Review by Kitty Sarkozy for I’ll Tell You a Love Story the 2020 collection by Couri Johnson. Review by Shawna Borman for The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: Volume One edited by Paula Guran. Both reviews read by Graeme Dunlop.
by Couri Johnson
After the earthquake, she goes out collecting bones. It’s easy enough. The ground of the graveyard has been split open, caving in near the center in a deep pit, from which several fissures run off in all directions. Like how a child draws a star. Or maybe like an asterisk. One to be tacked onto the sentence Rest in Peace*. (*Unless the dirt decides maybe it’s too good for you one day, and spits you back up.) All around the crags, the ground is littered with bits of coffins, femurs, collarbones, and jaws. Teeth clustered like cigarette butts outside bars. She pockets these and can hear them rattle when she walks. Every now and then she slips a hand in and runs them through her fingers. The rest she gathers on a blanket and rolls up to carry fireman-style over her shoulder. She can only carry so many at a time, but she doesn’t mind. It’s good to get out of the house. It’s good to have a hobby. Her tapes say so.
She steps too close to the edge of the pit and looks down. It goes deep. Deep-deep. So deep the darkness seems to take on mass. The dark looks solid enough to crawl out of the hole. To maybe say something. To maybe speak her name.
“Hello?” she says, and her voice bounces off its dirt walls before being muffled into nothing. She waits a moment, bent at the waist with an ear cocked towards the pit, but it doesn’t reply. She sucks all her saliva to the back of her throat and hawks a loogie into it.
The boy hated stuff like that. Like when she had tried to spit into the mouth of a bass in a river below. Gross, he called it.
She feels embarrassed but misconstrues it for pride.
“It’s rude not to respond,” she tells the pit. She gathers her bones in her arms and picks her way between the fissures, out of the graveyard.
The FEMA man said that the building she lives in is mostly undamaged. That’s subjective, she thinks. Part of the earth underneath the foundation crumbled so it sits at a slant. The same goes for the identical apartment building next to it. They’ve slumped together, their roofs resting against each other’s like twin sisters dozing off in the back of a car. She had always wanted a twin. She thought a twin would come with a built-in permanent bond, and maybe telepathic powers. She may have thought the snuggling apartments were cute in their sleepy togetherness. She may have envied them. But it put her floor at such an angle that she couldn’t keep anything still without nailing boards down for her furniture to catch on, so instead she’s mostly just annoyed.
The FEMA man had told her about the boards and showed her how to set them up by doing it for her coffee table. He left her a few nails, a hammer because she didn’t have one, and some wood. Like the rest of her things, they had slid against the wall in a heap.
That was all they could do for now, the FEMA man said. There was greater need all throughout the city. After things like this, hurt becomes quantifiable. Not all hurts are equal, or deserving of attention.
She and the graveyard remain distressed.
Although, to be honest, things aren’t that different from before. She was never great at housekeeping. Only now her clutter is all in one place, and there are three near-complete skeletons on her couch.
Her front window is also broken, but she’d done that before the earthquake.
When she comes in, she lays the blanket across the skeletons’ legs. Only the middle one has both, and it’s in want of a foot and an arm. Every time she comes home they tell her what they’re in need off.
“Did you bring me a clavicle?” says the one.
“A tibia?” says the second.
“If I had fingers, I could play the most beautiful melodies for you. Just get me a piano, and some phalanges.” says the one again.
She has heard such promises before. The third one, her newest, doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have the mandibles. He just stares at her with his sockets like the pit. But she knows this isn’t his fault.
She loots her phone out of the clutter against the wall and checks it, but there’s nothing from anyone she knows. Just strangers on apps trying to reach out to other strangers. Mostly for nudes, she thinks. She sets it back down, and it slides into the clutter. She lets it go. Don’t let technology rule you. That’s what one of her tapes said.
