(Author note: this is an excerpt of a story available in full on Wattpad! Find me @jordynsaelor there!)

I reach out with those senses towards the smoke, trying to guess how many people are nearby. There are many bones, but there is not enough blood, beating hearts. I take my cloak back barely after we start walking, because I’m cold.

We reach the smoke before midday. We reach the smoke after the gray speck on the tundra where the smoke rises from grows into the definition of a town. A town burned to nothing.

We stop where a dirt trail from the cliff morphs into red stones of a street. Skeleton Cook holds the bird tightly, gently, but she’s not trying to fly away.

I pick my way through the street, between collapsed walls of stone buildings, wooden beams of animal skin huts, over discarded shoes and pink fruits and sodden papers. It makes no sense, why this town is burned, why there are no people, why the belongings of many people are scattered across the street like glass fragments.

Skeleton Cook walks directly behind me, but I don’t think my tense shoulder blades feel more shielded. There’s a whole lot of space between his ribs, spine, hips.

The street curves, splits into two, and I am reminded of Rattle-bones and how cities grow. Years ago, which one of these streets wasn’t here?

We go left. This street is emptier; it looks like a cart full of root vegetables was hurled down the other one. The cart lies on its side, split above one wheel, lying where a hut used to.

We go left and around a bend and discover the source of the fire. I shy away, shield it from my gaze with the still-standing corner of a brick building. I pretend like town squares on fire are a regular thing; the flames licking from fragmented shells of what I think is metal. Skeleton Cook prods a nearby, empty shell with his toe bones. It squeals against the stones.

I was not aware metal could burn. I peek around the corner, ignore the magenta colors licking towards the smoke. I don’t think the metal is burning. But then why is it here, cradling the flames?

We go back the other way, go down the street with the cart once full of root vegetables. I pick up the least squished, least ash-covered ones as we go, carry them as a bundle in my arms. I fear I may end up having to eat these.

When we reach the cart the jet bird erupts from Skeleton Cook’s arms. I sigh, glance upward to watch her so I don’t end up in her landing crater. She dives at the cart and I backpedal, barely get my cloak in front of my face before she smashes through the wood, shards cracking and clattering.

I lower my cloak to find splinters thrown across the street and an egg-deep hole in the red stones. The bird caws loudly from within it and I shudder when something rips. I don’t want to know what she’s found to eat.

I know exactly what she’s found to eat. And it’s not smaller than me.

Skeleton Cook and I keep walking, me trying to contain the shudder in that space between my shoulder blades but it doesn’t work.

I shudder. Skeleton Cook halts in the street and vibrates and nearly falls to pieces. The ice cube of me tries to break free at this town, the flames, my prickling self--I shudder almost like gagging, but nothing to do with my throat or my mouth or my stomach and everything to do with a mind against sandpaper skin.

I shut my eyes and forcibly snap Skeleton Cook back together. I discover too late the many other bones on this street, eager to dance together.

The jet bird squawks. I shut my eyes from the dizziness of taffy dragging many skeletons together, individual bones skittering through collapsed wood and out of mutilated bodies and from under shells of metal. Those demand freedom. Stumble towards those ones, jittering and shaking and unable to fly free. Stumble over wooden posts and charred curtains and cracked floors, surrounded by a sea of standing skeletons. There’s a sharp fire, frail and chaotic, cupped in the shell of metal above the trapped bones.

I take many footsteps. The skeletons step in echoes to my footsteps, some reach the fire first, some lift the metal, like it is the cracked curve of an egg. Lost in a sea of skeletons, where I end and they begin blurring like slush. The trapped bones--femurs and tibias and patellas--shoot free.

Take many, many footsteps, stand many many times, (I take footsteps) I grunt through the (I stand) echoing repetition, searching for Skeleton Cook.

The jet bird caws and my eyes snap open. The jet bird caws and there’s another sound, lower, like somebody screaming. One of the skeleton’s skull’s snaps off, somebody is screaming. I gasp (I gasp) at the skit-skit of bone sliding across red stone street, so (skit-skit) alien in this chorus of complete skeletons; pounding stars dance in my vision at the pure whiplash of elastic taffy yanking the skull back to the teetering body. I groan. I don’t know how to let the skeletons go without losing (let the skeletons go) Skeleton Cook too (too).

The jet bird caws and a body collapses and crawls away, a real body, this one has a beating heart, I shut my eyes and try to swim (shut eyes) through the cacophony of (skeletons step) rhythms for Skeleton Cook and I finally find him by the weight of a bird on top of his head.

The skeletons collapse. They go like a flash of hail stones clattering to the ground, bouncing, thumping, skipping, drumming. I take a step and shiver when there is no rhythm of echoes.

***

Continued in part 3!