What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic), by Katherine Kendig

You’ve heard your local skeleton forest is vastly underrated, worth a day trip, a nice place for wedding photos and relaxing hikes. You’re not much of a hiker, and not much for trends, but you’re trying to spend more time outdoors. Your forearms are no tanner than your thighs, which worries you.

There are old skeletons, brittle-looking, skulls bleached by the sun and moss halfway up their shins. There are new skeletons with dark stains on their bones, like sycamores just shedding their bark. Real trees, too: big spreading elms, shady maples. Paths crispy with fallen leaves that look, at first glance, like withered skin. Soft shadows and a few nice places to picnic.

You take a closer look at the skeletons: a missing tooth, many missing teeth; hairline fracture in the ribs, massive fracture in the skull; those eye sockets, my God, you could fit pool balls in those things (and now you want to); note the restless fidgeting fingers on that one; note the flaring hipbones here, indicating a female—maybe, what do you know, you’re not a skeleton expert—note the ultra-prominent jawline indicating, if not a male, at least an asshole. Ha ha. Every so often you see a hint of graffiti, a single carved initial completed before the carver got spooked. It is spooky, but not overwhelmingly. It feels peaceful, actually, all that stillness.

Except—

Except yes, you back up a little, that one, there—the fidgeter. You’re still not a skeleton expert but you’re pretty sure the dead don’t fidget; you’re pretty damn sure, because if they could move around on their own, there’s no way you’d be here nosing around and staring into their eye sockets.

You look more closely. Keep calm. Maybe it’s the wind? Maybe it’s a bug, crawling around, or—

“Hello,” says the skeleton.

Don’t faint. Don’t faint. Don’t—

The worst thing for Jamie is not wearing her hat. As a skeleton detective, the odds are stacked against her, but the hat always makes her feel more self-assured; the hat and the gloves and the trench coat, although she can’t tie the belt of the trench coat without it becoming obvious that her abdomen consists of nothing but a spine.

By all rights, she should be dead. “Most skeletons,” her doctor told her dryly when her condition reached its peak, “are very, very dead.” But not Jamie: they call it omniossosis, which as she understands it is Latin for let’s pretend science can explain this. Jamie is the twenty-ninth recorded case in history (the fortieth, if she counts references in literature) and the first to be afflicted after adolescence.

Before she was a skeleton, she was a lawyer. Only for six weeks—she had just passed the bar and moved to Chicago when she started losing weight, and she went on voluntary leave when she started losing skin. Now she’s a detective. It’s a job she can do mostly from home, mostly wrapped up (hat, gloves, trench coat); her doctor has a friend on the force who helped her get set up and sometimes passes tips her way. There’s a lot of research involved, which law school prepared her for. There’s a lot of down time, which she spends almost entirely on the internet, pretending to be other than she is and editing Wikipedia articles on anatomy. She thought about suicide at first, but thinking about the ways she couldn’t kill herself horrified her so much she has since decided to live. (She doesn’t question the logic; don’t do it for her.)

In the skeleton forest, she is pretending to be dead. It’s something she’s trying for her latest case. She didn’t realize she was fidgeting, although she sure was bored.

You don’t swoon so much as sit down abruptly. You don’t think that should count as a faint, but it’s a weekday anyway (you have flexible hours) so no one is around to see you.

No one except the skeleton crouching in front of you, that is. He—she?—leans back a little, dips his—her—head as if avoiding your eyes. Now that you look a little closer you see this one is only mostly a skeleton; are those arteries? Sinews?

“Sorry,” she says. She—definitely she—stands and backs away.

“Holy shit,” you say.

Silence. The skeleton raises a hand toward her head, drops it, crosses her arms.

“Who are you?” you ask. Not one of the articles you’ve read about skeleton forests mentioned live skeletons. The state park website you looked up directions on mentioned ticks and carry-out policies and lightning safety, but definitely not live skeletons. Perhaps there are fumes in this forest—degrading bodies. Perhaps you are hallucinating.

“Um,” says the skeleton. Her voice is thin, a little hollow. It sounds strange and inhuman at the moment, but if you heard it on the phone it probably wouldn’t faze you. The skeleton hesitates and then walks away. After a few steps she stops and looks back at you, arms still crossed, shoulders tipped forward. Hunched.

You are still sitting in the slightly damp grass. You think about standing, but your legs assure you they’re not even remotely up for that yet.

“I’m Jamie,” she says. She says it so simply that for a frozen, horrified moment, you feel as if every skeleton around you, big and small, is suddenly going to wake up and start stretching and introducing themselves and complaining about the damp. Silence, while you wait for the sound of scraping bones. Silence, while you wait for cold fingers to grab you from behind.

