Through Bleached Bone

Cate Gardner

Joe fretted the hole in his jeans. The revolving doors of the skyscraper twirled and a Suit drifted to his bench. He thought Suit but she was more a girl with her hair unloosed from her bun and fingers tugging at the collar of her blouse. Until her exit, Joe had contemplated entering the building. Guess she’d saved him a boot to his ass. She sat beside him, finger dancing before her face, drawing swirls on the air. He should move. The SleepMakers would be coming for her.

Steam rose from a nearby grate causing a beer bottle to roll towards them. The girl kicked off her shoes, throwing them into the road. He should fetch the shoes before the SleepMakers’ procession passed, if not for her, for Jackson Belle.

The girl pressed her hand to his arm. “I’m Helena. I shattered beside a photocopier on the thirty-fourth floor and now I’m so tired. Wake me when they come, or don’t, either way I shan’t open my eyes.”

Helena lay on the bench, her hair splaying across his crotch. It was a similar colour to Jackson’s wig, perhaps a touch less red. He tugged it. Helena jumped, hand pressed to scalp.

“It’s not safe to sleep on the street.”

“I need them to come for me. You wouldn’t understand.” She stood, rocking back on her heels, arms splayed. “I can’t breathe in there and out here. If I were a street rat like you, I’d never want to wake.”

Helena sat with arms draped between her legs. Her body slumped forward, as if the SleepMakers had sucked the muscles and bones from her body. “I need to sleep. Just for a year or two. I’m so tired.”

A tune echoed along the street, a delicate melody to lull the desperate, to snare neglectful street rats. Helena slumped further, fingers drifting across pavement, rustling through discarded litter. Joe stood and wiped his eyes. He couldn’t fall asleep. The SleepMakers band turned the corner, the lead players cranking gramophones, their tunes out of synch, while behind them, the Ghost Beast lumbered. The elegant black swirls on the SleepMakers skin enchanted. Joe almost lost himself in their weave and curve.

Helena slipped from the bench and lay curled on the pavement, knees to chest, glorious red hair splayed. Forcing himself away from her, Joe ran into the road to claim Helena’s shoes. Clutching them to his chest, he stole into Dead Man’s Alley and its abandoned stores, resting his back against the bakery wall as he fought the urge to sleep, to leave the world behind. He tried to forget the weave of their skin, but it enchanted. Concentrate, Joseph. He tried to think instead of the Ghost Beast, of the dead men and women that formed its ribs, of their ghosts and how they writhed about the monster.

The SleepMakers would scoop Helena up and carry her to Skeleton City, which bordered their streets. There, she would nestle in the Ghost Beast’s belly and never wake. Joe turned. He couldn’t leave her.

A hand reached from the bakery doorway and grabbed Joe’s arm. Jackson. Jackson always knew when Joe contemplated something stupid.

“Fool boy, you were almost on your knees out there. When a suit tumbles from their glass tower, we move and we move fast. The SleepMakers always follow, you know that.” Jackson gathered scraps of wax paper and stuffed them into Joe’s ears, consigning the rest of his lecture to mumble.

Thought of the SleepMakers caused his knees to buckle, his breath to slow. Swirls and curls; a dream maze with no exit. Jackson clicked his fingers, snapping Joe from his stupor.

“Come on,” Jackson mouthed.

They made their way across the avenue of bricks, weaving between the abandoned counters of bakers and newsagents and butchers. A rocky path. A bulldozer had smashed through the centre of the row of shops creating a run through. It had de-constructed this place in the time before street rats, before the Suits, before the Sleep Makers arrived in the belly of their Ghost Beast. Some said the SleepMakers were aliens. Others claimed they had dug their way from the heart of the earth. Joe just wanted them gone.

The city towered above Joe and Jackson, glass and metal peeking through the broken roofs of the shops. At the far end of Dead Man’s Alley, a tobacconist shop remained almost intact. They pushed aside the door and once inside the shop, wedged the door back into place.

