Building the Bones
by Steppen Sawicki
Short story: Horror.
My brother arrived late in the evening, in the thick humidity that rolls in with the last of the summer storms. The front drive was littered with dead leaves that crumbled underfoot as I stepped out to greet him. I wasn’t greeted back; Marcus refused to look me in the eye. A strange expression persisted on his face as he looked over my foyer and hallway, even into the living room. I thought I saw his lip rising in a sneer when I pointed out the new credenza I had recently purchased, as if it physically disgusted him. I only pointed it out because I thought it would please him. But I told myself that he was only tired from his trip, or that I was imagining it all. Marcus’s face was shadowed from many days without shaving. It could have been that the lighting caused me to see an expression on Marcus’s face that wasn’t there at all. I do keep certain rooms dimly lit to wash out the hideous colors Catherine picked for them. Still, when I motioned him to an armchair, he sat cautiously and remarked that I seemed to be doing very well for myself. I couldn’t disagree; my business had been moving steadily forward with a minimum workforce and Catherine and I had found no reason to worry about money.
This was not the case for Marcus. His area of work and only means of support had been hit hard by the failing economy – my brother handcrafted furniture. My brother had watched the sales of what had been a mediocre business to begin with plummet as employment fell and people felt less compelled to buy kitschy conversation pieces. He delved deeper and deeper into his savings until he could no longer keep his house. Finally, he answered my long-offered option to stay at my home, at least until the economy recovered or he could salvage something of his career.
Marcus did of course ask after Catherine, but I had already decided beforehand to simply tell him there had been one too many spats and that she had left with little word for our vacation house in Colorado. I should have left it at that, but I felt compelled to make some comments on not having heard from her yet. Fortunately, he didn’t show any further interest in the topic, being fully absorbed in his own thoughts.
It was difficult to engage him in conversation. It was in fact hard to think of things to converse about that wouldn’t come back to his work and upset him. His temper was obviously at the breaking point to begin with – I could see it in the tapping of his fingers on the armrest of the chair he crouched in, every now and then noting the motion with some surprise and stopping it only to start again a minute later. But what does one say to someone whose main interest is whittling at wood? After a strained hour during which I did most of the talking, I took Marcus and his meager luggage to one of the guest rooms and left him there to brood alone.
I can easily pinpoint the day he awoke from his malaise. It was nearly a week to the day after his arrival, and the night previous had thrown down a heavy rain that rivaled any of the previous storms of the season. Hail intermittently joined in to rattle against the roof and windows. Wind assailed the trees, ripping away branches – one of which tore open a window screen in my dining room – and felling pines throughout the area.
Marcus was in the kitchen at his usual early hour when daylight arrived, and as I thought aloud of the damages done by the storm he seemed for the first time to be interested in something besides his own thoughts.
“I was thinking,” he said “of taking a walk around the grounds. Maybe going into town. To see what the storm’s done.”
Good for him, I thought, and “It would do you well,” I said.
“I do need to get out of this house for a bit.” Marcus added as he gazed out the high windows to the disheveled backyard.
I couldn’t help but notice the tone in those words, but in my elation I thought nothing of it and left for work with hopes that with this venture outside his attitude might be changing. I thought perhaps soon I would be able to offer him a position in the company that would earn him decent money.
Indeed, when I returned home from work I found Marcus completely transformed. He met me in the front hall, nearly running. His eyes had lost their fog and there was a light in them that I can’t say I remember ever having seen before that moment, even back to when we were children.
“It was the right thing to do, going on that walk.” His voice was high and breathless. “You should see what the storm’s done.” He told me he had been overtaken by the subtlety of the storm’s destruction in an uprooted tree or flooded riverbank or washed-out garden bed, the futility of life and death and other such flowery imaginings. From it all he had gained a spark of inspiration. He had been so motivated that he had moved his equipment from the garage, where I had given it short-term storage, to the basement in hopes of setting up a workstation.
I was so overjoyed by his change in spirit that I immediately agreed to this arrangement, as well as his request for complete privacy in the basement because of a reluctance on his part to show in-progress work of the new projects he was about to begin. At my response, the corners of his mouth crawled across his face to form a thin smile. I had so rarely seen him smile, how could I know what that smile of his meant? I let him know that he need only ask for any extra tools or materials, but he replied that he would need only a small amount of raw material for what he was about to work on. Even so, I put in a large order with the nearest supplier for several different types of wood to be delivered.