“Jared,” you say finally, when your heartbeats have proven to be the only sound for long enough. “I’m Jared,” you say again, as if it weren’t clear the first time, and then you say it one more time for safety, to prove you’re in sound mind for the moment, at least: “My name is Jared.”

“Well—” the skeleton says. “Okay. I’m going to get my hat.”

Jamie doesn’t solve murders or track down missing children. She usually works with husbands and wives wondering what their wives and husbands are up to. Sometimes she helps determine if a teen has a secret boyfriend or a drug addiction. Once she helped a man reclaim a stolen cello, and twice she has found birth mothers. She doesn’t make much money or much of a difference in the world, but she doesn’t feel the need to.

Her latest case is more interesting than usual: The target is a man named Paul Sheeri, either dead (murdered) or dead (suicide) or dead (accident) or, possibly, gone off somewhere secretly (Canada? Albany?). Her client is Paul’s friend Angela—not family, not a spouse, just a friend—who, over Skype, had appeared both worried and angry about being worried, not sure if Paul’s disappearance was a tragedy or another example of “his usual selfishness.”

“Are the two of you a couple?” Jamie had asked gently, careful to use the present tense.

Angela had narrowed her eyes, peering at her screen. Jamie Skyped with clients in near-total darkness; she made sure they could see a hint of her hat, a hint of the perfectly ordinary room behind her. She pretended it was a problem with the camera. “We were best friends,” Angela said harshly, as if Jamie had profaned their relationship. Jamie apologized. The room behind Angela was pristine, carelessly chic.

Paul’s family didn’t know where he was, Angela had told her. They didn’t like her. They thought she was overreacting.

Paul had always liked the Montrose Skeleton Forest, Angela had told her. It was the only place he ever went without her besides the grocery store and the laundromat.

After the call Jamie looked at the facts as she saw them. The facts were these: Paul was twenty-eight years old. He lived alone, worked from home, “depended” on Angela for “literally any social activity,” and had been out of contact for almost a month. (Twenty-four days.) Jamie had typed a “W” whenever she thought Angela sounded genuinely worried and a “P” when she sounded practiced; there were an equal number.

Quote: He’s usually totally reliable. He’s always where he’s supposed to be.

Quote: He doesn’t know anybody.

Jamie had typed in a heart and a question mark, whatever Angela might say about their being a couple.

“I’ll call you if I find anything,” Jamie had told Angela, “or on Thursday. Whichever comes first.”

You’ve never had a conversation with a skeleton before. You don’t really know where to look. The fedora helps.

In your backpack you have three Nature Valley bars and a bottle of Gatorade. You’re sitting at a picnic table near a sign that reminds visitors not to leave any trash behind. There is goose shit all over the grass and you noticed that Jamie avoided it just as assiduously as you did on the walk over.

“So you were pretending to be a skeleton when I walked up?” you ask. It’s a poorly phrased question.

“I was pretending to be one of those skeletons.”

There aren’t many questions that won’t come off as rude, but luckily, Jamie is a talker; the words whistle out of her nonstop. Growing up in Benton, law school, Chicago. The way it feels to look at her own bones. Detective work. Knowing that when she does die, there will be almost no difference. She tells you about her latest case, client confidentiality be damned.

“Would you like a granola bar?” you ask automatically as you grab one for yourself.

“No,” she says, and you are impressed at how little contempt is in her voice. You have never felt so awkward before, so uncouth, as if having flesh is a faux pas.

The sound of your crunching is deafening.

This is Jamie’s plan: She totes a plastic trash bag out to the edge of the skeleton forest, stuffs her coat and gloves in it and gently tucks her hat in after, and stows it in some brush. Then she picks a likely spot, stands in it, and…stays. The idea is that if Paul comes she will watch him, look for clues, maybe follow him home. She is vaguely aware that this is not the most efficient plan, but it doesn’t matter; being who she is, how she is, what she is, has to help with something.

It’s not uncomfortable. She doesn’t get muscle aches anymore; her feet don’t hurt. It is, however, extremely dull. Jamie likes to think she has a disciplined mind—she went to law school, after all, and if you can make it through that—but she’s naturally restless, and when she has to think about keeping still, it takes half her mind to do it.

It’s clear to Jamie that love is involved with this case somehow. It’s the way Angela talked about Paul—always trying to rein herself in. Jamie has a decent amount of experience with love, as much as any twenty-nine year old can hope to have. She’s had boyfriends, one-night stands, unrequited crushes and unwanted admirers; she’s never been (and never will be) married, but—she reasons—most of her law school friends aren’t married either, according to Facebook. She’s still current in the field, so to speak, for a little while longer. Angela and Paul certainly aren’t married.

