Chris Whitehead – THE DANCING BONES

The giant thermometer in Baker said it was seventy-five degrees outside. That had been over an hour ago, and now it was much hotter. The first thing to go was the AC, but now the radiator was on its way out, too. Truth be told, it had been on its way out since before he left San Diego, but Jason was able to keep engine temperatures down by blasting the heater. That was a tip he remembered from drivers ed; it was about all he remembered from that class.

Driving through the Mojave on a summer’s day with the heater on is uncomfortable, especially when there is nothing left to drink. Jason, who had poured the last of his water into the radiator, was now thirsty. Since the last several exits had offered nothing in the realm of services, he was more than happy to see that this next exit at least had a gas station. And so, with the sun in his eyes, Jason made his way off the highway.

He didn’t make it.

The boy left his smoking car parked on the side of the freeway, grabbed his wallet, and set out on foot. He never considered himself lucky, but to break down within walking distance of a gas station. No, you didn’t get much more lucky than that.

Sanderstown is not a town, but a cluster of three buildings floating in a sea of brown sand. To most of the world it doesn’t even exist. It’s too small for most maps and even the most basic GPS ignores it. Unfortunately, for Jason this wasn’t an option.

An old bell jangled when Jason walked into the gas station. The old man sat at the service counter playing solitaire. He was dusty. Jason looked the place over and saw that, in fact, the whole place was dusty. To make things worse there were no Gatorades, Power-whatsits, or even bottles of water. Just an old RC Cola machine in the corner. Jason sneezed, but the old man didn’t move.

“Um, sir.” Jason stood in front of the counter, but the dusty old man just kept flipping his cards. “Sir.”

The man glanced up and looked around the room. It took him a few moments to notice the boy standing in front of him. The old man cleared his throat.

“How can I help you?”

“Um, well my car broke down just by the exit.”

“Yup,” the old man said.

“Well, is there a mechanic here, or a phone maybe?”

“Yup,” the old man said.

“Oh, which one?”

“Both.” The old man looked down and started flipping his cards.

Jason cleared his throat. “Maybe I can talk to him?”

“The phone?”

“No sir, the mechanic. Is that his shop over there?” Jason pointed out the window to a building buried in rusty car parts.

“Yup, but he don’t get up for another couple hours.”

“Oh okay, the phone then.”

The old man pointed to the rotary dial dinosaur in the corner and went back to flipping his cards.

It took Jason a few minutes to figure out the phone. He’d seen something similar in preschool, but of course that one had little red wheels and eyes that blinked when it rolled. This phone had neither of those things. He made his call anyway and walked back over to the counter.

“Tow trucks won’t come out here?” he asked. “Why’s that?”

“Bill,” the old man said without even looking up.

“Bill?” A hint of irritation was creeping into the boy’s voice.

“Yup, Bill.”

Jason gave up. “Does the Pepsi machine work?”

“That there’s RC Cola.”

“Fine. Does it work?”

“Nope, Bill took care of that too.”

“At the same time?” Jason tried to laugh. This old guy had to be messing with him.

The old man was serious. “Yup, same bullet.”

“Wait, what?”

“I said ‘same bullet’.”

“No, I heard that. What do you mean?”

“What do you mean what do I mean?” The old man put his cards down and glared at Jason. “He missed the tow truck driver and hit the cola man.”

“What?”

“I said he missed the tow truck driver and hit the cola man. You on the drugs son?”

Jason was not on the drugs, but he figured the old man might be – and probably Bill too.

“You ask a lot of questions son, like a woman. Why don’t you go bother my wife over at the diner? Go talk her ear off.”

The bell jangled as Jason walked out of the gas station. What is this place? He hadn’t seen a single car pull in. He walked over to get a closer look at the pumps.

“I bet these things don’t even work.” He kicked the pump. Stupid gas pump.

The diner was a short, squat building on the other side of what looked like a mechanic’s shop. Like the other two buildings it was pretty depressing. The hand painted sign was so peeled by the sun that he couldn’t tell if the diner belonged to “Ma” or “Mo”.

“Probably Ma’s,” he thought and this made him feel a little bit better. He did, himself, have a mother after all.

Jason was greeted by the jangle of another dusty, old bell. The inside of the diner was just as bad as the outside. The booth upholstery was cracked and peeling and the tables were chipped and worn. One table had even been ripped out of the wall where it looked like someone had tried to throw it across the room. A bar wrapped around one side of the diner and behind it a window opened into the kitchen. Jason didn’t see anyone back there.

