'Dem Bones' was first published in Intimate Armageddons, edited by Bill Congreve, Wollongong, Five Islands Press 1992.
A sample story from Immaterial. Ghost Stories by Robert Hood
Smashing up Bob Skelton was stupid, but when I think back, you can see he was asking for it.
Remember Skelton, dont you? Everyone used to call him Bag o Bones, and not just because of his name. His arms and legs were like sticks, his eyes sunk, his skin all over what you could see of it under his floppy coats ragged and loose. If he coughed, you held your breath, expecting he was about to shake himself apart. He was so bent and thin it really seemed possible; you were afraid to touch him in case something came away in your hand. Terrible. No one paid him much attention, of course, except for us kids. Whenever he went by, we shouted stuff like Hey, why didnt the skeleton go to the dance? Then another kid would yell: Because he had no body to go with! Ha! Ha!.
Now and then gossip said he was deadly sick the Black Plague or anorexia or some such thing. But he went on looking terminally wasted for month after month, with no ill effects other than the obvious, so the rumours dropped off. Its just what hes like, wed say. Too bad for him and fine for us.
He lived in a disused railway tunnel and we never saw him more than a kilometre from the place. Parents told their kids to stay away from him, but no one ever urged the law to move him on. Locals just left him be. Except for the stories.
Keeps it close to the chest. What ya bet hes been up to something?
Hiding out. Probably a crim.
Cant imagine him muggin anyone.
Yeah, maybe. Why dont he eat better?
Thats how it went, and before long Bob Skelton was not only the local freak, but also the local looney millionaire, living in luxury (when no one was looking) on ill-gotten gains.
That wouldve been fine if itd stopped there; but those were hard times, the area being hit by the bloody recession, the smelter closing down like it did. There were lots of blokes out of work and suddenly being odd was less tolerable than it had been.
Greg Garsson was one of the unemployed most known and least liked by local authorities. The Government kept paying him the dole, but everyone knew hed never get a job, not because there were fewer around, but because he was a lazy bugger whod rather pinch a few bucks off his grandma than strain his back at anything that looked like work.
Garsson was of middle height, dark and pretty handsome, I guess. Id gone to school with him and for a while I was in his gang. No one had liked him then either, but he was a tough-guy, and we were all too weak not to latch onto someone with his air of leadership. No matter what you thought of him you went with him if you got the chance it was suicide not to. With him, you were cool; without him, you were a nobody.
When his gang progressed from harmless vandalism like painting stupid graffiti on factory walls to actual robbery, I wanted to stop hanging around with him, not being interested in a life of crime. But it was no good. He wouldnt let go. Threatened me, and I wasnt strong enough to buck him. So I just shuffled around the edges of his world, hoping to stay out of trouble.
This morning, as I write these words, I wish Id stood up to him, of course ... gone my own way. But lifes not like that. We do things cause we cant help it, cause were too weak, or just cause it seemed like we were meant to do it ... Sometimes were in the right place at the right time ... or the wrong place, wrong time. Depends where you stand.
The day I regret and Garssons regretting it even more right now, I reckon, wherever he is was in the middle of a cold, bitter, winter day. Me and Johnno Davis and Garsson were at Johnnos place watching the footie, and Johnno said out of the blue: Lets go see what ol Skeltons got?
What? I said, Skelton? Why?
Were broke, thats why. Look at us. A bunch of bloody losers. But they reckon Skeltons got lots of top stuff in his hideout. Maybe he can be made to share it, eh?
Thats just a stupid rumour.
Garsson suddenly looked up from a dull bit of play. What are you two goin on about?
Were gonna visit Skelton, Johnno said defensively.
Old Bag o Bones? Garsson laughed. Then he went glum and serious. Visit him, eh? Yeah, why not? I been thinkin about him lately. Quite a bit.
Hang on, I interrupted, getting worried by Garssons intensity. I knew that look, and it spelt trouble. Skeltons old and harmless, a bum ... I think we should leave him alone.
