An Excerpt from
A Skeleton in the Family
by Leigh Perry
If I’d ever had reason to consider the notion, I’d have been willing to bet that if I walked into a room that held a dead body, the body would have been the first thing I noticed. As it turned out, it wasn’t even close.In my defense, to say that the room was cluttered would have been an understatement. The bookshelves had overflowed and slopped books onto the floor, the walls were covered with maps and diagrams, and there were stacks of paper everywhere.Besides, I hadn’t gone looking for a corpse. Or rather, I hadn’t gone looking for a whole one. I’d just wanted an arm bone, an ulna to be precise. Since said ulna had last been seen in the possession of a fluffy red dog with a creamy white tummy, my attention was initially all for that dog, who was comfortably situated in a doggy bed on the floor just by the door. The bed was made of wicker, with a plaid cushion, and I think the fact that I took note of that proves that I’m really not an unobservant person.
“Sid!” I called out. “I found the dog.”
“Finally!” he replied, clattering down the hall. We were trying to be at least semi-stealthy, but Sid can’t help rattling when he walks.
I know that every family has secrets. From friends I’ve heard whispered tales of ancestral bootleggers, draft dodgers, illegitimate offspring, and even more colorful characters. But somehow my family hit the jackpot. Our skeleton in the closet is literally a skeleton. A skeleton named Sid, who refuses to stay in the closet. He walks, he talks, and he makes bad bone jokes.
So naturally he finds it hard to walk quietly.
He stopped right behind me. “Uh, Georgia?”
“Don’t worry—I’ll get it.” Sid isn’t fond of any dog, for obvious reasons, and he was definitely not a fan of this particular one. The ulna it was chewing on was Sid’s, and he needed it back.
I knelt down and patted the dog, who seemed pleased by the attention, at least enough so to quit gnawing for a moment. One paw was still holding the ulna down, so I had to slide it out while patting with the other hand. It let the bone go a lot more easily than I’d expected, but then again, it’s not like there was enough meat left to hold canine interest for long.
Still patting, I held the ulna out behind my back so Sid could reach it, like passing the baton in a really strange relay race. A long moment later, he hadn’t taken it from me. “Sid? You want this or not?”
“Georgia, stand up.”
I did so, hoping the dog wouldn’t make a grab for the ulna.
“Now look at the desk.”
“What?” It was also covered with papers, surrounding an open laptop.
“The other side of the desk.”
I leaned over, and when I saw somebody lying on the floor, I froze in place. Nobody was supposed to be home. Then I realized the woman wasn’t moving. Her eyes were open and unblinking, and her face was bloodied.
All I could think of was that any minute a horde of cops was going to rush in, and I was going to have to explain what I was doing there with two dead people: a fresh one in front of me and a skeletal one behind me.
Sunday, Thirteen Days Earlier
The front door lock opened smoothly when I inserted the key, even though my parents had been out of the country for several months. Of course, my sister, Deborah, had been in to check on things, and she would never have allowed the front door of her own parents’ house to squeak.
“Honey, we’re home!” I sang out as I stepped into the foyer.
“One of these days somebody is going to answer you when you do that,” Madison said as she followed me inside, “and you are going to have a heart attack.”
“Then it’s a good thing you learned CPR,” I said. This time I’d had a particular reason for announcing our presence, but Madison didn’t know that.
“It smells okay,” she said, sniffing. “I thought it would be stuffy from being closed up.”
“Your aunt has been keeping an eye on the place. She must have aired it out.” Or somebody had.
Normally when we move into a new place, my teenage daughter and I make a thorough inspection, planning where to put our belongings and checking for items we’ll need, like curtains, rugs, and, in one memorable instance, a working toilet. This time we were already familiar with the layout of the old yellow Victorian house, from the comfortably worn living room furniture to the recently renovated downstairs bathroom to the wall of family photos hung in the dining room. After all, I’d grown up in the place.
My parents, both tenured English professors, were off on a dual sabbatical, and when they heard I’d landed a job at McQuaid University, they’d offered to let us live at the house. I’d only argued a little bit about their insistence that it be rent free—it was the second week of September, and I’d been without a job since the spring semester, so my bank account was getting a little lean.
Madison and I started bringing in our stuff and emptied the U-Haul trailer attached to my green minivan in fairly short order, partially because we’d done it so many times before and partially because we didn’t really have that much stuff. Moving frequently has that effect.
Also, since we’d known the house had plenty of furniture, we’d sold or given away the junkiest of our stuff and were planning to store the rest in the basement.
“Why not use the attic?” Madison wanted to know on our third trip down the uneven concrete stairs. “Won’t stuff mildew down here?”
“There’s a dehumidifier, and it’s better to climb one flight of steps down than two up,” I said. “Besides, there’s too much stored up there already.” There was one particular thing in the attic that I wasn’t going to be talking about.
