(Originally written: October 16, 2018)
Jean opened her left eye first and then her right. She always woke up like that. Picked it up from her Mom. Both their bodies liked to wake up as slowly as possible. With both eyes open, she was now able to see across her room to the calendar on her door. She wasn’t so foolish as to forget her own birthday, but she still had it circled in red pen with a cake doodled in the middle.
It was 8:00 A.M. That meant Jean had been 12 for 8 hours already. She jumped out of her bed like she had springs on her rear and went through her morning routine as quickly as possible. Once her hair was done – she went with a ponytail today – and teeth had been brushed, Jean ran down the stairs. Her socks nearly made her slip on the wood but she kept her balance. What kind of dancer would she be if her body didn’t listen to her orders?
“Happy Birthday, lovely!” Her Dad hugged her. He had the stomach of a rich man, making it always nice to hug him. Like belly flopping onto a gel-filled beanbag and sinking into its kindness.
“Thanks, Dad.” Jean smiled, her chin resting on his chest as she looked up at him. “Where’s Mama?”
“In the kitchen making your birthday pancakes.” He let go of her and kissed the top of her head. “I will see you two tonight for dinner. Bye, Lucille!” He called over his shoulder to his wife as he walked to the front door.
Jean waved him off before going to the kitchen and sitting at the table. “Good morning, Mama.”
“Good morning, lovely.” Lucille set the plate of pancakes in front of Jean. The one on the top of the stack had been given a whip cream face. If she had been paying attention, Jean would have seen that the face was actually a skull. “Happy Birthday!”
“Thank you.” Jean spoke around the pancake, syrup, and whip cream. A laudable feat considering how small her mouth was.
“Slowly!” Lucille shook her head and laughed. “You’ve got plenty of time. No need to inhale your food.”
“I’ve waited for five years for this day.” Jean started on her second pancake. “I don’t want to wait any longer.”
“You’re that excited to be 12?” Lucille attempted to look curious but her eyes twinkled knowingly.
“No!” Jean, being only 12, fell for the bait. “Your promise!”
“You said I could meet your dance teacher on my twelfth birthday.” Jean deflated. “Did you forget?”
“No, lovely. I didn’t forget.” Seeing her daughter’s voice go quiet made her regret the teasing. So sensitive. Just like her Dad. “I was just playing with you.”
“Good.” Jean finished the third pancake and put the plate in the sink. “Let’s go!”
“Go?” Lucille remained in her seat. “You’re meeting him. Not me.”
“But how am I supposed to get there? I can’t drive.” Jean said. Then she brightened. “Are you letting me drive myself?”
“Of course not. You’re walking.”
“He lives in the neighborhood?”
“Not exactly.” Lucille rested her head on her hand. She looked sad. Like she was thinking of an old friend. “Do you trust me?”
Lucille knew that Jean wasn’t nearly old enough to truly understand trust. Still felt nice. “Then I need you to walk three blocks east, three blocks north, then three blocks west.”
It took Jean a minute to run through what that entailed. “Can’t I just walk three blocks north from here?”
“Nope.” Lucille laughed. “Trust me.”
“Okay…” Jean shrugged.
This is why you had to be twelve to first meet Lucille’s dance teacher. Old enough to safely make the walk on their own. Young enough to blindly trust their parents. Lucille undid the necklace she was wearing and motioned for Jean to stand in front of her. “This is your birthday gift.”
“But this is yours.” Jean didn’t look like she would willingly return the necklace if her Mom wanted her to. She was raised right though. She would give it back if asked.
“Not anymore.” Lucille sighed. The gold necklace itself wasn’t important. It was the pendant dangling from it that meant anything. Shaped to look like a coffin and set with small emeralds, it was a morbid gift to give a twelve year old. Lucille didn’t care and neither did Jean. “After you go three blocks east, three blocks north, and then three blocks west you’ll see an iron gate. Walk through it.”
Jean put the necklace on and flinched. Was that laughter she had heard? It sounded so happy.
“You’ll be scared after you walk through.” Lucille continued, pretending she didn’t notice Jean jump. She had done the same thing when her Dad had given her the necklace. “You don’t need to be. Past those gates is the safest place in the world.” Lucille held a pinky out. “Nothing bad can happen to you there.”