Harmless? Hes a crook.
Fire swirled in Garssons eyes. Me. You wanta make something of it.
I didnt. An hour later we were sneaking along the old railway track like a pack of hoods, which is what we were, I guess. I felt more annoyed than anything ... but I shouldve been scared. If Id known what was going to happen, I guess I wouldve taken off then and there. But we were ignorant. All of us are. The futures a fog-bank and most of the universe a great black hole. We dont know our way around, and that means we blunder about in the dark, and more often than not end up putting a foot right in the bloody hole and disappearing for good.
sure the hole we stepped into that night doesnt have a bottom.
Skeltons tunnel was long and overgrown. We scurried down a watery embankment, over old sleepers and rusty track, and then stood staring stupidly into what seemed a thick, almost liquid darkness. Dont like the look of this, Johnno muttered. We better come back tomorrow ... during the day.
Whats the matter, bubs? Garsson mocked. You scared of the bogeyman?
In the end we took the plunge, not going home a mix of laziness and pride. Garsson had brought a torch, but its beam just scraped away at the dark, as though the tunnels lightlessness was too thick for it. You been here before? I asked Garsson, as he neatly sidestepped an open drain the torch hadnt really shown up. Sure, he said. Me and Skelton are old mates. He wouldnt explain further.
Inside the darkness it was dry, but the air stank as though the tunnel connected up with a sewer. Whats he live here for? Johnno muttered.
Hes a disgustin weirdo, said Garsson, pointing toward a patch of wall the torchbeam shot right through. Hes in there.
We came across old Bones in his hole. It was pitch black and silent like a bloody tomb. At first we couldnt see anything, then Garssons torch picked out a man-like shape against the far wall. The shape didnt move as light slithered over its gaunt features. I thought I could make out a face, profile on, but it didnt look alive.
Is he okay? whispered Johnno. As the sounds echoed hollowly, Skelton swivelled his head so the dimming torchlight cast deep shadows over his face. I couldnt see any eyes in his eye sockets.
Whatre you doing here? he said.
Johnno squealed and leapt back with shock.
That you, is it, Garsson? Skelton added.
His voice seemed ... I dont know ... to echo, like there was a slight reverb on it. Probably an effect of the tunnel.
What if it is? growled Garsson, pushing over closer to the old man. Johnno and I hung back. We thought ya might be lonely.
Nice thought, said the old man, Pull up a pew and we can have another chat. I noticed for the first time then, as my eyes focussed on the narrow field of vision lit by the torch, that Skelton was sitting on the floor, his thin back leaning against a muddy wall.
Why are you sitting here in the dark? I said.
His head, like a skull without flesh, swivelled toward me. What else would I be doing? he said. Its the middle of the night the longest night and theres no lectricity here. Maybe he grinned, but it mightve been the sort of grin a skull makes, not trying, not amused.
You got any money stashed away? Johnno said suddenly.
Shut the fuck up! snarled Garsson, flashing the torchbeam away from Skelton onto Johnnos pale face.
Its bloody spooky, Greg. Cant we just take whatever hes got and get the hell out of here?
Take what Ive got? Skeltons voice crept from the darkness wed left him in. He laughed grimly. Garsson moved the light back onto him. What do you boys think an old dero like mes got, eh? Stolen goods? Gold?
Maybe, said Johnno.
Im just a poor old bastard whos been around too long. I barely keep myself together. Sure, Ive been places you couldnt even dream about, Ive seen things would make your hair fall out like mine has ... but Ive got no treasure. He laughed again, hollowly.
Bones, a few rags and a memory. But no treasure.
We heard ...
What? That Im a crim in hiding? Maybe I am, but why would I hide out here, eh? You think Im stupid? No oned stay here unless they had to. He suddenly looked straight into Garssons torchbeam. Oddly, the light didnt find his eyes. Youre not saying much, Garsson, my friend. What did you tell them? That you left me a few bags of gold last time you came here? That now you were comin back for the rest?
