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Games With Bones





Title: Games with Bones

Author: April Ann Roy

Suitable for Children? Discretion advised

Writing Prompt #3


The two of them were playing games with skulls and bones in a nonchalant way, as if it were tic-tac-toe, using rough, flat stones for their game board.

Marx gasped, then clamped his hand over his mouth. He ducked behind the nearest tree, closed his eyes and held his breath, blood pumping hard in his neck, the pressure in his head building.

Not that it would actually hide him from these fairy tale creatures. They probably had special powers anyway. At least the dragon. Maybe a fire breathing dragon.

“You win, again, old friend.” Said the imp voice. Even though he wasn’t facing them anymore, Marx was sure it came from the dwarf-like man with the overgrown and unkempt, white beard.

Marx peered around the wide pine tree, curious about the familiar feeling of being here before.

Curiosity killed the cat.

But Marx didn’t see any cats.

One eye could see the scene which played out less than 100 feet away. Besides the sweet smell of warm, red pine next to his nose, there was a faint body odor wafting his way. Hot human-like, but distinct.

“To be fair, I’ve lived 6 times longer than you.” The dragon belly laughed, deep and rolling. Almost a soothing sound. Marx tipped his head around the tree further, keeping his palms against the rough bark.

The dragon’s scales shimmered in the spotty sunlight that shone through the forest canopy. Iridescent blue with accents of fiery orange on his belly, claws, and face. The billowy mane was the same orange, flowing from behind his curved horns to the tip of his tail. Dragon was wingless but beautiful none-the-less.

Marx was assuming it was male, but maybe it was female. He had no way of knowing. It’s not like there were textbooks written about these sorts of things. His 4th-grade teacher certainly wouldn’t know…and if his parents knew he was out this far in the woods again, he’d get the belt.

The 10-year-old should have been learning the plow with his two older brothers right now. That’s what Father had sent him out to do. He’d taken a little detour. Like most days. And most days a whipping would follow. Still, he couldn’t help himself.

“True,” The dwarf said. “You still go human hunting?” Little man hoisted his body up to an old stump that was packed with more skulls inside the base near the roots.

Game storage?

“Naw. I’m trying to be vegan.” With a yawn, Dragon rolled onto its side and stretched. His long dagger teeth twinkled. Dwarf burst out with a torrent of laughter, but when Dragon didn’t join in, he stopped.

“You’re kidding.”

“Not in the slightest. To be honest, I’m bored.”

“Bored?”

“They aren’t fun anymore. No thrill ya know?” Dragon moved this way and that on the matted forest floor, pushing moss and pine needles into the right spot for his head to lay.

“So, no bear either?” Dwarf said, emphasizing the word ‘bear’. He cocked his head and looked sideways in the direction of Marx, his tone strange as if trying to give some kind of clue. Marx clung tight to the tree wondering if he’d been seen.

“No.” Dragon answered.

“No blood?”

“Dude, vegan means no flesh or products from things with eyes and a mouth. That includes blood.”

Dwarf shook his head looking around at all the sun-bleached bones scattered around their little spot. Marx noticed some movement behind the dragon, in the shadows of some old ruins that were overgrown with trees and brush. There were glowing blue and yellow eyes of a sinister nature, making the hairs on the back of Marx’s neck stand up.

The quick motion was hard to glimpse until it…they…some things exposed themselves fully in the light of day. Little critters without flesh, enchanted somehow with life, bounded over the top of Dragon’s back.

The 4 of them hopped down to the game board, skipping from stone to stone, making strange noises and laughing as they played their own games. Dragon and Dwarf paid them no mind and continued their conversation. They looked like the skeletal remains of mismatched animals…birds or rabbits or small foxes, parts of their bones mixed together.

“What the hell do you eat then?” Dwarf asked.

“Plants, berries, mushrooms…” Dragon trailed off, his voice sounding a wee bit depressed. At least that’s what Marx thought, but he was distracted by the creepy things with glowing eyes.

“No stew or roasts…tender human rumps…backstraps…” Dwarf pat his belly.