The whole place smelled, well actually, it smelled like nothing. No food, no spilled drinks, nothing. There was just dust everywhere. Jason leaned down to draw in the dust on the bar.

“What’ll ya have?” An old woman asked as she came out from a backroom.

“Ummm, I’m looking for someone to help me fix my car.” Jason rushed to wipe out his doodle.

“Nope,” the old woman answered. “Don’t fix cars here, just food. This here’s a diner.”

“Okay, well I guess I’ll have a burger or something?”

“What kind of burger?” The old woman got out a notepad.

“Doesn’t matter, just a regular one I guess.”

“We don’t have that.” The old woman put down her pad. “Cook’s not up yet.”

“What? Why did you, why didn’t you say that?”

“Don’t get mad son, he’ll be here soon.” The old woman went into the kitchen and returned with a glass of water. It tasted like dust. “Say, I didn’t see your car. You on the drugs or somethin?”

As politely as he could, Jason explained that he was not on the drugs, but his car broke down and he was looking for a mechanic because tow trucks didn’t come out here anymore. Also he was not from the city; he was from the suburbs.

The old lady nodded a few times as if she understood.

“Good, Jason thought. “Someone understands me.”

This however, was not the case as the old woman had fallen asleep mid-conversation. That explains the nodding. Jason’s water tasted of defeat but he drank it anyway. Then he waited. He waited and waited some more, and eventually, he fell asleep.

He woke to the sound of hamburgers frying. The old lady was sitting at a booth playing cards. Across from her sat a small man with a mustache.

“Or a mustache with a man,” Jason thought. The mustache was huge. The mustache, if it were a friendly mustache, could have wrapped its hairy limbs around you in the world’s greatest hug. On the other hand if it was like everyone else in this town. Jason shuddered. No, that mustache was probably not friendly.

“What are you looking at, city boy?” Mustache pointed at him.

“Um, sorry. Hey, I’m Jason. Um, my car broke down.”

“I seen it.” Mustache cut in.

“I already told him,” the old lady added.

“Oh. Is the mechanic up yet?” Jason asked

“Why do you need a mechanic?” Mustache asked.

Jason wasn’t sure how to answer that. “My car broke down.”

“I seen it.” Mustache said again. “Radiator’s shot, needs replaced.”

“This is Bill. He’s the mechanic.” The old lady cut in.

“Oh good. Thank you. How long will that…”

“Get to it when I can.” Bill said

“Really?” Jason stood up, throwing his hands in the air. Then he thought about the tow truck driver and the soda guy and sat back down. He’d rather not argue. Instead, he stepped outside to clear his head. The desert air was still warm from the day and it felt nice. To his surprise, the lights were still on at the gas station and, as he had nothing else to do, Jason thought he’d drop in on the old man.

“Heard you met Bill,” the old man said over the jangle of the bell.

“Ya, seems like a good guy.” Jason lied. “As long as he doesn’t have a gun, I guess.”

“He does.”

“Oh,” he didn’t know what to say, but that certainly didn’t make him feel any better. “Can I use your phone?”

“Nope, it’s broke.”

“Bill?” Jason asked.

“Yup.” the old man said.

*****

It had been four days since his car broke down. Bill said he was waiting for parts, but Jason didn’t believe him. Not once had he seen Bill fix anything. He was, however, well aware of at least three things Bill had ruined. Worse, not a single car had pulled in for gas.

Sleeping in a booth at the diner was working wonder on his neck. He had no idea where everyone else went at night, but he didn’t want to ask. What he wanted was to leave.

“How long do you think it would take to walk forty miles?” he asked the old man.

“You or me?” the old man said.

“Me”

“City boy like you, it’d be like Moses and all his children wandering out in the wilderness.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Means maybe you’d get there sometime in the next 40 years.” The old man laughed. “But, probably not. Besides, there’s the bones.”

“The bones?”

“Yup, they dance.”

“Dancing bones?”

“When a man dies in the desert looking for water he gets to wander around, thirsty for all eternity.”

“Like zombies?” Jason asked.

“Nope, like bones.”

“So what?”

“So, you go out in the desert and that’s what you’ll be. It’s best waiting a few days on Bill than dancing for all eternity with a bunch of old bones.”

