Skeletons in the Street
Jessica Dylan Miele
The night the marching starts, I am in the corner of my daughter’s bedroom, guarding her sleep. LuLu, my eldest child, is a junior in high school and she is pregnant. Her body wrestles the tangled sheets; her melon belly plays a game of peek-a-boo; she breathes heavily. Is the air-conditioning cold enough? It’s on the coldest setting but it’s still not enough. I long for a cuddle from LuLu, to wipe clean the nasty things we’ve been saying to each other, but even in her sleep my arms are too warm.
My younger children, Marco and Gabi, scramble into the room. “There are skeletons in the street,” they tell me with wild eyes. “Hundreds of them.”
“Let your sister sleep,” I warn. I unglue myself from LuLu’s reading chair, and hold out my hands. Gabi takes one and Marco Velcros himself around my thigh. As we plod down the stairs, I hear the strange, dull, rattling sound from outside.
Dry, desert waves waft in as I open the door, my son burrowing his face into my hip. Distracted by the idea of wasting my precious AC, it’s difficult at first for my eyes to make sense of the skinny throng of figures moving slowly, so slowly, past our house. How white the bones are, stark underneath the buzzing street lamps.
On the other side of the street, doors open and curtains peel back; lights snap on, shaded by the outlines of neighbors’ watchful silhouettes. The skeletons keep coming, spines straight, heads at different heights but all foreheads tip slightly towards the starless, light-polluted sky. Some have ribs missing, gaping jaws unhinged, arms swinging absentee finger bones. An army of bones marching, in imperfect rows of sixes and sevens, countless more around the corner.
My Gabi, still pure hearted and unwary at seven years old, floats to the porch and sits crisscross applesauce, chin resting on her fists as if enjoying the Parade of Lights. Soon Marco sits beside her, fingers in his mouth, looking over his shoulder to make sure I’m still there before turning back to watch.
More than anything, it’s the sound of bones knocking together that unsettles me. Like dentures clacking for a meal they can no longer bite.
I brace myself for the Bernals from next door, Carmen with her wide-eyed gossip and sweaty, rolling pin arms, and Ed with his impossible advice hanging from drunk, rubbery lips. But it’s just us, for now, with no one to explain nor distract us from what we cannot unsee. I think to call my ex-husband in San Diego, if only to hear his voice reach low into his bank of love and reassurance, a rare pleasure I’m given only in times of crisis—although, if we are in a real state of crisis, I don’t know it just yet.
“What’s going on? Why’s everybody awake?”
LuLu appears, her black hair a spider web mess, her tiny tank top shamelessly rising over her stomach. In the crook of her arm, she cradles a bag of chips and the Tupperware container of my seven-layer dip. The dip is for our meeting scheduled the next day, which LuLu had arranged. She catches sight of the marching, and drops the chips.
It isn’t long before I’m squeezing lemons for a fresh batch of lemonade, and turning on the stove to make chicken sausages for LuLu while we watch the dead pass by. LuLu doesn’t particularly like chicken sausages, but I craved them while pregnant with all three of my children, and so I make them again now.
There is no end to the skeleton march.
“Where are they going?” asks Marco.
“Aren’t they tired?” asks Gabi.
With no answers to give them, I bring out more food. Fresh green grapes, giant dill pickles, Saltine crackers spread with chunky peanut butter and strawberry jelly. The children ask more questions, and I scrounge around the kitchen for good things to eat. No matter what I serve, it is flavored with dust that not even lemonade can wash away. When there are only a few hours left until daylight, I usher my children back into our refrigerated house, and we fall asleep in a heap on the couch, like dogs.
In the morning underneath the white sun’s rays, the skeletons have lost their intrigue. I can’t stand to look at them, with their sightless eye sockets and unhurried pace, tramping by without letting on what they want, or when they will stop. It’s not just our street, according to the internet. It’s all of Arizona, and parts of California, too, and they are marching deeper into the country.
School is canceled, but my job at the nearby library is still open. Patsy, my supervisor, calls to tell me that because driving is strictly prohibited, I can stay home for the day if I choose. “I’ll be there,” I say. Missing work makes me anxious.
“It’s a casual day,” says Patsy. “Feel free to wear shorts if you’d like. Provided that the shorts aren’t too short, of course.”
Even after slathering on sunscreen, the sun hurts my shoulders and so I bring along my umbrella to shield me from the harmful rays. LuLu is quick to say that I look ridiculous, especially because my umbrella is black, but I only have the one. If need be, I can use the umbrella as a weapon, but the skeletons ignore me; when there is no sidewalk and I’m forced to walk among them, they keep pace, as if I don’t exist.
The library is more crowded than usual. People want sound explanations for what’s happening, and it breaks my heart because what can I give them? The news is not enough. There are no books on the subject; no articles have been written yet that can satisfy; Google offers conspiracy conjecture.
“When is this going to end?”
“How am I supposed to get to the airport?”
“What’s the president saying?”
“What are we supposed to do?”
“Can’t you give us anything? What in the goddamn are we paying you for?”
When reports are confirmed that the skeletons are coming from Mexico, everybody gets even more riled up. Suddenly, it’s a thing about how brown my skin is, and how I pronounce the r in my name. The families that have been coming to see me for years stare as if they don’t recognize me, and suddenly I am naked, my skin peeled away, my breasts shriveled, my blood turned to rust, my voice box, my flesh, my muscles, my lungs, all boiled away. It’s not that they can’t see that I’m trying to brave a smile in spite of everything, it’s that they don’t like the look of my teeth, nor the blackness of my eyes. I’m a ninth generation American with an ass that rivals Wasson Peak, and in a heartbeat I have been turned into bones.
