Before I steal his flesh, I weave my dark hair into a neat braid and tie it with my favourite yellow ribbon. Then I study the monster in the cracked mirror: her brain-stuffed skull, swivelling eyeballs with chocolate brown irises and bone white skeleton. As she breathes, her ribcage lifts and falls, her papery lungs expanding and deflating. The yellow-white fatty streaks glisten on her beating heart, and her pale intestines shift and twitch.
“This time tomorrow,” I tell her. “You won’t be vital organs encased in death. You’ll be alive again, a proper sixteen year old, not a skeleton freak. No more spells. No more stealing from fresh corpses. You can step through the black gates and leave here forever.”
Spirits soaring, I pick up the heavy spell book and place it back beside the silver dagger in Nana Bee’s empty sarcophagus. But then I picture the boy’s ashen face, half peeled, blood-soaked, and guilt lodges like a sharp bone in my throat. I cough it away, then slide my metatarsals into battered trainers, grab the jagged rock from beside the waxy candlestick and creak open the mausoleum door. I step out into the sun-streaked morning and follow the narrow dirt path.
I bend to trace the swirly writing on the boy’s parents’ gravestones.
“Rebecca and Stephen Harrison,” I whisper. “Gone but not forgotten.”
Will they bury his fleshless bones here? What will they carve on his headstone?
Silence settles, dense as an ocean, over the mossy graves. I grip the rock and glance at the spot where the boy sits every weekend, reading or texting or listening to music, his navy rucksack spilling bread and cheese, or crackers and Marmite, a carton of apple juice, chocolate, crisps. Maybe peeling him alive would be easier if he wasn’t weird, like me. If he didn’t bring that skull with him. If he didn’t always talk to it.
I wander over to the giant sycamore tree and park my sitting bones on the long grass. Then I lie back, longing for the tickle of the blades on my skin and the gentle breeze kissing my cheeks. I rest the rock on my breastbone, and the boy’s image ripples, wraith-like, above me. His blonde hair shimmers, his flesh melting away, his eyeballs popping out, and blood streaming off his bones and rotting innards. I gulp and sit up. I draw a smiley face with a twig. I chew on the tips of my hand phalanges.
"You'll find him under the school," Erin says. "If you dare to look."
"Who?" I ask, with my heart half in it.
"The prince," she whispers. My pale sister, blue eyes glittering, red lips so alive. She buzzes as if she has bee wings on her back. She's sweet and shivering, perched on her tiptoes all the time, like she's just about to zip off and make honey.
I laugh and trudge on by, leaving her standing by my locker, fluttering, her lips pouted childishly. I drag myself to the science labs, and I don't look back. I don't want to give her the attention she is after. When she says stuff like that- and she often does- I roll my eyes, laugh and then try to put it out of my head as best I can.
The next time Don's really, truly awake again, it's in the early hours of the next morning. He must have been out for the whole day.
He supposes he'd walked back to the hotel, but he doesn't remember. He can sketchily recall, though, stepping into the lobby and being hit by a sudden crippling wave of exhaustion despite the few hours of sleep he'd gotten, stumbling into the lift while the television buzzed loudly with the report of a gang shoot-out on the bayou
He pops out into the dark and silent corridor and buys a few packets from the closest vending machine. His first thought, when he enters his room again and looks over the small amount of luggage that has somehow managed to fling itself everywhere, is that there's no reason to stay anymore.
It takes a long time to pack. It doesn't have to, but Don finds himself putting things in then taking them out again, refolding and rearranging. It almost feels like reluctance.
He wonders if it's all another dream. If what he heard and saw was nothing more than one last flashing nightly vision. If everything will go back to normal once the daylight comes again.
He makes it to the bayou in less than half an hour. The run is done on rote.
There's not even a moment of doubt before he spies the glow on the waterfront, a few hundred yards from where the St John's University back gates open out. He twists his arm to see his watch, and subtracts the hour he's still yet to set.
In the distance, he hears the first beat of a drum. It's deep, resonating, pounding in a steady rhythm that matches the rush of blood in his ears. But it's not loud, not very. It probably can't be, in an urban area like this. A chant starts up, sibilant and undulating, though he can't make out the words.