Excerpt: To the Bones

Valerie Nieman

Lourana opened the door to the sweepstakes parlor to check the skies. Robbie as he left had warned her again about the winter storm. “We’re under a warning come midnight. Get yourself home—it’s gonna be a bad one,” he told her, not that she couldn’t tell from the empty seat at every machine.

Lourana had her doubts. The last storm panic had brought but two inches of snow to Carbon County. Still, clouds were building out of the north. Lourana didn’t like the look of them, heavy with snow off the Great Lakes.

Then she saw the man.

He was coming down the road from the fish camp, obviously shit-faced drunk, and with her luck, he’d be her problem. She wished she could lock the door and go home, but that would be the end of her job. She was hanging on by her toenails as it was. She fingered the pepper spray in the pocket of her smock, hoping he would just keep weaving his way toward town.

No such luck.

He might have been unsteady, but his path brought him right to her door. He pulled it open and stood unsteadily on the stoop.

She should have followed her gut. First, that coat didn’t fit him at all right. Then the blood, my God, his head all matted with it on one side. Finally, the smell that wafted over on the cold breeze made her gag despite her best efforts.

“You’d best be going right back out,” she said, trying not to breathe.

“Please, help me.” The man stood with his booted feet wide apart. His thick glasses, probably broken from a faceplant on some roadhouse floor, were cocked sideways on his nose.

She balanced the pepper spray on her left palm.

“I was attacked. Robbed. I need help.”

He didn’t sound drunk, or crazy, though how could you tell? But the smell! Robbed or not, how did he come to smell like a deer lying dead on the side of the road for three summer days?

“Let me see your driver’s license. Sweepstakes rules.” That should send him on his way.

“I don’t have it.”

“Tell you what. I’ll give you a soda and you keep moving. You got to have a license to use the machines.” Just her luck that not a soul is inside. Maybe she should call Pete.

He rubbed his disgusting hands up and down his stubbly face. “I know I stink. You’ve got no idea where I’ve been. I was thrown down a hole, left for dead. Please, just call the police for me.”

She laughed harshly and handed him a Mountain Dew. “You don’t call the police, hereabouts. Ever.”

Something seemed to click when she said that. His eyes got distant, then wary. “I’m from the government.”

“And you’re here to help us,” she finished. She would have laughed again, but he looked so stricken.

“I’m an auditor. Federal auditor. I go through the accounts, make sure things are right, money doesn’t get wasted.”

“I know what an auditor is.”

He leaned against the machine closest to the door, its screen strobing and flashing with the lure of quick riches, but he didn’t sit down. “I was driving home. I stopped at a gas station. Off the interstate.”

“The C-Mart?” It was one of those places where things happened, where people from out of town stumbled over the realities of Redbird, WV.

“I don’t know. I needed gas. There was a clerk—a woman—and a deputy.” He squinted, as though he were trying to see something. “And someone else. I can’t remember. When I walked out—that’s all I remember until I woke up in a cave.”

“We don’t have caves hereabouts.”

“It was underground.”

“Probably a mine crack. Got those all over. Take out the coal—whump.” She demonstrated, dropping her hand from high in the air.

He got a desperate look on his face, making her think again about that pepper spray. “There were bodies down there, ma’am. You have to believe me. I woke up with bones and rotting—and skulls. I crawled through them.”

Lourana felt her chest tighten and made sure to keep that poker face she’d cultivated these past two years. Don’t let on.

“I wasn’t the first person that went into that hole.” The man chuckled grimly. “But I guess I might be the first to rise from it.”

“Could you tell anything about them?”

“Some were just skeletons, but one was pretty recent. The body…” He looked at her and stopped. “No wallets or anything, that I saw. Not much for clothes. I guess they stripped them, too. They took my coat and shoes. My wallet. Anything to show who I am, that I can…”

The man was gathering himself to say something more when a car turned into the parking lot.

“Come on.” She opened the door to the back, almost laughing at the strange expression he wore, somewhere between shock and relief. A little while ago, she’d been praying for one of the few regulars to show up. Now she wanted to keep this character around long enough to learn what he’d stumbled onto. “Here’s the bathroom. Lock the door.” She grabbed a can of deodorizer and sprayed it all the way back out. When she opened the hall door, she nearly ran into Jersey, his hand reaching for the knob.

“I wondered where you was at,” he said. “Whew! What died in here?”

“We might could have a rat somewhere.” She busied herself signing him in.

“You best get Pete on that. Tell him to put some money in here ‘stead of just hauling it out in buckets.”

He took his accustomed station near the front windows, which were covered with tint to keep the inside dark like a genuine casino. As soon as he settled, the Rieser sisters and Curly came in, also usual customers on a week night. The machines began their electronic racketing as people poured real money into the virtual slots. After a while, Lourana announced that she had to “get supplies” and headed for the back, half thinking the stranger would have disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared.

She found him sitting on the commode in the single bathroom, dark hair plastered down and dripping like a wet rat. Water ran pink with blood from the mammoth gash across the side and back of his head. Was that bone showing through? It needed to be stitched up, but the clinic was closed and she didn’t know anyone she could trust to do the job and keep quiet. The wound would draw together, that’s what her Pap always said, keep it clean it and it’ll draw together.

“I used all your paper towels.”

“That’s okay.”

His borrowed coat was buttoned up tight and the garbage bag was full.

“I got rid of my shirt, but I can’t do anything about the pants.” He smiled self-consciously, showing nice, even teeth. “Still stinky?”

