A longer story this time, for the long-form contest held bi-monthly at SFF World. Given that it was for September-October and the theme was “skeletons in the closet,” the approach I went with here shouldn’t be all that surprising. It was an idea that popped into my head the second I read the theme. I was going for a sort of Charles Addams meets Neil Gaiman feel here, although I doubt I came anywhere near those two masters. Still, it was fun to give it a go.
Of all the things he disliked, from the fat, greedy rats behind the pantry to that damp, moldy smell behind the third floor guest bathroom that hadn’t diminished in twenty years, Firstlake most disliked being late to meet a new arrival to Grummidge Hall. But Rumblebelly had him cornered and seemed completely oblivious to the agitated glances Firstlake kept throwing over his shoulder.
“Someone’s got to have a word with him,” Rumblebelly was insisting. “It’s bad enough with all of us cramped up in here like this, but Choke is just making things downright intolerable.”
“I’ve told you, I’ll speak to him,” Firstlake said, turning to sidle past Rumblebelly in the tight space.
“Yes, but when?” Rumblebelly persisted, blocking his path. “You’ve been saying that for weeks now.”
“You’ve seen how busy I’ve been,” Firstlake said wearily. “With old Lord Grummidge on his deathbed, the whole family is jostling for the best spots in the will. We had three newcomers just last week!”
“And it’s just a matter of time before Choke gets his hooks into them.”
“Well, unless you want him to get to today’s arrival before I do, you’ll have to excuse me,” Firstlake snapped.
Rumblebelly stepped aside with a scowl. “All right, but don’t think I’m going to let this go.”
“I’m completely certain you won’t,” Firstlake said, ignoring Rumblebelly’s affronted sputter as he hurried off. His charge would be arriving any moment now, likely equal parts confused, scared, and overwhelmed. Having gone through the same experience with no one to guide him, Firstlake was loathe to leave anyone alone in similar circumstance for long.
Firstlake had to twist and dodge through the crowded passageways as he walked. Some he passed gave friendly nods or waves, some just kept their heads down, lost in their thoughts. They’d steadily grown in number over the years, and Firstlake did his best to keep things running smoothly. While most appreciated his efforts, there remained a handful who believed they were best left to their own devices, Choke chief among them. Despite his earlier shortness with him, Rumblebelly’s concerns were well-founded.
The sight of a tangle of corroded pipes roused Firstlake from his thoughts; he was close to the family bath on the top floor of the manor. As often as he’d met new arrivals here, one would think none of the family would even go in there anymore. But if he’d learned anything in all his years of service, it was that the Grummidges were nothing if not stubborn. He wouldn’t be surprised if he was back in this same spot in a week’s time.
He heard a small whimper, and ahead in the dim light he saw her, hands clutched close to her chest as her head darted to and fro, trying to take in everything around her. She was nearly as tall as Firstlake, a sight which always filled him with some small relief; he was never glad when circumstances demanded that a child join them. This stretch of hall was empty aside from her and Firstlake, another blessing. This would be difficult enough without a crowd of curious onlookers.
He approached cautiously, his hands held up before him in as nonthreatening a manner as he could manage. “Hello,” he said cheerfully, bracing for the shocked reaction his appearance would no doubt instill.
To her credit, the newcomer simply turned her gaze to him and stared, taking a small step backward. “Who … who are you?” she said in a small, strained voice.
“My name is Firstlake,” he said, stepping closer. He tried to give his face as pleasant an expression as he could without smiling. He knew some newcomers often found his grin a touch unsettling. “I’m here to help you.”
She lowered her hands slowly. “You look like me.”
She’s a quick one, he thought. A direct approach seemed best. “Yes, I’m a skeleton like you. The closets here are simply filled with us.”
“You’ll need a name,” Firstlake said, leading her through a shroud of cobwebs he’d brushed aside with his bony hand.
“I … I don’t remember what my name was,” she replied, her head swiveling to take in all the other passing skeletons.
“Ah, like I said, that wasn’t actually you,” Firstlake said patiently. It had taken him quite some time to come to grips with the nature of his existence, without the benefit of a teacher. He felt no irritation when newcomers wrestled with the issue. “You’re simply the skeletal manifestation of the final moments of that person’s life. That’s why the only thing you can remember is how they died.”
“So I wasn’t actually drowned in a bathtub?”