“Okay, Mama.” Jean wrapped her pinky around Lucille’s.
Lucille kissed her daughter’s finger before letting go. “See you in the evening, lovely.”
Jean hugged her and left the house. You wouldn’t find any butterflies in her stomach but you may find a hundred bumblebees buzzing around. With flying insects in her belly, Jean marched steadily east. In the morning she had felt like skipping. Her Mom was an amazing dancer, even appearing on TV shows and teaching famous people. After taking her first dance class at age seven, she had asked her Mom if she could meet the person who taught her. Lucille had smiled and said, “Of course, lovely. I promised him that he’d get to meet you.”
Jean marched north. As if she was actually walking up to the arctic circle, a wind flew past her that chilled her down to her bones. It didn’t seem to care that she was wearing a thick sweater. After the wind finished tugging on her ponytail and drying her lips, it moved on to bother someone else. The chill didn’t leave her bones. It remained, making her uncomfortable along with the bumblebees. You would think the bees would be bothered by the cold and leave but that wasn’t the case right now.
Jean marched west. With each passing step the sun grew closer and closer to the horizon. It was the morning. The sun shouldn’t be doing that. Jean didn’t notice, being too preoccupied with the discomfort of her stomach and the anticipation of meeting her Mom’s teacher. When the sun was split in half by the horizon and the sky looked like a purple campfire, Jean stopped in front of an iron gate. It looked like any gate you would find guarding someone’s backyard. This one, however, was guarding a cemetery. Why in the world was the dance teacher at a cemetery? Was he visiting a dead relative? She very nearly turned back. If she did, she would miss the chance to meet her Mom’s dance teacher and become just as good as her. She would also return to the safety of her home and not be surrounded by dead people.
Plus, all this was very weird. Jean was positive there had never been a cemetery here before.
Being young enough to believe in the supernatural, Jean turned the cold, rusted handle and walked into the cemetery. She had never been to one before but she had seen them in movies. The trees were always dead, the grass was always wilting, and the gravestones were always chipped and forgotten. This one looked exactly like that. There were even crows flapping around. A few of them cawed at her and then returned to their crow business; whatever that meant.
Remembering her Mom’s promise that she would be safe, Jean walked farther into the twilight cemetery. Brown leaves crunched underneath her sneakers and long caterpillars crawled over them. Fortunately for all parties involved, Jean didn’t see them. As she walked, more of the crows began to pay attention to her. Their calls sounded less like cawing and more like loud whispers. They were greeting her with ‘Hello’s ‘Hi’s and ‘Welcome’s. After hearing enough, Jean was finally persuaded into returning their greetings. They seemed nice. She raised a small, shy hand and waved. “Hello.” She wondered who had taught these crows to talk. Maybe it wasn’t just parrots that could do that.
The cemetery went completely quiet. Even the air seemed to forget to blow in her ears. The crows stopped greeting her, the leaves stopped crunching, and the distant bells that had been ringing stopped. Jean hadn’t noticed them until they abandoned her. Bumblebees returning to her stomach, Jean looked around with wide eyes. Was she not supposed to talk to the crows? She looked back at them. “Sorry!”
Behind a large tombstone, the leaves began spiraling. They should have been rustling but they remained dead silent like the rest of the cemetery. Faster and faster they got, rising until they towered over the tombstone. When Jean couldn’t see through them to the other side, the leaves began to turn pure black.
The bumblebees turned into actual fear and Jean stumbled back, tripping over herself and landing with a soft grunt. The leaves she landed on still didn’t make a noise. It was like being in the library but the quiet was oppressive not comforting. Tears in her eyes, and Mom’s promise forgotten, Jean crawled backward. It would be smarter to get up and run normally but this is a twelve year old girl trapped in a clearly haunted cemetery. Grown men would behave exactly the same. Possibly even more stupidly.
“Sorry.” Jean cried when she backed into a grave, head bumping into the stone. “I’ll leave. Please don’t hurt me.”
“Hurt you?” A jovial voice came out from the tornado of leaves. “Why in the world would I hurt you, lovely?”
