In The Land of the Dead
"Funny – that's exactly what the maggot said!"
Lizzie covered a snort with her hand as the piano tinkled its way to the end of the song. Good Lord, that had been funny – and without even being particularly raunchy! She enthusiastically joined in the applause as the Bone Boys flourished their instruments at the crowd. Well well – I'll admit it, Mr. Bonejangles. You are indeed no braggart.
Arthur slumped back in his chair as the clapping died down. "What a show! The man's got some real talent there."
"I know," Lorina agreed, sipping her drink. "They all do. I've wanted to get up and dance more than once – shame there's no room for it."
"Mmm," Lizzie hummed, looking around the crowded club. The Hip Joint had proved to be tiny, stuffed to the brim with tables and chairs for patrons. Simply walking around was an activity fraught with peril – to dance the way the songs encouraged you to, with wide kicks and twirls? You'd probably have to be cut free of at least two other guests and their seats if you tried. I guess it's just a lucky thing nobody here has to go to the toilet anymore. I can only imagine the collisions.
Even with her bum needing to stay firmly in its chair, though, Lizzie was having a wonderful time. Her parents had eagerly agreed to accompany her to the club, likely encouraged by the fact she was the one suggesting getting out and about for once. They'd found themselves a nice corner booth, as isolated as one could get in this cramped space, and the two tables closest were exclusively populated by women (well, Lizzie was pretty sure that skeleton at table two had been female). The drinks and nibbles they'd ordered had been aged to perfection, wonderfully agreeable to a tongue deadened by twelve years Below. And, of course, the music had proven to be an excellent surprise. As hard to describe as Bonejangles had said, but it filled Lizzie with a cheerful energy that she hadn't felt since shortly before her death. A risk more than worth the taking, she decided, picking up a moldy pretzel and popping it into her mouth. And to think I'd nearly dismissed him as nothing more but one of them. . . .
"You know what this reminds me of, a bit? Our first date," Arthur commented, grinning at Lorina. "Out on the town, a little nervous, unsure what we were going to see. . .remember that new, experimental opera I took you and your lady-maid to?"
"Oh, God, Arthur, don't compare this to that!" Lorina laughed, the sound whistling through the holes where her nose had once sat. "That was an utter disaster! The lead singer's voice kept cracking on the high notes, and nobody could remember their lines!"
"And then the moon fell down out of the sky and gave one of the actors a concussion," Arthur nodded, chuckling along. "Poor fellow was all right in the end, fortunately, but I'll never forget the mess. I thought for sure you'd consider it an evil omen and never want to see me again."
"It would have taken a lot more than that to drive me away from you," Lorina assured him, taking his hand. "I wish we'd been able to attend a performance like this, though. It would have been such fun! Where were these men while we were alive?"
"Probably on the road," Lizzie said. "And I don't think either Grandmother and Grandfather or Grandmama and Grandpapa would have liked you going to a music hall or pub."
"Probably not – your father's still the most intimidating man I've ever met, Lorina," Arthur admitted to his wife.
"He liked you, you know," Lorina said, shaking her head.
"Yes, but he had a funny way of showing it. I did not appreciate every visit ending with, 'Goodbye, Arthur, good luck at the university, and if you ever hurt my daughter I shall make you wish you'd never been born.'"
"It was just his joke! He knew you never would!"
"Even still, I'm glad he's apparently moved on – I did not relish having to explain how we died to him!"
"Okay, folks, we're wrapping it up here! One last song for y'all!"
A groan came up from the crowd. "Yeah, yeah, we know, but it's a good one," Bonejangles called from the stage, waving his hands. "Written for a friend of mine, name of Emily. She went Up recently, but I don't think she'll mind me still singing it. So yeah, this one's for her." He turned his gaze to the ceiling. "Hope you're happy Up there, Emily. Hit it, boys!"
Chauncey immediately grabbed one of his bandmates and began knocking out a beat on his skull. Bonejangles followed suit on the third member of the Bone Boys. Lizzie giggled – they'd been doing this sort of thing all night, and while she supposed it was disturbing if you thought about it too much, it was also very creative. She tapped her foot in time with the clack of bone on bone, eager for the song to begin proper.
A xylophone-like run of Bonejangles's fingers down his friend's ribcage was the cue for the piano to take up the tune. Bonejangles did a little twirl, snapping his fingers, then launched into the lyrics:
"Give me a listen, you corpses of cheer
At least those of you who still got an ear
I'll tell you a story make a skeleton cry
Of our own jubliciously lovely corpse bride!"
Lizzie blinked as the Bone Boys took up the chorus: "Die, die, we all pass away, but don't wear a frown, cause it's really okay. . . ." Corpse bride? That – seems like an odd subject for such a happy song. . .of course, he's been doing numbers on decomposition all night, but – hmm. She leaned forward, curious to see how the story would continue. "But we all end up the remains of the day! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah. . . ."