“No, you were merely created by that act. And since that’s the moment of our birth, so to speak, it’s how we choose to name ourselves. For instance, I was born when the first Lord Grummidge was thrown into the nearby lake in a burlap sack. First lord, lake, Firstlake.” It hadn’t been his first choice, of course, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to like the sound of “Lakesack” or “Lorddrown.” Besides, being the first skeleton, he thought his name should reflect that fact. It had added a helpful air of authority when the others began to show up.
Her brows knitted in thought, a somewhat incongruous sight on a skull. Firstlake knew they weren’t proper skeletons, not in the strictest anatomical sense. Among his housemates were skeletons of all shapes and sizes, all impossibly walking around without a shred of muscle or nerve on them. But still, he found himself occasionally surprised by what they could manage. “I …” — she paused as Firstlake opened his mouth to correct her — “I mean, Felicity Grummidge was having a bath when someone came up from behind and held her under the water… Tubunder? Oh no, that sounds so very clumsy… How about Pushdown?”
Firstlake shook his head. “Already taken, I’m afraid. Percy and Peregrin Grummidge were each sealed in the walls near the conservatory. Peregrin managed to get out, only to be shoved down a flight of stairs by his uncle. And so Pushdown joined us.” On his arrival, Pushdown had made an awful row, begging Firstlake to free his twin, until Firstlake had finally made him understand that wasn’t actually his brother. And even if he were, they had no way of affecting the mortal realm in any way that would help him. Of course, none of that had kept Pushdown and Brickedup from becoming thick as thieves once Percy finally passed away.
“That’s awful!” his companion said, dodging a rather slender skeleton a good head taller than she was.
“The Grummidges aren’t exactly known for their sense of familial attachment. With all the wealth the family has amassed over the centuries, there’s always someone standing in the way of a larger inheritance. The Grummidges just tend to have fewer qualms than most about how they move up the ladder.”
“Obviously,” she said with a glance around her. Then her eyes widened. “Sleepybath! Is that all right?”
“You’re the one who has to spend the rest of your existence with it,” Firstlake said. “If you like it, that’s all that matters.”
“Sleepybath,” she repeated to herself. “Yes, I think that will do nicely.”
Firstlake stopped and turned towards her, extending his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Sleepybath.” She took his hand and he executed a respectful bow, ignoring the annoyed glances of the skeletons that were forced to skirt around her.
“And you as well, Mr. Firstlake.”
“Just Firstlake,” he said, resuming their walk. “No need to be so formal, especially given the current conditions.”
“Does everyone just wander about the halls like this?” she said.
“Oh, no. They’re all actually on their way somewhere. Everyone has their responsibilities. Some tend to the bats up in the attic. Some make sure the floorboards in the great hall creak in just the right way. In a mansion as old and storied as this one, there’s no shortage of things to do to maintain the proper atmosphere.”
“I suppose I’ll have a job then.”
He nodded. “Our new arrivals usually go on the spooky noise detail.” New skeletons tended to be enthusiastic haunters once they became accustomed to their condition, flush with enthusiastic glee at their new abilities.
“I keep it all running smoothly,” Firstlake said with a small trace of weariness. “Four hundred and ninety-eight skeletons need an awful lot of supervision. Well, four hundred and ninety-nine now,” he added with a nod in her direction.
“And one step closer to our doom!”
The rasping voice from behind stopped them both in their tracks. Firstlake turned to see a slender, bent skeleton standing there, his hands clasped in front of him. Other skeletons scurried away from him, like something had been spilled they were all afraid to step in. Their curiosity kept them from leaving altogether, but their apprehension kept them a safe distance away. The skeleton paid them no mind, his gaze fixed on Firstlake.
“Choke,” Firstlake said with as much casual bravado as he could muster. Bent over as he was, Choke wasn’t quite as tall as Firstlake. But a wave of palpable menace emanated from him that Firstlake had always found profoundly unsettling. It didn’t help that he’d chosen such a blunt and unpleasant name for himself, however appropriate it may have been.
“I don’t suppose you’ve told her about the Five Hundredth yet?” Choke said like the steam hissing from an angry pot. Sleepybath edged behind Firstlake as Choke leered forward. “Or is that not part of the tour?”
“Stay out of this, Choke,” Firstlake said sternly.
“What’s the Five Hundred?” Sleepybath asked.
“A myth,” Firstlake assured her.
“It’s not a myth,” Choke sneered. Then he recited in a voice that sounded disconcertingly like a bow drawn across a poorly-tuned cello:
Four hundred and ninety-nine
Is really quite a lot,
But add one more and thee and thine
Will surely be forgot.
Sleepybath looked at Firstlake. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“It’s nothing,” Firstlake said, his eyes on Choke. “Just a story to scare new skeletons.”