When she thinks of Paul, her mind goes where it always goes now with men, any man, to a fantasy of meeting him and him falling in love with her. In this case he is blind and falls in love with her voice, but his love is doomed, because she won’t ever let him touch her. Not ever. At first it’s nice to have company but then it gets old, his constant desire for more, and she pictures herself having to break it off with him, his devastation, his desolation. She can’t help these imaginings; it’s not arrogance, especially not now, when she knows exactly where things stand with herself. It’s just morbid, really, like the way she sets up fake dating profiles when she’s bored; the way she sends a real picture of herself when men ask, and then passes it off as a tasteless joke. Morbid like how she brushed her leg intentionally against the leg of a tall skeleton as she walked in this morning, pretended the scrape of bone was electric, ran a finger down a forearm and clicked their teeth together. It’s amazing how different a kiss is, without softness.

This isn’t helping. She has to think about the case.

Paul’s disappearance, according to Angela, is oddly unexciting; he’s not even behind on work yet because his projects are long term. No blood, no guts, no trauma— Jamie is reminded, in fact, of herself. But it’s Angela Jamie keeps getting stuck on—it’s the fact that Angela contacted her, and not a girlfriend or a sibling or a parent.

All day people mill about Jamie, looking at the skeletons, taking pictures, their behavior halfway between zoo-goers and museum tourists. Their voices hush at random and then cycle back up to outdoor levels; they reach out to touch cold and sun-warmed bone with just the tip of one finger, the way children touch snakes after animal trainers insist they’re not slimy. They carry backpacks full of sandwiches and trail mix and bottled iced tea and take pictures quickly. The smallest skeletons get photographed the most—them, and the famous conjoined twins, a special attraction of the Montrose forest. A few pictures have Jamie in them, and it amuses her that they’ll never know the difference.

It’s not easy to get here: The closest parking lot is two miles away, where the regular forest hits the river. It takes a while, so most people make an afternoon of it, picnicking, speculating about who this or that skeleton might have been, reading all the informational signs around the perimeter. If Jamie listens for it she can hear the bitten-off shrieks when first-time visitors catch their first glimpse of a skull.

At sunset, when the forest closes to visitors, Jamie has seen no sign of Paul. She gives up. She goes home. She comes back the next day and fidgets.

You look at the pictures Jamie shows you: one of Paul and Angela, maybe mid-twenties, summer, relaxed, at a cookout; one of Paul in a cubicle, turning back toward the photographer half-smiling; one group picture Paul was clearly not happy to be a part of, his left arm visibly hovering an inch above the shoulder of the girl next to him rather than casually slung across it. Angela is at the other end of the group, wearing bright yellow leggings and red lipstick. She looks, quite frankly, more than a little drunk.

“No,” you admit. “They don’t look familiar. I mean, I don’t get out a lot, so that doesn’t mean anything. But I don’t recognize either one of them.”

“That’s okay,” Jamie tells you, but you still feel bad; you want to add something. Suddenly it occurs to you that maybe you can.

“Are these the only pictures she sent you?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well—I’m sure you noticed—I mean probably you noticed—but these all seem like—you know, public pictures. Not personal.”

Jamie looks at her phone. “Wow,” she says. “You’re right.”

Jamie sometimes wonders if her body fell apart because it had nothing to hold on to. She was done with law school; her new job was uninspiring; her friends had scattered across America’s major cities and disappeared into high-rise offices. Her mind knows that she was a fairly accomplished young woman, knows that if people became skeletons because they were unfulfilled it would be a much more widespread phenomenon. But she can’t shake the feeling. It was only six months after Greg had gotten engaged to someone else, and she’d finally had to let that go; her colleagues were still intimidating strangers; her parents were retired and perpetually cruising. Jamie had felt unmoored in a way she never had before.

She’s drifting into self-pity again, which doesn’t happen as often as it used to; maybe it’s the sheer fact of talking to another human, face to face, outside in the sunshine. She doesn’t want to solve this case; she wants to eat a damn granola bar.

But she can’t, of course, she can’t, so she looks at Jared where he sits across from her, looking at her, not quite the way one looks at a normal person but not categorically unlike either. She is a little embarrassed she didn’t think about the nature of the photos; she was so used to thinking about who Paul and Angela were that she ignored where they were.

And that changes everything, doesn’t it? Now she can see that Angela and Paul only happen to be in the cookout picture together; they are not posing as friends, but as consecutive patrons of the grill. It looks like an older picture, but still—hadn’t Angela said they’d been friends for years? Jamie had been so excited about the skeleton forest, about putting herself to use as more than fingers on a keyboard, hiding under a hat.