The following morning, Marcus awoke even earlier than usual, and I came down for breakfast to find that he was already in the basement hard at work; I could hear the sound of some saw or lathe or some such thing through the door. This was odd – the wood I had ordered hadn’t arrived yet. But I assumed that he must have brought some pieces with him from his former house or picked up some stray wood that the storm had brought down. I let him alone, glad to see – or at least hear – that he had found a purpose for himself for the time being.
With my schedule as it was, I didn’t see Marcus again until the weekend. The only evidence I had that he was even in the house was the occasional mechanized screech or whine from the basement, dulled by the door but going on even into the late night.
On this went until I arrived home yet again to find Marcus greeting me in the hall with tense excitement. I had hardly any time to say a word to him before he ushered me into the living room, where he gestured to a new table amidst my couch and chairs and announced that he was finished.
It was a rather plain table at first glance – a simple coffee table with low-set slats connecting the legs. The first thing I noticed was that the two pairs of legs at the opposite ends of the table didn’t completely match in length. Hoping that Marcus wasn’t so sloppy in his work that he would do such a thing in error, I complimented him on the oddity as if it were intended.
“I’m extremely pleased you noticed,” he told me with that perpetual frown of his.
I could only take his words as some sort of cue to look closer at how the legs had been formed, and crouched down to see that their topmost ends were shaped with a rounded protuberance used to secure it to the underside of the tabletop. The shape was clear and the effect of the whole was deeply disturbing. The slats joining the legs looked just as distressing when all the pieces were viewed as one. They were all made to look like bones.
I rose from the carpet unsettled and racking my brain for anything positive to say.
“It will,” I said “certainly appeal to those with a darker state of mind.”
“It’s nature,” Marcus stated as if the word was sure to change my opinion of it. “The piece is inspired by and created from nature. And I have other ideas as well, an entire ensemble – end tables, chairs, lamps…”
As he was rattling off pieces of furniture I realized with a start that my own coffee table was nowhere to be seen. When I asked Marcus what he had done with it, I could scarcely believe his answer – he had thrown the thing out! He stood there with that blank look on his face, responding to my anger by only telling me that this lopsided slab held up by twigs was better than what he called “a factory-produced piece.”
It took a great deal of time and effort to calm myself. I did so by telling myself that Marcus had been under so much stress recently that perhaps he hadn’t been in the right frame of mind. We sorted things out with the coffee table between us, our knees pressing against it as if the chairs had been rearranged to sit closer.
“I understand,” I told him, “the stress you must be under. But if you are to stay in my house you can’t go throwing my furniture away.”
He said that he understood entirely why I had reacted how I had to the lost table. It was that simple, and I considered the matter closed.
Then, taking the opportunity while he was outside of the basement, I mentioned that he should take a position in my company so long as he was in town. I laid out several starting-level positions and what work would be involved in each, and Marcus listened attentively. Yet when I finished my explanations of each job and asked which one he would be interested in, he declined as if I were offering him coffee, with that easy frown still on his lips.
“I will be far too busy with the next piece in my set. But perhaps we can discuss this all at some other time.”
For the second time that day, I was awestruck by his words; first he disposed of my table, and now he refused to accept the offer of a paying job. I was beginning to wonder if he had completely lost his mind. But I didn’t want to upset the truce that we had reached over the table, and told myself that it would be alright to bring up the job offer at another time when I could further press on him the importance of it.
And so things went on as before. Marcus remained in the basement for the greater part of each day, working on his furniture. When I did see him, quickly and in passing, he would always refuse to tell me what he was working on. He would only say that I would see it when it was finished, and he would say it with such an odd turn of his mouth and a glint in his eye. Each time, he would shrug off my attempts to pull him into a conversation and dive back into the basement. In the meantime, I grew more uncomfortable of the table that he had placed in my living room. Its construction gave off such a strange aura that I never stayed in the room with it for long, or at all on some days. When the police visited the house that week I showed them into the living room before thinking of the thing and how it might make me look if they should notice it and its shape. However, they either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and I must not have let on my nervousness of it. After a few questions on Catherine’s disappearance, they left without any comment on the table.
There was another week of Marcus’s strange routine, working later and later into the night yet still waking earlier and earlier each morning. Finally there came an evening where again Marcus greeted me, though this time at the front door as if he were a dog waiting for his master to come home. I didn’t even have time to set my briefcase down before he leapt on me and shoved me into the living room to view the newest fruit of his labors. It was a chair this time, wide and with a short rounded back and armrests supported by thin curved slats that looked like ribs ripped from the spine and broken into uniform pieces. The ends of the armrests were what I noticed last, and they were the most ridiculous. They were meant to resemble jawbones, curving around the space where a hand would fall.