Once everything was at least in the house, if not put away, we went to see if there was anything edible in the kitchen and found sandwich fixings, fresh fruit, and diet soda in the refrigerator; a loaf of bread in the breadbox; and a selection of basic supplies in the cabinet. As with the well-maintained lock, I recognized my sister’s handiwork.
“It’s going to be so cool living near Aunt Deb,” Madison said as she reached for ham and mayonnaise.
“Fabulous,” I said with far less enthusiasm.
“Hey, you know I love you best of all, Scarecrow!”
“Thanks for the reassurance, but that’s not the problem. As an only child, you’ve been spared the experience of having a perfect big sister.”
Deborah had her own successful business, never carried a balance on her credit cards, kept her car serviced and washed, and each year she had her tax returns sent in by the time the groundhog went looking for its shadow—all of which was in distinct contrast to my lifestyle. True, I’d pleased our parents by following their footsteps into the halls of academe, but being perennially untenured had tainted my image. The whole unwed-mother thing might have bothered them, too, had they not adored Madison unreservedly. Of course, Deborah claimed that Madison took after her.
After we’d eaten sandwiches with apples for dessert and had cleaned up nearly to Deborah’s standards, we took the trailer back to the closest U-Haul depot to ensure there were no late charges. When we got back, I assumed we’d continue to unpack, but Madison asked, “Do you mind if I take a ride?” Her bike was always the last thing packed and the first thing unpacked, and not just because of logistics.
“I think what you’re really wondering is: ‘Can I toddle around and figure out where the cool kids hang out?’”
“Mom, we’ve been in Pennycross a jillion times. I already know where the cool kids hang out—or where they would if anybody used the word coolanymore. Let alone ‘toddle.’ Besides which, I have no interest in cool kids. I’m looking for my fellow nerds.”
“Then you’re going to Wray’s.” The combination comic book store and game shop had been there since I was buying X-Men comics and twenty-sided dice. “Since that just happens to be next to Arturo’s, you can bring your tired old mother some ice cream when you come back.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out some money.
“Do they make other flavors?”
“Rumor has it.”
“These newfangled inventions . . . Speaking of which, be sure to take your cell phone.”
“Sorry.” As if Madison wouldn’t sooner leave the house without her jeans than without her phone. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and scooted out.
Once she was gone, I set up my laptop on the coffee table in the living room to make sure my parents’ Internet connection was up and running and ended up getting caught in a flurry of e-mail. That meant I was concentrating on the screen and didn’t see the door to the armoire behind me slowly drift open, and the noise of my typing masked the sound of movement as the skeletal figure emerged from the gaping blackness.
Had the worn oriental carpet not muffled the footsteps, I would have heard the feet scraping against the floor as the creature stepped into the room, even though his feet were bare.In fact, they couldn’t have been any more bare—bare of clothing, bare of skin, bare of anything—there was only bleached white bone from head to toe. Or rather, from skull to phalanges. Like something out of a nightmare, the skeleton moved across the floor.It stepped toward my unprotected back, one fleshless arm reaching for me, but an instant before that mockery of a human hand touched my shoulder, I saw his reflection on my computer screen. “Sid! I’m working here.”“How did you know?” the skeleton demanded.“How long have I known you?” I wasn’t about to tell him about the reflection or he’d think of a way around it next time.“Hey, can you blame me for wanting to jump your bones? Get it? Jump your bones?”
“I got it the first thousand times you made that joke, Sid, and it hasn’t been funny since the first time.” Then I reconsidered. “No, I giggled the second time, too.” I sent off the e-mail I’d just finished typing, and said, “So do I get a hug or what?”
“I wasn’t sure you’d care, since you didn’t even bother to come up to the attic to see me.”
“You weren’t in the attic, were you?”
“But you didn’t know that.”
“I suspected,” I lied. Years back, my parents had bought the battered but sturdy armoire for Sid to use as an emergency hiding place for those times when he couldn’t get upstairs to the attic without being seen, and Deborah had installed locks inside and out so nobody could open it unexpectedly. In addition to hiding in there, Sid wasn’t above using it for a spot of eavesdropping—his hearing was excellent despite his lack of ears.
“I had to wait to make sure that the coast was clear, which is your fault, since you’re the one who wants to keep Madison from finding out about you.”
He sniffed as if to say he suspected I’d been stalling.
It made no sense for a skeleton to sniff, but of course there wasn’t anything about Sid that did make sense. When your best friend is a walking, talking human skeleton, you pretty much give up the expectation of logical explanations and just stick with the reality of his existence.
If I’d been older when Sid rescued me, I’d probably have been traumatized for life, but as a six-year-old I’d still firmly believed in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Adding an ambulatory skeleton to my roster of childhood heroes wasn’t that much of a stretch. Though later evidence had proven to me that those other guys weren’t real, Sid was still a part of my life.