“I gotta get back,” Lourana said, cutting him off. She felt nerves shuddering all through her. “Come along here. This used to be a yoga studio. You keep the lights out and you can rest safe. Here’s peanuts and another drink. That’s all I got. I’ll be back at closing time.”

“Thank you,” was all he said before folding to the floor like a scarecrow off his pole.

She grabbed a case of Nabs and some coffee packets off the supply shelf, made a show of restocking, but no one much cared. They were too deep in their dreams of jackpots, of the reels clicking into place or the lines connecting simultaneously as everything came together across the screen. Lourana didn’t have much to do, any night, and usually spent it reading about environmental issues on the “Mountain Justice” website. Mountaintop removal. Fracking. Invasive species. Global warming. And of course, acid mine drainage and the blowout on the Broad River, the most recent and maybe final insult to the beautiful Broad that once flowed cool and inviting, from the higher peaks down through the town.

The last diehard clocked off just before midnight, sullen at having made a pile and lost it all back. Lourana could see the snow had started to whiten the parking lot as she turned the key, pulled down the door blinds, switched off the signs. She left the main computer running at the snack counter. No one would notice she was here late, as she often read into the early hours.

In the back, she opened the door to the yoga studio. A wedge of light fell across the stranger, curled on the carpet. With his face relaxed and busted glasses off, he wasn’t bad-looking. A little younger than her, maybe 30, 35. A broad forehead and strong chin. Her Mama would have said he was a stubborn sort because of that. She’d always been a believer in appearances, that what a person was on the inside couldn’t help but show on the surface.

“Hey, you there.” She poked his shoulder. “Hey, wake up.”

He didn’t respond. She hoped he wasn’t dead. Guilt ran through her—she’d been more concerned about keeping herself out of the Kavanaghs’ way than helping him. No, that wasn’t entirely true. It was about Dreama, and the possibility this man might hold the key to finding her. She shook him harder. He drew in a quick breath and threw up his hand to shield his head.

“It’s me.”

“Me, who?” He rolled partway over and looked at her, blinking.

“The crazy woman who let you in here. What’s your name, anyway?”

He sat up slowly, put out his hand. “Darrick MacBrehon, lately of Brookland in D.C. Despite my untoward appearance, I am a solid citizen. I’ve never had more than a speeding ticket.”

“Lourana Taylor.” She felt awkward leaning down to him, shaking hands like at a business meeting. “One of those silly West Virginia names. From my Pap and Mama, Louis and Anna. Lourana.”

The man—Darrick—scrambled to his feet, stood swaying for a moment before staggering after her, back to the sweepstakes parlor. “I don’t think it’s silly. Rather nice. You carry them with you forever, with those names.”

That got her. Damn. Nobody any more could punch through the wall that encased the emptiness inside, but this man just made a real good dent in it. She was glad he could see only her back.

“You were telling about the convenience store. This town, it’s a strange place,” she said. “Things happen. People don’t appear here, like you. They disappear.”

“You have a serial killer or something?”

“Or something,” Lourana said bitterly. “The Kavanaghs. They own the town, the county, either outright or around the back ways. My Pap worked for them. They wrung every drop of sweat out of him. Pap died because he was used up. Never sick a day. Just plain used up.”

“I guess small towns are like that.” He had dismissed it, just like that. “But why me? I don’t know anyone here. I have to get to the police.”

“You’re listening but you ain’t hearing. Whatever happened to you, the cops are in on it. Didn’t you say there was a deputy there? Yeah? Cops, judges, politicians. The newspaper. Even the union. Anyone that has any kind of pull.”

“Because of these . . .”

“Kavanaghs. They roost in their mansion and no one even sees them anymore.”

“Somebody sees them.”

“If they do, they’re not saying. I guess their creatures see them, to get their orders.”

“So I can’t go to the police.” Darrick started to turn his head but stopped, frozen with pain. She found herself looking into that gash, right into it. Yes, that was definitely bone. Her throat worked to stop what wanted to come up from below.

“Then I’ll start with my office. I’ll call them.”

“No phone here.” She wasn’t about to let him use her cell. “The computer has Internet. You can use that.”

He signed into Skype. “Where am I, anyway?”

“Redbird, WV.”

She could hear the phone ring and then a recording. Darrick turned to her, his pale eyes distorted behind those wrecked glasses, and whispered, “What day is it?”

“It’s almost—it is—Thanksgiving.”

He let out a low whistle and left a brief message that he’d been delayed, car trouble. “Really, it’s Thursday? I was driving back on Monday night. Nobody is getting this message any time soon.”

“Don’t you have someone else to call? Family?”

“My landlord, I guess.”

“God help us both, then, not to have a soul to call. I got nobody in these parts to know if I get safe home of a night or end up—like you.” It just came out, and now she regretted letting him know she was alone in the world.

“I’ll send an email, but so far as getting out of here …”

“You don’t have a phone, a license, or clothes. Much less a car. I don’t think you’re going too far anyways. But hey, we’ve got the Internet. And I can fix you a coffee.” As the words came out, Lourana wanted to slap herself. Don’t get involved. You’re already in too deep.

“I’d take a cup,” he said.


Valerie Nieman’s most recent novel, Blood Clay, won the 2012 Eric Hoffer Award in General Fiction. Her debut Appalachian SF novel, Neena Gathering, was republished as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. She has also published a collection of short fiction, Fidelities, and two poetry collections, Hotel Worthy and Wake Wake Wake. She has held an NEA creative writing fellowship and similar grants in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Kentucky. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, Nieman is a former newspaper reporter and editor who now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University. Follow her on Twitter at @valnieman.

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