Did he tell you he was the one brought me here? That he robbed me of the few bucks I had, kicked me around a bit and left me for dead? He tell you that, eh?
No, I said, looking at the dim shape of Garsson lit by spill from the torch, He didnt.
Left me for dead and mustve been pretty surprised when I didnt disappear. Just hung around. You worried Id rat on you, Garsson? Put in a complaint to the cops?
Why should I? I didnt do nothin ... and whod believe an old drunk like you anyway?
Drunk? I havent been drunk for years.
Whyd ya stay here then? asked Johnno.
Maybe I had no choice. After Garsson left me for dead, maybe thats what happened. I died and had to haunt the place where I was killed. What you think of that idea, Garsson?
Its crap, Garsson replied, his voice tense.
Maybe I been waitin all this time. Waitin for you to come back. I been calling, Garsson. You been hearing my voice, have you?
And then he started to sing:
cried Dem dry bones!
Shut up, old man! said Garsson.
Why? Dont you like songs? Skelton didnt turn around. But he began to stand. Watching him get up was like watching a lump of rags and old sticks drag itself into the shape of a scarecrow. We all jumped back, but Garsson kept the light on him. It seemed dimmer.
dem bones, dem dry bones
Parts of Skeltons anatomy shook separate from other parts, as though settling uneasily into place. He moved toward the source of the light.
Garsson held up his hand to shut Skelton up. Stay away! he whispered. There was a pause that afterwards seemed to stretch out forever; then his palm lashed the old man on the side of the head.
I jerked into motion, horrified because hitting an old man, especially someone as frail-looking as Skelton, was something Id been brought up not to do. I was planning to step in, to get between Garsson and the old man as Skelton crashed down across the ground; but when what happened happened I froze. I couldnt have been seeing what I was seeing because ... well, it was impossible ...
Skeltons head jerked backward; but his body didnt go with it. Instead his neck stretched, then the skin around it tore apart like rotten gauze. The head a skull covered in loose skin kept going, crashing onto the dirt floor with a thud. There was no blood coming from his torn neck; and the body just stood there, neck open to view, if Id been at an angle to see in it. The narrow, broken light made it difficult. Garsson couldve seen Skeltons neck clearer, and I dont know what he saw, but Ill bet it wasnt flesh and blood and intestines. All Skelton had in him was bones, lots of dry, disconnected bones, and in that darkness which was the hole where the old mans head had sat, there wouldve been nothing but the cold glimmer of backbone and ribs.
Johnno gave out a sort of gargling moan and ran for his life, fumbling out of the room through the darkness.
Garsson seemed to go crazy. He began laying into Skeltons body with a vengeance, perhaps hoping for the gore and bloodiness weve all been led to expect from someone getting their head knocked off. With the gore hed be a murderer, but without it he was mad, and he couldnt bear the thought of that. He kicked and punched, tore at Skeltons clothes and skin with his fingers and then his teeth, swearing, screaming ... It was all too much for me. Just stood there paralysed, unable to move.
Meanwhile, as I watched through the jerking movement of the torchlight, Skeltons body was stripped, first of clothes and then of skin. Under the skin, bones. I didnt know much about bones. Theyre just in there, you know, keeping me from going all floppy, and I didnt think about them at all. I certainly didnt remember all those biology lessons we mucked up through in school. No, that night I was no expert; but Ive become an expert since. Ive read books on anatomy. Memorised them. So, as the bones appear in my mind, I know them by name, while Skeltons voice drifts through the night and the violence:
toe bones connected to ya foot bone
It goes like this: Garsson pulled off Skeltons arms and tossed metacarpus, carpus, radius, elbow, humerus in a clattering mess across the floor; he knocked down the scapula, peeled aside the backbone and smashed it into handfuls of vertebrae, like jacks; he broke the ribs apart as though they were wishbones; he skated the sternum through the air like a frisby; he kicked ilium from pelvis from pubis from coccyx; he pulled out the femur, kneecapped the unmoving legs, wrenched off the fibula, scattered the tibia, trod on Skeltons feet so that the metatarsus splintered and all the toe-bones burst out like the cores of squeezed pimples. This parade of bones passed into my consciousness as though it were part of some bizarre nightmare. Sometime during the show, Garsson stopped, turned to me, growled something I could barely hear.
