This story was written for the SKoW prompt. We (as in me and RentBoheme) are happy to say that we won the prompt challenge! We wrote it in only a few days because of the deadline, but we had a lot of fun doing it!.
This story is also posted on RentBoheme's profile. I don't think it's allowed to post the same story on two profiles...but if the readers are okay with it, I'm sure fictionpress will be as well.
Skulls in the Closet
By Morine and RentBoheme
No doubt about it, I'm a friggin' psychopath.
Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but I have a strange hobby. Some might say it's disgusting—you know what, I say it's disgusting.
But I just can't help it . . . I love going to cemeteries and digging up skulls. It's an unhealthy obsession. Yes, I know. I know! But I get these urges. Sometimes I'm sitting on my couch, reading a lovely novel or watching a delightful television show, when I . . . I just have to feel the smoothness of a skull in my hands, look at the holes in the face, the cavity of a mouth smiling at me.
So on New Years Eve, as I'm sitting around the table with a group of friends and we're making New Years resolutions, I know just what to say.
"I'm giving up grave digging," I announce, setting my fork down on the table.
Everyone around the table is quiet for a moment, their eyes on me. Then they begin to laugh. "Oh, you're joking," George says, but when he sees that I'm not laughing with him, he falls silent. "You're serious? You know you're not gonna be able to do that."
"Yes, I will," I say resiliently.
George looks me in the eyes for a second, before saying, "Hey, that's great!" He turns his head to the others at the table for a second. "I think I speak for everybody when I say: I'm proud of you. This is a step in the right direction, Ralph, ole pal."
A chorus of Of courses and You betchas makes its way around the table.
"Thanks guys," I say, smirking.
George leans over and whispers in my ear, "You really think you can do this?"
"I'm going to try my hardest."
And with that, everyone goes back to eating their turkey. Everyone, that is, except for Chris, whose fork and knife are laying next to his plate as he stares at me with a confused expression. "What do you mean, 'grave digging'?"
All heads at the table either turn to me or to Chris. You see, Chris is the new guy. Jerry says that he used to bowl with him, and he has nowhere else to go for the New Year's festivities. Nobody at the table seems to mind that he's there, but not even Jerry thought of warning Chris about my…hobby.
George looks over to Chris. "Uh-oh."
"You all are just joshing with me, right?" asks Chris. He seems to be getting very uncomfortable. Jerry isn't in the room, having left for the bathroom just a few moments before I announced my New Year's resolution, leaving Chris all alone in a room full of strangers. At this point in the game, Chris probably thinks he's going to get axe-murdered and served for desert.
I take a deep breath. "Please don't judge me."
It's after everyone's left when it comes to me. I'm loading the dishwasher when it's there. One moment I'm holding a dish, the next moment, I swear it's a skull.
No . . . must . . . not . . . dig . . .
I know I made the resolution not to go to the cemetery, not to dig, but I know the telltale signs of skull-digging needs: 1) I see them. Skulls. I see them everywhere. Not just my plate, but the entire world is like my cemetery. 2) I dream about them. Sometimes they're just sitting in front of me. Other times, they're talking to me. I like the conversations I have with my skulls. The discussions lets me know a little more about them.
But, no. Not tonight. I made a vow, and I can stick with it for the night.
But somehow, after I finish cleaning my skulls…excuse me, dishes...I find myself almost robotically pulling on a trench coat from my closet, leaving my apartment, suitcase in hand. I'm not sure if it takes minutes or hours to get to the cemetery, but I find the grave that I know is ready for digging. I open up the suitcase and take out my shovel.
It's winter, and the ground is hard from the cold, but that doesn't stop me. With one mighty swoop, I plunge the spade into the cool earth.
Just one more time before my resolution starts. Just once more . . .
I stash the skull away in a closet and make my way out to the living room to finish cleaning up after the party. There is a slight mark on the wall from where Chris threw his chair as he was trying to run away from me, and I try to scrub it away with a paper towel.
Making my way to my bedroom, I think about how the night had gone. Chris left shortly before the famous New York City ball was dropped. That was before I had the urges. Had I been compelled to dig, the ball would have looked less sparkly and more skeletal.
I shake my head in an attempt to clear away the tempting thought, and I tuck myself into bed and turn off my lights.
They make nicotine patches for smokers. Why don't they make anything for me?
Sunlight streaming through my window wakes me. It's Saturday, I think to myself. I have no plans with anyone, and I cringe at the thought of all the free time I have—I know the best way to keep my resolution is to keep myself occupied.