Next she searches out her player, the one she bought from a thrift store before the quake, a book on anatomy she found in the ruins of the library, and her box of tapes. The last is the easiest to find. She always tucks it under the cushions of her couch. Sometimes it shifts around if the skeletons have squirmed while she is gone. But they never do that much. Back before the quake, and back before the broken window, when the boy used to lay with her on the couch, the tapes used to move a lot more. Sometimes the box would even open and all the tapes would spill out and she’d have to fish them out of the bottom of the couch one by one.
Always count things that could be worse, or once were worse, or even just different. Count what you can. Keep track of the quantities of your life. Run a tally.
That came from a tape, and the tapes had come from the old man upstairs, who liked to record himself reading self-help books. He left them outside his neighbor’s doors. She kept them. She’d seen him looting through the dumpster and retrieving the ones chucked away. She felt sorry for him. And she also thought she could use some guidance. Now, they’re the last two left in the building. Everyone else had somewhere else to go.
She has twenty-two tapes in total. She’s never spoken to the man, but she knows his voice better than she knows her own father’s, possibly even better than she knows her own. It’s a road-rash voice. One that gets stuck in the ear and stays there. Every now and then it floats through her mind when she’s out doing other things. She prefers this to when the boy’s voice creeps in. His is only ever critical.
It was the old man’s voice that had given her the idea about the bones. She had been walking past the graveyard on her way to where FEMA had set up its headquarters. The man with the boards had told her to register her name as a survivor down there, and that’s what she was going to do. She wasn’t, she told herself, going to check for the boy’s name. She was just going to announce to the world that she was still here. Though no one yet had called asking. She’d gotten one message from a woman she didn’t know yet, asking if she was alive. They were supposed to have coffee later that month. She didn’t reply.
Care makes us human, the old man’s voice told her. Care is the cornerstone of civilization. Without it, we degrade into wildness. Without it, we dissolve into nothing. Care is what makes us real.
All around, the houses were split in twos or threes or crumbled into nothing, fissures of broken concrete and grass stretching to their porches and reaching down into their foundations to shake them apart. Like tentacles from some Sci-Fi flick. The whole city had gone Lovecraft. Not even suburbia had survived. Fences and pink flamingos were tossed aside or swallowed. Across the road, the brick and wrought iron fence that had caged in the graveyard had crumbled and twisted like used tissue. A skull had bounced all the way out of bounds and onto the sidewalk. And did she care? Was she cared for?
We must find people who care. We must make people care. To make us real. Or else, we’re nothing.
She knew make wasn’t meant literally, but she also didn’t see why it couldn’t be. It seemed simpler than the alternative. Easier, in the long run. And so instead of going down to register as a survivor, she climbed the rubble of the fence into the graveyard.
That advice had come from a tape titled Becoming a Real Person, the most recent tape the old man had given to her. It’s the one in her tape deck now, and so far she thinks it’s the best out of all of them. Before this, her favorite had been How to Keep Your Face Still When You Need to. She’d listened to that one often back before the quake, when she had a job to go to and there were people in the streets. But now it isn’t so important. She lets her face do what it wants.
She hits play and it starts mid-sentence:
“without others’ hands and eyes. How can you know you are flesh if there is no one there to touch you? To verify that this skin is here. This body is here. How can you be sure you can be seen, if there are no eyes to see you?”
She opens up the blanket and starts detangling the bones. The skeletons lean their heads forward to see what she’s brought home.
“Have you ever wondered if these are real books?” asks the second skeleton.
She doesn’t say anything back. She picks up a skull and runs her hands over it to brush the dirt off. Then she opens the anatomy book to the page about heads, necks, and shoulders.
“No,” groans the first. “You promised you wouldn’t start another.”
The jawless skeleton’s head rattles side to side to side until she reaches up and touches his empty knee socket.
“I’ll see what I have for all of you,” she says. “But look at this poor guy. His need is so great. He’s got nothing.” She holds the skull up so they can see into its eyes, and they quiet down.
Really, she knows once she gives them everything they need, only one of two things can happen. Either they’ll leave. Or they’ll want something more. Maybe their real teeth. Their real bones. Their real selves. Their real families. Things she can’t give them. Which will just boil down to them leaving as well, but after giving her much more of a headache.