Joe removed his makeshift earplugs. The SleepMakers song never reached them here, and they slept by rota, keeping watch on each other. Four other street rats had already gathered in this pocket sanctuary. Joe licked his lips at the sight of a half-eaten bacon roll lying in the palm of a sleeping boy with blonde dreadlocks. Joe didn’t recognise the boy or his companion, a girl with plaits and Goth-girl make up.

“I shouldn’t have left Helena,” Joe said, handing Jackson the shoes.

Jackson flinched. “They’re suits. They don’t have names or personalities.”

The shoes were too small for Jackson, but the girl with plaits stole them into her corner. She removed her ripped pumps and slipped her feet into the shiny grey leather. They were a size too big. She nudged the sleeping boy. His hand flapped up, dropping the remains of the bacon roll.

“Wake me when the SleepMakers come,” the dreadlock boy said.

Jackson, Joe, the girl, and two regulars, Alfredo and Deirdre, looked at the dreadlock boy. Wake me when the SleepMakers come. Joe pressed his ear to the door. The song was distant, but present. The girl stole her friend’s bacon roll and sated her hunger. She drew her knees up to her chest and rested her head.

“They won’t come here,” Alfredo said.

Joe edged the door open.

“So tired,” the girl with plaits said. “Wake me when they come.”

“Street rats never call for the Ghost Beast, never. Who are they?” Jackson asked.

Alfredo and Deirdre shrugged, gathering their things together. “We found them out by the Food Cart Factory. They were looking for work, but the foreman shooed them away.”

“Someone needs to stop this,” Joe said.

“Oh, and that someone would be you, I suppose. Fool boy, you can’t take on the world no matter how well carved your shoulders. We move from here, we wait for the SleepMakers to take them and then we return or find somewhere else. Hell, it’s time we got out of the city.”

“There is no out,” Joe said. Jackson had told him that.

Beyond their city with its avenue after avenue of skyscrapers, the broken-down alleyways of the old town, and Skeleton City with its half-constructed buildings and vicious winds, lay wasteland populated only by spectres who raged against the desolation of their landscape. No one could survive out there. The ghosts tore them apart.

“I can’t let them take her.”

Jackson looked at the girl with plaits. “Who’s she to us? She’s just a kid.”

“No, I meant Helena. The girl on the street. I should have dragged her with me. Her life was in my hands and I…”

“Her life was in her hands not yours.” Jackson ran his hand through the wig he’d requisitioned from a department store dummy. “What’s so special about her? She looked regular, or was it that she draped herself over you. That it, Joe?”

“You were watching us.”

“I watched you. I always watch out for you, you know that. If it’s bothering you so much that they took her, a stranger, think how I’d feel if the Ghost Beast swallowed you.”

“I’m sorry, I have to.”

Joe turned and slid through the gap between door and frame.

“Tell me there’s something other than fever in your hot head,” Jackson said.

“I’d never lie to you.”

Jackson kicked the door aside. It fell to the ground, its interior panels smashing. “Wait,” Jackson said, stepping back into the room. He returned with a kohl pencil. “Well the girl won’t need it where she intends to rest.”

They opened the front door of the shop, which had survived the bulldozer’s thump, the scent of stale tobacco accompanying them. They ran up Dead Man’s Alley, turning onto the glittering street of hundred storey skyscrapers that stretched east to west. Behind them, gramophones played. Joe and Jackson stopped to plug their ears. This street was empty, as most streets were with the exception of lost street rats, the procession, and the Food Cart Men carrying breakfast, lunch and supper to the towers. The Suits never left their offices. Rumour was, the Suits slept beneath their desks. Although, some said the Suits never slept at all and that’s why so many of them called out to the SleepMakers and their Beast.

At the end of the road, having passed thirty or more skyscrapers, the buildings thinned and sagged. The city’s original buildings–crumbling red brick–led the way to Skeleton City with its field of abandoned construction and its new inhabitants.

“I’ll free the girl for you,” Jackson said. “If she’s who you want.”