What do you mean shut up! I yelled, staring at the bone he held in his hand a leg-bone, Shut up, for gods sake. Bones! Youve made him into a heap of bones! You killed him took him apart...
Sure. Everyonell believe that. He kicked at the scattered remains of the old man, flashing the light that way so I could see them.
These are the bones of someone who karked it long ago. Look at em. Dry bones, bloody dry old bones, thats all.
We ... weve got to ...
I dont know. Report it ... I must be going mad. You hit him and he went to pieces. You murdered old Skelton and Ive gotta tell ...
The words barely left my mouth before Garsson came at me. You wont say a bloody thing! he said and struck me fair on the jaw with Skeltons leg. I reeled back, half afraid that in whatever fruit-cake world Id become part of, his strike would send my head spinning off and out along the floor. But all of me went; I hit the dirt hard. Youll say nothing, he said.
He lay into me then. With the leg-bone and the torch. Kicking at my head. Screaming at me. I lost consciousness. When I moved again, he was gone and it was dark. My head was throbbing, the beat of it ripping the world to tatters. My jaw felt like it was broken; I could feel blood running down my neck. I blinked, and maybe hours or days went by ... I couldnt tell.
I blinked again and looked around, hoping Skelton would be sitting against the wall, or Id be in my own home, asleep in front of the telly.
You dead? I whispered.
But it was dark and the night stank of sewer and earth. I reached out and felt bones. I pulled my hand back sharply and began to whimper. Body and mind both hurt really bad.
I made myself crawl toward where I thought the entrance was; I kept finding
bones. Animal bones, I hoped, but I knew they werent. It was Skelton,
scattered around his lounge room, which must have looked like
the lair of some hungry monster. I groaned.
connected dem dry bones.
Not being there, you probably reckon I was dreaming, right? You probably reckon I thought I was dreaming the whole thing from start to finish. But in fact that explanation never occurred to me. It was real, all the time it was real, and when I heard that singing I knew straight away it was Skelton. If thered been lights I knew what I wouldve seen: a skull lying over where the old mans head had bounced to, its dead jawline moving up and down, sending out an impossible voice. Skeltons skull had produced a voice before he went to pieces; no reason to assume it wouldnt do the same now I knew hed never been anything but dry bones all along.
bones, dem bones gonna walk around
I stopped and just sat there, listening. My mind had refused to work in any reasonable way by then, and all I could think of was that the spectral Skelton would be after me and it was Garssons fault. I hoped real hard that Skelton, who obviously couldnt be got rid of as easily as Garsson hoped, would pull himself together and go after the louse that had broken him up, ignoring me. Thats what happens in the gore flicks. Victim goes after the scum that did him in. Great! Id be in that. Garsson was no good; Skelton could wreak whatever revenge he liked on him. I pictured Garsson sitting in his bedroom smoking a joint and reading one of his military magazines. Suddenly theres a scraping on the window. He frowns, gets up and pulls aside the curtain. Theres a skull behind the glass and the skeleton it belongs to smashes the window and Garsson screams at last, like hed made me scream. In terror. Utter terror. He screams for a good long time.
Meanwhile Skeltons voice was singing:
Shoulder bones connected to ya neck bone
And I suddenly knew what I had to do. Skelton couldnt do it himself, could he? He was scattered and helpless. My role. My part. My penance.
I was Ezekiel.
I began crawling around on the ground, running my fingers over the dirt, gathering in the bones. The bits of toe, the hip bone, the ribs, the vertebrae; painstakingly, delirious no doubt, I found each and every bone. Must have taken me hours, but I did it. I dont know how I knew, so I guess it was Skelton who knew, but I knew Id gathered together all the bits of dry bone that Garsson had scattered that night. I gathered them up and put them in a big heap. All of them.