She doesn’t need the tapes to tell her that.
“You will never be a real person until someone tells you you are a real person. Until then, you are nothing more than dust motes. You are nothing more than an accidental cluster of atoms. A photograph only partially developed.”
She pulls a bone out of the pile and looks from it to the book. She never studied anatomy. Her two years in college had been wasted on pursuing a degree in fine arts with a focus on pottery. Back then she studied bodies in a casual, romantic way, but she never really known any of them for long. The only body she had ever really known was her own, and can one really accurately know one’s body? And then she knew the boy’s body, for a while. She knew the curve of his ribs, the bend of his elbow, the click of his jaw. She became a specialist in his anatomy. She knew when his spine curved a certain way and his fingers spread, she was becoming his world. She knew when his teeth clenched and shoulders hunched, bad weather was rolling in. She could still conjure pictures of his body behind her eyes.
She sets the skull between the knees of one of the skeletons. “Hold him still,” she says. She gathers what looks to be scattered bits of spine. They aren’t exactly the same size, but they will do. She uncaps her glue and turns to the skull.
The tape finishes, and she flips it and starts it again. The first skeleton groans, but the others stay quiet. She takes a break every now and then to check her phone. Sometimes she pulls up the news. There’re warnings about aftershocks. The list of survivors has been published without her. She doesn’t look. There’s footage of buildings downtown collapsing in on themselves as the camera filming it shakes. There’s footage of people crying. People sitting on the ground, dazed and dirt spackled, under long pavilion styled tents. There is a moment where she catches sight of a survivor and nearly recognizes him as him. It’s hard to know for sure, because it’s only someone in the background. It’s only someone who is covered in dust and moving with purpose towards someone else, their face only partially caught by the camera. It is only just a glimpse, and whenever she catches glimpses of someone who looks enough like him, she is always recognizing them as him. It means nothing.
She rewinds it anyway to watch one more time. And then again.
“He’s dry now,” the one calls from the couch.
She sets her phone down and it slides back into the clutter. The newest skeleton is just a spine, shoulder blades, and an arm. She’ll bring him ribs if she can find them tomorrow. Tomorrow, he’ll be awake. For now, she props him up against the end of the couch so his arm dangles over the armrest.
She works on the others, filling in their gaps. She gives the third the rest of an arm, a piece of pelvis, finishes one of his legs down to his foot. The first gets all the fingers. The second gets a foot and some toes. She works until after midnight and all that’s left in the blanket are bits of bone shard so fine they look like sugar.
She stands up and wraps the blanket around herself like a cape and then drops down between the third skeleton and the newest one. The third skeleton turns his face towards her, his skull bouncing on the base of his spine. She reaches up to touch his cheekbone.
“Tomorrow I’ll find you a jaw,” she promises.
She wakes to a thump on her door sometime past ten. She untangles herself from the blanket and the bones. The morning is always the worst. Dew slips in the broken window and soaks the clutter against the wall and the top of the couch. It even gets in her hair and wets the top of the skeletons’ skulls. Their teeth rattle in their sleep from the cold. But there isn’t enough space in her bed for all of them. It’s also the hardest to fight against the tilt of her floor in the mornings. She keeps forgetting the shape of the world in her sleep, and the first steps of the day are always surprising.
At the door, lying on her mat, is a tape. The front door of her building is hanging open and outside she hears a car door slam. Voices bickering. She steps out into the hall and looks out. At the curb there’s a station wagon idling, and a man and woman talking over the roof. In the backseat the old man from upstairs sits. In the hatch are a few suitcases and filled trash bags. The woman lowers herself into the car, and the man looks back once at the apartment building. He sees her standing there, and gives her a strained smile before dropping into the car as well.
The old man doesn’t look at all before the car pulls off.
She walks out the door and stands at the curb. She can still smell the smog from their exhaust pipe. She looks down the road and watches as the car rocks over a makeshift bridge of boards stretched over a fissure in the ground. She wants to stand there and watch them until they’re out of sight, but with the road the way it is, it’s slow going. The fact that they made it at all is surprising. It`s evidence of great care.