I repeated, “Do I get a hug or not?”
“I suppose,” he said, but the hug was more sincere than his words.
Hugging Sid is an unusual sensation. The closest thing I’ve ever felt to it was wrapping my arms around a really dried-out Christmas tree so I could lug it out to the street. Sid didn’t have that nice a scent, but then again, he didn’t leave an annoying trail of pine needles either.
“Did you lock the front door in case Madison comes back early?” Sid asked.
“No, but I will.” I did so. “Sid, are you sure you want to play it like this? I know Madison is ready to hear about you.”
Sid and I had agreed when Madison was born that it would be best if we waited to let them meet face-to-skull. It wasn’t that he was overly terrifying in appearance—my father’s great-aunt Margaret, who used a pound of white face powder a week and dyed her hair to the darkness of a black hole, was much scarier. We just didn’t want to rely on a child to keep the secret of Sid’s existence. But when Madison turned a mature ten, I was ready to introduce them during our annual visit to my parents. Sid vetoed it, and had continued to do so. He said he didn’t want to disturb the status quo, that it was too much to put on her, that Madison was too young, that Madison was too old. The reasons just kept on coming, and I’d reluctantly respected his wishes, even if I didn’t understand them. That didn’t mean I’d given up, of course.
“Besides,” I said, “it’s going to be tough hiding you long-term without my parents to run interference if Madison hears anything suspicious from the attic. It’ll be hard on you, too.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be extra quiet.”
“But there’s no reason to keep you secret. Madison isn’t a little kid anymore. She can be trusted. Just wait until you get to know her.”
“I’d like to,” he said wistfully, “but let’s not pile too much on her at once. Making new friends and settling into a new school is more than enough for a girl her age.”
“She’s used to changing schools, Sid.” Though I wasn’t proud of the fact that my employment record had meant she’d had to switch schools midyear more than once, I was glad that she didn’t seem to have suffered from it. “She can handle—”
“How was the move?” Sid asked, firmly changing the subject.
I sighed. He was one stubborn bag of bones. “About the same as usual. We threw out as much as we kept, and I dropped a box of books on my foot. Then the landlord tried to stiff me on the security deposit, but I had photos of the day we moved in and could prove that the stains on the carpet predated us.”
I’d had far too much experience with sneaky landlord tricks. Not that all landlords I’d had were bad people—we still exchanged Christmas cards with a couple—but because of my job, Madison and I usually lived in college towns, and dealing with college students can make even the most hospitable landlord turn cynical. “He finally admitted the place looked better than it had before we rented it and said he’d mail the deposit back, but when I pointed out that our lease said he had to pay on the day we moved out, he just happened to have a check in his pocket. Which I cashed before leaving town, just in case he tried to pull a fast one.” Well, that and the fact that I needed the money to pay the VISA bill.
Before I could return to the subject of introducing Sid to Madison, he asked, “Ready to start your new job?”
“You have no idea.” I’d nearly given up on finding a teaching job for the fall—I’d thought I was all set for another year at the previous college, so being let go after writing up lesson plans for the summer session had caught me off guard.
“Why weren’t you on tenure track, anyway?”
“You sound like Deborah.”
I waved it away. “It was the same old story. They gave me five sections of freshman expository writing each semester, with a textbook I hadn’t worked with before, and I had a hundred essays to grade every week. With no assistant, of course. And even though I got top marks from the students and peer review, all they wanted to know was why I hadn’t published any papers during the two years I was there. Apparently ‘because I had to sleep’ wasn’t considered a legitimate excuse.”
“That’s insane. I have no brains at all—literally—and I can see that’s insane.”
“That’s life in academia.” Though I’d networked like crazy, I’d had no luck lining up a new job for the fall and had been filling in the gap by teaching high students how to improve their SAT scores. Then one of McQuaid’s instructors got an offer from a corporate education center that was lucrative enough to make her leave on short notice. I’d exchanged small talk and business cards with the department chair at a campus function last year, which is why he’d called me.
Since I was more than ready to leave that subject behind, I said, “Anyway, about Madison—” But, as if she’d heard my voice, I got a text from the fourteen-year-old herself: On the way. “Madison will be back in a few minutes. Are you sure . . . ?”
But Sid was already heading for the stairs. “Come up tomorrow after work. I want to know how it goes.”
“Will do. You know—”
“I think she’s here!”
He zipped up the stairs, and I zipped toward the door, but there was no Madison to be seen. He’d fooled me.
Time was when I could see right through Sid, metaphorically as well as physically, but somehow my best friend was hiding something.
To see what comes next, read A Skeleton in the Family by Leigh Perry, available from Berkley Prime Crime on Sept. 3, 2013.