Only one missing. A vital one.
Garsson had hit me with the bone of Skeltons lower leg; hed hit me, then rushed off into the night with it. He still had it; and Skelton, connected up but only incompletely, couldnt do any walking around without his leg. Hed need it. Need it to walk around.
My penance was to help him.
Ill get it back for you, I said, I promise.
Garsson was in his bedroom smoking and drinking beer. I guessed as much when I saw the light leaking from his window. I needed some sort of weapon, so I fetched an axe he used to cut firewood sometimes, and let myself in with the key he always left on a hook above the door.
It was quiet, nearing dawn. It had taken me a while to walk from the railway tunnel to Garssons on the other side of town; but Id moved fast, despite my pains. I kept hearing sounds behind me, like rattling bones, scrambling along in the dark. By the time I got to Garssons, I was tired and scared, but full of an urgency created by Skeltons presence in the night around me. I opened Garssons door fast.
What the hell...? he spluttered, spraying beer over his prized copies of Soldier of Fortune.
I stalked toward him, holding up the axe.
He said, What the fuck are you doing here?
You didnt kill me, thats what. Left me for dead, but Im not dead. Not like Skelton.
Put that bloody thing down...
Where is it? I shouted.
He sat up slightly, a spark of fear catching in his eye. Wheres what, man?
You know, I growled, You know. The bone.
His face darkened. Dont start that shit. There werent no bones ... He moved to get off the bed and I lashed out at him with the axe. He screeched, fell back, the blade ruffling his shirt. Watch that bloody axe, ya fool...
Where is it?
I dunno what ya talkin about? Hed gone white and forming words was hard for him. Shock.
The bone, I said evenly. Skeltons bone that you hit me with. His leg.
Whatd you want it for?
I raised the axe. Where is it?
I dunno! I dunno! Okay? He gestured with his hands raised, feebly. I tossed it away someplace ... broke it up. I just dunno where it is! Dont kill me, Barry. I didnt mean to hurt you, honest. It was a mistake. I just freaked out.
I looked at him coldly. He must have felt the seriousness of the situation, because he was swallowing a lot, like there wasnt enough spit in his mouth.
Honest, he said, The legs just gone, you know.
For a moment more I said nothing, letting him shrink further into his bed. He made to get up, rush me, but I gestured with the axe and he sank back, defeated. It was easy.
Skelton needs that bone, I said. Hows he going to walk around without his leg bone, eh?
Skelton? Walking around? His eyes were filling with tears. Youre mad.
Maybe, I replied, But what are you going to do about his leg?
What can I do, for gods sake? Its lost. Gone. Get that through ya thick skull!
I shook my head. Not good enough. He needs a leg bone, and if youve lost his, I guess its only fair you give him another. His left leg was lying stretched out in front of him.
What? How can I, you dickhead? I havent got bloody leg bones lyin around the place. Hed never been very bright.
raised the axe higher. Youve got two of your own, I
No, I remember where I threw it! he yelled, I can find it... He tried to pull his leg out of the way, but the axe came down just above his knee, sinking in deep and spraying blood everywhere ... different, a lot different from when he did Skelton. Since Garsson was on a soft bed, which provided a surface with too much give, the axe didnt sever his leg, though I heard it splinter the bone. He screamed, thrashed. I pulled out the axe blade for another blow, but he was jerking around so much I couldnt get a bead on it. His fear must have made him strong, because he suddenly kicked out at me with his good leg, hitting me in the chest. I stumbled back, tripping over some junk on the floor. Garsson tried to get up, but blood was pouring from his leg and it gave under him. He was screaming.
I tried to get up too, but he saw past his agony and picked up a small bar-bell that was lying to one side of his bed. You fuckin moron bastard! he yelled and threw it. I tried to dodge, but the object smashed on my shoulder, slamming me against the wall. It hurt like crazy. Garsson found the mate of the first bar-bell and decided to try for my head this time.