I roll over in my bed. Perhaps I should just sleep to pass the time. I stretch and lay my hand on the pillow next to me and think about how nice it would be to have someone's head there, smiling at me. A girl. Yes, that would be nice.
I have always loved female skulls, I think.
I try to push the thought out of my head, and though I find myself able to, it does have a certain resonance. I look at the empty pillow and am reminded of how lonely I am. Sure, I have my friends—and my skulls—but at home, there are no living people with me. I try to explain it to myself: That's because no one wants to fall in love with a psychopath.
I couldn't deny the truth in the statement. Because it was true. No one wants to live with someone who can't control their urges to dig up skulls from graves. Which is all the more reason to keep the New Year's resolution going strong. So far, though, I have already failed. But only once, and it's okay to have fun on New Year's. What difference does one skull make in the scheme of things, anyway? It was one last time, and it won't happen again. I'll stop. I know it.
And I'll be able to get a girlfriend, too. I'm not bad looking, I don't think. Actually, I think I'm kind of attractive. All that digging has given me well-defined arm muscles, and that's what girls like, right?
George has been nagging me for months now to get a girlfriend—he actually has someone he wants to set me up with. "I know this girl," he told me once. "You'd love her. She's nice, funny, and not to mention, she's pretty cute. Plus, she's the same age as you: twenty-six. Oh, and she's single. That's important."
The phone rings a few times before George answers: "Hello?"
"Hi, it's Ralph."
"What's up, man?"
"So, you know my New Year's resolution?"
"Uh-huh," he says. "What about it?"
"Well, I've thought of the perfect way to keep myself distracted from my possible urges."
"And that is . . ."
"I need a girlfriend," I say. "And you said there was a girl you thought was perfect for me."
"Yessiree," he says, an excited tone in his voice. "Her name's Flora. You want me to set something up?"
"Uh, sure," I say.
"Well, I'll call her and put you two in contact."
"Sounds great. There's just one thing I need to ask of you."
"Yes?" he says.
"Just . . . don't tell her about my hobby."
"Are you really going to give up grave-digging?" George asks. "I mean, I know some people think it's sick, but it's who you are. Why don't you try something easier?"
I blink a few times. George is my closest friend. I've known him since we were in college. "You don't think I'm serious about this?"
"We all just kind of thought it was the booze talkin'," he says.
"Well…I'm going to prove you wrong. And I'm going to start turning my life around with this girl. Just you wait."
With those words, I hang up the phone and look at my shovel sitting in the corner of my room.
I'll show him.
With that, I pick the shovel up and throw it into my closet. I hear the rattle of skulls hitting against one another and I ignore it as best I can.
A few hours later, my phone rings. I was just doing some painting. I like to paint in my spare time when I'm not at work; I managed to find a job as a cashier at a drugstore, as harsh economic times left me a jobless editor.
Actually…that's a lie. I like to grave-dig in my spare time, but that's not exactly an option for me right now.
"Hello?" I answer.
"Hi, is this Ralph Bowen?" It is a sweet female voice.
"Yes . . . who's calling?" I have a good guess, but I don't want to vocalize it.
"I'm Flora Moore, George's friend."
I smile into the phone and put down my paintbrush. I wipe my hands on my jeans before switching the phone to my other hand.
"Hi! I'm happy that you called. I'm Ralph, as you said before."
Her pleasant giggle rings in my ears. "Yeah. I'm just going to get straight to the point, Ralph. I'm not really into the whole blind date thing. But I trust George not to set me up with some lunatic. So, I guess I'll just be forward and ask you if you would like to join me for lunch tomorrow?"
"Oh." My main grave-digging day. I look at my closet where I hid my shovel. I usually tell people that Sundays are no good for me because of this. But I figure, if I'm with Flora, I won't think about the cemetery filled with skulls. Anyway, I'm over grave-digging. I made the resolution.
I take a deep breath before talking into the phone once more. "Tomorrow sounds fantastic."
"I'll have a coke, please," I say.
Flora looks at our waiter before smiling. "Make that two, please. Thank you."
Our waiter takes down our orders and walks away. I stare at Flora for what seems to be the thousandth time. Light brown hair seems to go perfectly with her hazelnut eyes. She also has an amazing bone structure. I have a difficult time not thinking about her high cheekbones—I've seen many beautiful bones before, but none so beautiful when under skin.
"So, you and George went to college together?" she asks.
I nod my head. "Yeah, old dorm pals. How did you two meet?"
"Oh, I used to be the waitress at a coffee shop near his house. I've been able to work my way up to manager since then. It's not the best job out there, but it's a stepping stone."
