Two stories inspired by the prompt ‘Skeleton’, yet imagined in uniquely brilliant ways.
- Skeletons and Shenanigans by Caroline Stevenson
- Skeleton by Jon Pickering
Skeletons and Shenanigans
By Caroline Stevenson
“Remind me to hire a snail next time,” Lady Gunnersthorpe heckled at her coachman from her carriage seat. “I’d be certain to get there faster.”
The first time Withers had heard that remark he had given a begrudging nod in response, but it simply floated past his ears now. Still, at least they were now roughly two-thirds of the way there and before too long he should be able to enjoy the next few hours absent of her company. He was already pondering how he would while away those blissful impending hours when up ahead on the path, a felled tree branch came into his vision, with too much bulk and too many twigs and leaves poking out of it for the horses to leap over or to make a smooth speedbump for the carriage. The surrounding thicket was too impenetrable to make a detour. He pulled sharply on the reins and Lady Gunnersthorpe was quick as ever to voice her displeasure.
“Trust you to pick the route which is blocked.”
“I can do nothing against the whims of nature, Ma’am,” Withers replied.
And if I were Jesus Christ, I would hardly be working as your coachman now would I, Withers muttered under his breath.
“I won’t even be on the christening photograph at this rate,” Lady Gunnersthorpe bemoaned. Indeed, this was the reason for their tiresome voyage from Coventry to Cheltenham, for great-nephew Timothy’s christening. After 12 great-nieces, a male heir at long last.
“I can give you a hand out of the carriage, Ma’am, if you would like to stretch your legs for a while. It won’t take a moment.”
“No, I shall be quite alright here,” she sighed.
Why all the fuss then if you enjoy being in the carriage so much, his exasperated inner monologue continued. As long as she could moan, she was content. It was a kind of sport she could partake in without physical exertion in her advanced years.
Withers dismounted from his seat and bent down in front of the felled branch to assess whether it could be lifted without breaking his back or whether a hole would have to be dug.
A church was located 100 yards away in the direction of travel. There must be a shovel or a tool to be obtained from there if the branch was too heavy, Withers reasoned. One moment he was on his feet, looking at that yonder steeple, and the next he was on his back, looking up at the sky and at the silhouettes of birds, the back of his head throbbing painfully.
Confused, he stumbled up shakily onto his feet. The sun was just beginning to lower behind the clouds and give the sky a rosy hue. The horses didn’t seem to be agitated. The only thing which was eerie about the scenario, apart from the unexplained bump now growing steadily on back of Withers’ head, was the complete silence emanating from the carriage. Withers dared to peer through the closest window. Lady Gunnersthorpe was seated on the further side of the carriage and facing away from him. She hadn’t moved a fraction of an inch. How typical. The angle of her canary yellow hat was as perfect as ever.
She wasn’t breathing, Withers established. If she were, then she herself would have established with her X-ray, 360-degree vision that he had looked in the direction of her bosom and he would have been swiftly berated for it. He raced round to the window on the other side of the carriage, where he was greeted by the sight of two hollow eye sockets where her eyes ought to have been.
Her gloves, matching her hat, were held by skeletal hands in her lap.
It turns out she did have a smile after all, deep down underneath it all. A truly immaculate one, there was no denying it. Perfect proportions, and not a tooth missing.
Well good riddance, he thought. It’s a testament to how insufferable she was if she’s still sitting here in this carriage after her skin has rotted away.
Wait, how long was I unconscious for?!?
He pivoted on the spot, scanning his surroundings in bewilderment.
In front of the church entrance, he could now see a vicar with half-moon glasses and a prominent bald patch in an otherwise chestnut-coloured head of hair. He was seated at an artist’s easel but was looking contentedly at the sunset, basking in the glory of God’s world around him and not concentrating directly on whatever image lay before him on the canvas.
“Excuse me, father” Withers called out.
The vicar peered over the roof of his spectacles: “Yes sir, are you in need of assistance?”
“You could say that. Forgive my asking, but what day is it today?”
“Why sir, it’s the 12th of August in the one thousandth, eight-hundredth and ninety-sixth year of our Lord” he replied serenely.