“Stop. You’re making me hungry.” Dragon snapped his jaw loudly, making the enchanted critters jump, shake, and pause their games.

“I’d be hungry too! I know what you need, a good old fashion game of cat and mouse!”

“Hmph.” Dragon sighed. “Humans don’t run anymore. They brandish swords and charge with cannons. The last one I swallowed stabbed my innards with a dagger I didn’t know he had until I made myself vomit him out. I couldn’t eat for a week. And that was it for me.”

“They are kind of violent these days aren’t they…as if they owned the land.” Dwarf nodded. “And dragon numbers are down. I know what you need, a lady friend!”

Dwarf hopped off his stump, his uncoordinated body almost toppling down and scaring the critters in the process. They all huddled together near the dragon’s belly, shuttering, their cleaned bones clunking together like wooden wind chimes.

“I’ve had countless lady friends. They take their seed and run, laying eggs near the sea in the caves.”

“Hmm…”

Marx wasn’t aware that he’d begun stepping closer to the scene until a twig snapped under his foot.

Classic rookie move!

The vibration of the snap appeared to silence the entire forest, every eye turned towards him as he stood in the open now. Marx froze. All warmth retreated from his face, sinking out through his feet and vanishing like a puff of smoke in the wind.

“What have we here?” Dwarf turned his body and took a few steps towards Marx. “A human boy…speak of the devil!” He roared with unbridled laughter, holding his belly to keep his silly pants up. Dragon stood to his feet slowly, rising taller than any other building Marx had seen in real life. He imagined that the creature loomed as high as those drawings of castles he’d seen in books.

Those critters were at full attention, glowing eyes bulging - if they could - and longing for a chase. Marx gulped but he was stuck.

Dwarf turned to Dragon. “I think we have a cure for your boredom.” Dragon nodded, a slight grin creeping up onto his face.

“So much for veganism.” He mumbled. They both laughed, drool oozing out from between Dragon’s jagged teeth and forming a puddle under his front claws.

“Wanna play a really fun game?” Dwarf turned to the critters and rubbed his wrinkled hands together. Critters all wagged their head ferociously. “Go!” Dwarf yelled, pointing a fat, old finger at Marx who finally thawed enough to spin on his heels and take off.

“Run boy, run!” the dwarf cackled with the dragon.

The critters pounced like trained dogs, lurching forward at their target.

Marx struggled to keep himself upright as he ran, feet slipping on the pine needles, legs tangling up like dead vines. The gap between him and those terrifying critters was closing fast.

At last, Marx found his step and the adrenaline pumped through him like hot embers in his mother’s cookstove, ready to bake a pie. He was about to be human pie for a bored dragon and the Dwarf’s critter puppets. Maybe the dwarf ate humans too…it didn’t matter. They all looked hungry and he was as good as dead.

Bounding over fallen trees and tripping over rocks, Marx sucked in air and forced it out, hearing the sound of boney critter feet trampling at full speed behind him.

Marx darted back and forth, weaving in between the wide, ancient trees, thankful that he’d gotten to the familiar part of the woods now. He picked up speed, gaining a little space between himself and the critters.

But then the ground shook.

Dragon feet.

Marx turned his head as he ran and saw the enormous beast, Dwarf riding his back, forcing its body through the forest. He broke thick tree limbs as he plowed through and stomped entire bushes with his feet, claws digging into the earth and tearing up chunks of it.

It was over, he knew it.

Tears streamed down Marx’s face. He continued to run but he didn’t know why. What is this itch to preserve life, he knew it was going to end?

Dragon closed in on him fast.

Marx ran full throttle, seeing the clearing. His father’s field. It sparked a little hope in him which gave him just enough fuel to think it possible to survive. He pushed his body harder than it had ever been pushed before. His lungs were on fire. Sweat soaked his torn shirt and dripped down the backs of his legs inside his pants.

All of this feels so routine like I’ve done this a thousand times before…

With a sudden whoosh and the sound of a cracking whip, Dragon burst forward at the same time Marx dove headfirst into the tall autumn corn. He screamed, curling his body up and covering his face.