Bonejangles winked at the crowd and stepped away from the middle of the stage, leaving naught but his shadow behind. Lizzie wondered what he was doing for a minute – and then, without warning, the shadow changed. She gasped as it grew, split, and became two entirely different silhouettes – a young lady and a large chinned man, the former looking curiously at the latter. "What the – how did he do that?"
"Damned if I know," Arthur said, peering around to see if he could spot the trick. Heedless of their confusion, Bonejangles continued onward:
"Well, our girl was a beauty known for miles around,
When a mysterious stranger came into town!
He was plenty good-lookin', but down on his cash,
And our poor little baby, she fell hard and fast!
When her daddy said no, she just couldn't cope,
So our lovers came up with a plan to elope!"
And just like that, Lizzie's stomach hit the floor. She stared as the shadow-man kissed the hand of the shadow-woman, then caught her as she pretended to faint romantically into his arms. Running away with a mysterious, poor stranger. . .she knew exactly how this story ended, didn't she? Not with violation and fire, perhaps, but with the same broken dreams and shattered spirit. You couldn't be a corpse bride without someone killing you, after all. . . .
It might not be what you think it is, a weak inner voice suggested. Maybe – um – her father discovered the plans and killed both of them in a rage?
Yes, because that's so much better. Either way she ends up betrayed by a man in her life. Lizzie dropped her gaze to the table as the band finished up the second chorus and swung into a state of wild improvisation. I can understand making fun of us rotting away, and even finding something amusing or catchy about disease – no pun intended – but murder? How could his friend have ever approved a song about her death that sounded so – cheerful?
A barely-sensed change in pressure alerted her to the fact that her mother had put her hand on her back. "Do you want to go?" Lorina whispered under the guitar and trombone. "I think we've heard enough to judge his talents."
Lizzie almost said yes – but then stopped herself and shook her head. "It's almost done – and besides, we probably owe it to the girl to hear the whole story. Even if I already have a good idea where it goes. . .and do you think we'd even be able to get out before the song ended anyway?" she added, jerking her head toward the sea of tables around them.
"Unlikely," Arthur admitted. He patted her wrist. "But it might not be as bad as you fear. Yes, obviously it ends before she gets to the altar, but – maybe it's just an unfortunate accident that claims her life. Still sad, but. . .well, it makes more sense than the other possibilities."
"I don't know – I guess we'll find out," Lizzie admitted, looking back at the stage to see the Bone Boys swapping heads in a line, tossing the spare skull back to the one in front to keep the rhythm going. "No matter what, though, it seems to be stretching the bounds of good taste."
"He said he knew her – it can't be that horrible," was Lorina's opinion. "He wouldn't dare taint the memory of a friend."
"I hope not."
The musical chaos wound to a close, and Bonejangles swung back into the center of the stage. Lizzie took a deep breath, preparing herself as he continued on:
"So they conjured up a plan to meet late at night,
They told not a soul, kept the whole thing tight!
Now her mother's wedding dress fit like a glove –
You don't need much when you're really in love!
Except for a few things, or so I'm told,
Like the family jewels, and a satchel of gold!"
The shadows behind him morphed again, this time showing the young woman looking left and right as she stood under the most twisted and gnarled tree Lizzie had ever seen. She clasped her hands tightly together under the table. Here it comes. . . .
"Then next to the graveyard by the old oak tree,
On a dark foggy night at a quarter to three,
She was ready to go – but where was he?"
"And then?" Chauncey asked, leaning in from the side.
Bonejangles peered mysteriously out from under his hat. "She waited. . . ."
"And then?" another Bone Boy inquired.
One bony finger pointed at the door. "There in the shadows, was it the man?"
"And then?" the third Boy took up the question.
Bonejangles clutched his ribcage. "Her little heart beat so loud!"
"And then?" chorused all three of his bandmates.
"And then, baby–" The figure of the man sprouted from the tree with an evil cackle, looming over the girl like a panther over its prey. The girl turned, screamed, and then was devoured in a swirl of shadow "– everything went – black."
An aborted attempt at a scream – weakened fingers clawing at his arm – a final, desperate gasp for air – and then everything went black.
Lizzie clenched her jaw, holding the tears at bay. Trapped in the darkness, alone with a monster, and absolutely nowhere to run – oh yes, she knew exactly how poor Emily had felt in her final moments. And horror of horrors, Emily had loved her killer! Was that better or worse than having everything taken by someone you loathed? Surely the lead-up to her murder had been kinder, but the actual moment of death. . . . It was apples and oranges in the end. All that mattered was it was no way to die.