On my way back home, I step on a faded piece of paper. It’s a drawing that has been folded and unfolded many times, of a yellow sun, blue, curly-cue clouds, and a green, smiling man with a belly larger than the sun. The man is holding onto something that looks like a large bouquet of hearts. The ghosts of my library patrons peer over my shoulder, demanding answers. Whose hearts are those? Where did a man like that get all those hearts? I refold the paper and place it back onto the street.
Then it’s time to meet Byron, Lord Byron, the boy responsible for giving my beautiful daughter a maternal condition. The babysitter calls to cancel, on account of how difficult it is to get around, and also because I don’t pay enough to make it worth her while. The babysitter didn’t tell me that last part, but I figure as much. LuLu is surprisingly insistent that we keep our commitment to her boy, even if it means bringing Gabi and Marco.
“It’ll be fun,” she says, singing a little song as she rolls a fresh coat of hot pink lipstick onto her pouty lips.
“My feet hurt,” I say.
“A little exercise does a body good,” says LuLu. The dry skin on her round, baby cheeks cracks a little underneath her makeup as she smiles.
“I already got enough exercise today,” I grumble.
LuLu sours, hands on her hips. “Please don’t embarrass me,” she says.
Lord Byron’s house has so many steps that it is as if we have to climb a mountain from the valley of death, only to enter a house that is not nearly as cold nor as decorated as the place I’m lucky enough to call home. When I remove my sandals, Lord Byron’s mother makes a point to gush over the mint green color of my toenails.
Lord Byron isn’t as good-looking as I expected. He’s nineteen, although LuLu has been desperately trying to make me believe that he is seventeen. Small blue eyes nestled close together and short, spiky blonde hair, a divot in his chin that reminds me of a puncture wound. Tall and broad-shouldered with the type of body that has spent hours grunting in the gym, but doing little else. When he comes at me for a hug, I give his back a quick, firm pat.
Mostly, I don’t like the way LuLu tries in front of him, tries like a beggar asking for a drop of water to parch her dry throat, when actually it should be the other way around. Does no one but me understand what LuLu is capable of? She has a star inside of her that is only beginning to shine, and I don’t mean just the baby.
“Are you going to offer us something to drink?” asks Gabi. “It was a long walk over here, and kind of weird. We like lemonade, that’s what Mommy always makes.”
Polite laughter from Lord Byron and his parents.
Outside the window, the skeletons march on. They are mentioned, just as the weather is mentioned. We also chat about what is happening in Florida. Cartoons are put on for Gabi and Marco, and maybe for all of us to lighten the mood. LuLu sits beside me on the rose-patterned couch, our knees touching, but she might as well be lying on the coffee table, her legs spread with arrows pointing to what we’re all thinking about.
“We’re going to be a family,” says Lord Byron’s mother. She sips her diet cola from a straw.
“Families take care of each other,” says Lord Byron’s father.
“I don’t need anyone to take care of me,” says LuLu, looking down at her hands.
“Sometimes I still wet the bed,” says Marco. He doesn’t take his eyes off the television screen. “LuLu helps me change the sheets, and it doesn’t make her mad.”
We leave just as the sky turns a radioactive pink. The baby is still coming, but we have made little progress. Back on the street once again, LuLu and I break out into a fight, so relieved are we to stop posturing. When there isn’t a sidewalk, we weave in and out of the moving, sexless bones, some of the skeletons as tall as my ex-husband, others as short as my knee. The smell isn’t something I can get used to—it’s a smell of stale death, like old road kill that has lost its tang.
Marco and Gabi want to run ahead, but I keep them at my side, my hands tight around their wrists.
When LuLu falls into one of the skeletons, it keeps stepping until my daughter rights herself and flits out of its way. I’m so very, very tired. Too tired to hold back all the things I’ve been thinking but know it’s useless to voice out loud.
“You don’t trust me!” LuLu shouts. “You think I won’t be a good mother, but I will! I’ll be the best mother. I’ll be better than you!”
“You’re not a mother yet!” I shout back. “You think having unprotected sex makes you a mother? You can’t even take care of yourself. How could I possibly have faith that a little girl like you could take care of another living, breathing, helpless child?”
“You have to,” says LuLu. She starts to sob. “You have to, Mommy.”
I try to go to her then, try to embrace her growing body, try to wipe away her tears, and plant a kiss in the middle of her forehead, where she best likes to be kissed. But as I open my arms, two skeletons knock into her, jostling her into another skeleton, and another, and another.
I grab her hand, the same as if I were pulling her out of a river, and lead my children to safety on someone’s yellowed lawn. It’s another thirteen blocks until we are home, and I don’t know how we will possibly make it. My feet burn.
Still crying, LuLu picks up a rock and hurls it at the walkers. “Go away!” she screams. “Go back to where you came from! We can’t help you! We’ve got nothing for you!” She cries so hard, she struggles to breathe.
Behind us, porch lights blink on, and I have the distinct feeling that my children and I are being watched. Knowing the right thing to do is to remove myself from this person’s private property, I remain where I am, stroking Lulu’s hair as she struggles to calm herself. I close my eyes, and feel my son place his head on my chest, and Gabi curl up against my side. It won’t be too long before I’m on my feet again, guiding my children home. But for now, I stay where I am, just until I’ve had a little rest.
About the Author: Jessica Dylan Miele is a writer and librarian living in Portland, Oregon. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines including Quail Bell, Coming Together, Splickety Love, and Gingerbread House. Her short story was also featured on Short Stories Podcast. You can find her online at JessicaReads.com.