She feels grief and misconstrues it as anger.
She turns around and walks back into her apartment, leaving the tape on the mat.
“Are you going to the graveyard?” the one asks, but she walks past them and closes herself up in the bathroom. She sits on the toilet and hangs her head between her knees and counts her toes.
Without another person to witness your life, does your life mean anything at all?
It’s too much for me to handle on my own, the boy says. I can’t be the one to take care of you.
She closes her eyes and can see the haze of station wagon exhaust. The old man’s face smeared behind tinted glass. The woman and the man sitting together upfront, having a small argument.
She feels jealousy and misconstrues it as betrayal.
She lets herself sit with that misunderstanding until she dozes off.
There is a scratching at the bathroom door. She wakes to it. She thinks about letting it be, but as if the sound can read her mind, it grows more frantic. She thinks of gouges in the wood. She wonders if her landlord is dead.
When she opens the door, it’s her favorite, the third, laying outside. His arm is outstretched and the hand is still flapping up and down on his wrist. He stares up at her.
She gathers him up in her arms and carries him back to the couch.
“You can’t let us keep living like this,” says the second. “Being incomplete is torture.”
The fourth is still asleep. She can see pearls of glue that have oozed out between the seams of his spine. When he wakes, will he wake disoriented? That’s how it was with the others. All of them came to screaming. Except for the third. She had seen to that when she cracked his jaw off in the cemetery.
She feels empathy but misconstrues it as pity.
“Okay,” she says. “Fine.”
She takes three shopping carts from the ruined dollar store down the road. She’ll need some kind of rope to be as efficient as possible, and she’ll need more glue from inside. The store caved in completely. Its roof lays on top of its remains like a stone tablet cracked in two. She has to pull out stone after stone before she can squeeze under it and crawl through the remains of the store’s guts.
When she’s inside, there’s only just enough light to make out the vague shape of things in the dark. Bits of plastic toys dig into the palms of her hands. She feels her way through puddles of water and soda. Feels wet stuffing between her fingers. She remembers a story she was told as a child. About a stuffed rabbit that wanted to be made real. Care is key.
The old man should not have acted like he was lonely if he was not alone.
She presses forward, feeling her way through the half-light. She hits a wall of rubble. Follows it to the right, and her hand lands in something wet again. When she reaches forward she feels soft flesh and the edge of cloth. She stares down at where she knows her hand to be until the darkness takes the shape of an arm sprouting out of a polo shirt. A torso with a name tag she can’t read.
She wonders for the first time what she’ll do when the world rights itself. When the people who can go back to living finally do go back to living. The world will shake off the dust and march on, and those who can’t march along will go back in the dirt. They’ll dissolve into phantoms.
She holds the hand of the corpse. She feels fear and misconstrues it as grief.
The building shakes. Beneath her the earth bucks. She lets go of the corpse’s hand and curls into a ball. The aftershock passes.
“Sorry,” she says, and crawls over the body. She keeps crawling, and keeps searching until her hands brush against yarn, soft and unspooled and just strong enough to handle what she needs of it.
She pulls the train of carts she tied together into the graveyard. She is covered head to toe in dollar store dust. It’s in her eyes, causing the light to sparkle and pop like there are fairies floating all around her. It’s in her mouth, making everything taste like plaster and mold. It is on her skin, dying her white as a plastic bag. She feels closer to the bones than ever before.
She begins to load the carts, picking bones indiscriminately. Her choices have always been uneducated, but she had looked, at least, before. Tried to imagine which parts might fit where. Now she just brings arm loads to the shopping carts and dumps them in, one after the other. When her arms are empty she runs through the graveyard till they’re full again. Already, the sun is setting. She’d been under the rubble for longer than she thought.
She comes to the mouth of the pit when all but the last cart are completely full, and she looks down into it. The black of it is seeping up. Reaching out towards her.
