for my loveable live-in prop
“What are you most afraid of?” Bones asks, still seated with me at the dining-room table.
I turn to Bones, who’s no longer facing the windows, and is now looking at me, with his fake-calcium jaw working and his black eyeholes burning like dark orbs in the night.
He says, “Hey,” and taps his right index finger insistently on the table. “I asked you a question.”
“What are you most afraid of?” he asks again, and again, taps an insistent finger.
“You,” I stammer. “I’ve always been afraid of you.”
Bones laughs, and it sounds like an earthquake.
“That’s what they all say,” he bellows. “It’s never depression and it’s never heart disease. It’s me they’re afraid of. Me.” He continues laughing, monstrous and void. It drowns out a plane passing overhead.
“Where’s Jim?” I ask, already fed up, though it’s clear we’ve barely begun.
Bones raises one of his false fingers and points down the hall toward the backdoor. “Heart disease,” he says, enthusiastically, and then stymies another colossal fit of laughter.
I get up from my seat and half-heartedly walk across the hardwood floors toward the kitchen, the backdoor, and the third-floor, where, an hour ago, Jim went to check on a noise.
The first night we had Bones, I woke up in a sweat and decided to get a drink of water. I climbed out of bed and made my way out of the room and into the kitchen, but I paused. For a brief second, I thought I caught a glimpse of Bones standing in front of the living room windows looking out at the neighborhood. I back-pedaled immediately to find Bones, not at the window, but sitting in the oak rocker — the spot where we put him — across the room.
With terrific caution, I wandered across the old, wooden floor into the darkened dining room and through to the even darker living room, where I laid a hand on Bones’ shoulder, half-expecting the figurine skeleton’s arms to move, his neck to twist on its axis, and his jaw to bob open, but nothing happened.
I went back to bed and told Jim, but Jim didn’t listen. All he did was tell me I’m losing my mind; that it’s, “just a plastic skeleton, babe, and a pretty lame one at that. Now, go to back to sleep.”
And he did.
But I didn’t.
“You can’t beat this kind of deal,” Jim told me, with his hand around my waist. We stared up at the house, holding one another, thinking of our future, of our time, our money. We stood there thinking of security deposits and six-month leases and weighed our budgets with a couple synapses firing about what to do with the backyard and how much time and effort it would take to clear the garage.
“Lookin’ to move into this house?” a ruddy, curmudgeon-sounding man in a white t-shirt and bleach-stained jeans asked as we stood in front of the property. The man walked to the end of his porch, the end closest to us, and put his foot up on the railing. “Lots of interesting history in this house,” the man said, and laughed. “Lots of interesting history.”
Vegas is the name of a dog. A dog owned by the ruddy-looking man next door. The ruddy-looking man, whose name we never got, keeps a blind eye on Vegas. Vegas wanders wherever she pleases. Sometimes, into neighbors’ yards. Other times, into traffic. The ruddy-looking man, forever wearing the same outfit, watches but does nothing. He just yells, “Vegas!” from his porch and stands there expecting the dog, fifteen and deaf, to listen.
Two months after moving in, Jim and I were sitting on the porch when we heard a bloody howl coming from a few houses down. Nasty sound. Like something being stepped on.
Jim and I were getting out of the car coming home from the grocery store a week later and our ruddy-looking neighbor happened to be outside doing the same half-assed job of watching Vegas wander into our yard. I’d just shut the trunk and looked over to give him a nod when I found him making hard, probing eye contact with me.
“I’m sorry about what you heard the other night. Some stray had my dog by the throat. It was twenty minutes before I could get at it. I tell you,” he says, “I tell you I beat that mutt until it bled.”
All I could think of to say was, “Damn.”
Bones is a four-foot plastic skeleton Jim found at a garage sale in the suburbs six months after we started dating in 2019. The lady selling Bones said she’d found the decoration in her basement when they first moved in; said it creeped her out; that she was trying to get rid of it.
On October 13, 2013, a man of little description, a person considered armed and very dangerous, ran from the police during the execution of a warrant. The warrant was in response to screaming heard coming from a neighbor’s house. Two officers’ first attempts to question the neighbor failed. They never answered the door. But, when the cops came back with a warrant an hour later, the front door was standing wide open, with all the lights on in the house, and no one home.
When police searched the house, officials said there were “frowning faces with Xs for eyes” painted all over the walls. Another witness said there were animal bones strewn about the bedroom floors. Nothing prepared Jim and I for what the landlord would tell us; how she stood there and laughed admitting that the bodies of four children, ages 16, 14, 10, and 7, were found gagged and bound together in the master bedroom of the split-level upstairs unit. The very same room we were standing.
Jim and I saw our house on one of those real estate sites and were immediately drawn to the price: $600/month for a two bedroom = too good to pass up. Everything else in the area was going for $900 – $1,100/month.
Our friends thought we were crazy; not just the suspicious price, but the airport less than a mile away.
“Why would you ever want to live in a place like that?” they kept asking.
My intuition told me (and Jim’s bold assertion was) living together was the next logical step in our relationship, babe, so don’t worry about it, OK? We got this.
A week later, Jim and I hustled boxes up the steep front steps and into an even steeper stairwell leading to the second-story unit, while commercial jets landing at the nearby airport continuously roared overhead.
One night, three weeks after the move, Jim shook me awake and accused me of leaving the bathroom faucet on.
“I’ve been in bed this entire time,” I told him through a gaping yawn; but, Jim, ever the skeptic, wasn’t satisfied. He threw back the covers, shaking his head because I wouldn’t go look myself, and made for the bathroom, where he found not just the faucet running, but the tub and sink overflowing.
“They’re clogged,” he yelled back, in a fit of rage. I heard him fussing in the water, his hands swishing and wooshing about. “Would you please come help?”