Jean wanted to scream. She really did. But instead she was about as loud as her surroundings. Standing behind the tombstone was a tall skeleton. The black leaves draped over its shoulders like a cloak, hood settling on its white head. Three spikes jutted out the top like a crown. Jean had a feeling that the spikes were part of the skeleton’s skull.
“Hello.” The skeleton stepped out from behind the tombstone, showing off just how tall it was. It gave off the impression of being a lanky individual and it wasn’t because it only had bones. “I am the Bone King. Who are you?”
Jean found her voice. She used it to scream.
“Oh dear.” The skeleton cocked its head to the right. “I understand that I’m quite scary looking but I promise I mean you no harm.”
“Wh-what?” Jean stammered. “A-re you?”
“I told you. I’m the Bone King.” The skeleton was beginning to sound amused.
“Yes.” He nodded. “And your name is?”
“Jean Louise Nica.” She blurted out. Kids. Teach them all you want about stranger danger and they’re still going to give their full names out to the first supernatural being they see.
“Hello there, Scout!”
“That’s not my name.”
“I know that, lovely.” The Bone King laughed. It sounded just like the one she had heard when she put on the necklace. “I was referencing a book… Never mind.” He shrugged. “May I step closer or will that scare you more?”
Jean remembered that her Mom said that she would be safe here. “You can come closer.”
“Wonderful!” The Bone King sounded genuinely pleased. He strolled over, long arms swinging lazily. “Let me introduce myself as a gentleman should.” Standing a few feet in front of her, the Bone King bowed deeply while looking her right in the eye. His left arm stretched straight outwards, and his right hand slightly curled while held near where his belly would have been. “Welcome, Jean Louise Nica. I am the Bone King.” He straightened. “You can call me Clark. Everyone does.”
“You can call me Jean.” She got to her feet and curtsied, stretching the sides of her sweater out like a dress.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, lovely.” Clark was smiling. She was sure of it. “Who sent you to me… Hold on. I think I can guess.” He stepped closer and leaned in. Jean surprised herself by not screaming and running away. “Hmm… stringy brunette hair. Green eyes with yellow flecks. Small, sharp nose above a small mouth. Ah!” Clark straightened. “You’re Lucille’s daughter! She kept her promise!” Clark clapped. It sounded like two bundles of chopsticks hitting each other. “How wonderful! You’re as pretty as she was when I first met her. And both of you are twice as pretty as her Father.”
“Are… Are you Mama’s dance teacher?”
“Of course!” Clark said. “What else did you think I was? A King?”
Jean laughed. To Clark, it sounded like the bells that were once again ringing in the distance. “You’re silly.”
“Thank you.” Clark smiled. “Did Lucille say that I would teach you how to dance?”
“Yes.” Jean nodded. “Can you? Please?”
“Why should I teach you?”
“My Mama dances really, really well. She’s famous.”
The dark pits of Clark’s eye sockets stared down at her. “Do you want to be famous?”
An adult would have noticed the underlying warning. “I want to dance.”
“Good!” Clark seemed satisfied. “I would love to teach you. But you have to promise me something.”
“What?” Jean asked eagerly.
“You must give me your first born child.”
Jean gasped. Is that why her Mom sent her here? Or did she have an older sibling that she didn’t know about?
“I was just playing with you.” Clark laughed, remembering Lucille making the same face. All his students did. Apparently being a skeleton made people believe you when you said things like that. “The promise is something else.”
Jean sighed with relief. “Mama always does that.”
“She learned more from me than just dancing.” Clark said. “And you will too.”
“What’s the promise?”
“After I have finished teaching you, you must find me a new student.” Clark said. “When you do, give them your necklace and give them the same instructions that your Mama gave you.”
“What happens if I can’t find someone for you to teach?”
“Absolutely nothing.” Clark shrugged. “I cannot punish you for not keeping your promise. Nor would I want to.”
“You’re a really nice person, Clark.” Jean smiled. “I promise. I’ll find someone.”
“Lucille said the same thing. As did her Father.” Clark said. “Seems as though I can trust your family.”