“A few days ago I would have agreed with you,” Jason said

Jason spit on the ground and walked outside. His back hurt from sleeping in the booths at the diner. His guts hurt from the water, and his pride hurt from being the idiot city boy. At least the cook was okay, but he didn’t talk much.

Jason sat down at the bar and put his head in his hands. This was like a horror movie, only instead of an axe he was getting bored to death.

“You come here often?” a new voice asked.

Jason looked up to see a girl. A real one. He quickly looked around to make sure he was still in the diner, which he was.

“I’m just here until my car gets fixed.”

“Really, where you staying?” The girl laughed.

“Oh I’ve been living in that booth over there.” Jason pointed.

“I’m Megan,” she said holding out her hand.

Megan was pretty. Jason on the other hand was average looking at best and currently had not showered or even brushed his teeth since he left California four days ago. She on the other hand was perfect. Not like someone you’d run into at Ma’s (or Mo’s) Diner.

Jason did not hear the door open behind him.

“What you doin with my sister, city boy?”

Jason looked from Megan to Bill and back again. He even tried to picture Bill’s mustache on the girl’s face. No, it was impossible, absolutely impossible.

“She’s your sister?” Jason asked.

“Yup, and you best step away city boy.”

“Seriously. I’ve been trying to step away for four days now. Now why don’t you shut your mouth and go fix my car.”

Jason was not used to talking to people like that, but he couldn’t take it anymore. He smiled a little. That felt kind of good. It didn’t last.

Bill pointed his gun at Jason.

“Really, really, you’re going to shoot me because I talked to your sister, who I, by the way did not even know was your sister? You’re going to shoot me? You can’t just fix my car, or maybe fix the phone so I can leave. No, you’re going to shoot me. Fine, whatever dude. Whatever.” Jason sat down at the bar. “Whatever man.”

Bill pulled the trigger.

He missed. Still, Jason jumped at the noise and threw his hands over his head,  accidentally smashing his elbow into Megan’s face. Blood poured from her beautiful nose and both man watched as she crumpled, unconscious, on the floor.

“What did you do!” Bill demanded. He pulled the trigger again and again, but the gun jammed. “You killed her.”

“No, no I…” Jason was shaking. “She’s just unconscious. Look” Jason tried to pick Megan back up.

“I’m gonna kill you city boy. I’m’a kill you good.”

The old lady came out of the back room. “What the…” She started to ask, but when she saw Bill, the gun, and the young lady covered in blood she just turned right back around.

Bill went to work clearing the jam. Jason looked at Megan and he looked at Bill. He looked at the gun and then at Bill and then at Megan. Then he looked at the door. Jason knew what he had to do.

He ran.

*****

The sign on the freeway said it was 40 miles to the next services. Jason had walked for hours. So far three cars had passed, but none had stopped. One guy had thrown an old McDonald’s bag at him. Jason ate the leftover fries and kept walking.

The walking wasn’t so bad; he should have started days ago. The only downside was the heat. Still, it was better to be out here then back with those crazies. Seriously, he was going to call the cops or the highway department of something when he got home. First though, he was going to drink some water, real water, not Ma’s world famous dust water.

Jason’s hand went to his stomach. Those fries were the only things he’d eaten all day. He hummed to keep his mind off his stomach, but humming was boring so he tried singing for awhile. That got old so he pretended he was a Legionnaire, but his mind wandered and he soon realized he couldn’t spell the word ‘legionnaire’.

“L-E-G-O…no that’s not right,” he mumbled. “L-E-G-E-N…”

“Excuse me Señor? What are you doing?”

“Huh,” Jason looked around, but no one was there. “Hello,” he called, but no one answered.

It was hot. The sun was piercing his mind, burning his retinas, singeing his brain. His head was starting to ache.

“Excuse me Señor?”

Jason looked down to see a big lizard looking back at him. “Did you just say something?”

The lizard flicked its tongue.

Jason shrugged and kept walking. “L-I-J” he tried again.

“My friend, it goes l-e-g-i-o-n-n-a-i-r-e, legionnaire.”

Jason looked down at the lizard. “Now I must be losing my mind.” He tried to kick the lizard but missed.

“That’s no way to treat the winner of the first annual desert spelling bee.” The lizard flicked his tongue.