Frustrated, I crawled my way out of bed and slothed my way down the hall until I got to the bathroom, where Jim was frantically engaging and disengaging every stopper and every lever he could find.
“It helps,” he told me, as he jiggled the sink stopper. “We’ll have to get some Drain-O in the morning. Why are you just standing there?”
To tell you the truth, it was Bones. Bones was why I was just standing there. Instead of facing the apartment next door, Bones was turned toward the bathroom, with his mouth agape and his sunken eyes searching in the dark.
Bones is staring out the dining room windows at the curmudgeon-neighbor’s house. It’s cloudy and cold and the wind whips as it cuts through the air. Bones is looking through the windows at the house next door because I posed his head that way.
He has a metal rod for a spine.
His jaw is on a spring.
His fingers were made in China.
But, his jaw, already agape, has, ever so slightly, opened further, and his head has turned the other way.
“It’s quiet,” I say to no one, and try to laugh, but the effort gets lost in my throat and I cough cough cough until I see something move out of the corner of my eye and stop because it’s Bones.
For a while, Jim and I would pose Bones all over the apartment, but Bones kept moving; to the point we very seriously considered putting Bones away. I mean, imagine placing a twenty-five-pound Halloween decoration on the mantle, which people do, and then coming home to find it sprawled out on the floor, face-first, in front of the fireplace, one arm outstretched, as if reaching for something, perhaps an escape.
Another time (it had to have been one or two in the morning), I heard a scratching sound and wandered into the hallway between the two bedrooms to check it out. I heard the noise again, coming from the dining room, and rounded the short corner to find Bones sitting where we put him, at the table, looking at me.
At the time, I felt seen, in ways I’d never felt before. And yet, it was the only time I’ve ever wanted to be someone else, somewhere else, for any given reason. I went back to bed feeling a horrific sense of claustrophobia and crawled in next to Jim, who told me to, “Keep it down,” I was being loud.
I once asked Jim what he thought of my body and he told me I looked a skeleton. I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing until he told me to, “Chill out. It was just a joke.”
Bones was standing at the back door when I came home today. He was pointing up the stairwell leading to the unfinished third floor. The stairwell door leading to the third floor was slightly cracked, which made me apprehensive. The stairwell door is always latched securely. I laughed at the absurdity of the situation and closed the stairwell door shaking my head no this is all just a weird coincidence.
Stupid, ya know? Stupid.
I was just about to shut the door and slide the lock when I heard a tumbling sound coming from behind the door. It sounded like a rock or a brick rolling down the stairs. I flung open the door so fast I hit Bones in the process and knocked him into the kitchen. Bones hit the floor hard, and his right hand snapped off. He lay on his back, jaw wide, eyes vacant, a pile of plastic. I picked him up and set him in the rocker in the living room, unsure of what to do with his hand.
When Jim came home later that night I told him about the door, and Bones, and his hand. Jim not only told me to never touch Bones again, he then asked what possessed me to open the door to the third floor in the first place. “There’s nothing up there,” he said, confidently.
Jim grabbed a flashlight from the kitchen and motioned for me to follow.
I told him, “No. It’s too scary,” and backed into the kitchen.
“Don’t be such a wuss,” he said, and threw open the third-floor door. “I’ll show you there’s nothing to worry about.”
A week before the move, Jim told me he sexually assaulted his sister when he was sixteen. Jim never mentioned any of this to me before, but he did with a smile and sad but hopeful eyes, pleading with me to forgive him before I could even realize I was angry.
Bones was there.
He was sitting on our 7,000-year-old sofa, while Jim and I were snuggled on the loveseat. That’s where Jim described the questionable situation that took place between he and his then-nine-year-old sister, Anna.
When he was finished, he said, “You see, babe, it don’t matter to me. It don’t matter to anyone anymore. Enough time goes by and what you do doesn’t matter. That’s how it is; or, at least, how it should be. Everybody is better than their worst.”
Jim ended our conversation with a kiss on my forehead. The kiss sent shivers down my spine. Not because of some magic connection we share or the exciting rush of love, but because the person I was crawling into bed with that night, the person pressing their sex into the small of my back on a too-small loveseat, this person was a different person than the one I woke up with.
A person I can’t forgive.
It’s just after midnight and Jim still hasn’t come back downstairs. Bones points toward the door to the third floor. I take the bait and walk through the kitchen of our second-story unit, but when I go to flip the light on, I hear someone call my name. I assume it’s Bones, and look back into the dining room, but Bones is gone, and the room, save for the furniture, is empty.
I hear my name called again and move toward the sound of the voice: the dining room windows. I get there and find our middle-aged, ruddy-looking neighbor staring up at me from the driveway between our houses, forever in that damn white shirt and blue jeans, half-in/half-out of the shadows.
“Get that light out!” he says, “It’s bright as hell and keeping me awake!”
There’s a strange smile on his face and something slim in his hand. The thing in his hand is a cigarette, which he lifts, and hits, long and slow and cool: a bright red dot in the darkness. The dot travels north to south again. A cloud of smoke curls up to the dining-room windows and bursts into the house like a noxious plume of gas.
My neighbor stands there like this is entertaining him. Then, he shrugs and flicks his cigarette against the house.
“They never did find who killed those kids,” he adds, with a certain smugness, and then, laughing to himself, disappears into the night.
Somewhere down the street, a dog barks.
Chad W. Lutz is a speedy, bipolar writer born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986, and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. They graduated from Mills College in Oakland, California, with their MFA in creative writing in 2018. Their first book, For the Time Being (2020), is currently available through J.New Books. Other recent works appear in Haunted Waters Press, Drunk Monkeys, The Journal of Short Fiction and Poetry, and Half and One.