But Dragon didn’t touch him.

Instead, Dragon hoisted himself up into the sky, tail snapping up and down for leverage. He didn’t have wings, Marx noticed. How was he flying?

Marx rolled over in the corn seeing that the critters had stopped chasing after him and were simply trotting, hopping or dragging themselves down the path Marx had made through the grass. They looked friendly now, exhausted by friendly.

Wait, grass?

Marx grabbed a fistful of it and pulled the tops down so he could see it more clearly. It certainly wasn’t corn. And it wasn’t wheat either. Had he been mistaken about his whereabouts?

Scrambling to his feet, Marx poked his head above the grass, eyes darting around. Dragon had come down out of the sky and was now frolicking around the vacant field like an untrained pup, Dwarf holding on for dear life as they playfully made their way back towards Marx.

Critters got to Marx first, letting their boney bodies fall to the ground for rest at his feet. Marx stiffened and crouched his slender frame, ready to run as Dragon approached.

“You remember now?” Dragon said to Marx. Dwarf slid down Dragon’s tail and jumped to the ground. His face was red and sweaty. Dragon was panting. Both of their faces were expectant as they watched Marx closely.

What is this odd feeling?

Marx became frozen again, wanting to run, but unable to.

“Ah…ah…are you talking to me?” Marx stuttered at Dragon.

“Of course, I’m talking to you. I figure one of these times you’ll remember before you leave that shack on the hill. Doesn’t look like today is the day.” Dragon’s face turned down a bit.

“No sir, not today.” Dwarf said, shaking his head. “Boy, we’ve done this so many times, each time something new. We play the game with you because we have to. Because we were created by your imagination so we have to help you remember until you finally come to and remember on your own before you wake up.”

“You’re not real?”

“We’re as real as you are. Your ideas mixed with energy gave us life.” Dragon said. “This place…us…everything is more real here than it ever was in the place you think you are.”

“I’m sleeping…”

“Nope, guess again.”

“This is hopeless.” Dwarf said, plopping down to the ground, frustrated. “We’re never gonna leave the in-between place if he can’t remember before he wakes up.”

“It’s because he doesn’t want it to be true. He has to accept what is before he fully embraces where he is.” Dragon told dwarf as he looked at Marx compassionately.

“What are you talking about?” Marx asked. He had a suspicious feeling that he knew the answer but didn’t want to remember it.

“The rules are that we can’t tell you, kid.” Dragon said, walking in front of Marx slowly. “Look around, explore the land, see what you can remember. We’ll stay here in the field and wait for you.”

Dwarf crossed his arms and let his body fall back to the ground. Critters began jumping all around him, nudging him to play, one of them landed on his big rounded belly and Dwarf let out a wheeze.

Marx felt his heart thumping against the inside of his chest. He was nervous. Why?

He looked up at Dragon’s long, hopeful face. Dragon pointed his snout towards the other edge of the field. Marx looked. Over the tops of the grass he could just make out the straight lines of a familiar roof and a smile crept up on his face. Home.

Marx took off running towards the small hill that rose up out of the far edge of the field where he knew he’d find his brother's beet red with anger and his father waiting in the barn with his leather belt. It didn’t matter how mad they were or the punishment that would ensue. His heart ached for home.

The closer he got the more excited he felt. It was as if he’d been gone on a long journey and had not seen his family in a very long time. When Marx reached the bottom of the easy slope, he slowed his run to a walk, feeling confused.

On top of the hill was the house, a large oak tree shading it’s entirety. Multi-colored mosses covered the roof and even some of the field stones that made the sides of the house. The stones that had been laboriously harvested from the earth by his father and brothers when they’d built the house before Marx was born.

Father had never let moss grow on the roof. He said it made the shakes rot faster.

Something else wasn’t right. The paned glass windows his mother had brought here, wrapped in blankets from Cathen, her birth city, were all broken. The thick wooden door father had made for the harsh winters was left wide open, squeaking on its hinges in the wind.