12th August?? They had departed on 12th May. He had been out cold for three months?!?
This was truly a deserted neck of the woods if he had blocked no one else’s path in all that time. Great-nephew Timothy would be running around his expansive lawn by now, long out of his christening gown. The telephone back at Gunnersthorpe Manor would no doubt still be ringing furiously off the hook, demanding an explanation. And the Manor would be demanding a new coachman, that’s for sure. But he could hardly explain his predicament to the clergyman.
“I’ve got a splitting headache, you don’t happen to know where the nearest house doctor lives, I suppose?”
“Certainly, sir, keep heading north for 3 miles, you’ll find him on the left hand side at the Moss Nook abode.”
Withers put dark curtains over the carriage windows, reclaimed his seat and whipped the reins to beckon the horses to depart, in the hope he would locate a medic who would be grateful for a donation to science. The bouncing of his skeleton passenger added to the volume of the usual rattle.
It suddenly struck him: how had the horses survived and been so obedient all this time? Had there been berries at just the right height in the trees for sustenance? Withers shrugged and reasoned that this was a puzzle to be solved at a later date; he had more pressing matters to attend to and all that mattered right now was that he still had the horses at his disposal.
The vicar shouted “God be with you!” after him and eyed Withers curiously until he had disappeared out of sight and the clacking of the horses’ hooves was also out of earshot.
The vicar then turned round towards the graveyard behind him with a sly grin and called out: “You’re safe now.”
“Oh thank heavens!” Lady Gunnersthorpe popped her head round from the back of the gravestone, her white ringlets catching the fading sunlight. “Though it is a pity – the one time I would have loved to see his face and I wasn’t permitted to watch. You must capture it on your easel, Alfred.”
“I shall do my utmost, Cynthia, but I must say, you wouldn’t have been disappointed. It was all I could do to keep a straight face,” he replied. “But tell me, you’re not too upset about not attending this christening?”
“Oh no, dear fellow, the christening was just a ruse to get Withers onto the path today. Timothy hasn’t arrived into the world yet, he should be here any day now,” assured Lady Gunnersthorpe. Acknowledging Alfred’s quizzical expression in response to her cast-iron certainty of the gender of her newest descendent, she proclaimed: “I have a good feeling about this one.”
She gulped the last of her tea and lifted her cup and saucer towards Alfred’s outstretched hands.
“I must say, you really are adept with a shovel. Your muscular strength took me quite by surprise.”
“A sense of purpose is a great source of strength,” said Alfred sagely. “Though really, Cynthia, you are wicked, playing a practical joke on him like that when you could have just sent him packing to another household,” Alfred chastised.
“I am not writing a reference – even a bad one – with my arthritis. Besides, you’ve got to have some fun at our age.”
“Well, that’s something we both agree on,” said the vicar.
“Now Alfred, would you be a dear and fetch me some spare robes? It’s getting rather chilly. I may be seen dead as a skeleton, but I certainly shan’t be seen dead in my birthday suit!” Cynthia chuckled.
By Jon Pickering
My breath misted immediately about me in the bitter, swirling wind, circling around me like an icy cloak. Looking about, I could see shaking, freezing people huddling together for warmth against the relentless cold. Snow clung to their bright jackets, all displaying a variety of national colours and flags. Occasionally the wind spiked, whipping up the loose snow and obscuring my view of those the other side of the barriers. As frozen as everyone looked, I am sure they wished they had stayed in their hotels and watched today’s events from the comfort of the bars, listening to the muffled voices of the commentators on the giant TV screens. Only the mad and the desperate truly wanted to be out in these sinking temperatures.
And which was I? Neither. This was my cathedral, the frozen statues my congregation. Today I would leave them all in awe of my majesty. This day was to be mine and mine alone. Even my fiercest rivals for the adoration of the masses would bow down before me at its end. When it came to this head-first race to the bottom, I would come out on top.
I can see you still think me mad, but no. Unlike those poor souls on the other side of the barriers, I wasn’t cold – far from it, I was burning with energy. My suit did a wonderful job of keeping the chill air from sinking into my bones, and the jacket I wore while I waited stopped the wind in its tracks.