Even Bonejangles seemed affected by the song – he let the silence hang for a moment, before slinging himself across the piano and letting the shadows fade. He pushed his hat back from his face as he wrapped things up:
"Now when she opened her eyes, she was dead as dust,
Her jewels were missin' and her heart was bust.
So she made a vow lyin' under that tree,
That she'd wait for her true love to come set her free.
Always waiting for someone to ask for her hand–"
He leapt off the piano and spread his arms wide, grin bright in the spotlights:
"When out of the blue comes this groooovy young man!
Who vows forever to be by her side –
And that's the story of our corpse briiiide!"
Lizzie perked up just a smidgen as Boys led the crowd in the last chorus. So Emily had found someone who loved her in the end? That was a relief. After such a terrible betrayal, she deserved some happiness.
Oh? Have you ever actually heard of anyone getting married down here? the imp commented, all too happy to make its presence known. Sounds to me like she was stuck as the corpse bride until the very end. And even if she did get what she wanted, no strings attached, her murderer's still running around up there, free as a bird. Just like yours.
Oh, shut up, Lizzie huffed, annoyed. She didn't have to get married to find love, I'm sure. And – and I know from experience there's nothing you can do about people like that, so you can only enjoy what you have. She deserved whatever joy she could find.
Her father frowned at the stage as Bonejangles and his Boys took their final bows to raucous applause. "That's – peculiar."
"What do you mean?" Lorina asked.
"The ending. . .is it just me, or does it sound like a living man proposed to her?"
"What?" Lizzie stared at her father, baffled. "How and why would that happen?"
"I don't know, but – the lyrics implied she didn't move from that tree. That doesn't help any dead men who might want to court her."
"But she couldn't have stayed Upstairs, either," Lorina argued. "When she died, she came here. That's how death works."
Lizzie put her head in her hands. Great, another wrinkle for them to obsess over. Why did this story have to be so confusing? You couldn't have picked a different number to end on, could you Bonejangles? Ugh. . . .
The piano started up again, and Lizzie looked up to see a fresh player at the keys, with the Bone Boys heading for the bar. She frowned as they settled themselves on the stools. "You know what?" she said abruptly, standing. "I'm going to ask them."
"It's not fair for them to leave us in such distress. She was Bonejangles's friend, or so he claims – he can spare two moments to tell me what really happened."
"You'll be all right?" Arthur said, touching her wrist again.
"It's a crowded pub – nobody would try anything," Lizzie said, even as the imp murmured, You don't know that. . . . "And you won't be that far away. I don't want this eating at my brain the rest of the night."
Her parents exchanged an anxious look, but nodded. "All right, dear," Lorina said, drumming her fingers on the table. "We'll be here when you get back."
"I know you will. Back shortly." Lizzie wiggled out of the booth, then carefully threaded her way through the maze of tables.
Bonejangles was chatting away with Chauncey as she neared, the latter with pen and paper before him. "I think we oughta open with 'Mercury Row' tomorrow. Get the blood really pumpin' right from the start."
"What about 'Knocking On Death's Door?'" the other skeleton inquired, ticking off something. "I'm telling you, Jangles, the middle's weak."
"Yeah, I noticed – leave that one off tomorrow, and we'll try and spice it up some. 'What the Maggot Said' was a real hit, though, should keep that one as our show-stopper."
"It was very funny," Lizzie put in, stepping up behind them.
Bonejangles's head twirled like an owl's. Lizzie did her best not to start – twelve years dead and she still wasn't used to all the quirks of the skeleton body. "Oh, hey! So ya decided to come along after all," he said, eye rolling from left to right as he turned the rest of his body to face her. "So – whadya think of the show?"
"Very enjoyable," Lizzie admitted, smiling. "I must apologize for suggesting you might be full of yourself."
Bonejangles waggled his jaw, his grin becoming more of a smirk briefly. "Told ya so." He ran his hand up the side of his ribcage. "'Sides – how can I be full of myself when there ain't nothing left to fill?"
"Oh, you'd be surprised. . . ." She slid onto the stool next to him, rubbing one wrist. "I didn't come over just to say hello, though. I had a question about that last song of yours."
"'Remains of the Day?'" Bonejangles signaled to the bartender. "What's got you all bothered about it?"
"Well – just – what's the real story behind it?" Lizzie asked, leaning forward. "You said you wrote it for a friend, but – about her murder?"
"Yeah – Emily Cartwell," Bonejangles confirmed, crossing his legs and resting one elbow on the bar. "Showed up Downstairs about – six months after I did? Less than a year, I know that, still had all my guts then. Let me tell you, she was a mess when I ran across her in the woods. Big old slice in her side, her head smacked in, and sobbing her eyes out over her flowers. Took me ages to get her to calm down enough to tell me what happened." A bubbling drink slid down the varnished wood – he reached out and snagged it in one large hand. "And then I took her over to the Ball & Socket, and everybody was askin' her how she kicked it, and – well, I could see it wasn't doing her mood any favors. I had the chorus in my head already, so I just scribbled out some words before and after it. Know it probably came out a little too cheerful, but she liked it anyway." He tipped back the glass and poured the drink down what had once been his gullet, letting it splash through his ribs. Lizzie quickly tucked her feet beneath her stool, pulling her skirt out of the way of the splattering alcohol. "Ahh, that's the ticket. . . ."