Marx stopped walking and took slow, cautious steps up the shallow incline and then stood facing the house when he reached the plateau.

Behind the house 30 yards stood the barn, its roof covered in moss as well. There were no sounds of chickens or pigs snorting. No sounds of threshing in the fields or the clank of mother’s cast iron pans on the stovetop. It was silent, save for the caw of curious ravens and the buzz of flying insects.

Marx felt a wave of panic tingles flood from the center of his body out to his extremities. He glanced out into the field where he could see dragon standing tall above the grass, its mane flapping slowly in the wind. They locked eyes for a moment until Marx turned back towards his house.

Was this his house?

All the outbuildings were in the same place. But it was empty. Deserted, lonely and completely overrun by nature reclaiming its territory. No one had been here for years, that was obvious. It made his skin crawl.

Taking a few timid steps forward, Marx made his way to the front door and pushed it open further, revealing the empty living space. Every surface was covered in dust, seed husks from rodents and plant material that had blown in. The wide floorboards were buckled and cracked and a few small plants grew up through the gaps. The inside walls and the large stone fireplace seemed strong still, though dirty.

After several more steps into the house, Marx stood next to the sturdy table and matching benches that once seated their family of 5 comfortably. He’d helped father make this. Cut from pines on the 87 acres they’d owned, it was the first project Marx had helped with. Father had been impressed with Marx’s attention to detail. He’d been called a true wood crafter, something he’d never said of his older brothers. Of course, they’d been better at the hard labor…and that was more valuable on a farm.

Marx realized he was thinking in the past tense. It made him shutter.

Something happened.

“Father?” he called out through the home. “Mother?” There was no response. The unmistakable feeling that he’d done this exact thing before filled Marx again. He stepped through the living area, past his mother's tall, handmade hutch. It was empty, except for a set of porcelain cups sitting upside down on the top shelf, their once smooth surface covered with dullness. Mother had never liked that set. Said it was much too posh for their way of life. She was a practical woman.

The family chest that used to sit next to the hearth was gone and so were the candles and books and kerosene lamps. The place was bare save for the table, the hutch and a large rocking chair that sat near the broken front window. Tattered and weather faded curtains still hung over that window, blowing slightly in the breeze.

An eerie sight.

Further into the back of the house, through a wide archway, was the kitchen. Mother’s cast iron stove still stood; an armload of short wood stacked next to it. There was the counter space with a basin under the red, hand water pump. Marx went over to it and grabbed the long handle, tried to pull it up but it wouldn’t budge. Probably rusted in place. Nothing else was in the kitchen, no dishes or hard soap or towels hung to dry from the ceiling.

He looked up at the log rafters. The hooks for the line Mother used to try towels were still there.

Marx turned away from the kitchen and went left where his parent’s bedroom was. The door was shut. He closed his eyes as he grabbed the doorknob. A deep ache grasped his heart.

He turned the knob and pushed the door in.

Nothing.

Marx started breathing harder.

He ran out of the room and scurried up the open stairs that sat between the kitchen and his parents’ room. It rose up into the loft where he and his brothers slept. This too was empty, except for their beds which had to be carried up in pieces and put together there. The three straw-stuffed mattresses had been torn to shreds by animals making nests.

And that was it.

Marx fell to his knees on the plank floor, the thud causing a handful of mice to scatter from their hiding place.

“I’m ready to remember.” The words came out of him in a calmness, even though his body was shaking and confused. He felt at odds with himself, yet determined. “I want to remember!” he yelled…at someone. Something. He wasn’t sure…but what Dwarf and Dragon had said before he left them felt…right.

Pulling a heap of old, dried straw towards him, Marx formed it into a makeshift pillow and lay himself down. “When I wake up, I will remember what I need to remember.” He was afraid to say it for some reason, but he knew it was important.

Sleep was easy to come.

Dreams were dark and stressful.

He was being chased by Dragon, Dwarf and those critters again…only it was strange…not like earlier. And then they were all gone. Everything was gone.