What could I say? “It’s quite a unique piece. Well-envisioned. It certainly fits the feel of your table.”
I thought I hid my discomfort well, since Marcus then asked “Would you care to sit in it?”
“No, there’s simply too much paperwork to see to tonight…”
“Come, just a minute. Just to wind down from work. Here, I made tea.”
Eventually I had to take my seat in the damned thing to appease him. He sat on the couch and leaned over the coffee table to pour the tea that he had made in anticipation of this scene, asking if I wanted any. I refused. I didn’t want anything that had been resting on that horrible table.
As he sipped his tea, I brought up the topic of a job opportunity a second time. He silently listened to me discuss it, the frown rigidly fixed on his lips like a statue’s. He continually placed his cup down and picked it up from the table, drawing my eyes to it each time I had nearly succeeded in forgetting it was there. His own eyes bore into mine, and they greatly unsettled me. Wide, unblinking, they took in my every movement as if I were a sudden obsession. And the chair was damned uncomfortable; I shifted my weight every way I could and still the backing dug into my spine. Every time I lowered my arms onto the rests, my hands would run over the hideous shape and strange wood-grain of the jawbones and my fingers would close on their toothless cavities. I talked on, almost to distract myself from the ridiculous things under and before me, and felt myself waving my hands wildly in the air to illustrate my words. And Marcus stared and lifted his teacup and set it back down on the tabletop with a slight tap against the wood. Finally I could take it no longer and I leapt out of the chair.
“There. Well, there,” I blustered. “Now you’ll take the job won’t you? You’ll take one, won’t you? Enough of this,” I waved at the chair, “and this,” again to the table. “It’s time for you to have a job.”
“You’re too kind,” Marcus said, frowning that idiot frown of his. “But I simply have no time. I’m too busy working on the furniture.”
“You are being idiotic,” I shouted. “You’ll never be able to sell these hideous things.”
“You’ve been under too much stress,” Marcus told me. “Sit back down and have some tea.” He motioned to that awful chair again and bent over the coffee table to pour more of the drink. I was suddenly overcome with a horrible sickness of both. I nearly ran out of the room, and shut myself up in my office, remaining there for the rest of the night.
I raged silently for days. I didn’t wish to see or have anything to do with my brother, and in fact I didn’t have to – he was in his basement from morning to night. His furniture, however, was very much in the living room and I was reluctant to go in there. I attempted to read the paper with my coffee there one morning, and couldn’t ignore the presence of the chair across from me, facing me directly. Even though no one was sitting in it, I had the strangest thought that someone should be, that someone was missing from that space. And all at once I realized that Marcus had moved the furniture the previous night, setting one chair aside and replacing it with this one, and that many mornings Catherine had sat and had her own coffee in that same place. Now, instead of Catherine’s tight frown, I saw the curved slats in the chair’s backrest lined up like teeth in a sneering mouth as the jawbones at the ends of the arms smiled toothlessly. I could no longer concentrate on my paper; I abandoned the room for the kitchen and never sat in it again. Even when I had to pass through it to reach the front door, I would rush through.
During one of these dashes on my way to work in the morning, I was brought up short. Something seemed out of place in the room, though I couldn’t tell what. It took me a moment, frozen in mid stride and looking over everything, but I found the change. The end table next to my couch was gone, and had been replaced by yet another piece of Marcus’s furnishings! Marcus was turning my room – my house – into some sort of ossuary, a cemetery, surrounding me with the mockeries of bones.
I was done with his sick sense of aesthetics. I stormed to the basement door and tried the knob, but found it now had a lock on it; he was actually installing locks in my own home! I banged on the door with all my strength and was close to kicking at it when Marcus opened it. I practically screamed at him, wanting to know why he would put a lock on a door in my house without my knowledge.
“I know I should have asked you,” he said, “and of course I would have if I had the chance. But you’re so busy and I never see you anymore.” He shook his head as if this were some joke he was trying to make.
“You never see me because you’re always down here in this damned basement,” I shouted back, and attempted to push him out of the way as I demanded to know why he would need a lock and what he could be hiding. It came to my mind that there might be an entire pile of wooden bones behind that door. This thought was most likely what kept me from putting up a greater fight with Marcus, as he was eventually able to turn me around and usher me away from the basement.
“I demand to know what you’ve done with my end table,” I shouted at him. I was certain he had tossed it out as he had done with the coffee table.
“Now now, I’ve only moved that table to the hallway.”
