Listen to “Rattlebone” by Bosley Gravel, read by Alexander Jones:
Bosley Gravel, eclectic hack writer, was born in the Midwest, and came of age in Texas and southern New Mexico. He writes in a variety of genres. His fiction focuses on the absurdly tragic, and the tragically absurd. He likes good black coffee, nightmares, Billie Holiday, and that hour just before the sun comes up.
Alexander Jones lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in video game development and indulges his love of good food and fine drink.
“Rattlebone” by Bosley Gravel was originally published on February 2, 2014.
The cigarette winked semaphore across the ruins of Beaumont-Hamel. At last, something to occupy him for a few minutes.
He brought the stock to his shoulder, inhaled, exhaled, and held it. Through the scope, the ember wobbled with lip-twitches and turns of the neck. Sometimes it disappeared and reemerged like a sunrise. The American was fiddling with it. Passing the time.
He understood; the boredom was the very worst of it.
When it was on, when the shrapnel clattered and the shells gnawed on dirt and rocks, no one had time to think much or do anything, really, but fear and react. But in these interminable silences, he just sat and licked at the mud on his teeth and watched the mute trees, no leaves to flutter, no branches to tick and moan, bone white compound fractures in the moonlight. Enough time spent like that and he wished someone would shoot at him, huddled in his nest on the hillside. But in the dark, even without camouflage, he was a ghost. He would have to settle for a diversion more fleeting.
His finger tightened, just a little. Next to him, Kinski whispered something. The red light flared brighter — his mouth tingled with the taste of the smoke — and bobbed slowly, so slowly, and the barrel bobbed with it. He reached out and cradled them in his hands, snuggled them together, the smoldering tobacco and the cold metal, and together they moved, left now, down now, semi-circle up and to the right.
His finger tightened, just a little more. The light winked, crushed by shadows from both sides, and glowed hotter after the shadows passed; two men, then, at least. Was it his accomplice in the path, or someone else, someone doomed by poor company? Difficult to tell at 350 meters. But what difference did it make? One man was the same as another.
His finger tightened.
His finger loosened and he slid down the few feet to where his blanket lay frozen to the ground. There, he inhaled and laid the back of his head against the ice.
Kinski yawned and tapped a crumpled packet of tobacco against his chest. “Zigarette?” he said, and giggled.
Kurt Hunt is, in no particular order, a father, a lawyer, a husband, a human, and a daydreamer. Sometimes he writes things, but usually he doesn’t.
Gweeb had always loved earth junk. Way back when he was just a slugling, he’d adored the bright plastic toys the earth children got. He wished he could have them, tuned to earth media stations to see them despite his Layer screaming at him to smarten up and watch good Grongian media like he was supposed to.
It was the Selectivex multimedia system that made it all so accessible. He could watch Earth programs, programs from Antari, even ones from far off Heligobore. But it was the Earth ones that he liked best. When he saw in an advertisement that Archie McPhee, the Earth store with odd items in it, was relocating to the earthmoon, he just knew he had to go there.
“When can we go?” he asked his Spawner the next day.
“It’s too far! You know your Layer gets spacesick when we hyperfly.” His Spawner looked at him, eyestalks slightly tilted. “Don’t they have space order? Most of those places do.”
Gweeb glowed purple with excitement. He slipped to the interplanetary order machine and looked for a catalog. Sure enough, Archie McPhee was there. He immediately ordered bacon shaped bandages, a Devil Ducky for his bath, and some plastic models of earth people. The order was sent and within a few weeks, an exciting box arrived.
Gweeb was saddened about the bandages. They looked cool, but when he tried to stick them to his tentacles, his skinslick covering just let them slide off. The kids at school all snickered at him through their blowholes. It was embarrassing, especially when Meringa looked at him funny.
Gweeb loved Meringa. He loved the way she burbled through singing class, he loved the tiny flower she would wear behind her mantle, the way her tentacle tips were all painted light pink. She was an earth fan, too, he knew it. No one else had painted tentacles and Gweeb had seen something called nail polish on the Earth media. He had to find something to win her interest , so back he went to the Archie McPhee catalog. Scrolling through, he found an ad for a magic kit.
“Amaze your friends!” the ad said.
“Confound your enemies!” it cried.