Flashes of black fur and gnarly teeth…blood and screaming, gasping and silence. Complete silence covered in darkness. Only the sound of his own breath.

Keep your eyes closed, Marx!

Remember! Remember! Remember!

He let himself sink into those dreams again. Familiar dreams that he didn’t want to relive but forced himself to.

As usual, he’d been wandering around the forest when he’d happened upon a mother bear and her cub, scavenging for autumn’s last remains of berries and insects. He froze behind a tree but mama heard him. She wanted to protect her baby. Of course, she had no idea they weren’t in danger so she charged at Marx.

He only made it about 10 feet past the edge of the trees when Mama Bear had taken him down from behind as he fell headlong into the cornfield. That had been the end. His end. The cessation of his human experience.

Now he knew.

Marx woke up sucking in a breath so large it felt like he was extracting every ounce of oxygen from the room. He cried. Hard.

And when he had cried out all the stuck emotions from within his being, he opened his puffy, tear washed eyes with a new sense of understanding. It all made sense. Dwarf, Dragon and those critters, all helpful parts created by his subconscious in order to guide him and help him remember while at the same time protect him.

He scrambled to his feet, nearly toppled down the length of the wooden stairs and ran through the house and out the front door yelling, “I remember! I remember! I remember!”, as loud as he could, hoping Dragon and Dwarf could hear him. Looking forward to hearing what he was supposed to do next.

Upon thrusting his body out the door, he saw a group of 4 people, smiling from ear to ear. Marx skid to a halt, dust billowing up behind him from the dry ground. They were standing there, just before the place where the hill would drop. All of them looked like they’d been waiting for him, their eyes wide with expectation.

“Father.” Marx whispered, recognizing the man’s weather etched and sun-darkened skin. His face was gleaming with tears. “Mother.” There she was, hands over her mouth hardly able to stand still. Marx’s brothers were as happy as ever to see him, which was saying a lot. They were usually annoyed with him.

Suddenly, they rushed him, whooping and hollering, pressing him close and hugging him, touching his face, fluffing his hair.

“You finally remembered!” Mother grabbed him and pulled him to her warm embrace. The frill at the edge of her bonnet tickled his neck like it always did and he giggled. She picked him up with her strong arms, holding him like she did when he was a toddler, his legs wrapped around her back.

“I forgot what it was like to hold you.” She cried and laughed. “You’re heavy!”

Over her shoulder, Marx watched as Dragon, Dwarf, and Critters jumped and bounded towards them shouting their own words of gratitude. Mother finally put Marx down. The rest of them touched him, keeping close and babbled on about how glad they were to finally be reunited in the After Place.

“How long was I in the in-between?” Marx asked as his imagined but undoubtedly real, fairy tale friends made their way up the hill to join them.

“It’s hard to say, kid,” Father answered. “We don’t count time here as we did in the Before Place.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you about running off in the forest,” Marx said, feeling the weight of his mistake. “The bear got me.”

“We know.” Father said, laying a hand gently on his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“What about the farm?” Marx said, thinking back to the wonder it used to fill him with. He would hate to think of never seeing it the way it was ever again.

“What about it?” His eldest brother nodded his head towards the house with a wide grin.

Marx turned.

It felt like slow motion as he caught it out of the corner of his eyes. Then fully, taking it all in.

Chickens were running free like they once had, pecking the ground for morsels. The horses could be heard in the barn, their nickers and snorts a peaceful thing. Birds and insects, the pigs behind the wire fence…the tall, white windmill twirling round and round…the clean roofs of all the buildings and sparkling windows in the house…the vegetable garden and blooming flowers…even that old rusty wheelbarrow sitting outside the woodshed. It was exactly the way it had been. Perfect in its imperfection.

He’d created an imaginary, empty façade for all this time to protect himself from the awful truth of how he’d died, now it had faded because he didn’t need it anymore.

Marx turned back to make sure his family was still there.

They were. Along with Dragon, Dwarf and those silly Critters.

This was home.

Now, he really was home.

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