A noble gesture from Jackson , but they both knew SleepMakers were all shorter than five foot and even Joe’s extra two inches would stand out. At six foot, Jackson would tower above them like a human skyscraper. A human skyscraper dressed in a crimson dress. He’d be asleep before he could whisper forty winks. They stopped in the doorway of an abandoned skyscraper. The Ghost Beast procession trekked across the wasteland towards the nearest unfinished tower.

Jackson painted swirls beneath Joe’s eyes, eyelashes to curtain his freckles, a non-hypnotic pattern. He spat on his thumb to rub a street smudge from Joe’s cheek. Joe doubted he’d pass for a SleepMaker lashes or no lashes, painted skin or not. He resisted the urge to wipe off Jackson’s spit. When his face had the appropriate amount of swirls, Joe removed his t-shirt and Jackson painted Joe’s torso and arms, running his fingers along the pattern.

“You look prettier than me,” Jackson said.

As he looked like a SleepMaker, Joe disagreed. Catching his reflection in the smoked glass door of the abandoned building, Joe thought he looked grotesque. The suits were fools to follow these things into eternal slumber. No one could ever be that tired.

“Why do they do it?” Joe asked.

“Once upon a time, Suits jumped from their tower blocks. When they started to build skyscrapers with toughened glass, the SleepMakers moved in. There is always a way to check out.”

“But why?”

“Because life is hard. Because life is frustrating. Because they don’t have anyone who loves them or anyone to love. I don’t know. Those things would tempt me. I could lose myself in the swirl of your skin.”

This time, Joe clicked his fingers.

“Ha, I’m not falling asleep, fool boy. In fact, I think I’m waking up.”

A new tune echoed along the deserted street. A lunch cart. The vendor looked familiar, which wasn’t surprising as most Cart Men were ex street rats.

“Hey Jackson, you’re a little out of your comfort zone,” the vendor said, rolling his cart towards them. “Why don’t you shoo back to the old shops?”

“How about a burger or a sandwich for an old friend, Carl?”

Of course, Jackson would recognise the vendor. He never forgot anyone.

“You don’t want what I’m selling,” Carl said, wheeling his cart by them. “The Soup Kitchen van’s still viable. I suggest you stick with that.”

Jackson clenched his fists.

“We’ll worry about him later,” Joe said.

“I thought this world was done throwing its hurt. There’s always been an understanding between us and the Cart Men.”

“Between you and them, maybe,” Joe said. “The rest of us are used to getting scraps and nothing more.”

“Hey wait,” Jackson spun around. “The Factory is in the other direction so why was Carl coming from Skeleton City?”

Now, Jackson led the march with Joe catching at his heels. At the edge of the city, grey clouds broke, spattering their skin. If they got too wet, Joe’s kohl swirls would bleed. They ran across the wasteland towards a skyscraper skeleton, the one they had seen the procession enter. The nearest. The wax paper they’d used to plug their ears bounced from Joe’s pocket, but he didn’t worry, the air was silent. No need for the gramophones to play here for everyone slept soundly.

A crop of flowers skirted the building, winding up along its metal struts. Apart from manufactured trees, nothing grew in the city anymore. The rain began to dance at their heels.

“When the mud turns red, you wonder who is bleeding,” Jackson said, his strides one to every three of Joe’s.

They made it into the building without losing any of the kohl swirls. Catching their breath, they listened for the creaks and groans of an unfinished building.

“You should stay here,” Joe said.

Jackson shook his head.

Joe’s stomach sank. “It’s the only way. We knew this before we started out.”

“Stupid plan,” Jackson said. “No unnecessary risks. She’s a stranger and this was her choice.”

Joe wasn’t so certain that this could be anyone’s choice. Climbing the ladder to the first floor, his legs felt weighted. The ladder bounced beneath his steps showing no evidence of his lethargy. They fought to survive each day. For what? The city wasn’t theirs. It didn’t even belong to the Suits in their glass towers. He poked his head through the gap and looked across the floor. Suits lay one on top of the other. He couldn’t tell if they were dreaming or dead. Looked dead with their skin pulled taut to their bones, their clothes moth-eaten.