Gweeb nodded his mantle thoughtfully. He needed to amaze his friends and confound his enemies. Fast.
He ordered it, and before long the interplanetary mail popped a box through the waterlock. There it was – the young magician’s magic kit! It came with card tricks, which became soggy as soon as Gweeb touched them. He crumpled them up and tossed them away. Better was a set of scarves that he practiced passing though various tentacle movements until he couldn’t imagine anyone being able to follow the motions. He even learned the coin tricks, using the fake plastic coins in the kit until they were slimy with tentacle juice.
Then he put on a magic show for his parental units. They sat on their rocks, confusion showing as they changed colors from red to green. But after watching him passing things here and there and pulling coins from strange places they admitted they were impressed. Gweeb finally went to bed on his cozy sandbag, happy he at last had a skill that could impress Meringa.
The next day at school, he handed out coupons for a magic show in his back living pod after school the next day. Lots of kids took them, most of them snorting gooey bits through their blowholes as they did. Gweeb didn’t care, though. His one hope was that Meringa would take a ticket. He went looking for her and offered her the plastic chip.
“Want to come?” he whispered, shivering blue.
She looked at him. “No silly things like those bacon bandages, right?”
“No. I promise.”
“Ok. Just don’t stick anything on me, okay?”
“Okay,” he burbled, shimmering purple.
The next day everyone at school was asking him about the magic show, but he kept his blowholes shut mysteriously and only waggled his eyestalks. “Wait and see, wait and see!”
Inside, he was jelly, which wasn’t a big change for him, only this time he really felt squishy inside.
He raced home after school and cleared out his performance space, making sure everyone could sit and see his tricks. The others gradually filtered in, snorting and waggling at him. Meringa was there, too, in the second row, watching him. She was giggling with her girlfriends and would turn an eye orb towards him, then away.
He cleared his blowhole and began with the text in the guidebook, which he’d memorized. “Welcome to the most amazing show on earth. You will gasp as I pull coins from the air, puzzle as I create beauty from nothingness. . . .”
“We’re gasping now. Get on with it!” one of the bigger boys gurgled.
So Gweeb started. He pulled scarves from his eating orifices, made them vanish into his tentacles and around his eyestalks. He twisted coins through his tentacles and made them hide. He reached over to Meringa and, holding his breath, pulled one coin right out of her ear orifice.
There was silence after he was done, and he bowed his form forward, waiting for some sign of applause.
“This was the stupidest thing I ever saw,” said one boy, schlepping out of the room making various dripping sounds.
“Yeah,” said a couple more as they went. “Lame.”
Gweeb looked up, wavering his eye spheres about on their stalks. What had gone wrong?
Meringa came forward and looked deep into his eye spheres. She smiled. “Silly, you’re transparent! We could see every trick you did. The coin in the ear thing was pretty cool, though. Have lunch with me tomorrow?” She smiled again and briefly touched his tentacle.
It felt wonderful.
DA Brown writes short stories, novellas and non-fiction, most of it involving existential angst and much of it with dark humour.
Mike wished Dad and Robert would stop jabbering. He laid down his cards. “Straight flush.”
Robert tossed his hand in with the discards. “You got me, Chief.”
“Come down to Tampa and I’ll show you a professional game,” Dad said. “Senior citizens play for real stakes.”
Dad had flown up for a three day weekend. This was the first time he’d joined Mike’s weekly game. Already Dad and Robert, Mike’s neighbor, acted like old friends.
Mike scooped up the pile of coins. He heard Mom cackling with his wife in the kitchen. Mike liked it in his garage. With the space heaters going full throttle, it wasn’t too bad.
He dealt another hand. “Okay, the game’s called Baseball with a Follow the Queen twist.”
“Do you ever go to Spring Training?” Robert asked Dad.
Dad took a sip of beer. “Every year.” He leaned forward. “I’m leaving a Red Sox game in the eighties when I just vacationed down there. Carl Yastrzemski is going to the team bus. He’s pissed. The Sox just lost by ten — ”
Robert arched an eyebrow. “He was mad about Spring Training?”
Dad nodded. “Yep.”
Mike smiled and rapped the card table. “Are you guys here to play or what?”
Dad put down his beer. “Sure, son.”
Robert laughed. “What the hell’s Follow the Queen?”