"A stepping stone that pays the bills," I reply.
Flora's laughter fills the atmosphere. I find my thoughts drifting away from the cemetery that has become my second home. I begin to wonder why George was never persistent in setting us up before I asked.
A few moments later, our drinks come. We both order our meals, which goes easier than I planned. Being a single guy, I don't usually go out much. Lean Cuisine has become my gourmet meal over the years.
"So what are your hobbies, Ralph?"
My eyes widen as she asks the question and I nearly choke on my water. I try to think of something smart and witty, but all that comes out is: "I like to water plants."
Flora blinks a few times before speaking. "Um…what?" she asks.
I shake my head and put my glass of soda down. "I mean, I like growing plants. It might not be that interesting, but it's relaxing." I chuckle awkwardly. "What, um . . . what about you?" I ask, willing to get the attention off of me.
"I always enjoy a good book. It's not as unique as planting, but it's what I enjoy."
I shake my head because it's obvious that I have made her uncomfortable, just about the last thing that I want to do. "Reading is good. It's a good hobby. It's nice and simple."
"Yes, it is," she says. "Any other hobbies?"
"Yeah, I paint a lot. More than I plant, actually. Don't know why I mentioned planting first. I'm feeling a little . . ."
"A little what?" she asks.
"Oh, I don't know. At a loss of words." I find myself staring at her again—a deep, intent stare. I'm not a very nervous guy, but for some reason, I don't know what to say to her. Will anything less than perfect be acceptable?
Because I'm not used to doing this kind of thing, I think. Because of the contours of your face. Because I don't understand how a person can be so incredible. What else do you need? I would never vocalize my thoughts, though. Instead, I say, "I don't know. A little tired, I guess. But it's not stopping me from having a good time."
She smiles at me, that warm smile that seems like it could give life to the undead—you know what, bad metaphor, because the second I think of the undead, I think of skulls. And now that I'm thinking of skulls, I'm thinking about how wonderful they feel, and how they shine like her teeth when properly cleaned. And this makes me wonder what her skull looks like. It is bound to be beautiful, I think, which makes me wonder how a relationship could ever survive between us—between Flora and me. Because I could never work up the courage to say that I don't love planting or painting nearly as much as I love digging in cemeteries at night.
But she gives me this skeptical look, and I realize that I have to give it up. I don't care that George doesn't believe that I have it in me to stick to my resolution, because when I see her eyes and the way they remind me of Nutella, I believe—I really, truly believe—that everything's going to be all right. Somehow.
"What are you thinking about?" she asks.
I take a deep breath. "Just how wonderful it is here with you." The cheesy words leave my mouth quickly, but I don't seem to regret them because they speak the truth.
Flora and I decide that we enjoyed our time together, and that we should get together again. "Tomorrow?" she asked me, and I said, "Yes." We are going to meet after work for dinner again, which gives me more than enough time to do whatever I want to do, because I work the morning shift.
This is a mixed blessing, because what I want to do, is not what I should do. Besides, it would be way too early to do any digging.
During the dinner, I find more of Flora to marvel over. The way her hair curls around her ears. The dimples she gets when she laughs. The slight blush that comes to her cheeks sometimes, even though I can never seem to figure out why it's there.
I learn a lot about her during the dinner. She is the youngest of four children, having three older brothers. Flora says that they never would let her date when she was in school, being way too overprotective. I also learn that her favorite store is the Godiva store near her house because she loves the smell of chocolate. Sometimes, she just goes in and takes a long time walking around, taking in the aroma. She can't afford to buy anything—it's way too expensive for her, and I feel a bond over our mutual poorness. So she just . . . stands there and waits till she is offered a sample.
As the minutes pass, my love for her grows. I know it sounds horribly cheesy, but it's true. I love Flora Moore, and I'm not afraid to say it! Well, yes I am, and that's one of the problems. I am terribly afraid because I don't see how she could reciprocate love for long. In a relationship, my hobby is bound to come out, and after that, it would be all over. But maybe I could just get rid of the skulls and the shovel in my closet for good. She wouldn't ever have to know. It sounds like a plan, until the waiter comes and sets our salad bowls on the table, and I don't know if it's the roundness or the whiteness of the bowls, but they suddenly look like skulls.
What is it about dishes? I wonder.
Flora doesn't seem to notice that she is sticking her fork in an eye socket, but I do, so I excuse myself to go to the bathroom.
"Get a hold of yourself, Ralph," I say looking into the mirror, splashing my face with water. "They're just salad bowls, not skulls."