Stepping over an outstretched arm, Joe began to climb to the second floor. Things moved above. He hesitated near the top rung. Looking up, he saw cables draped from the ceiling; electrics and computer wires that tore around the sleeping. Here, the SleepMakers lurked, their gramophones abandoned, their arms cradling the dreaming, threading nightmares. Bodies contorted, mouths opened in scream, but no sound emerged. A SleepMaker looked up from a sleeping boy and stared at Joe. Joe froze. The SleepMaker’s eyes fluttered back, offering Joe their whites and then he returned his attention to his sleeping partner. Snapping out of his stupor, Joe turned, and climbed the next ladder before the curve of the man’s skin stole him.

How high could the Beast float carrying a girl within its belly? Joe poked his head through the opening. There were no SleepMakers here, no gramophones and only one sleeping girl. A girl named Helena buried in the belly of the Ghost Beast. Wind whistled through the building, buffeting Joe. His arm knocked into wires, setting off a domino effect of swinging cables. It seemed the Ghost Beast slumbered, but he knew, just because the whole seemed placated, didn’t mean separate ribs didn’t spy.

A legion of ghosts fashioned the Beast. It was said that people from past eras formed its ribcage, although Joe sometimes wondered if they were constructed from the bodies of dead sleepers. Femurs twisted around fibulas and tibias, humerus welded to scapula, and their ghosts clung to their discarded bones. Joe made no sound as he crossed from ladder to the head of the beast. Helena lay on a bed of rotting skin, the flowers that grew outside the building wound through her hair.

The unfinished skyscraper proved a fabricated beast. It creaked and groaned. Despite Helena’s wistful smile, there was no peace here.

Joe rocked back on his heels and had done so for several minutes before an elongated yawn warned he was in trouble. SleepMaker tattoos curled along the roof of the beast. Metal bled into bone, sky and skin melting. He rubbed his eyes and leaned forward. Renewed yawn almost cracked his jaw. Around him, the Ghost Beast stirred.

Fighting to stay awake, Joe slipped through the gaps in the skeleton ribs, dug his hands beneath Helena and lifted her. Muscles strained. Knees sagged. His nose buried in her hair and thus in the flowers, Joe couldn’t breathe for their noxious scent, but at least they kept him rooted and awake. Someone moved at the edge of his vision. Red hair, sodden t-shirt. Jackson. The Ghost Beast moved as one, stretching its ribcage and then snapping bones together trapping Joe and Helena within its belly. Helena rolled from Joe’s arms.

“Wake up,” Joe urged Helena.

Outside the ribcage, Jackson pulled at bleached bones and jabbed his elbow into the gap. The ghosts began to scream, a sound more wakeful than sleep inducing. Joe pulled at Helena’s arm, attempting to get her to stand, but she flopped back.

“Leave her,” Jackson said.

The Ghost Beast’s collective scream would draw the SleepMakers from their reverie, and while he may pass for one of them, Jackson wouldn’t. Yet, he couldn’t abandon the reason they were here. Maybe if he slept on it, a moment’s slumber to toss over the problem. He needed to breathe in the flowers again. Ribs cracked beneath Jackson’s beating fists. On the floor below, gramophones cranked to life. Joe patted his pockets desperate to find his earplugs, and then remembered he’d dropped them on his way across the wasteland. There had to be something he could use, yet it all seemed too much bother.

Jackson stood half in half out the beast. Wax paper stabbed into his ears. The music slowed its tempo and Joe drifted back and forth.

“They’re coming, you shouldn’t have followed me,” Joe said. Helena’s fingers dripped from his.

Jackson’s fingers outstretched towards Joe, but he didn’t step fully into the belly. Again, Joe dug his fingers beneath Helena and lifted her. As they squeezed by Jackson, he pulled the flowers from Helena’s hair. Stamens dug into Jackson’s thumb, cactus sharp. Helena stirred. The music drifted towards them. Jackson pulled the wax paper from his ears and passed it to Joe. He tore one piece in half and stuffed it in Helena’s ears. She looked at him and didn’t seem to know where she was. Joe handed the other piece back to Jackson, but he shook his head.