About then the door crashed open it hadnt been shut properly and something came in. If the stuff wed already seen that night suggested wed gone mad, this one said: Youre dead, man, and hells come to get you. Yet I didnt scream; Id known who it was even before I recognised the skull draped with threads of dry skin, when the creature was just a crunching, rattling sound outside the door. Sure, I knew it was Skelton, but I doubt his mother would have recognised him.
Now he really was just a pile of bones. When Id gathered up the pieces of him in the dark, and piled them all together, I hadnt been thinking much. It was compulsive, something I had to do. I was reconstructing the poor bastard, sure, like I would a jigsaw puzzle. Putting him back together. Without knowing how to. And seeing him now, I realised I sure hadnt done a very good job of it. None of his bits were in their right place, so he wasnt a human skeleton walking around or hopping, cause I still hadnt collected his missing leg-bone. Instead he had arms connected to bits of leg, fingers sprouting from his hip-bone, a hand wearing ribs like a spiky haircut, backbone like a wonky spiral staircase, even a leg poking out the front with his skull attached to it instead of a foot. It was silly or wouldve been if it hadnt been there, for real, all connected up and clumping across the room.
Keep it away from me! Garsson screamed.
I did nothing, couldnt have, even if Id wanted. The thing moved too quickly. It suddenly leapt like some giant, bony spider and bore Garsson down under its surprising weight. He tried to thrash at it, break it up again as he had once before, but it was too late now. Skeltons skull bit into his neck and tore out his windpipe in a flash. Blood and flesh splattered everywhere, as Garssons scream turned into a gurgle. Then, once hed gone still, the creature began tearing him to bits.
Once again I couldnt move. I just lay there watching as the monstrous skeleton disconnected Garssons parts, removing his head, stripping off the skin, popping out the eyeballs, shaking his brain onto the ground like an old, damp sponge; pulling arms and legs off, slitting the stomach, flaying him, emptying out his guts into a colourful, smelly pile; sliding bones out from their envelopes of red flesh, scraping them clean with teeth and sharp, bony fingers. It seemed to me as I huddled there in a stupor, that it was actually eating fillets of Garssons meat and stews of intestine, as well as adding the bones redder than its own and more pliable to the expanding construction that was its body. It took a while for me to realise what was happening, but soon it was clear enough. I watched, fascinated and sickened, as Garssons bones became part of the Skelton-monster and his blood and flesh wove itself like a mesh that began to spread over the whole structure, giving it solidness. It was like a ghost the phantom of some unnatural freak taking physical form in front of me.
Time sort of went funny then, as though it was being squeezed through a narrow gap and mightnt make it. Was this a prelude to the afterlife? I was afraid the thing would eat me too and Id become part of it. Or maybe it had. Wasnt until the bone-creature slipped off into the night, giving me a merry wave with a hand sticking out of what might have been its backside, that I knew I wasnt dead. My head ached too much and I wanted to throw up. I looked around the room. There were a few smears of blood and scratches and gouges in the walls and floor where the bones had touched them but nothing else. Skelton was gone, Garsson was gone, and whatever the two of them had become was gone too. I crawled outside and puked violently on the front steps.
Dawn was bleeding into the sky by the time they found me there, wanting to know where Garsson was, what wed been up, why the street had been terrorised by noises in the night. I told them and they thought I was mad of course, but they never found Garssons body, and Skelton was never seen again, and Johnno was able to confirm hed left us all there in Skeltons tunnel that night...
You know, as I sit here now, it strikes me as really funny. Theres that ... what? That skeleton ... just a pile of bones that keeps walking around. What is he, eh? A derelict murdered in the disused tunnel who couldnt get away afterwards, a sort of haunting? Did eating his killer give him the strength to leave? Who knows? But its funny to think of dem bones of his walking around the world, while I ... well, my rooms pretty small. Pretty small indeed. Apart from an occasional few laps of the exercise yard, I dont get out much. They never let me through the gates. Guess my walking days are over.
No bones about it.
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