He had to show me this before I would believe him. I sputtered when I saw it and had to search for words.
“I want it back in the living room,” I finally said, “and that other table gone”
“You don’t like it?” He raised his eyebrows at me. “But it all matches now – a nearly complete set. And this table looks fine in the hall.”
“Those things of yours are disgusting and I want them all out of my house.”
“How could they be disgusting? Bones are just another piece of nature. Why would you have a problem with them?”
I turned to him to argue further, but then I saw his expression. He was smiling, and he looked half-crazed in the dim morning light. That smile of his was mad and cold. His eyes seemed to reach out into my own, as if to extract some answer he was in need of, had been aching to hear. And suddenly, I knew that he knew.
It seemed that I had only to blink and his face had changed. He was frowning, his brows furrowed in worry.
“What is it?” he asked. “You’re white as a sheet. Really, I didn’t mean to upset you. If something about the furniture bothers you…”
He trailed off, his eyes questioning, interrogating. I wasn’t sure whether what I had seen had been his true expression or just my imagination. I had been hounded by the thought of that furniture and the lighting had been faint, and it could have merely been shadows I saw. But still I wondered – did he suspect? Surely he must have noticed that I hadn’t displayed any worry over Catherine’s disappearance, yet he hadn’t questioned me about it. He hadn’t seemed interested at all. Still, I couldn’t be certain. What was his intention with all these bone formations? Was he trying to pry some truth from me through them? Was he trying to break me? Here even, he was staring at me, with pity in his eyes that I was certain must be fake. I straightened myself and waved his hand from my shoulder as nonchalantly as I could. I told him the furniture was no problem at all, and that I only thought he had thrown away my end table.
The bastard, he laughed! And he said he would never do such a thing; he remembered what had happened when he did that to the coffee table. “I hadn’t been thinking straight back then,” he said. “Now I know what I’m doing.” He put his hand back on my shoulder and with a great effort I stifled a wince. Instead, I only returned his smile and laughed with him. Perhaps he knew, and perhaps he didn’t. As of yet, I had no way of knowing.
The days passed – horrible days spent with those things lingering downstairs as I tried to sleep, in the next room as I cooked meals I couldn’t taste, in my mind during every waking moment. Still I said nothing, changed nothing in my schedule. I went to and from work as usual, crossing that space on the way and eying each piece as if they would leap on me as I rushed past them nearly at a run. When I did sleep I dreamt that those fingers stretched out from the edges of their table and grabbed my neck, choking me as I had choked Catherine. Every day the thought crept into my head that the police might return for another talk, and I knew that if they should arrive I wouldn’t be able to sit them in the living room. If I did so I might very well break as if Catherine’s and that man’s hearts were beating under the floorboards.
Marcus was now in the basement both day and night. He no longer used his bed; I checked it almost obsessively during the night and he was never in his room, though I could sometimes hear him sawing and drilling in the basement. It could be he slept down there, or not at all. I don’t know when he ate, if he ate anything. Sometimes when I heard no sound coming through the door I even wondered whether he still lived, and I would sit and listen for any sign of life while thoughts of those legs and ribs and fingers and jaws in the living room drifted through my mind. Still I did nothing that would suggest to Marcus that I was unnerved by them. I left him alone to do as he pleased in the basement, never interrupting him.
I should have thrown him out! It seemed the most logical choice and yet the most reprehensible. What grounds did I have for it? A lost coffee table, one changed lock, and a refusal to take a job that had been offered only twice. Would that really satisfy peoples’ curiosities if they should ask why I had kicked my own brother out of my house? And what if they should ask Marcus? I had too many questions. I would have to wait him out. I thought I might yet be wrong about him suspecting.
So came the fourth piece. It may have been sitting there for days without my seeing it since I tried to keep my eyes to the floor whenever I crossed that room. How I hate to think of it having rested there just downstairs from where I slept, though even before then it had only been down one more flight of steps in the basement. Either way the damned thing had been in my house all along, Marcus pawing over it and driving nails and screws through it night and day.
It was a candelabra, one that rested on the floor and rose to eye level. Though it was just barely a candelabra, and that only if you looked at it for long enough. Really it was just a slab of wood carved into a stack of bones.
Marcus had never made a candelabra in his life, or at least none that I had known of, and why should he start now? What was his purpose in creating such a monstrosity? The tables, the chair – these all at least had sections of plain unadorned wood for the tops and seating, giving the eye an opportunity to rest on something less cruel. This candelabra was all bone, with the most prevalent being in the center of the construction: a skull, lacking a jawbone. Its eyeless sockets stared widely out at the room. I didn’t want to touch the thing, but still I would have turned it around to face it the other way except that I discovered the back of its head was the face of another skull. The two were merged into one at the cranium, so that no matter which way I might have turned the thing, a pair of black hollow sockets would be surveying some section of the room.