I see a guy leaving a urinal, and he seems to weirded out by me to wash his hands, so he just slowly backs out of the bathroom. Screw him, I think. Screw this obsession!
Once I feel composed, I make my way back to our table.
"Why's your shirt all wet?" she asks.
I look down. I must have gotten water on it when I washed off my face. "Oh, nothing. Just bad aim."
She gives me a really weird look, and I realize what I've said. "Oh, not like that," I say laughing. "Just the with the sink. I accidentally splashed my self."
"Oh!" she says, and she begins to laugh, too.
Later that week, we get together for dinner again. Afterwards, we head back to my apartment. She had asked to come, and I said sure. When we get there, she looks at some of my plants and paintings. "You're a good painter," she says, and it makes me smile.
The whole time, I make sure to keep her away from my bedroom. I don't like the idea of her being too close to my closet, just in case she has the sudden urge to look in. That, and I feel that our relationship isn't exactly ready for that step.
We decide to watch a movie on television. Sitting on the couch, she actually brings her legs up and tucks them under her body while leaning her head against my shoulder. It makes my heart beat at a thousand times its normal rate, and I hope she doesn't notice, because it's ridiculous that I am getting so excited over such a little thing. Flora is just tired after a long day of work, and I'm the most convenient pillow. That's all.
When the movie's over, she has to go, and I escort to the door.
"Thank you for all that," she says. "I had a lot of fun."
"Me too," I say, and smile down at her. She is shorter than I am, the top of her head only reaching the tip of my nose. "Thank you for watching the movie with me."
She giggles, and says, "You're welcome. Can I have just one more thing?"
"Bend your knees slightly," she says, and I comply. And she does the last thing I expect her to do: she slowly moves her head towards mine, and touches her lips to my lips. My lips. The kiss is slow at first, and I notice just how warm her lips are, and I realize how I never before admired how smooth they are, either. She picks up the pace a little, pushing further into me and wrapping her arms around my body. Her lips are no longer warm; instead, they burn with a fiery passion, and just when I'm feeling that I would like to stay this way forever with her lips plastered to mine, she pulls away, smirking.
"Call me soon," she says, and she gives a little wave as she walks out the door.
The next month was one of the best ones of my life. Flora and I had taken to either seeing or calling each other everyday. Sometimes I would pick her up after work and we would go for a stroll in the park. She introduced me to a few of her friends, and I introduced her to a few of mine.
The first time we kissed was at the door of my apartment, but let me tell you, it was not the last. Every time her lips seemed to get softer, and every time I kissed her, I held her tighter to me.
Our relationship went past just kissing and watching old movies on the couch. We often went out for romantic dinners as well as other activities. I learned that bowling was one thing Flora loved, but was not necessarily good at. This was okay with me, because I was horrible at it as well.
As the days and eventually weeks went by, we were officially in a relationship. We would hold hands as we walked along the streets. We even celebrated our one-month anniversary. I bought her a necklace. I regretted not being able to buy her a more elaborate present, perhaps real pearls or diamonds, but I didn't—and still don't—have that kind of money. None of this mattered to Flora, though. She wore the necklace every day since she got it.
Flora told me everything about her life. I told her everything in return, everything except for one very important detail, that is. My grave-digging hobby was kept to myself. I hadn't dug in over a month. I didn't like lying to her about such a big part of my life. It was something that I was able to overcome, and I might not have been able to get over it without her. I barely even thought about skulls when I was around her. She seemed to be the perfect distraction.
But don't think that's all I used Flora for, as a distraction. It was nothing at all like that. I enjoyed her company and she enjoyed mine. As time went by, my love for her only grew. Every single love song I listened to reminded me of her. SuddenlyFor once, I felt a complete belonging in the world, like I was finally meant for something. Every time she told me she loved me—she was the first to say it—I felt as if I only needed to hear those three words escape her warm, soft lips, and I would be perfectly happy forever.
The time went by quickly, but over the short month, I realized that Flora was the only thing I needed.
Skulls and cemeteries are my past, I thought to myself one day. Now, I have Flora.
Another month went by. The first two weeks weren't much different than theall that different from the first month. But after that, it seemed as if the entire world had twisted around and I was the only one stuck.
I went to pick Flora up from work one day. My plan was to surprise her with a nice dinner. I managed to save a few extra dollars over the week, and I wanted to treat the love of my life.
The only problem was, she wasn't there.
I tried calling her phone (both home and mobile), but she didn't pick up or call me back.