“Really,” Jason said. “Well guess what. Lizards can’t talk so they don’t get to be in the spelling bee.”

“I can talk and you know what else I can do, Señor.”

“What’s that?” Jason asked.

“I can spell better than you,” the lizard laughed.

“Stupid lizard,” Jason muttered.

“No Señor, you are the one who is stupid wandering out here in the desert.” the lizard replied.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Will you? Look at you, no look at me. Look at my fat little legs. Still, here I do my walking as fast as you do. You are slowing down amigo.”

Jason looked back to see how far he’d walked, but there was no way to tell. I should watch the mileage signs.

The sun beat down on his head so he took off his shirt and made it into a turban. Now he really looked like a crazy person. In four days he had neither showered nor shaved. He had not brushed his teeth. His skin was a radioactive pink from the sun and his eyes were glazed. You would think a car would’ve stopped out of pity, or at least called highway patrol. Come to think of it, an eternity had passed since he’d seen a car. Oh well.

“If I try to cross the road, a car will come,” the lizard said.

Jason thought about it for a while. “Ya, that would probably work.”

“I won’t do it though.”

“Ya, why’s that?”

“You tried to kick me.”

Jason aimed another kick, missed, and stumbled. He was tired. He tried to sit down, but the ground seared his skin through his jeans. The lizard laughed and started walking back into the desert.

“Stay on the road Señor,” it called. “It’s okay if you die on the road, but out there, mi amigo, it is no good.” And with that, the lizard was gone.

Jason walked some more. It was strange to him that there were no cars, not a single one.

“I wonder if there was an accident or something,” he said aloud.

His skin was dry. His tongue felt like a foreign object. His forehead was burning up so he took off his shirt turban. He carried it for a while, but it got heavy so he tossed it.

Still no cars…maybe soon. He checked his thumbs to make sure they were still there. He would need them if a car came.

He walked on. The sun began to set, and although the breeze was cool, it did little for the fever in his skull. Jason trudged on through the night until he could no longer walk. He shivered in the desert night and wished he’d kept his shirt.

Finally he was exhausted. Jason lay down in the cold sand and stared up. He saw nothing. He thought nothing, and soon, he slept…a little.

When Jason woke up it was still dark. Off to his right he saw a light, no two lights. They looked like headlights.

“Hey! Hey help!” he called. He stumbled at first, but caught his footing. “Help me!”

Jason ran, walked, yelled, and waved his arms but he never got any closer. No one saw him. Soon the lights disappeared. With his head hung low, Jason went looking for the freeway.

The sun came up that morning and watched Jason half walk, half fall his way through the desert. Nothing was clear anymore. Everywhere he looked blotchy, black hazes blocked his view of the desert. But he didn’t care. At first when he couldn’t find the road, he’d panicked, even cried, no tears of course, but something deeper and even more shameful.

Now there was nothing. The fever was gone and so was the pain. He no longer cursed his luck, his car, or even Bill. No, only one thought trickled through his brain now. Dripping from a faucet he could not shut off, splashing onto the parched landscape of his mind, echoing a single word.

Water…

Water…

Water…

Wat…

W. . .

The ground hurt a little when it slammed into his face. It burned a little too.

“Looky here, I’ve never seen one of these before. Not out here anyways.”

“Yes, quite unusual if I do say so myself.”

“Is it what I think…why yes it is. It’s a man.”

“Not a very good one though, or he wouldn’t have gotten himself into this kind of trouble.”

“Yes, yes, bad for him good for us though. I’ve never had man before, but he does look delicious doesn’t he?”

Jason opened his eyes and looked at two…no just one…no there were two of them. Two vultures stood, cackling, a few feet away. The big one was eyeing the pieces of Jason’s face that had peeled off when he’d lifted his head.

“You can’t eat me.” Jason protested. “I’m still alive.”

“Not for long,” the smaller one laughed.

“No, I’m alive. I’m still alive.” Jason pushed himself up and tried to run. Which he did for a few steps, but then tripped and fell on his face again. The two birds could barely control their laughter.

“It’s easier if you don’t try,” the big one chimed in.

“It’s not so bad, really,” the other offered, “It’s not like you have a choice…you see, we can fly and you can hardly stand.”

“No leave me alone. Help!” Jason screamed, “Help!”

His cries echoed over and over through the desert. The birds, they just laughed.

“You won’t feel a thing!” one called, nipping at his side.