“Will you do me a favor?” Jamie asks Jared.

He looks wary and eager all at once. She feels a surge of affection for this skinny stranger who doesn’t hate her, doesn’t fear her. At least doesn’t fear her enough to run away. (For a moment she pictures him leaning in— “Anything,” he whispers, and takes her hand—but—no. She shudders at the thought of being touched, of her rough bony fingers under his pulsing ones, at the way the shrunken tendons that hug her bones would feel. She is disgusted on his behalf. She pushes all thoughts aside, all thoughts, every thought.)

“What kind of favor?” Jared asks.

You picture reconnaissance, or breaking in to someone’s apartment to steal a file. You want to do these things, and kick ass at them, and at the same time know that if either of these is the favor Jamie needs, the answer is no. You aren’t actually a detective or a spy. You can barely make it gracefully through your own front door; you would not make a good cat burglar.

“Will you be Paul? Just on the phone. Just for a minute. I just need an address.”

She sounds nervous. It makes you feel kind of cool, and you almost grin at her rakishly, but then she tilts her head up so that the hat doesn’t shadow her face and any desire to flirt dies instantly. Her skull is not quite—not only—a skull; but it’s wrong. It’s so wrong. You cough to hide a flash of disgust, and nod at her.

“Sure.”

(She’s used to this. She’s used to this. There’s no reason for this wave of self-pity; it’s crashed before, flooded her before, the water damage is still visible. Waves like this ought to flow right through her now.)

“His um, his credit card company—I have the number and the last four digits of his social. You just call and confirm that his new address is entered correctly. Okay?” She stares at the table. There are tiny twigs in all the gaps between the planks. She doesn’t look at Jared. There is nothing in her gaps.

“Okay. Why would it be entered incorrectly?”

She wants to scoff at that, doesn’t. “It wouldn’t. I just want to know if he’s moved.”

“Oh,” Jared says. “Right.”

He is clearly nervous making the call, but it comes off as distracted; either that or the employee he’s talking to doesn’t have the energy to flag suspicious behavior. Jamie writes down the address. She stands up.

“I’m going to go see him,” she says, as if this is something she normally does. She never sees anyone; when contact is needed she hires people through Craigslist.

“Good luck,” Jared says, standing also. “I should head out, too.”

Jamie realizes that if they leave at the same time they will have to walk the two miles to the parking lot together, but she’s had enough interaction for the day. She doesn’t want him to watch her walk. She doesn’t want to follow him. She doesn’t want to keep thinking about who she isn’t.

“Oh,” she says. “Actually, I’ve got to look something up first. It was nice meeting you.” She doesn’t hold out a hand to shake, obviously, but the gesture feels distinctly missing.

“You too,” Jared says, and sounds sincere. “I hope you figure it out.”

He walks away. Jamie sits down and plays with her phone, giving him a head start. He never gave his last name, but she looks it up based on his college t-shirt. He’s on Facebook and two online dating sites, although his profile looks dusty and half-hearted. She doesn’t friend him or anything. After fifteen minutes, she leaves.

The farther you get down the trail towards your car, the deeper your sense of vertigo – after a while your steps slow to a crawl, unsure of the ground they’re walking on. Was this morning real? Did all this happen? You start with the wild explanations: You were in a car crash this morning, and this is a coma dream; Jamie is a hologram; your life is The Truman Show. You have the vague impression that you can walk through solid objects now.

Eventually you reach your car, and climb in it, and turn the ignition. You make it about a quarter mile before you realize you’re literally not seeing the road in front of you. You might as well just pull over.

After ten minutes of trying to suppress the new twitching in your left eye, a car passes you—a little maroon Taurus—and all you see is a hat. You’re following its left turn before you’ve even realized you’re back on the road.

Jamie knocks on the door and feels, mentally, that she is about to throw up. She has put on her gloves and buckled her trench coat; her hat is pulled low. The door opens.

“Jamie Pierce,” she says, professional, holding out a business card she ordered on Vistaprint. “Private Detective.”

The hallway is windowless and fairly dark; it takes Jamie a moment to realize that a woman has answered the door. “What can I do for you?” the woman asks, polite, wary. The chain is still fastened.

Jamie takes a tiny, necessary step back away from the light of the apartment. “Paul,” she manages. “Is Paul here?”

The woman looks at her, or tries to; Jamie tips her head low and stares at the ground.

“Is there a problem?” the woman asks. “Who sent you?”