I called George, but he said he hadn't spoken to her since he set the two of us up. George was working on getting his master's degree. But he wasn't the simple kind of guy; he had to go overseas to get it, leaving me all alone.
Time drifted slowly. One week later and she hadn't called me back.
At first I thought, Maybe she went on a business trip? Until I realized that she was a manager at a coffee shop and her idea of a business trip was going to the store and buying more coffee beans.
Then I thought, Maybe she's just really busy?
I kept trying to think about reasonable solutions, but then I just gave up. What was the point of being optimistic anymore?
It's a week later, and it dawns on me that Flora isn't coming back. I don't know why this happened, but it's the truth.
More weeks go by, and I assume she has left town.
It's probably for the better, I think, before opening my closet, and taking out my rusty shovel.
Months creep on by. It's strange how everything in the world manages to go along without Flora being in my arms, where she belongs. People still walk along the streets, and I still manage to get up every morning and go to work.
I miss her. But I know that it was her choice to leave. I don't understand why she didn't say goodbye, at least. I remember her telling me it was her dream to travel the world. I told her I would be the one to follow her on this journey, but I guess she decided that I wasn't part of the plan.
Some people find it easier to leave without saying goodbye. I suppose Flora is just that kind of person.
At first I was angry, but now I realize that I need to let her go. It's not something that I am able to do easily, but thinking about her, and having the hope that she will come back to me eventually hurts too much.
That's one reason why I love skulls. They don't leave and they can't break your heart.
The feeling I get before uncovering a new skull surges through me, and I feel the tips of my fingers tingle with eagerness.
I am walking through the cemetery. It is a week till New Year's—just a week under a year since I made my resolution. And I know that I failed. George was right; it was too hard a resolution for me to stick to—I'm not disciplined enough to change my ways.
I have been trying to limit myself to one skull every two weeks, out of fear of someone catching on to what I do. I can imagine myself going up before a judge and pleading temporary insanity, knowing that I am lying through my teeth, because my insanity is more than temporary. It is forever; it is incurable.
I pass the gravestones, looking for one that I know has been there for a while—I've managed to steal a copy of the dates bodies were buried, so I know which ones are ready for digging. Using a flashlight, I read off the names on the stones as I pass them, searching for the right one:
"Damien Kingsly, Robert Wilson, Brent Epstein, Flora Moore, Ella—"
I take a step back and stare wide-eyed at one of the gravestones I just passed.
"Here lies Flora Moore. July 19, 1982 – February 16, 2009," the inscription reads.
"She . . . died," I whisper. My breath is a small trail of steam, slowly dissipating in the night's darkness. "But . . . but, how?"
I kneel down at the base of the stone, staring at the inscription, taking in the meaning of its words. After a minute, it is no longer just imprinted in the gravestone, but in my mind, too, in my heart, in my soul, in every facet of my being.
"Why didn't anyone tell me?!" I shout.
Did George know? I poured my heart out to him; I told him she had been ignoring me, and he just said . . . nothing except "I'm sorry."
That's when I remember where he was on February 16, 2009—in Italy, on a study abroad program.
I look at the way the flashlight's beam hits the headstone. It's a yellow circle on the gray of the stone, but all of a sudden the beam is no longer a circle anymore. It's a skull. The urge pulsates through me, revived, having been deterred for the last few minutes since I found Flora's grave. The tingle is there in my fingertips once again, and I reach for the shovel at my side. But the skull begins to cover itself with skin. Then it grows chestnut hair. Eyes appear, and a nose begins to form. It is Flora. She's smiling at me. And I am reminded of just how much I love her dimples.
But I can see the skull behind her translucent face, and suddenly there is a battle over my mind. Do I let my love for Flora win or my need to touch her skull?
I don't know how many times I pick up the shovel, prepared to drive it into the earth, just to set it back down. Too many to count.
I feel my heart ripping in two, dividing between the disgusting life I've always known here in the cemetery and the impossible hope of the life I wish I could have with Flora. They pull at me, and I can feel their pressure pushing from the inside out. I begin to cry as the emotions pour out of me, tears streaming down my face.
"Flora!" I shout, but there's no use yelling, because no matter how loud I am, I cannot bring her back. So I just lie down and beat the ground that separates her from me.
That is when I think about how easy it would be to bring us closer together, to bridge the separation of just a few feet. So I lift up the shovel.
And it is through tears that I whisper to myself, "Dear God, why couldn't she just have been cremated?"
This story is linked from SKoW on RentBoheme's profile. We would love to hear your comments. Thanks for reading!
- Morine (and in spirit, RentBoheme)