“They’ve never lured me,” Jackson said. A lie.

Joe pressed the paper into his ears and grabbed Helena’s hand. They should smash the beast, break every bone and exorcise its ghosts, but the SleepMakers would gather another because they needed something to worship, they needed something to invoke fear alongside their song.

The SleepMakers climbed up the ladder and surrounded the exit. No other way out unless they sprouted wings and flew.

“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” Helena said, shouting across to the SleepMakers. Her voice a whisper in Joe’s plugged ears.

Joe looked at the Beast and its broken ribs. Jackson had smashed in several ribs on its right side.

“Stop,” Joe shouted to Jackson. “Get back in the Beast. This baby is going to fly.”

Helena climbed back in its belly, holding onto a rib and closing her eyes against the accompanying ghosts’ curses. Someone needed to push it over the edge. Jackson waved his hands, urging Joe inside the beast. Joe shook his head. They’d push it together and jump in as it began to tumble. If they broke, they broke.

The SleepMakers encroached on them. Those on the floor below passed gramophones up to the others. Joe and Jackson pushed the beast towards the edge, and as it began to tumble, Joe slid through a ribcage and fell onto its bed of dead skin. Jackson didn’t follow. Mid fall, Joe turned and saw Jackson wobbling at the edge of the floor. The Ghost Beast drifted to the ground, cracking none of its bones. Helena climbed out. Joe followed. He had to go back for Jackson. Helena shook the remaining petals from her hair and stumbled back.

“It hurt so much,” Helena said, stabbing her finger at her temple. “And felt so empty inside. A black box where dreams fade and die, just like the towers.”

Joe looked up a final time then ducked into the building. This time, he tripped over a food cart. Saltcellar and bread rolls tumbled about him. He recalled the Cart Man wheeling away from Skeleton City and his refusal to give them anything. They were poisoning the Suits, making them want to sleep, had to be. Behind him, Helena screamed. Something heavy slammed into the ground. Jackson.

A gramophone lay shattered on the floor, its record rolling across the waste ground. Joe’s heart calmed. Not Jackson. A second gramophone dropped, smashing into one of the Ghost Beast’s ribs. Gramophones cranked loud enough to penetrate wax, songs falling one by one.

Joe removed the wax paper from his ears. The world had fallen to silence. With no music to lure the Suits or street rats, the SleepMakers had only the weave of their tattoos. They could be defeated. Thorns dug into Joe’s skin as he tore at the flowers. He wound their poison around his wrists.

Helena backed away from Joe, from Jackson, from the Ghost Beast.

The Ghost Beast began to rise. Joe ran towards it, fingers grabbing bone, the trail of flowers attempting to secure him to the ground. The ghosts that formed the beast offered a lament that wove around Joe as he climbed into the belly of the beast. Helena began to run back towards the city. The Beast drifted close enough to the unfinished building for Jackson to climb aboard. The SleepMakers followed, dropping onto the bed of dry skin. They drifted higher and higher. The ghosts raised their arms to the sky.

“Higher,” Joe said.

As they lifted past the top of the building, Joe wrapped his arms around Jackson’s waist and pulled him towards the edge formed by the broken ribs. Jackson nodded and together, they jumped from the beast onto the roof. The vines caught against the metal struts, halting their fall. Above them, the Ghost Beast and its cargo continued to lift. Below them, the sleeping began to wake.


Cate Gardner

Cate Gardner is a British horror and fantastical author with over a hundred short stories published. Several of those stories appear in her collection Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits (Strange Publications 2010). She is also the author of two novellas: Theatre of Curious Acts (Hadley Rille Books, 2011) and Barbed Wire Hearts (Delirium Books, 2011).

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  • Michael Haynes
    I really liked the imagery of this story. I imagined the Ghost Beast as looking like something from Spirited Away.
  • deborah walker
    An excellent story, form one of my favourite writers. 
  • Milo Fowler
    “In fact, I think I’m waking up.” — Not I; this one captivated me from start to finish. Excellent work!
  • Zombie Inkpot
    Another excellent story from the extremely talented Cate Gardner