Jamie feels as if her bones are finally collapsing the way they always should have. She tips her head even lower, unnaturally low, petrified that she will be seen; oh, it was different in the skeleton forest—she was normal there, almost, she had numbers on her side; Jared was the oddity there, Jared was the freak. Jamie knows the woman will scream when she glimpses Jamie, will threaten to call the police; Jamie cannot bear the anticipation of the slamming door. Her back hits the wall of the hallway and she presses against it.

“Everything okay, sweetheart?” she hears from inside, a man’s voice.

The woman half-turns, hands over the card.

“I’ll take care of this. Just give me a minute.” The sound of a kiss, the sliding of the chain, and then Paul is in the hallway with her, shutting the door behind him.

“What do you want?” Paul asks.

“What are you doing here?” Jamie counters, shooting the words out like she’s been choking on them.

Paul ignores the question. “Listen, you have about ten seconds to explain yourself before I call the cops.” He takes out his cell phone to ground the threat.

“Angela,” Jamie whispers. She has to pull herself together; for Christ’s sake, she has to pull herself together. She stands up a little straighter, tilts her head up a fraction.

“I was hired to find you,” she says, more normally. She can do this. She’s found him; he’s clearly alive; she can leave at any time. If things get dicey. She wants answers but not that bad, not bad enough to have her mug shot in the newspaper.

Paul runs a hand through his hair. “By Angela. Jesus.” He looks like he wants to punch the wall, but doesn’t; he takes a deep breath instead.

“She thinks you’re missing or dead.” Jamie thinks she is starting to understand: Paul is missing only to Angela. He’s dead only to Angela. “I’m starting to get the sense,” Jamie says, trying to sound like Humphrey Bogart, “that you don’t want to be found.”

Paul shakes his head. “Not by her. Listen, I don’t know what she told you—but we’re not anything. We haven’t been friends in a long time.”

Jamie phrases it carefully. “She seems to worry about you.”

“She doesn’t fucking worry about anybody but herself. She’s… Jesus. She’s like a tick that won’t let go.”

Paul suddenly drops to a crouch, and Jamie is thankful she’s wearing galoshes. He buries his face in his hands, hums a sound of frustration. After a moment he stands again.

“I’m trying to make a clean break,” he tells Jamie. “I don’t care what you say to her. I don’t care what you tell her. But please, please don’t give her this address.” He flicks the business card at her and goes back inside. The chain and the deadbolt click a moment later.

You’re waiting in the parking lot, trying to look normal. You’re trying so hard to look normal that you almost miss her coming out; but then it’s back to tailing her, left, right, left, right. She pulls into a strip mall.

You’ve barely parked when she’s at your door, holding a closed umbrella like a weapon.

“Jared? What the hell? Why are you following me?”

Good question. You hadn’t really thought about it; you’d been running on instinct, on the preservation of your sanity by proving your insanity was real. And it is, isn’t it? You have to acknowledge, now, that Jamie is real, and your conversation with her was real, and she is really a detective working on a case. And with that you realize you actually care.

“I just… wanted to know how things turned out,” you say. “With Paul and Angela.”

She hesitates for a few seconds. The umbrella lowers slightly.

“Well,” she says. “I just talked to him.”

“And?”

“Well, his girlfriend opened the door, first of all.”

“Really? Did she—” You pause. You are sitting in your car with the window rolled down; Jamie is standing outside of it with a pointy umbrella. Your stomach rumbles.

“Hey,” you say. “Actually, do you mind if I grab some lunch and we talk about this somewhere else? Maybe at East Park?”

“…Sure,” Jamie says, as if she is agreeing to be shot. “Sure,” she says again, a little more enthusiastically.

“Okay. Let me just run in. Do you—want anything?”

Jamie rests the tip of the umbrella on the ground. She looks like the coolest supervillain you ever saw.

“I guess I’ll take a Vitamin Water,” she says.

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“Okay,” you say. “I’ll be right back.”

They’re seated at another picnic table, this one covered in obscene permanent-marker conversations. “You’ll have to help me figure out what to say to Angela,” Jamie says.

“First tell me what happened!”

“I know. I’m just saying, keep that in mind.”

“Got it. Does Paul have a secret love child? Is that it?” Jared leans forward, two hands on his sandwich, eyes on her.

Jamie can’t smile. Smiling doesn’t happen in the bones.

But all the same.

Katherine Kendig lives in Champaign, Illinois, with her husband, her novel-in-progress, and an insatiable desire for brownies. Her work has received awards from Dartmouth College and the University of Illinois and has been featured in The Cincinnati Review and on PodCastle.

 

4700 words, published May 2018, Shimmer 43

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