Mike sighed. “Threes and nines are wild. Any face-up card that follows a queen is wild. If you get a four face-up, you get another card face-down. Understand?”
Robert swigged his beer. “Nope, but I’m just here for the drinks.”
Mike dealt himself two wild cards face down and another wild card face-up.
Dad didn’t look at the cards. Instead, he told Robert about playing poker in the army. “Military service is just standing around. And smoking. And card games. My C.O. at Fort Jackson said he’d have my stripes after I once won a hundred bucks from him. Son of a bitch couldn’t stand any game without wild cards. Not much of a poker player.”
Mike didn’t take the bait. Dad wasn’t above making his son the butt of a joke to pal around with a new friend. He tossed down a buck.
Dad folded without a word.
Robert downed the rest of his beer. He poked up the corners of his cards. “Chief, the way I figure it, I have the only cards in the whole blessed deck that aren’t wild and you’re probably looking at seven of a kind.” He flipped his cards over. “I’m out.”
Dad handed his cards to Mike. “Nice hand.”
Robert drummed his fingers on the card table. “So, what’d you have?”
Mike scooped up the cards and did a half-shuffle. “You have to pay to see my cards.”
Robert laughed. “Always the serious poker player. I’ve been hearing about this weekly game of yours for months. Nice to finally make it.” He turned to Dad. “So, what happened with Yastrzemski?”
Dad leaned forward. “I left that old boy alone.”
“Let me finish it,” Mike said. “This drunk fan gets on the team bus and hands Yaz a baseball card. Yaz tears it up and throws it out the window. The guy yelled at Yaz for five or ten minutes until the bus finally left.”
“You were at the game?” Robert asked.
Mike shook his head. “Dad didn’t take me to many spring training games. That was for his friends.”
“You were in school,” Dad said.
“Sure. That was it.” Mike coughed. “Anyhow, Dad only has so many stories.”
Robert broke the silence. “After he left the Sox, you know that Yaz became a meat salesman.”
“Yeah. He’s got great people skills,” Dad said.
Robert picked up his coat from the back of the cracked plastic chair. He shook both of their hands. “Well, thanks for a great night.” He nodded at Dad. “Nice meeting you, sir.”
After Robert left, Dad pushed his winnings across the table to Mike. “Good game.”
“It’s your money, Dad. You won it.”
Dad shrugged. “I don’t need twenty bucks in change. It’ll just set off the airport metal detectors.”
“I don’t get those guys,” Mike said. “Some of them still don’t know how to play.”
Dad shrugged. “They might not care about winning.” He eyed the cards in front of him. “You want to call yourself a poker player, get together with some serious players for some serious stakes. But don’t pretend you’re some sort of card shark for winning some spare change. Poker in your garage isn’t about the game anyway.”
Mike glared at Dad. “Then what is it about?”
Dad laughed. “Do you really have to ask? It’s about telling stories and drinking beer. Pay attention to your friends.”
Mike suppressed a sarcastic comment. Dad was a fine one to lecture about paying attention. “I can’t just let them win.”
Dad laughed. “Let me show you something. One more quick game. Five card draw.”
“Sure. Why not?” Mike was in no hurry to listen to one of Mom’s long drawn-out stories about neighbors he had never met.
Dad dealt Mike a five, six, seven and eight of clubs with the Ace of Spades. Mike discarded the Ace. Dad discarded two cards.
Dad gave Mike the Jack of Clubs. Mike had a Flush.
“If we were playing for cash, no limit, what would you bet on that hand?” Dad asked.
“Okay. So, what do you have?”
Mike turned over his cards. “Flush.”
“Full house.” Dad flipped over his cards. He had three kings and two aces. One of the aces was the Ace of Spades.
“You couldn’t have that hand.”
“I got rid of the Ace of Spades.”
“Look, Mike, you’re a pretty good player, but you’d get eaten alive in a real game. Don’t confuse beating a bunch of drunk guys in your garage with being a professional.” Dad stood up, pushed his chair against the table and walked into the house.
Mike heard peals of laughter as Dad joined the women.
Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. He had a weekly poker game in his bachelor pad in the mid nineties and the father of one of the regular players showed up a couple of times and schooled everybody. There are a lot of poker players out there who aren’t as good as they think they are — “That probably applies to me too,” Pete says.
“Am I in trouble?”