"I was wondering what she'd think of it being sung to such a bouncy tune," Lizzie admitted, watching the orange liquid drip from his bones. "What a horrible thing to happen to anyone – betrayed by someone you love, and left to rot."
"Yeah," Bonejangles agreed, voice dark. "Trust me there wasn't a one of us down in Burtonsville who didn't want to give 'Eddie' the works for screwing her over. I come from a pretty small village, and most everybody Downstairs got there by accident or old age. To see somebody, especially somebody as sweet and friendly as Emily, get out and out stuck like a pig? Oh, we were praying he'd join us soon so we could give him a good warm welcome."
"I know how you feel," Lizzie grumbled, leaning heavily on her elbow.
Bonejangles tilted his head at her. "You do?"
"Yes. . .I didn't give you all the details of my own death before," Lizzie confessed, looking down. "It wasn't just a house fire. It was arson – set by a deranged man whose 'affections' I'd spurned. Everything we've heard indicates he's never been caught."
"Oh. Damn." Bonejangles shook his head, eye rattling between sockets. "That's terrible. I'm sorry for you and your family."
"Thank you," Lizzie whispered, squeezing her skirts to relieve her feelings. "I'm sorry for your friend. Nobody deserves a death like that." She managed a smile. "Still, she got the husband she always wanted in the end. Right?"
Bonejangles laughed awkwardly. "Eh, sort of," he said, rubbing the back of his skull. "What really happened is kinda complicated, and – well, it's tough enough explainin' when you don't have to make every line rhyme."
What did I tell you? the imp crowed triumphantly.
He said 'sort of,' not 'no!' Lizzie protested, though her stomach was already tying itself into a knot. "So what did happen?"
"Lemme see if I can think of a short version. . . ." Bonejangles grabbed another glass of mysterious orangeness and knocked it back, wiping the drippings off his jawbone. "Okay, so – that 'groovy young man' at the end of the song? Didn't mean to propose to Emily in the first place. I learned about all this later, but this guy Victor was getting married to this gal Victoria – his parents were what they call 'nouveau riche,' hers all noble up-and-ups but stone broke. So they threw their kids together and hoped they'd get along. Victor got a very handy thing for Victoria, but had a hell of a time rememberin' his wedding vows. So he headed out to the woods to practice – apparently the pastor scared him away – and when he finally got 'em right. . .well, he had the ring with him, and he slipped it onto Emily's hand. Guessin' he didn't realize what it was. Emily was in the bar when it happened – we were having a chat when suddenly she gets this funny look on her face, then she screams loud enough to knock me off my stool, and by the time I get back up she's gone. Five minutes later, she's back again, with some livin' toothpick slumpin' out of her arms onto the floor and a wedding ring on her finger!"
"But – but how did she get back Upstairs in the first place?" Lizzie demanded, fingernails digging into her knee through her skirt. "You can't go back Upstairs after you've died! It's impossible!"
"Mostly impossible," Bonejangles said carelessly. "You know magic works down here, right?"
"Well, yes, though I haven't learned much – is that how you made the shadows change and move?" she added, her train of thought briefly jumping tracks. "Papa and I were looking for the trick."
"No trick – Shadow Play," Bonejangles beamed. "All you gotta do is keep talking and think of what you want people to see–" behind the bar, his shadow suddenly got up, tipped its hat, and bowed "–and voila! Doesn't last more than a minute after you shut up, but it's great for puttin' on a show."
"I should say," Lizzie said, duly impressed as the silhouette-Bonejangles sat down again. "So. . .there's a spell for going back Upstairs? Why haven't I heard about it?"
"Because we mere mortals don't get a crack at it," Bonejangles explained, shaking his head. "Elder Gutknecht – he's sorta the leader of our little patch of Underworld – explained it to me. Everybody's got a different amount of magic 'oomph,' and most of us don't have enough to make the spell work. Emily, though, got the special treatment. Apparently that tree she died under is in the middle of a magic – sinkhole, I guess, and when she made her vow, it decided, okay then, you wanna marry a living guy? You can come up just long enough to grab him."
"I see." Well, that had been a quick raising and dashing of hopes. If only I'd known about it twelve years ago. . .I could have made my own vow and haunted Bumby into madness. She sighed and tried to turn her attention back to his story. "So it was all a misunderstanding, then. She must have been heartbroken when Victor told her."
