by Nate Ragolia
I hate days like this, Clyde thinks, grimacing against the damp, bitter wind that whips between the buildings. He gathers the lapels of his sport coat in his right hand and clenches, as if it will make any difference.
Clyde turns the corner at 15th and California. A sign sneers at him: SIDEWALK CLOSED — Pedestrians Cross Over.
“Fuck.” His breath pours from him like a soul. I’ll just take the alley. Ice sheets be damned.
Clyde turns toward the dripping, trash-strewn alley. He turns up his collar, takes a deep breath, and holds it. He isn’t interested in smelling what remains of last night’s four-star dining experience.
Plumes of hot steam exhale around Clyde from the neighboring hotel’s laundry and gym. Clyde enjoys the sensation, but worries that it will ruin his carefully composed hair, and thereby, the morning’s meeting. Clyde does not notice that he can no longer see the alley walls. He does not notice that the sky above has disappeared. The strange loss of light doesn’t occur to him. He only thinks: It’s fucking dark in this alley. It’s a good thing it’s daytime.
The boney fingers gripping his sleeve feel like a simple snag at first. Clyde swings his arm, frustrated, trying to free it from whatever dumpster’s edge or errant vent encumbers him.
It does him no good.
Cold and knotted, the skeletal hand wraps around his throat. Clyde gasps and struggles, turning fiercely to face his attacker.
If he could scream, he would, but the last air in him blasts from his nose in two powerful streams. The skeleton’s empty eye sockets express no sympathy. Its lipless mouth expresses no snarling hatred. Its hand just clamps tighter.
Clyde hears his windpipe crackle, and feels the bony fingers close tighter.
Steamy darkness collapses around him.
Color dissolves. Light evaporates.
“I’m sorry,” hisses the last voice Clyde hears.
The body collapses in a heap onto the dingy alley floor. With care, Mark extends the legs out straight, and the arms at the body’s side. He stands above the still warm corpse, lowers himself over the vacantly staring face, and reaches out with one boney hand into its gaping mouth.
Deftly, Mark grips the base of the skull, gives it a gentle twist, and pulls. The body’s skeleton and viscera slip out through the mouth in a single mass, which Mark lowers carefully into a neighboring dumpster.
Mark looks down at the empty suit of skin on the ground. “I’m sorry,” he hisses again. “You can’t understand, but I’m sorry.”
Feet first. Mark inserts one boney foot — then the other — into the skin. He shimmies down, slipping both legs into their appropriate dermal proxies, then his hips, rib cage and boney arms. Were anyone around to see it, they might liken the scene to a live rat burrowing into a dead snake.
Finally, Mark ducks his skull into the skin’s mouth, as if raising the hood on a sweatshirt. He pulls at the cheeks and ears and neck. He wriggles and jiggles his arms and legs, getting the fit right. Then Mark reaches into the skin’s jacket pocket, extracts a cell phone, and holds it out at arm’s length.
Mark spies the tiny screen. “Good as new,” he says through the foreign mouth.
Mark finds it surprising difficult to deal with the skin’s shoes. First, he succumbs to an icy slip while he exits the alley. Then he rolls an ankle so horrendously that it draws a young woman toward him to ask “Are you sure you’re okay?” Mark gets up, dusts himself off, and finally begins to walk as he used to.
He turns the familiar corner at 19th and Market, and a smile comes across his stolen lips.
It’s still here, Mark thinks. She’s still here.
Mark’s borrowed fingers touch the glass door, grip the handle, and pull it open. A bell rings above on the door. A bouquet of tropical scents flood into his costume nostrils. The woman behind the counter lifts her gaze from an iPad.
“Welcome to Blooming Flowers and Gifts! Is there something I can help you with today?”
“Christine,” Mark says. “It’s me.”
“It’s who?” she asks, perplexed. “I don’t believe we’ve met, sir.”
“Oh, you don’t recognize me,” Mark says, contorting his surrogate visage into a smile. “But one night, years ago, I won you a stuffed sloth and you named him ‘Nigel.’”
