A question gnawed, day and night, at Jim Crisp. He
pondered it as he walked the streets, while a dark rain fell and rats
chattered at his feet; he mulled over it as he sat in his apartment,
staring at the static on the television screen hour after hour. The
question haunted him as he sat in the cemetery on Fourteenth Street,
surrounded by empty graves. And this burning question was: when did love
Thinking took effort. It made his brain hurt, but it seemed to Jim that
thinking was his last link with life. He used to be an accountant, a long
time ago. He'd worked with a firm downtown for over twenty years, had never
been married, hadn't dated much either. Numbers, logic, the rituals of
mathematics had been the center of his life; now logic itself had gone
insane, and no one kept records anymore. He had a terrible sensation of not
belonging in this world, of being suspended in a nightmare that would
stretch to the boundaries of eternity. He had no need for sleep any longer;
something inside him had burst a while back, and he'd lost the ten or
twelve pounds of fat that had gathered around his middle over the years.
His body was lean now, so light sometimes a strong wind knocked him off his
feet. The smell came and went, but Jim had a caseload of English Leather in
his apartment and he took baths in the stuff.
The open maw of time frightened him. Days without number lay ahead. What
was there to do, when there was nothing to be done? No one called the roll,
no one punched the time-clock, no one set the deadlines. This warped
freedom gave a sense of power to others; to Jim it was the most confining
of prisons, because all the symbols of order—stoplights, calendars,
clocks—were still there, still working, yet they had no purpose or sense,
and they reminded him too much of what had been before.
As he walked, aimlessly, through the city's streets he saw others moving
past, some as peaceful as sleepwalkers, some raging in the grip of private
tortures. Jim came to a corner and stopped, instinctively obeying the
DON'T WALK sign; a high squealing noise
caught his attention, and he looked to his left.
Rats were scurrying wildly over one of the lowest forms of humanity, a
half-decayed corpse that had recently awakened and pulled itself from the
grave. The thing crawled on the wet pavement, struggling on one thin arm
and two sticklike legs. The rats were chewing it to pieces, and as the
thing reached Jim, its skeletal face lifted and the single dim coal of an
eye found him. From its mouth came a rattling noise, stifled when several
rats squeezed themselves between the gray lips in search of softer flesh.
Jim hurried on, not waiting for the light to change. He thought the thing
had said Whhhyyy? and for that question he had no answer.
He felt shame in the coil of his entrails. When did love die? Had it
perished at the same time as this living death of human flesh had begun, or
had it already died and decayed long before? He went on, through the somber
streets where the buildings brooded like tombstones, and he felt crushed
beneath the weight of loneliness.
Jim remembered beauty; a yellow flower, the scent of a woman's perfume, the
warm sheen of a woman's hair. Remembering was another bar in the prison of
bones; the power of memory taunted him unmercifully. He remembered walking
on his lunch hour, sighting a pretty girl and following her for a block or
two, enraptured by fantasies. He had always been searching for love, for
someone to be joined with, and had never realized it so vitally before now,
when the gray city was full of rats and the restless dead.
Someone with a cavity where its face had been stumbled past, arms waving
blindly. What once had been a child ran by him, and left the scent of rot
in its wake, Jim lowered his head, and when a gust of hot wind hit him he
lost his balance and would have slammed into a concrete wall if he hadn't
grabbed hold of a bolted-down mailbox. He kept going, deeper into the city,
on pavement he'd never walked when he was alive.
At the intersection of two unfamiliar streets he thought he heard music:
the crackle of a guitar, the low grunting of a drumbeat. He turned against
the wind, fighting the gusts that threatened to hurl him into the air, and
followed the sound. Two blocks ahead a strobe light flashed in a cavernous
entrance. A sign that read THE COURTYARD had
been broken out, and across
the front of the building was scrawled BONEYARD in black spray paint.
Figures moved within the entrance: dancers, gyrating in the flash of the
The thunder of the music repulsed him—the soft grace of Brahms remained
his lullaby, not the raucous crudity of Grave Rock—but the activity, the
movement, the heat of energy drew him closer. He scratched a maddening
itch on the dry flesh at the back of his neck and stood on the threshold
while the music and the glare blew around him. The Courtyard, he thought,
glancing at the old sign. It was the name of a place that might once have
served white wine and polite jazz music—a singles bar, maybe, where the
lonely went to meet the lonely. The Boneyard it was now, all right: a realm
of dancing skeletons. This was not his kind of place, but still ... the
noise, lights, and gyrations spoke of another kind of loneliness. It was a
singles bar for the living dead, and it beckoned him in.