"Yeah, she wasn't happy when she found out about Little Miss Living," Bonejangles nodded. "But here's the part where it starts gettin' tangled. Victor's parents' driver died – some sort of coughing fit, best I heard – and he let slip that Victoria was marrying someone else now that Victor was down here with us. Everybody thought he'd vanished, see? Run out on her. Around the same time, Elder Gutknecht tells Emily that her marriage to Victor doesn't work. Vows only last until 'death do you part,' so sayin' 'em to a dead girl don't mean squat. So Victor, who's a decent guy, tells her he'll marry her properly – even though it means havin' to gulp down a goblet of the Wine of Ages."
"Wine of Ages?" Lizzie parroted, doing her best to keep up.
"Poison," Bonejangles supplied. "Only way he could give his heart to her was if it was dead too."
Lizzie's jaw dropped. "And he was willing to do that?!"
"Yeah, even after Emily said she couldn't make him, according to Mrs. Plum – cook at the place, one of Emily's best friends. Like I said, decent guy. Anyway, they've got to do it up in the Living world, so Plum cooks 'em a huge cake and I get the band together, and we all head up there." His grin turned sly. "And some of the folks and I may have teased out of him where Victoria and her folks lived so we could spook 'em a little. Just 'cause."
"Oh, that's mea – wait! You just said–"
"Elder Gutknecht got us up there," Bonejangles explained, gesturing with his glass. "Guy's the best wizard any of us have ever seen, living or dead. He cast the spell on all of us, though it took some doing – had to use an actual phoenix feather. Had no idea they were real birds."
"Neither did I," Lizzie said, then smacked her hand against the bar. "Damn it. . .I so want to see my sister again. . . ."
"Sorry, Miss Liddell," Bonejangles said, accepting a third drink from the bartender. "I've got family I want to see too. I'd take you up myself if I could, but. . . ."
"I know," Lizzie sighed, shaking her head. "It's just frustrating." She squeezed her forehead, doing her best to put the thought out of her mind. "All right – so you made it up there and, I'm guessing, frightened the wits out of Victoria's family."
"Yeah, and all the guests besides – though they came around in the end," Bonejangles added, tone turning nostalgic. "Seeing that one nipper throw himself into his grandpa's arms helped a lot there. So once the screaming was over, we all headed up to the church together. That's when I learned about the deal with Victor and Victoria – ended up escorting her old maid. Lady told me about the arranged marriage, and what a shame it was that Victor had disappeared, because now Victoria was stuck with somebody she didn't love and she'd had such a soft spot for the Van Dort boy. . . ." He fiddled with the brim of his hat. "Made me feel like a real heel for decidin' to wreck her wedding breakfast."
"You didn't know," Lizzie reassured him. "I mean, yes, it was a bit cruel, but it sounded like she was being cruel first."
"Yeah, but. . .still." He shrugged. "Anyway, we make it to the church, push past this arse of a pastor, get all settled, and the wedding begins. Emily looked a sight walkin' down that aisle – never seen her smile so big. She and Victor started going on about 'with this hand' and 'your cup will never empty,' and everything's going well. . .but then, just as Victor's about to drink the poison, Emily suddenly stops him. Says she can't do it and that she's stealing someone else's dreams. We're all confused as shit until she beckons toward a pillar on the far side – and there's Victoria, watching everything with this lost look. My guess is, she snuck in after the rest of us and hid there to see what was going on. Emily must have spotted her, and. . .I dunno. I guess those sad eyes and the wedding dress got her thinkin' about herself. She always told me she'd never want anyone to go through what she did."
"So she – wait." Lizzie frowned, going over the order of events in her head. "But – wasn't Victoria married already?"
"Yup, and just as Emily reunited 'em, her new husband showed up at the door," Bonejangles confirmed. "And guess what? It's Eddie!"
"Dead serious – uh, no pun intended. Going by 'Barkis' this time around, and pretendin' he's a lord. Hildy told me he'd showed up at the rehearsal and stepped right into Victor's shoes when Emily snatched him up. Guessin' he had the same plans for Victoria as he did for Emily."
"That's – why would he go back?" Lizzie demanded, steaming. Filthy, rotten men, corrupting everything they touched. . . . "And why target the Everglots if they're so poor?"
"Obviously he didn't know that bit," Bonejangles smirked. "Anyway, he grabs the sword out of Bonesaparte and starts dragging Victoria away, and we're all pissed as hell, but we can't do anything 'cause it's Upstairs and we're not supposed to. Stupid rule, if you ask me. . .but then Victor steps up and he and Barkis start battlin' it out. Mrs. Plum tried to throw Victor a knife, but – well, poor bastard ended up with a barbecue fork instead," he added with a snort. "Handled himself really well, though – three hits on Lord Arsewipe before he finally got knocked down. Barkis tried to skewer him, but at the very last second Emily jumped in front of the blade. Went right into that hole he stabbed in her, but she didn't even flinch. Just grabbed the sword and told him to get lost. Ain't never been prouder of her."
