by Jared Horney
“This is terrible.” said Clive, seriously irritated at Stephen’s lack of initiative.
Stephen glared at Clive from behind his drumset. Clive felt like it was all Stephen ever did these days, aside from play wildly off-beat and not make it through two verses before speeding up gradually.
“Well” said Stephen, and Clive could hear the incoming criticism weighing down the words before they even escaped his stupid, stupid, skull.
“Well, I don’t see you taking any steps to branch out our sound. Are we a cover band or are we going to practice some of my songs?”
His songs. He’d been trying his hand at writing songs and they were terrible. All of them.
Fiona, the bassist and trombonist, coughed politely, which was a goddamned miracle considering that she didn’t have any lungs. None of them did. “Guys” she said, “can’t we just hammer out the covers we’ve got for now, and maybe we can work on Stephen’s songs afterward?”
Clive set down his trombone and leaned on it, trying hard to convey a weary patience. “I think that’s fine. That’s fine, right, Larry?”
Larry was fiddling with the rotary valve on his trombone and didn’t even look up. “Yep.”
Stephen clapped his bony hands together enthusiastically. “Awesome, guys. Awesome. OK, so we can start out with, what, Stevie Wonder’s track and then maybe bounce over to ‘Skeletons In The Closet’ and then maybe, uhh, ‘Skeleton On Display’? And then -”
“Nah” objected Larry verbosely. “None of us can sing like that dude for that one, and man” he sighed, setting his trombone down, “man, it’s just so fuckin’ sad, you know? Like that’s not why I got into music, guys.”
Stephen idly hit his hi-hat with a femur. “None of us are doing this to be sad, Larry, we’re doing it to be artists.”
“I’m sad” said Larry.
Fiona spit on the rehearsal space floor. “Let’s be real. We’re a trombone cover band so I don’t know too much about us becoming some sort of groundbreaking superband. Seriously.”
“Well” said Stephen yet again, a little too loudly. “Well, that’s why I wanted us to start performing original material, guys! Christ, I’m really trying here to make something worthwhile but none of you seem to want to really get on board about it! I’m trying to make a statement!”
No one said anything. Outside, the world turned onward in a trajectory that presumably had nothing to do with an all-skeleton trombone cover band called The Skele-tones on the verge of breaking up.
“I’m trying”, added Stephen quietly.
The ambient hum of the bass amplifier buzzed in the background, waiting for notes that would never come, not anymore, not after today.
“OK” said Clive. “OK, so I don’t think I want to do this anymore. We’re all here together, playing terrible cover songs for eternity. Oh my god, what if this is hell?”
Fiona maintained steady eye-socket contact with Stephen and said “If we take on another Third Eye Blind cover I’m pretty sure that description would be accurate.”
“Fuck you” spat Stephen, who had a bizarrely strong affinity towards that particular band for reasons that Clive could never quite identify and which always disgusted him, regardless.
“All I know is that this is clearly some form of afterlife and we’re just going to keep pressing on” said Stephen, now standing up behind his drum kit.
“Maybe you are. I want out. We’re bad musicians and we write bad songs and we’re bad at what we do. All of us, each in our own ways” said Clive, now far beyond caring about any manner of civility.
“Hey” objected Fiona.
“It’s true, Fiona. You’re not too good at trombone” said Larry.
“You’re not too good at not being a skeleton” Fiona said, confused immediately at what she initially thought would be a more cutting insult.
“What?” said Larry.
Abruptly, the guitar amp burst into a shower of sparks, with a remaining electrical buzz quickly fading out from the dying circuit board.
“God dammit!” shouted Clive. “This keeps happening! Our gear keeps shorting out, Stephen hasn’t been able to stay on the the 2s and 4s since we got here, my trombone had a pile of spiders in it the other night, and really, nothing seems to go right! Like, even more so than before!”
There was a knock on the studio door. All four skeletons looked at one another, as if facial expressions were even an option for any of them. Without pause, the door swung open and a skeleton wearing a three-piece suit and an absurdly oversized top hat regarded all of them with hollow sockets. No one said anything.
“Hello” said the skeleton. “Hello to each of you. I have a letter here for, ah, let’s see.” He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a pair of thin reading glasses, holding them up to his skull while reading a slip of paper. Clive paused to consider why any skeleton would need glasses in the first place before discarding the thought immediately out of fear that he would lose his mind.
“…ah, the Skele-tones? Is that everyone here?”
Clive nodded. “Yep. That’s us. Sorry. We can keep it down if you need us to. You probably do need us to because we’re not very good at all.”
“On the contrary, my employer finds your brand of trombone-themed covers to be quite… inspired. He’d like to make all of you an offer.”
“Go ahead” said Stephen, leaning over his snare now with interest.
“My employer has stated that he would like to offer a recording contract to The Skele-tones and, if accepted, he would be happy to restore each of you to a proper living form. Above ground and all that.”
Larry looked excitedly at Clive, Fiona, and Stephen. “Guys. Guys! Yeah!”
“Sounds fair.” said Stephen. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch, sir. Simply sign this contract after reading all terms and conditions and you’ll be on your way.”
“I’m sorry” objected Clive, “but I can’t understand how I can read anything without proper eyeballs, sir. I don’t understand any of this. The only thing I understand is that there’s never been any song in the history of musicianship that has required a ‘trombone breakdown’ in the bridge of a song. Oh my god, I want to quit.”
The suited skeleton laughed, the sound dusty and rattling. “You can’t quit, though. You absolutely can’t.”
Clive was cautious. “And why’s that?”
“Because” chortled the skeleton wearing a suit. “The only reason any of you are still animated at all is due to the wishes of my employer. This could change at any moment, but all of you showed potential in the world of the living.”
Clive burst out laughing. “Absolutely no fucking way anyone thought that. We played a venue once where the place was actively labelled as condemned and shut down by the city. While we were playing. We never even got paid! Seriously?”
“Yes. Quite seriously.You may review the contract terms here,” he said, laying a small, gray envelope on the now-fried guitar cabinet.
He tipped his hat with a bony hand in a macabre version of a living gentleman and slid out of the doorway, closing it behind him. He had left a mild scent of ash, of something distantly burning.
“That was sort of intense, ya’ll” said Larry helpfully.
“It was. It’s also an offer. Wait, did he say anything about money?”
Clive strode towards the envelope. “Let’s take a look.”
He slid his bony digit underneath the envelope’s red wax seal, which was pressed with what looked like a capital letter “L”. Opening it, there seemed to Clive to be a small, translucent cloud of black smoke that briefly curled out of it before dissipating into the air. He looked back. No one else seemed to have seen it. Unfolding the weathered paper, the others gathered around him as he scanned the text.
Clive sighed, which was tremendously difficult to achieve without an active pair of lungs.
“It says ‘You all complained so much about a lack of a record contract when you were alive, so I’ve decided to offer you one right now. Simply sign below for full rights to your songs as well as a free return to the world of the living. Love, The Devil.’”
Clive paused and then his shoulderblades slumped in defeat.
“And at the bottom, in small print, it says “Must sign in blood.”
Larry’s jaw fell open. Clive noted even in the midst of his own total demoralization that Larry apparently had always had impeccable teeth with no visible fillings.
Fiona stared. “Wh… we’re skeletons! We don’t have any blood!”
Clive sighed again. “And… and at the very end, in smaller text, it says ‘fuck ya’ll’.”
Stephen distantly recalled all of the times that he had shouted at his bandmates to go to hell in the past and now felt a tinge of regret.
Jared Horney is a writer, dog lover, music aficionado and all-around handsome fella.