There is a nothing inside of all of us. We are nothing, all of us. We need others to act as mirrors. So that we can be vigilante against the parts of ourselves that would eat the rest of us whole, says the old man.
The way you act is irrational, says the boy.
I never know who I’m talking to.
I think I’ve never really known you at all.
She kicks her foot into the dirt and a clump of it comes loose and falls into the pit, cartwheeling as it goes. It slips from view. She imagines running behind the carts until they pick up enough speed, then jumping on the back. She imagines them all plummeting over the edge and falling together.
“If you have something to say then say it,” she says. But the pit just throbs, and the sun goes down.
She props the door to her building open and pushes the carts up the slanted floor towards her door. When she gets there the tape is gone and the door is ajar. Inside she can hear the old man’s voice. She releases the carts and they roll back to hit her in the stomach. She buckles for a moment before moving out of the way. The carts roll past her and smash into the wall, scattering bones all over the floor. She ignores this in favor of the door.
Someone, she thinks, has come back. Maybe the old man. Or maybe someone`s come to see if she’s alive. Maybe someone she used to work with. Or maybe even her family. Or maybe even the boy.
As she opens the door, she can see him, shoulders hunched over the player in the dark of her apartment. The old man’s voice, the new tape, is playing.
“When I was a boy I used to think about colors. How we saw them. How we could never be sure that what we were seeing was like anyone else was seeing. We look at something and call it blue, but how can I know that my blue is your blue?”
She steps closer and rubs dollar store out of her eye. “Honey?” she asks, and he turns his head. But there are no eyes. No nose. No body.
“Are you the one who brought me here?” asks the fourth skeleton.
“How can we know that our reality matches anyone else’s? Language is a trap. It falls short of any true meaning. It is a fool’s comfort. And feelings? We learn the names of our feelings because people tell us what we are feeling when we are feeling it based on what they can see. But how can they truly know what we’re feeling? So then, how can we?”
The three are asleep on the couch. Except maybe the third. She can never tell with the third. Is he watching her? Did he let the fourth touch her things? Did he let him open the door? Did he let him fool her into thinking that there was someone coming for her?
The fourth pushes and pulls himself away from the player towards her. He reaches for her ankle, and she backs away.
“You have to finish me up,” he says. “I can’t stand being this way.”
She feels pity but misconstrues it as revulsion. She kicks his hand away and he rolls down the floor and clatters against the wall.
“I wanted to share with you what I felt and what I saw, but there’s no true way.”
She seizes the skeleton out of the clutter and hoists him up against the wall. She pounds him against it, over and over. He screams. She screams Bits of bone splinter. Spine falls to the floor.
“I’m a failure when it comes to being a person. Maybe we all are. I’m sorry.”
Something hard comes down across the top of her skull and her vision becomes all bright bursts of color. She drops the skeleton and they fall together to the floor. She catches sight of the third skeleton, her favorite. His eye sockets are so very close to hers. Then all she can see is nothing.
She wakes to the sound of rattling bones and music. She can’t stand up. Her body is bound with unwound tapes. From the floor, all she can see is ankle bones, spinning and stomping and sliding down the angled floor in pairs to stomp back up it together. She rolls onto her back and tries to prop her head up to get a better view, but before she can, hands grip her ankles and drag her across the floor. Then hands are all over her. She wants to scream but there is tape ribbon lodged in her mouth and around her tongue.
The hands hoist her up and hold her steady. In her apartment, there are wall-to-wall skeletons, dancing. In the corner the one stands, playing the piano, while another bangs on her pots and pans. She tries to count how many and loses track. There are more in the hall. They begin to pour in, and the music grows louder. They form a circle. They spin her around and around and pass her to the next in line. The tape gets caught under her feet sometimes, and she nearly falls, but the next set of hands catches her, lifts her back up, and sets her spinning again.
When she comes full circle, they shove her backwards into the middle. She is sure she is falling when she feels hands hook under her shoulders and drag her back up. She’s turned around once more. Her favorite is holding her, very nearly complete, but still jawless.