Lizzie caught herself imagining herself and Bumby in the roles of Emily and Barkis. It was a very satisfying picture. But. . . . "And after all that, he just walked away?"
"Oooh no – you see, even though she's got him at swordpoint, he decides he's gotta be cruel to her all over again. So he goes over, grabs the wine, makes a nasty toast – and then drinks the entire goblet in two gulps." Bonejangles chuckled darkly. "I mean, yeah, he didn't know it was poison, buuuut. . .dead before he could even reach the door. And since that put him on our turf, we decided to show him exactly what we think of lyin', cheatin', murdering arseholes."
A vicious smile spread across Lizzie's face. So every so often there was justice. "Good." Then her features softened back into confusion. "But what about Emily?"
"Told ya – she went Up," Bonejangles said, pointing at the ceiling. "Didn't see it myself – too busy helping the gang with the beatdown – but Elder Gutknecht told us all about it later. Guess finally getting to the altar and seeing the jerk who put her in the ground get his was enough for her. She gave Victor back his ring, threw Victoria her bouquet, then she was off as a cloud o'butterflies. Not surprised, she always liked 'em."
Lizzie wrinkled her brow. "Begging your pardon?"
"Nobody told you? That's how you go Up," Bonejangles explained. "I don't know all the fancy-schmancy bits to it, but – there's something that's keeping us close enough to 'alive' down here, and when you're ready to go on, that gets thrown back into the world as butterflies or flowers, or all sorts of other stuff. From what I hear, you just dissolve away into it, happy as a clam." He gazed contemplatively at the bottles behind the bar. "Think I'd like to become my music. Keep it going even after I'm gone and done."
"I won't stop you – it's good music." Lizzie pursed her lips, thinking. Dissolving away into butterflies or flowers. . .had Miss Winks told them about that when they'd first arrived? She couldn't quite remember – then again, she'd been rather distracted at the time. But it sounded a nice enough way to get to Heaven. "I was fond of lilacs and daffodils when I was alive. . .but I also adored sunny days, so. . .I don't know. I'd have a hard time picking."
"You'll know when the time comes, I guess." Bonejangles rolled his eye toward her. "So yeah, I'd say it all ended happily, even if she didn't get the wedding she wanted. Better she move on, you know? Get out of this dump."
Lizzie eyed him. She recognized that 'I'm trying to convince myself of something but it's not working very well' tone. "You miss her, don't you?"
Bonejangles shrugged. "We were pretty good friends by the end," he said, melancholy. "Mrs. Plum was on us for a while to get hitched, but – well, it was never anything romantic. Being around her was like having one of my sisters back." He tipped back his latest drink. "Besides, I'm not sure it would have worked even if we had tried it. She was pretty set on marrying a livin' guy."
Lizzie nodded. "I understand. Is that why you left your village?"
"Yeah, more or less," Bonejangles admitted. "After she did her disappearing act, there seemed to be memories all over the place, so I talked the boys into doing a tour." He pushed his hat back rakishly. "Didn't have to talk long, of course. We've been meaning to get out and about, share our music with the world. So, here we are!"
"Here you are," Lizzie echoed, smiling. "And I'm glad you came."
Glad? You're glad a new strange man is in town? the imp asked, baffled.
Yes, I am. He's interesting. I haven't had interesting in a while. And he just told me he had a purely platonic relationship with a young woman who, by his own admission, was rather obsessed with getting married. The only thing he's done to even slightly set me off is brag about his music, and he's backed that claim up admirably.
You've still only known him for a day, the imp grumbled.
Then I'll just have to keep getting to know him, won't I? Besides, he won't be here long. Soon enough I'll retire back to my cave. Just let me have this, you wicked thing.
Bonejangles cocked his head. "Are ya? You seemed ready to kick me past the city limits yourself when I first met ya."
"I warmed up quickly, didn't I?" Lizzie retorted. "Though I am sorry for being a little rude before. I don't take meeting strangers – particularly strange men – well."
"Blame the ass who burnt your house down?"
Lizzie nodded. "It's not so bad, I suppose – I've got Mama and Papa. I just wish I could see Alice again one last time. . . ." She sighed, then decided to change the subject before the depression could settle in. "Speaking of which, you mentioned sisters before, didn't you?"
"Oh yeah – looking at the oldest of the Thatcher Twelve here," Bonejangles told her, chuckling. "And all the rest were girls."
"Wha – twelve?!" Lizzie gaped. "What – but – how do you even have that many children?!"