“Yes, keep telling yourself that,” Choke said. “You may be content to wait for the end, but I’m certainly not.”
“Firstlake, what is he talking about?” Sleepybath shifted nervously.
“What I’m talking about,” Choke interrupted, “is that when the number of skeletons in this house reaches five hundred, poof!” He spread his hands, and both Sleepybath and Firstlake stepped back. “We all vanish to make room for the next five hundred. Just as the last five hundred vanished to make room for us.”
“There hasn’t been that many generations of Grummidges!” Firstlake insisted.
Choke leveled a threatening finger at Firstlake. “Explain it away all you want. The Five Hundredth is coming. There’s just one skeleton to go. And since you refuse to do anything about it, I will.”
“And what exactly do you propose to do?” Firstlake said, brushing Choke’s finger aside.
Firstlake knew he and his fellow skeletons didn’t feel, not really. They retained vague recollections of the sensations experienced by those whose deaths’ they embodied, like echoes of voices heard long ago. And they avoided things that would cause pain or discomfort more from inherited instinct than from any real need to avoid harm. None of that prevented the sense of cold that crept over him. “Choke, you can’t. Believe me, you just can’t.”
Choke waved dismissively. “Forgive me if that doesn’t exactly persuade me otherwise.”
“No, Choke, listen to me –”
“No!” Choke shrieked, the sound of wind whistling through a barely-opened window. “We’ve listened to you long enough. Being first doesn’t make you right about everything. We’re leaving at midnight tomorrow. Then we’ll be done with these walls … and with you.”
Choke turned and stalked away, the crowd of skeletons parting before him. Some gave Firstlake apologetic looks and turned to follow. A few wore masks of defiance as they left in Choke’s wake. The rest simply stood in nervous silence.
Firstlake watched Choke’s departure and tried to still the rising sense of panic he felt. Sleepybath stood next to him, her eyes wide. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Firstlake said, a note of despair in his voice.
“Why not just let him go?” Sleepybath asked. “It seems we’d be better off without him.”
Firstlake found himself strangely comforted that she’d used “we.” At least someone was on his side. “He can’t go. He has to stay.”
“Why are you so determined to keep him around?”
“It’s not my choice. He won’t be able to.”
“How do you know?”
His gaze met the large black circles of her eyes. “Because I tried. And it nearly destroyed everything.”
“I spent the first few days huddled in a corner trying to make sense of it.” Firstlake had led them up to the attic. The other skeletons rarely came up here; none of them seemed to get along with the bats nearly as well as Firstlake did Maybe because he’d actually bothered to learn their names. Thteek had chittered nervously at Sleepybath until Firstlake had calmed him down.
“I can imagine,” Sleepybath said. “I don’t know what I would have done it you hadn’t come along.”
“Oh, one of the others would have found you. Tipsyswim tends to be quite maternal.” And, of course, Choke would have raced to be there first and win her over to his side. “I had no such option.” He paused at the memories. Of forlornly wandering the spaces between the walls. Of the day spent shouting and screaming trying to make the Grummidges hear him, only to have them take it as the noise from an upstairs window left open. And of the sensation of the water slowly seeping through the burlap, even though it hadn’t been him that had actually experienced it. He shook himself from his thoughts and saw Sleepybath watching him expectantly.
“After a week or so, I decided to try following the bats out one night. I’d watched them come and go, and thought why not go the same way? So I wriggled through the eaves and found the space beneath the overhang.” He closed his eyes. “We have no skin, but I swear I somehow felt the open air against my face. I saw a world without walls, that seemed to go on forever, and I thought of all the places I’d go, and the things I’d do. I reached a hand out into the night. And then…”
“What?” Sleepybath pressed when he didn’t speak for a few moments.
Firstlake opened his eyes again. “The whole mansion shook. And it felt like I was being pulled apart. I yanked my hand back in and it all stopped. But the crawlspace around me suddenly felt smaller. I poked one finger out, and the house began to rattle again, and the space tightened even more.
“I came back down, and the spaces between the walls felt more crowded. It was like I was being punished for trying to leave. I don’t think the Grummidges noticed. I certainly didn’t hear them mention anything about the shaking, or the rooms being smaller. No, it was just for me. Grummidge Hall wouldn’t let me leave.”