He takes the tape ribbon from out of her mouth and unwinds her slowly. A skeleton steps forward with a jaw and a bottle of glue. Her favorite takes them once she is untied. He holds them out to her.
Once something is finished, it’s finished, the boy says. All around her are empty eyes. The music has stopped.
Her favorite presses the jaw into her hand. She can feel the teeth press into her palm. Behind her there is a wall of ribs. She closes her eyes and closes her fingers around the bone. She reaches up to his face and his hands guide her hands to the empty seam.
There is a great cheer, and the music starts up again. When she opens her eyes, they’re all filing out of her apartment, new limbs flailing. The third stands before her, wiggling his jaw. He lays a hand on her shoulder and says something, but she can’t hear him over the music. Two skeletons pick up the piano and carry it so the first can keep playing as he walks. The apartment empties. She can hear them in the street through the shattered glass of her window.
Before the last few are gone the third hoists her up and carries her out the door after them.
They whirl together down the street. Sometimes they do the foxtrot. Sometimes it’s the tango. Sometimes he sends her spinning and she freewheels through the skeletons, crashing into them and nearly falling. She’s never sure if it’s him that takes her hand again, but it no longer seems important. She catches sight of another parade making their way out of downtown. Trucks branded with FEMA drive slowly up the wreckage of the main road. People trail behind, backpacks slung over their shoulders, or jumbled possessions clutched in their arms. For a moment, she thinks they’re going to merge, but the skeletons veer away. They’re heading into the cemetery. She pulls away from the skeletons and watches the survivor procession as it draws closer. The trucks stop in the road when they see the skeletons. The survivors on foot draw alongside them.
Hands spider around her hips and she feels a collarbone press into the back of her neck. Someone lifts her, and she allows herself to be lifted. She’s hoisted upwards, spread out on her back over the hands of a cluster of skeletons, as if she were crowd surfing through them. Up ahead, the leaders have made it to the edge of the pit. She watches the white caps of their head drop down and disappear only to be followed by the next. It looks like a river churning over the brink of a waterfall. The piano goes, and the player after it. The sounds of pots and pans banging is replaced by the quiet murmur of grass under feet and the hum of idling trucks.
She tilts her head back towards the survivors. Everyone looks the same, upside down and far away. Or maybe, everyone looks the same when your heart is hurt and hopeful.
They all look like him.
The earth shakes again and she feels the bones of the many hands holding her shake as well. She looks back and sees the pit widening, clumps of dirt loosening and tumbling under the feet of the skeletons, who follow the earth down into the dark. Still, the ones carrying her surge forward to the opening mouth of it, and she rides along.
All I ever wanted was to be known by someone. To feel one with others, the old man says.
The hands around her ankles let go as the skeletons holding them drop downward. She sits up to look one last time at the survivors. Is one stepping forward? she thinks, but before she can tell, the skeletons beneath her knees and thighs are gone, and it’s too late. She turns to the pit and stares down its dark eye. Then she reaches out her arms and leans forward.
She hears her name being called.
About the Author
Couri Johnson is a graduate of the North Eastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts. She grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a city that is equal parts rust-belt and woodland. This mix has made its way into her work, which combines elements of fabulism and folklore with gritty realism.
About the Narrators
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, actor and robot girlfriend. Kitty is an alumnus of Superstars Writing Seminar , a member of the Apex Writers Group, and the Horror Writer’s Association. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta GA, She enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to kittysarkozy.com.
Graeme Dunlop is a construct of his own mind and thus extremely hard to grasp. He has no discernible skills and often wonders how he became co-editor of a respected fantasy podcast, audio producer of a horror podcast, host and co-founder of a respected YA podcast, and IT Barbarian for a podcast company.
In alternate futures he is Muad’Dib, or a drunken bum living in a skip, or reincarnated as a dog, or living happily in the now.
He’s also a voice actor, with narrations for each of the Escape Artists podcasts.
He lives in Melbourne, Australia with his lovely wife Amanda. They have a crazy boy dog called Jake. Graeme has been involved with Escape Artists since 2008 and PseudoPod since 2011.