlust in its eyes, then fell with a great thump to the floor, its mouth open and teeth shining, green eyes closed.
The boy ran down the footbone stairway and into the yard, returning with the sharp-smelling can. He splashed the liquid within it over the floor and the walls and the thighbones and the wristbones and the ribcages and the knucklebones. Down the hallways of glowing ivory, he splashed, and over the backbone doorways, until the can dropped empty from his hands.
He ran to the butterfly’s room, sweeping her from her bed. He raced to his mother’s room and roused her from her bee-bite sleep. Down the knobbiness of the stairway and out the cold curving doorway to the lawn, they ran. He turned and tossed a kitchen match inside the house.
Even green-eyed wolves fear fire, he thought.
Red and orange waves of salvation crashed up the wall and over the ceilings and doorways as the bones flamed, painting a different kind of color on the neighborhood.
He heard the wolf howl. His mother, startled out of her diamond stung haze, screamed, “John!”
She screamed again, raced toward the house and disappeared into the brightness within the doorway. He heard, or he thought he heard, her scream again as the flames took her. He thought she cried, “Only ME!” The house erupted into an ocean of orange as the bones took fire and exploded.
In his arms, the gray moth wakened. Her blank, bee-bitten eyes turned to the house and reflected the flames in a whirl of color – like the wings of a butterfly.
BIO: AJ Hayes is from San Diego and – god help him – good friends with Jimmy (Mad Dog) Callaway and Josh (Gut Ripper) Converse, who provide great advice and the occasional smack in the mouth with the butt of a .45.