The branches that were to hold the candlesticks were made up of several small bones of the hand and foot mashed together haphazardly. On seeing this, I had the slightest stirring of doubt over my previous thoughts. This was nothing at all like Marcus’s prior work, which though containing a certain level of nature’s disorder always had such a concern for detail. The wood here was more punched out to randomly form negative space than carved to form a pattern. The two skull halves were of two differing sizes, far from completing the mirror image he seemed to have been going for. It had been the same with the tables, which both had legs that didn’t quite match up with each other. I began to wonder whether I had been so wrapped up in my own thoughts and deeds that I had misread my brother, and it occurred to me that I might have overlooked some early signs of insanity. As I examined the central column of the candelabra, I noted that even the wood stain was unevenly applied.
This last stopped my thoughts of pity completely. This section of the candelabra was made of vertebrae, but with so many that it would have had to incorporate more than one spinal column. There was a section of it that had been missed in the staining, in the depression between the vertebrae. At first glance I had taken the difference in color to be between stained and unstained wood. Yet when I looked closer, I could see that the two shades of color were far too different. The section in the depression was not a light brown as of bare wood, but white.
I didn’t trust my eyes at first. I slowly scraped at the white spot with my fingernail, thinking it must be a speck of paint. When it didn’t rub away, I moved on to the surrounding area. It flaked away bit by bit, the chips digging under my nails and causing sharp stabs of pain. But it wasn’t the pain that stopped me, rather the lack of speed at which the covering was coming away. I left the room and returned with a knife from the kitchen. I recklessly went to the task with the knife, so caught up in it that my mind went blank and I barely remembered why I was doing it. I only hacked at the thing over and over as chips of paint fell all around me.
I must have put too much strength into the knife, for suddenly on one swing the knife slipped into the depression and the entire column snapped in two, the head of the candelabra smashing to the floor with the most horrible rattling sound as it broke into what seemed to me hundreds of pieces of every tiny white bone of the fingers, scattering into every corner of the room and every shadow. I stared at them all, horrified, for what felt like an hour before my eyes slowly returned to the spine, lying next to me. I reached out to pick it up, my hand shaking, every part of my mind screaming at me to leave it and run save for one part that had to know. I brought it closer to me, turning it over. Etched with scores caused by the knife was a grayed white the color of curdled milk. The wood had been a facade; what I saw in the center was bone.
There were more glimpses of white scattered all around the carpet, glaring out from a nest of wood semblance. I threw the section of spine aside in sheer disgust and it struck the wall, shattering into yet more pieces, but I only heard the noise as if it came from far away; I was entirely involved in staring at the furniture. This table stood on true legs, the other on femurs with fingers dangling from its sides to point at the floor, as if to tell me there were more of its brethren to be found if I only looked down, into the basement. The chair was lined with a row of ribs framed with the jawbones ripped from the skulls of the candelabra. My eyes darted over the carpet and found one of the split skulls gazing back at me, its other half cracked away and lost to the shadows of the room. My mind was filled with visions of the unseen in the house: the other half of that skull, the bones not yet uncovered from their paint, the bones kept unpainted in the basement.
There was a cry from behind me, a mere gasp of my name and some footsteps, and before I knew what I was doing I had swung the knife and embedded it in something soft and yielding. I didn’t turn to see what it was. I ran from the room, from the bones, from the house. I ran through the grounds not knowing consciously where I was running to, unable to comprehend it, only trying to get away before I was overcome with terror. But some part of me seemed to know where I was heading, even as I collapsed to the ground, not from physical exhaustion but from a mental one. I fell on my knees in the grass and it seemed my mind was grasping for sense like lungs gasp for breath. When I raised my eyes from the ground, it took me a moment to process where I had led myself to. The area had changed so much.
Horrified, shocked into stillness, I realized I was in the northeast section of the garden. But the ground had been upturned and washed out by the storm, the storm that seemed to have happened a lifetime ago but had only followed my brother’s arrival. In the tangled mass of roots and dirt lay the delicate bones of my wife and her lover, skull and spine, arm and leg, caked with dried mud, but there. As I reached my trembling hand out to touch them, to verify that my eyes weren’t deceiving me, I saw my hands stained red with my brother’s blood.