"Ugh, Liddell, don't make me think about what my parents did behind closed doors!" Bonejangles drummed his fingers on the bar. "Lessee – we had me, then Claire, Nora, April, Hester, Nettie, Hannah, Gladys, May, Virginia, Ethel, and June. Never really got to know the ones at the end, though. I was out doing my thing, ridin' around and dodgin' tomatoes, and then I'd come home and another baby would have come outta nowhere. Hell, I'd bet that June only knows I existed through pictures. She couldn't have been more than a coupla months by the time that horse broke me."
"Oh – I'm sorry," Lizzie murmured, folding her hands together on her lap. "That's terrible, having a sibling that you never even got to know."
"Tell me about it. What's worse is that Dad disappeared four months before she showed up. He and Mum were actually from the good ol' US of A – came 'cross the pond right before I was born. Picked up the accent from him," he added, tapping his neck. "Confuses the hell out of people but great for singing. Anyway, Dad was a nice guy, can't say he didn't treat us all well – just couldn't hold down an honest job to save his life. Pretty sure certain he and Mum had to leave America 'cause he pissed off the wrong people. . .and dead positive he vanished later 'cause he'd gotten himself in trouble again."
Lizzie bit her lip. "Oh yikes."
"Yeah, Mum put up with the cardsharping and little stuff like that 'cause it put food on the table, but she was pissed as hell when he didn't come home. Can't blame her either. Can only imagine how she felt when I didn't make it back. . . ." He sighed. "That's what's keepin' me down here, I'm sure – wondering how they're all gettin' on Above. Woulda given anything to see Virginia and Ethel and June grow up. And since we were all out in this tiny village, and didn't even live in it proper, milkin' the new arrivals for info doesn't work too well."
"I lived in one of the nicest parts of Oxford, with my father a respected dean of the university, and even we have to struggle to learn anything about Alice," Lizzie muttered, leaning on her hand. "I think there's a conspiracy to keep us all ignorant."
"Maybe. . .though she might be running around with a different name these days," Bonejangles pointed out. "I mean, I dunno how old she was when you all cacked it, but she's probably been married for a few years by now, right?"
Alice – married? Reginald Hargreaves's smirking face popped into her head – Lizzie shoved it away before it could metamorphose into someone worse. "I don't know. . .she would have just turned twenty in May. That's still a bit young, especially if she has no one to introduce her to anybody."
"Twenty?" Bonejangles's eye rolled into the right socket and squinted at her. "You don't look older than that yourself!"
"I was eighteen when it happened – and Alice was a surprise to our parents," Lizzie explained, taking a bit of nasty pleasure in flustering him. "Your parents may have been very busy behind closed doors, but mine. . . ." And she was already regretting making the joke, as those clammy hands were back again – she pretended to brush dust off her dress to get rid of them. "Well, there was a ten-year gap, let's just say that."
"Ten?!" Bonejangles shook his head. "Sheesh, Ethel and June were the farthest in our lot, 'bout four years apart."
"Well, the doctors told Mama she wouldn't be able to have any other children after me, so. . . ." Lizzie sighed, twisting her fingers into knots in her lap. "And now our 'miracle baby' is the only one left."
"That's irony for ya," Bonejangles said, though he didn't sound amused. "Might not even be a Liddell anymore if she got adopted. Tough, isn't it? Not knowin'."
Lizzie just nodded. Part of her wanted to tell him that, actually, she did know some, and what she knew was arguably worse than ignorance – but no. That was too intimate, too soon. As her little imp had said, they'd only known each other for a day. And stories of Rutledge were much too horrible to dump on a new acquaintance anyway.
"Aw, didn't mean to get you all gloomy. . ." Bonejangles pushed his smile toward her. "Think about it this way – she's still up there, right? Still kickin'."
"Mmmm. . .I just want it to be a good life she's kicking in," Lizzie murmured. "That she's gotten everything she deserves."
"Hear hear." Bonejangles raised his glass. "To Alice and June, and all the rest of my parents' brood too. May they get the lives we didn't get a chance to live."
"I'd drink to that – if I had a drink," Lizzie said, patting the empty spot before her.
"Easily fixed – oi, barkeep!" Bonejangles called, turning towards the bartender.
"Oh, no, it's fine," Lizzie reassured him. "I don't really drink anyway. We all gave vodka a try just the once shortly after our second anniversary here, and – well, discovering you can still get a hangover when dead put me off the idea."
"You sure?" Bonejangles asked, adjusting his hat. "Ain't a problem. Least I could do for yakkin' your ear off."
"Oh, no, don't worry about that. The conversation is payment enough." Lizzie suddenly giggled. "And now I think it must have been fate that I was reading Pride and Prejudice when we met. Proof that first impressions can be complete bunk."
"Whaddya I tell ya?" Bonejangles grinned. "'Course, I thought you were kinda stuck up when I first met ya, so I learned that lesson myself."
"Good, we can be two students together then."