He tried to stand but couldn’t. The birds weren’t laughing anymore but strutting and tearing at his sides.

Then they were gone. The air tasted like metal. Jason touched his side where the birds had started in, but there was nothing missing. Jason closed his eyes.

When he opened them it was either night or the rain clouds had blacked out the stars. One by one the big drops bounced off his broken body. Some of them were loud, like Bill’s gun, but others made more of a jangling sound.

He tried to stand again, and this time was successful. He was bruised and scraped, and there were large chunks of his face that had been ripped away when he fell. His upper torso was bleeding and covered in blisters. It was no longer possible to swallow.

Then the wind blew. It was soft and it was gentle. It was comforting.

“I’m going to be alright,” he thought and smiled at the wind.

The wind blew again this time a little stronger like a celestial embrace.

“It’s guiding me,” he thought. “It knows where the road is.”

His throat was too dry to make noise, but in his head Jason laughed. He would find the road again, and there would be cars. Someone would see him. He was saved.

“Thank you wind, oh you beautiful, beautiful wind.”

Suddenly the wind blew, much harder than before. It pushed him forward, pelting him with chunks of rocks and sand. It tore his already shredded skin and then blew harder still. Then the wind knocked him down. He stood, but the wind was too strong now and it knocked him down again, over and over, driving him across the desert. A gust came from the other direction and spun him around. Then another knocked him to his knees.

Jason opened his eyes and looked down. Before him lay a monstrous canyon, its jaws wide open like the very mouth of hell. He tried to scramble backwards but it was all he could do to hold his position. Dry heaves racked his body with incredible pain.

Then he saw them.

The dancing bones. Thousands of them, skeletons some whole, others not so much, each dancing on the canyon floor. At first they were slow, each skeleton dancing its own way, but the wind started howling again—whipping its way through the canyon—driving the dancing bones into each other. Some of the skeletons were smashed to pieces against each other or the rocks, but the others just danced faster, faster to the wind’s awful moans. The raised their empty sockets to the sky and onel, seeing Jason, pointed.

They cried in anguish. Some tried to climb the rocks while others laughed motioning for him to join them. The rest just danced. Faster, faster they danced calling for the storm to come.

The lightning was closer and more frequent now, but the boy couldn’t move. Terror had seized him. He was no longer afraid to die, no that was long gone. Watching those bones, those horrible dancing bones he now understood there was no death, not for him.

The wind whipped around him now. “Dance,” it moaned, “Dance.”

But he could not, his fingertips bled from clinging to the rocky ground. He could not control his shaking. Oh how he wished he’d died on the road like the lizard had told him.

“Dance,” the wind cried, “Dance.”

Suddenly everything was quiet. The bones stopped their dance and fell prostrate in great piles on the canyon floor. The wind and lightning stopped completely.

Jason saw her sitting on the other side of the canyon. Her legs were dangling over the side of the cliff face. Her hair fell in dark tresses, long and wild, and her clothes were course like an old burlap sack. To her right were four colored dogs: white, yellow, green and black. They watched Jason quietly

The woman raised her arms to the sky and began to sing. As if by command the wind, the lightening, and the bones all began to dance. She wept while she sang. The dogs went crazy as the tears splashed on the desert ground, but she held them back by a chain.

“Dance,” she called to him, “Dance”

Jason still could not move.

“Dance!” she commanded, but still he did not.

Lightening crashed to his left and then his right. The wind blew trying to throw him into the canyon, but he could not move.

Finally, the woman let go of the chain. The bones shrieked in horror as the dogs leapt at Jason. The distance between them no longer mattered. The hounds cleared the canyon and were upon him, tearing at his flesh, and dragging him into the canyon.

Tumbling over and over he fell into the canyon as the hounds ripped the flesh from his bones.

“Dance….Dance.” the lady called.

He reached the canyon floor and it was done; he was nothing but a pile of bones.

The wind blew again, more gently this time, and as it did he rose. The wind blew again and he started to dance. He danced with the others. They danced with the lightning, the wind, the sand, and the rocks.

They danced and danced, those dancing bones. They danced until it rained.

Water…

___________________________

Chris Whitehead is an MFA student at Brigham Young University. Born in California, he is genetically predisposed to worry about earthquakes, tidal waves, and shark attacks. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Line of Advance and Central Penn Parent.
_____________
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