The boy raises a thumb to his mouth. Chews. There’s a layer of blood under the nail and he licks at it. Wipes it clean. The detective puts the boy’s file on the table. Flips to the last page.
“No, son. We’re just going to talk. Have a little conversation.”
The boy nods. Studies his fingers. He was brought in an hour ago, calm and quiet. Hands covered in blood. When the police found him he’d waved, smiling. Red hand against the blue sky.
“This girl. You met her at the foster home?”
The boy shrugs. Looks up. He holds the detective’s eyes and the older man shivers. Catches himself. Taps his red pen against the file and waits for an answer.
The boy sucks a fingertip. Another. He may be 12, 13. The detective can’t be sure. His file has a few notes — where he’s lived, how long. Why he had to leave. But there’s no birth certificate. No parents. He’s come from nowhere and now he’s here.
“And how long were you living there?”
The boy spreads his fingers, counts them off. Holds up two dirty digits and a clean one.
The detective uncaps his pen. Writes it down. Three days. Looks back at the notes. A year. Six months. Two weeks. A runaway. And escape artist. But this — this is something else.
Across the room the boy rubs his palms together. Sheds dead skin.
“How did you end up in that room with her?”
There’s a wet sound as the boy pulls a finger from his mouth. Swallows. He looks up and the detective sees something behind his eyes — impatience, maybe. He isn’t afraid, but he doesn’t want to be here. Doesn’t like to be trapped.
“They locked us in. For stealing.”
The detective reaches for his pen, changes his mind. There’s a spark behind the boy’s eyes now. A slow burning. If he looks away he’ll lose it.
“How long were you in there?”
The boy bites a nail. Another.
“Maybe an hour.”
The boy wipes away a line of spit from his chin. Sucks a knuckle.
“And no one came to check on you?”
The boy stops, looks up at the detective. Then switches hands and chews a nail. Licks a thumb.
“They never do.”
The detective leans in. Feels the heat of the fire.
“Then how did you get out?”
When the boy opens his mouth there are bits of red between his teeth.
“I made my own door.”
The detective checks the file again. Flips back, back to the earliest reports. Won’t sleep with the door closed. Tries to pick the locks. He wonders how the boy feels now, here. Trapped in a holding room. Back to the wall.
The boy smiles. Wipes his palms on his pants. When the detective meets his eyes he can see the embers there.
“I had help.”
The detective turns back to the picture. The crime scene. He studies the red square on the wall. The handprints stamped around a painted red dot. A doorknob. He turns the picture to the boy and points a finger at the figure on the floor.
“Did you kill her, son? Did you draw that door?”
The boy pauses to look at the picture. Shakes his head. Bites at the space between his thumb and finger.
“Who did, then?”
A slime trail as the boy pulls a thumb from his mouth. Wipes it against his sleeve.
The detective turns the picture around. Looks at the girl again. She’s younger than the boy. Pretty. Her red hair is tangled, bright as blood. Her eyes are open but there’s nothing behind them. No fire. No light. The only bright spot in the picture is her hand. The one that’s been cut off. The one she’s holding in her other hand.
The boy pulls two fingers from his mouth. Wipes them dry. Mimes a slice.
The detective leans in. Squints. Looks at the girl’s wrist, the severed one. He sees the rough scissor cuts, the tangles of skin. He looks again at the shape she’s drawn on the wall. The red box. The door. His finger traces the handprints left behind.
“What did you make her do?”
When the boy stands up the detective flinches. Gets to his feet. He is three feet taller than the boy and twice as wide. Yet his hand reaches for his gun. Wants to put out the raging fire.
“Watch it now, son. You’ve got blood on your hands.”
The boy smiles, white teeth gleaming. He holds his palms up in the air and the detective can see he’s licked everything clean. There’s not a trace of blood left.
“Not any more.”
The detective unholsters his gun. Wraps his finger around the trigger and aims. Fires. Shoots himself through the wrist. Then he walks to the far wall and draws a square in his own blood. A doorknob. Slumps to the floor as the fire fades from his eyes.
This time the boy uses his sleeve. Opens the door slowly, quickly. Steps out into the last bright moments of the sunset. Then he wipes his hands against his shirt one last time and walks away.
Tina Wayland is a freelance copywriter, part-time fiction writer and full-time mom to a great wee kid.