Surprise splashes across her face.
“How do you know about that?” she asks.
“I know because I was there,” Mark replies.
“You were not there,” she insists.
“After you got ‘Nigel’ we sat in my car and listened to Rumours on the radio in my dad’s Dart.”
Surprise turns to shock.
“We spent that entire summer together,” he continues. “And all of Senior year. And we would have gone to State together. We were supposed to have so many things.”
“Mark?” Christine probes. “But the fire…”
“I know,” Mark says, head bowed. “It has haunted me ever since.”
“This is insane,” Christine says.“It is. I know. But it’s real.”
She pushes back toward the refrigerator of flowers behind her, nearly falling into the glass doors. She breathes deep, shakes her head, and then paces behind the counter. Christine crosses her arms, uncrosses them, recrosses them, as if unsure what’s to be done with her own body.
“This can’t be happening,” she says, still pacing.
“But it is, darling.”
“Why now? After thirty years? What do you want?” she demands. Her face is red. Her hands are balled into fists.
“I just want one last kiss,” Mark states. “I’m sorry that the face — the lips — aren’t right. I had to steal the first available suit.”
“Suit? What do you mean suit?”
“I needed something to walk around in other than what the fire left me,” Mark says. “The soft parts burned up quickly.”
Christine’s eyes widen. “You mean skin? You stole a man’s skin? Was he alive?”
“If you can call his pattern of pouting disappointment a life.”
“You’re a murderer,” Christine says.
“No. I’m a romantic,” Mark replies. “I couldn’t leave this plane without kissing you one last time. And I couldn’t kiss you unless I had lips. And lips by themselves on a skeleton would look pretty silly, you must admit.”
Christine stares past him, through him. “Mark is dead, and if he weren’t he wouldn’t do this. I don’t know who you are, but this sick fucking joke ends right now.”
“There’s no joke,” he says softly. “I am Mark. We met on the last day of Spring semester 1983. You were wearing a pink miniskirt and a baggy Vassar sweater. You were reading Tropic of Cancer.”
“It is you…”
“What’s left of me.”
“I love you, Christine,” Mark pleads. “Please, just one more kiss.”
Christine looks at him again. “I can’t believe this.”
“No one else would have gone to all this trouble. No one else could ever love you the way I did. The way I do.”
“But you killed a man. What about him?” she demands.
“Many more than he have been slain in the name of Love.”
Christine furrows her brow. A fire burns in her eyes.
“If there was any other way, I would have done it,” Mark says. “I’ve searched for another way for years, but I couldn’t bear to miss you any longer.”
“I’ve missed you too,” she whispers.
She walks around the back of the counter to the front, carefully avoiding stalks of cat’s tail, and ornate, potted orchids. She stands before Mark-in-Clyde.
“One kiss and then I’ll move on,” he says.
Christine doesn’t say a word. She moves in close, and their lips meet. The kiss is soft, gentle, slow. Mark feels it permeate him. It is in his bones. After a moment, he pulls away, but Christine’s arms hold him tightly. He takes her hands in his borrowed palms and peels them off of him. Mark steps back, recreating the space between them. They stare at each other, once more separate.
Christine frowns. Her eyes well with tears, calling to him; pleading.
“Goodbye, Mark.” Her last words to him drown in the clatter of the door-mounted bell.
Mark wanders back toward the alley, back to where he borrowed his skin. As if by regurgitation, his bones slip and slink back out through the rapidly desiccating mouth.
With dry, bleached fingers he lofts the skin into the dumpster to join its former contents. Mark looks down over the deconstructed mass and wishes he could shed a tear.
“Thank you,” he hisses.
A breeze rushes down the alleyway, whipping the steam into a frenzy. Mark looks down at his skeletal hands and feet. Like motes in a sunbeam they break down, flutter, and sail away.
Soon his cursed architecture is fully consumed.
Dust to dust.
Nate Ragolia is the author of There You Feel Free; a novella. Creator of the Illiterate Badger and Lark & Robin web comics, and occasional chatterer on music, film, &c.