He shrugged. “It’s a bit embarrassing, but I went quite mad for a while. I turned into a most disagreeable house guest, making all manner of groaning and creaking. I don’t think they got a good night’s sleep for a month. If I was doomed to misery, they would be too. And I’d still be making them miserable if I hadn’t stumbled across Poisonpie.” That brought the trace of a smile. “I turned a corner near the parlor and there he was. We both jumped back at the sight of each other, unsure of what we were seeing. Then the words came flooding out of us, this mad rush of words, until we remembered how conversations actually worked. After that, we talked long into the night, saying nothing important, just enjoying the sound of another voice. It was in those talks that he and I pieced together what had happened to us, and why we were here. It’s amazing what another voice can do.
“Nooseneck showed up a week later, just as lost and scared and alone as I had been. I’m not sure how, but I just knew he was there. And since then, I’ve been there to greet the other four hundred and ninety-six skeletons. To let them know what they are. And that they’re not alone.” He glanced over to one dark corner of the attic. “And to make sure they know they can’t leave.”
Sleepybath had hugged her knees to her chest as she listened. It looked endearingly girlish on her. Firstlake supposed that Felicity Grummidge hadn’t been all that old herself. “So what will happen if Choke leaves?”
“I can only judge by my own experience, but I assume the space in which we exist would disappear, and that we would all be pulled apart.” He waved a hand. “Scattered into whatever ether it is that created us in the first place.”
“Which is what Choke says will happen when the Five Hundredth shows up.”
Firstlake nodded. “I suppose so. But he’s wrong. I can’t tell you why, but I just know he is. I feel it, well, in my bones.”
That drew a laugh from Sleepybath. She settled her chin on her knees, and reached out and took his hand. “So what will you do tomorrow night?”
“I’ll think of something,” he said, squeezing her hand and wishing he was a sure as he sounded.
It was nearly midnight the following night. Firstlake had asked Thteek to take the bats out. Too many skeletons were about to be in the attic for either side’s comfort.
He stood in the darkened corner. He could feel the draft from the crawlspace gently blowing past him. Or at least, he remembered what Old Lord Grummidge remembered of how a draft felt. After all these years, their strangely supernatural nature still sometimes managed to give him pause.
Sleepybath stood close by, and gave him a reassuring nod when he looked her way. He knew what he felt for her was just as much the emotional echoes of another person as the sensation of the wind. But who cared where the feelings came from? An illusion was as real as he chose to make it. And he wanted this to be very real.
He heard rattling footsteps, and the attic began to fill with skeletons. These wouldn’t be Choke’s band, not yet. He’d want to make a grand entrance with his followers in tow. No, these were the curious onlookers. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and as many skeletons as possible were going to jam in here to see it.
Rumblebelly approached him, with another skeleton who towered over Firstlake. “Are you sure you won’t reconsider?” Rumblebelly said. “Groundbury has been wanting to throttle Choke for months now.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Firstlake said. “But this needs to be done my way.”
Rumblebelly snorted. “And just what way is that?”
“One that doesn’t involve any throttling.”
“He doesn’t know,” Groundbury said in his low rumble.
Groundbury was right, of course, but no need to tell them that. “Just trust me.”
“All right,” Rumblebelly said, sounding less than convinced. “But we’ll be nearby should it come to it.” He and Groundbury stepped back to join the growing crowd.
Before long a murmuring din came from below, and then there was Choke at the head of a column of skeletons, exhorting them forward. Choke saw Firstlake standing in their way, and stopped his followers with a raised hand.
“Come to bid us farewell?” Choke wheezed with malicious delight.
“Choke, you have to listen to me.”
“You’re going to tell us everything will be just fine, right? That the Five Hundredth is nothing to worry about. With nothing more to back you up than your word.”
Firstlake looked around the attic. There wasn’t a face he didn’t know, despite those faces being nothing but stark white bone. He’d been there when they all arrived. He’d given them a place, and a purpose. Of course. It seemed so obvious now. “Yes,” he said. “With my word.”
Choke made ready to spit back a retort, but Firstlake pressed on. “Like my words with you, Brokeheart,’ he said, pointing to a skeleton in the throng behind Choke, “when you felt like the heart you didn’t have was going to tear itself to pieces. I sat and listened to you talk about him for hours, remember?” Brokeheart looked uncertainly at Choke, who merely fumed.
“And you, Ninetystab. Who was it that sat with you until the feeling of all those knives went away?” He pointed at a small skeleton, barely up to Choke’s waist. “Oopsyfall. Who stayed with you every night for the first week you were here, just so you wouldn’t feel alone?”
“This is all quite sentimental, but it changes nothing,” Choke growled.