“Yep! We’re all really nice like you are.” Jean nodded confidently. Humility isn’t something you learn until later in life. “Grandpa died. But does Mama visit you?”
Clark’s shoulders sagged. “No she does not.”
“Aw why?” Jean frowned. “Aren’t you friends anymore?”
“Of course we are. My students will always be my treasured friends.” Clark’s metaphorical heart swelled with pride. His students were all such lovely people. “But after they turn twenty years old, they may no longer visit my cemetery.”
“Why?” Jean’s frown deepened. She was beginning to really like Clark. She didn’t want to leave him in eight years.
“That’s how it is, Jean.” Clark sighed. “How it has always been.”
“Whoever made the rules is really mean.”
“That He is.” Clark chuckled. “Enough talk about saying goodbye. We haven’t even had a proper hello and there’s only one way to do that.”
“How? Where do you think you are?” Clark held out a hand. “Dancing, of course.”
Jean grinned and took his hand. It was warm and, to her astonishment, gentle. The tombstones all moved to form a large circle around them and the leaves flew away to reveal a polished wood floor. The crows took their places on the trees that were now draped with small, white lanterns. From their open beaks, music filled the air. It wasn’t like anything Jean had ever heard before. It sounded happy and sad all at the same time. It made her want to hug Clark tightly but also run around the cemetery chasing him.
It made her want to dance.
With Clark’s hand on her waist, Jean twirled around and around the dance floor. Clark did not have to say a word of instruction. He would move one way and Jean would know how to complement it with a movement of her own. Their feet seemed to float with how soft their steps were. As they danced, leaves swirled around Jean and replaced her sweater and pants with a maroon ball gown. Her sneakers became white heels and long white gloves covered her hands and arms. Even her hair was braided instead of remaining in a ponytail.
In his dark eye sockets Jean couldn’t see anything. As expected. She could, however, feel a deep kindness and joy. Having her in his arms and dancing with her seemed like the greatest gift he could be given. Years of loneliness had finally been banished by the ever-so-wonderful Jean Louise Nica. Another friend for him to treasure in his arms for eight years, then in his heart for eternity.
“Aaaand….We are done.” Clark dipped Jean as low as possible and then helped her stand normally.
“Awww that’s it?” Jean pouted. Already her beautiful new clothes were fading back into leaves and leaving her with her original, boring outfit. “We just started.”
“Just started?” Clark’s right eye socket stretched up like he was lifting an eyebrow. “We have been dancing for three hours.”
“What?!” Jean spun around to look outside. It still looked like twilight. “No it hasn’t. It looks the same outside!”
“It always looks like that in my realm.” Clark said. “It is time for you to return to your Mama.”
“Can I come again?”
“Are my bones the shiniest in the land?”
“Then you may return.” Clark nodded exactly one time. A deal had been made. “You may return every day for the next eight years if that is what you wish. And each day we will dance a different dance.”
Jean didn’t want to go. If she left, that meant tomorrow would come. And the day after. And so on until she was twenty years old and could no longer visit Clark. She had only known him for three hours but Jean loved him deeply. Only as a child could. “I’m not going.” She pouted and latched onto him. It should have been bumpy and uncomfortable but instead it felt like hugging her Dad.
“Jean,” Clark hugged her, patting her head softly. “You must. Your parents will want you to return, right?”
“Okay.” Jean sniffled.
Her tear filled eyes nearly made Clark cry. Instead, his shoulders slumped. “See you tomorrow.”
“You promise you’ll be here?”
“Of course.” Clark patted her head again.
“Okay.” Jean wiped her face. “Bye, Clark.”
Jean hugged him one more time before walking as slowly as she could out of the cemetery. Clark watched her until she stepped through the gate. Then with a bittersweet sigh, he faded into the leaves. Tomorrow couldn’t possibly come quickly enough.
If you are under twenty years old and you find a gold necklace with an emerald studded coffin for a pendant, you are in luck. Walk three blocks east, three blocks north, then three blocks west. Step through the iron gate and say hello to the crows. The Bone King will arrive and you will be taught how to dance. And in the process you will make a dear friend.
Go on. Clark is waiting for you.