Who We Used to Be

Fiction by Zach VandeZande

 
At night our skeletons chatted while we did our oblivious sleep. We didn’t know it was happening. All we knew were aching jaws and tooth pain. Our skeletons couldn’t operate our lungs or vocal cords, so they developed their own teeth-clacking code.

A lot of this is still conjecture. A lot of this is just stuff we pass back and forth to kill time in bed, after what we mushily call the jailbreak, while we lay formless under the covers. There’s time now for noticing and questions. Questions like: What did they have to talk about? Like: When did they start plotting against us? When did they decide to run away together?

We miss them dearly, our skeletons. That’s not conjecture. We’re sorry for whatever we did. We puzzle over it all, like it’s a mystery that might ever be solved, like there’s a way to make our lives become something else entirely if we could just arrive at it and slop the words out of our mouths. But we don’t find it. Our lives remain bisected, before and after.

When it first started, we got up each morning alarmed by our sore jaws. “We’re so stressed,” she said. “We’re clenching.” But I didn’t feel stressed, not really, and neither did she. We were happy in our jobs, in our little home. She made a joke about somnambulism and oral sex. Nobody laughed.

I tried sleeping with a mouthguard, but I would wake up to it between us in the bed, spittle dried on the sheets. She looked at it the third morning, made a face, and said, “Do it or don’t, boy.” I gave it up.

Did our skeletons love each other because we loved each other? Were they talking through that love at night, or was it conversation of convenience, prison-movie bunk-bed stuff? Did they hate us, or were we just in the way? I tell her that I think my heart has moved from its normal place, each beat a bunny hop farther to one side of me. She flops her hand periodically toward her long-dead cellphone. We both know she won’t ever get to it, let alone plug it back in.

What scares me most is that they might have been right to leave us behind. The cliché of it is that we were spineless already. Instead of careers, we had jobs. Instead of a baby, we got a dog. We fucked infrequently and in the bedroom. We liked nothing better than staying in to watch a movie we’d already seen. We didn’t see any of this about ourselves in the moment, but now, in trying to figure out why they might have abandoned us, it’s all laid out pretty clearly. Sometimes we think that given the opportunity, we would have shucked free of ourselves too.

It was the dog, actually, who first cottoned to the chattering. He was our precious pup, and when we got him we spoiled him the way first-time dog owners do. Treats and more treats. Up on all the furniture. He was a distraction and a point of contact for us and just a damn fine dog. He could shake with both paws.

But then he started getting between us in the night, barking us awake. We thought he was being needy. She called him a little shit and rubbed his head. Then something made him snap at her and whine. Both of us were shocked. He was our boy, a good boy.

I took him to a dog psychologist named Bev. She had lots of advice. I sat there and listened and scratched at my arms—around that time my skin started feeling itchy a lot but, like, from the inside. Eventually she came around to us crating the dog, and I listened, as I’d always been the type to trust the authority of a framed diploma.

We got uninterrupted sleep again. The dog would whine for a bit each night, then calm down, watching us through the bars. As for the itching, which she was feeling too, there was no real concern. We thought maybe bedbugs, but nothing came of it. Life got mostly back to normal.

#

 

I woke up first when it happened. They must have agreed my skeleton, being the more daring of the two, would go first. I woke feeling like my arm was asleep, but when I tried to bring the pinned-needled gooseflesh of it closer, it wouldn’t move. It looked unfull and formless, like a flat tire. My first thought was that I must have been dreaming. Then I felt the first distal phalanx—the tip of my pinky finger—slide up and onto my tongue, followed by the others, followed by my metacarpals, and my mouth was full of slick, gagging panic as the bones of my hand came out, hoisting themselves forward by curling around my jaw.

I made some awful noise, and she woke. The dog whimpered loudly in the corner. She screamed when she saw me, but then was stopped short as her own skeleton started coming out.

Can you imagine? By all means, do. Please, we’re begging, take it out of our minds and hold it in your own. Because we don’t want it—the agony, the tearing away inside as they got free, the bathrobedness of our bodies, being stepped out of, and all the while the dog going wild. They set him free, by the way, their last small kindness. He licked our faces, nudged at us, and finally left, presumably through the dog door and under the gap in the fence. We don’t blame him—he’s still our good boy.

You might ask what it means, if it’s the manifestation of some metaphor. We ask ourselves too. Not while it was happening, certainly, not as we lost our bone structure, our necessary scaffolding. We were too full of fear, of wondering what would come next. But after, after our skeletons were fully out of us, after they removed the organs from themselves and packed them back down our throats as if we were duffel bags, after her skeleton reached over and touched mine where the humerus joins the shoulder, making a dry thocking sound, and after they made their way out of the bedroom and we heard the front door and then the starting car and then heard the last sounds of who we used to be leave us. That’s when we started to try to discover what we’d lost and when, precisely, we’d lost it.

Zach VandeZande is an Assistant Professor at Central Washington University. He is the author of the novel Apathy and Paying Rent (Loose Teeth, 2008) and the forthcoming short story collection Lesser American Boys (Ferry Street Books, 2017). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Gettysburg Review, Yemassee, Georgia Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Word Riot, Portland Review, Cutbank, Sundog Literature, Passages North, Beloit Fiction Journal, Slice Magazine, Atlas Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. He likes you just fine.