Firstlake ignored him, casting his gaze over the entire assembly. “Who held Skullcrack’s head together? Who chased after Skidtree for two days until he finally calmed him down enough to explain everything? Who was there when each and every one of you appeared in some darkened stretch of dusty passageway to tell you it was going to be all right?
“It was me. You trusted me then. You’ve trusted me all this time. And I’m asking you to trust me now.” He glanced at Sleepybath, who nodded enthusiastically. “I have never said or done anything that wasn’t in the best interests of every single one of us. So believe me when I say that leaving Grummidge Hall is not in those interests.”
“I understand some of you are afraid.” He pointed at Choke. “And that’s how he wants it. That’s the only thing he knows. That’s all he can give you. So he tells you this terrible thing will happen if you don’t do what he says. He doesn’t tell you anything about what will happen after. Because he doesn’t know. He just wants you to be scared enough to follow him. Because he’s scared to go alone.
“There’s your choice. You can listen the voice that gave you fear. Or you can listen to the voice that gave you hope.” He stepped away from the opening. “Do what you will.”
It started slowly, at first. Brokeheart took a tentative step, then walked away from Choke. Skidtree followed. Then Oopsyfall skipped after him, and soon Choke was left standing alone before Firstlake as his followers fell out of line, merging with the onlookers bearing faces that read varying degrees of regret and shame and embarrassment.
Choke stood his ground, glaring at Firstlake with unvarnished hatred. “Very touching,” he sneered, “but I will not be so easily swayed.”
“I wouldn’t have expected any less.”
“And did you expect your pretty words to be enough to stop me? Tell me, do you have words for what will happen when the Five Hundredth arrives and you have done nothing?”
“I …” Firstlake paused. Was that…? He gave the room a cautious once-over. Then he smiled. “Yes. Yes I have words for when the Five Hundredth arrives.”
Choke spat a cruel laugh. “Then please, by all means, tell us.”
“The words would be, ‘Hello. How long have you been standing there?’”
All heads turned to where Firstlake was looking. There, at the top of the passageway leading up into the attic, stood a small skeleton, stopped in place as he was about to take his next step. “I was climbing the stairs to the attic and I slipped,” he said timidly. “Although I think I remember Uncle Boris coming up the stairs behind me…”
Firstlake brushed past a stunned Choke to kneel down in front of the newcomer. “We’ll have time to sort all this out,” he said gently. “Do you know who you are?”
His brows furrowed. “I think … no, sir, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“The Five Hundredth,” Choke whispered, his face an even whiter color than usual.
“The Five Hundredth,” Firstlake echoed. “And not a one of us disappeared.”
“Beg pardon, sir?”
He patted the little skeleton on the head. “Nothing for you to worry about.” He stood. “Nothing for any of us to worry about.”
An angry shriek broke the air, and Choke threw himself towards the corner leading to the crawlspace. In a flash, Rumblebelly and Groundbury blocked his path. Choke ran into the two burly skeletons and tumbled to the floor, spewing curses at them as they looked at Firstlake apologetically.
“We didn’t throttle him, he did that all on his own,” Rumblebelly offered.
“You’re sure it’s all right?”
Firstlake smiled. “Your name, your decision. It is a bit unorthodox, but in this instance, I don’t think anyone will put up much of a fuss.”
The little skeleton beamed. “Then I want to be Fiver.”
Firstlake bent down and extended his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Fiver. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some things to check on.”
“But I’ll see you tonight?” Fiver asked hopefully.
“Of course,” Firstlake replied, giving Fiver an affectionate pat on the shoulder. The little skeleton scampered off to the nursery, where he’d be singing lullabies beneath the floorboards. No reason why some members of the Grummidge family couldn’t have a few moments of serenity, at least for a little while.
He made his way to the basement. He could hear the shouting already, and grinned despite himself. When he arrived, he found Choke screaming at the rats that were scurrying back and forth beneath his feet.
“Still settling in?” he asked.
“Is it necessary to gloat?” Choke snarled.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was talking to the rats.” He turned and headed back upstairs, ignoring the curses Choke threw his way
He was almost late getting to the attic. Sleepybath was already there, pointing at a line of bats hanging from the rafters. “… Churk, Skeek, Burrip … oh bother, I know this one…”
“Tellut,” Firstlake said. “It’s all right, she forgets it from time to time herself.”
Tellut gave him an angry chirp and fluttered away. Sleepybath turned and beamed at him. He knew he was responsible for the five hundred skeletons of Grummidge Hall. But he was sure the other four hundred and ninety-eight could get along fine without him for a while.