Full of anticipation, I began stretching, focusing on the turns in my mind, dampening the nervous energy. I needed to keep that image of my descent with me when I began, needed that memory of when and where to adjust my weight. Mistakes had to be prevented, could not just cost me valuable time, but could also prove dangerous. Everything had to be perfect.
A loud roar erupted from the stands, followed by enthusiastic clapping. I glanced up at the leader-board to see a new name flashing atop the standings – Blayze Hensley. The all American hero naturally drew the zealous support of the partisan crowd that had followed him over the border. And rightly so as the reigning Olympic champion. Not for much longer, of course, if I had my way. I glanced at the big screen to watch Blayze’s run. It looked flawless. Perfect. For the first time doubt emerged to grip my heart within its icy grip. My apprehension only grew greater when I saw WR flashing next to the time. Now the pressure was really on. I had everything to gain. Or lose.
The crowd gasped and cheered anew as they watched the slow-motion replay. Boisterous clapping once again erupted as a picture of a waving Blayze appeared on the big screen, polished white teeth shining like jewels through his wide grin. The cheers grew even louder as he grabbed an American flag from the crows and waved it for all to see.
The next athlete to go was Connor ‘CT’ Taylor. The young Canadian looked nervous as he picked up his sled and walked towards the start. I caught his eye as he stepped past and offered him a reassuring smile. The youngster smile back, although fear still lingered behind his eyes. Withing moments, the buzzer sounded and he was on his way headfirst down the track. I winced as I watched on the big screen. The kid was erratic, his body tense and heavy. Whistler was not the place for an uncontrolled run. History had taught us this place could be unforgiving. And deadly.
As his speed increased, CT’s sled began to wobble, drifting from side to side. Eventually the instability proved too much, and CT lost control on entry into the infamous turn sixteen. The heightened wall prevented him from leaving the track, likely saving his life, but CT crashed back down to the icy track, landing awkwardly before skidding the rest of the way to the end, where he came to a halt and lay unmoving. The paramedics rushed forward as the crowd groaned as they watched on. Canadian or International, it didn’t matter where the spectators were from, everybody wanted him to be okay.
Blayze, who had been watching from the sidelines, rushed over to see how badly CT was hurt. The camera zoomed in on his face as he spoke urgently to the paramedics. We might be competitors, but we were still all friends, travelling the world together as we did. Now loaded onto a stretcher, CT raised a hand to wave to the crowd, who responded with a relieved cheer. The local boy would be alright.
An update sounded over the radio of one of the nearby stewards – suspected fracture to the left tibia. Also possible chest injuries. He would be in rehab for a while, but CT would be alright. Tension I hadn’t noticed drained away with the news. From the faces of those around me, I wasn’t the only one.
Of course the accident caused further delays to the schedule – safety checks had to be carried out to make sure there was no damage or debris at turn sixteen. From my vantage point as the next athlete to go, I could see the inspectors studying the course, making notes as they did. My anticipation was building to a crescendo, and I wanted nothing more than to get my own run over with. The big screen wasn’t helping. Now that they knew the extent of CT’s injuries, the commentators were continually replaying the crash as they analysed it in far more detail than I cared for. Doubt was creeping into the back of my mind once more. What if it happened to me? What if an error cost me gold? What if…? NO. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and blocked out my surroundings. Now there was only the track and my sled. Nothing else mattered. My heart slowed as I mastered my fear, each exhale taking away some of those negative thoughts.
It was time. My name was called. As I passed the other athletes I heard murmurs of encouragement. Nobody liked to be the first to run after an accident. My trainer and some of the team coaches stood nearby, offering solidarity in their presence. More would be waiting for me at the bottom. As I approached the start, my mind was clear. At peace. I knew exactly what I needed to do. When the buzzer sounded I launched forward, spikes digging into the icy track. Then, at the last possible moment, I dived onto the sled and began my headfirst race to the bottom.
Many thanks to Caroline Stevenson and Jon Pickering for their story contributions.
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