Lizzie turned around to see her mother and father struggling through the crowd. "You've been gone a while – we wanted to make sure everything was all right," Lorina explained as they finally reached the bar. She looked over at Bonejangles. "This is the fellow you met before, then?"
"Bonejangles," Lizzie confirmed, as the skeleton tipped his hat. "Bonejangles, this is my mother and father, Lorina and Arthur Liddell."
"Pleasure to meet ya," Bonejangles said, offering a hand. "Sorry if we kept you waitin' – I got to blabbering on about my folks and stuff."
"Oh, no, it's fine," Lorina said, shaking. "We just weren't expecting her to stay away so long."
"Marvelous performance, I must say," Arthur added. "I wouldn't mind an encore – are you in town for a while?"
"Few days, at least," Bonejangles grinned. "You get a crowd like this, you wanna keep 'em happy, ya know."
"What kinda bull are you tryings to pull?"
Startled, all four heads jerked around toward a nearby table, where a bunch of rather well-built construction types were playing cards. "Now shee here, fair's fair! Aces beat Kingsh!" the man at the top of the table continued, weaving slightly as he stood.
"Kings are top and I dun care what anybody elshe says!" his companion on the opposite side snapped, slapping down his hand. "Broadshman! Cheat!"
"Who you calling cheat?" the first man roared, grabbing his chair.
"Um, I think we're going to retire for the night," Lorina said, grabbing Lizzie's arm. "Very nice meeting you, Mr. Bonejangles."
"Yeah, same here," Bonejangles said, watching with interest as the first man tried to bring the chair down over the second's head, only to hit the player beside him instead. "Hoo-eee, this is gonna be a bad one. . .yeah, I'd skedaddle while you can."
"Right," Lizzie said, slipping off the stool. A meaty "thunk" announced the introduction of the injured man's fist to the first man's face. "Oh, and. . . ." She screwed up her face in concentration, keeping an eye on the wall behind them. "Thank you for the conversation. Have a good night."
Her shadow, standing on the other side of the bar, dipped its skirt in a curtsy in time with her words. Lizzie couldn't help a squeal of delight. "It worked!"
"Hey, not bad," Bonejangles said, impressed, as his shadow returned the courtesy with a bow. "Anyway, yeah, you too–" A bottle suddenly sailed between them and smashed on the shelves. "Hey, cool it! There's a lady over here!"
This had no effect on the enraged players except to make one of them throw his cards at Bonejangles's face. Lorina hauled her daughter and husband away as one of the Bone Boys returned fire with his drink. "And here I thought this was a slightly-higher class establishment. . . ."
"How did you do that?" Arthur demanded of Lizzie, seemingly oblivious to the brawl that was growing bigger with every missed hit.
"Magic," Lizzie grinned at him. "Apparently some of it's a lot simpler than we thought."
"I should say! I'll have to try that when we get home. . . ." Arthur shook his head before looking back down at his daughter. "And that's the longest conversation I've seen you have with a man – particularly a strange one – in eleven years. Honestly, I thought he'd done something to offend or upset you and you'd left the bar in a snit when you didn't come back."
"No – he is a bit brash, but he's nice too," Lizzie told him. "Very sympathetic to our death – he's got family Above that he misses terribly as well. Not to mention his friendship with Emily. . .you were right, Papa, it was a living man who proposed – well, sort of. I'll explain once we're not dodging thrown furniture."
"Right." Arthur ducked as a glass came sailing over his head. "Well, I'm glad you like him! It's good to see you making new friends. Not that your mother and I would say anything if you avoided the opposite sex for the rest of your afterlife. Whatever makes you happiest, Lizzie."
"I know, Papa," Lizzie assured him. Behind her, someone went bang! into the wall. "But I never really wanted to lock myself away from everyone. Besides, never speaking to any man ever again. . .it'd be a bit like letting him win, wouldn't it?"
Better to be safe than sorry, the imp growled.
Go haunt someone else's brain. I was as safe as I could be the first time around, and I was sorry anyway.
"We'll support whatever choice you make," Lorina assured her as the crowd around them thinned, more and more people going to either watch or join in the brawl. "And I assure you, the moment that awful man comes down here, I will personally extract the heart he says you stole."
They finally reached the door, the ruckus in full swing behind them. Lizzie glanced back at the chaos, then over at the bar. Bonejangles was still in his seat, a few cards sticking out of his ribcage and a fresh glass in his hand. His eye was firmly fixed on the fighting, but after a moment he seemed to feel her gaze upon him and turned. Lizzie gave him a quick wave, which he returned before having to dodge a clumsily-thrown mug. She giggled and followed her parents outside. Well, that certainly ended things with a bang. But hmmm. . .new friend. . . . She contemplated the idea a moment, then nodded to herself. Yes. I think I like that.