Jim crossed the threshold, and with one desiccated hand he smoothed down
his remaining bits of black hair.
And now he knew what hell must be like: a smoky, rot-smelling pandemonium.
Some of the things writhing on the dance floor were missing arms and legs,
and one thin figure in the midst of a whirl lost its hand; the withered
flesh skidded across the linoleum, was crushed underfoot as its owner
scrabbled after it, and then its owner was likewise pummeled down into a
twitching mass. On the bandstand were two guitar players, a drummer, and a
legless thing hammering at an electric organ. Jim avoided the dance floor,
moving through the crowd toward the blue neon bar. The drum's pounding
offended him, in an obscene way; it reminded him too much of how his
heartbeat used to feel before it clenched and ceased.
This was a place his mother—God rest her soul—would have warned him to
avoid. He had never been one for nightlife, and looking into the decayed
faces of some of these people was a preview of torments that lay
ahead—but he didn't want to leave. The drumbeat was so loud it destroyed
all thinking, and for a while he could pretend it was indeed his own heart
returned to scarlet life; and that, he realized, was why the Boneyard was
full from wall to wall. This was a mockery of life, yes, but it was the
best to be had.
The bar's neon lit up the rotting faces like blue-shadowed Halloween masks.
One of them, down to shreds of flesh clinging to yellow bone, shouted
something unintelligible and drank from a bottle of beer; the liquid
streamed through the fissure in his throat and down over his violet shirt
and gold chains. Flies swarmed around the bar, drawn to the reek, and Jim
watched as the customers pressed forward. They reached into their pockets
and changepurses and offered freshly-killed rats, roaches, spiders, and
centipedes to the bartender, who placed the objects in a large glass jar
that had replaced the cash register. Such was the currency of the Dead
World, and a particularly juicy rat bought two bottles of Miller Lite.
Other people were laughing and hollering—gasping, brittle sounds that
held no semblance of humanity. A fight broke out near the dance floor, and
a twisted arm thunked to the linoleum to the delighted roar of the
"I know you!" A woman's face thrust forward into Jim's. She had
tatters of gray hair, and she wore heavy makeup over sunken cheeks, her
forehead swollen and cracked by some horrible inner pressure. Her glittery
dress danced with light, but smelled of grave dirt. "Buy me a
drink!" she said, grasping his arm. A flap of flesh at her throat
fluttered, and Jim realized her throat had been slashed. "Buy me a
drink!" she insisted,
"No," Jim said, trying to break free. "No, I'm sorry."
"You're the one who killed me!" she screamed. Her grip tightened,
about to snap Jim's forearm. "Yes you are! You killed me, didn't
you?" And she picked up an empty beer bottle off the bar, her face
contorted with rage, and started to smash it against his skull.
But before the blow could fall a man lifted her off her feet and pulled her
away from Jim; her fingernails flayed to the bones of Jim's arm. She was
still screaming, fighting to pull away, and the man, who wore a T-shirt
with Boneyard painted across it, said, "She's a fresh one. Sorry,
mac," before he hauled her toward the entrance. The woman's scream got
shriller, and Jim saw her forehead burst open and ooze like a stomped
snail. He shuddered, backing into a dark corner—and there he bumped into
"Excuse me," he said. Started to move away. Glanced at whom he'd
And saw her.
She was trembling, her skinny arms wrapped around her chest. She still had
most of her long brown hair, but in places it had diminished to the texture
of spiderwebs and her scalp showed. Still, it was lovely hair. It looked
almost healthy. Her pale blue eyes were liquid and terrified, and her face
might have been pretty once. She had lost most of her nose, and gray-rimmed
craters pitted her right cheek. She was wearing sensible clothes: a skirt
and blouse and a sweater buttoned to the throat. Her clothes were dirty,
but they matched. She looked like a librarian, he decided. She didn't
belong in the Boneyard—but, then, where did anyone belong anymore?
He was about to move away when he noticed something else that caught a
glint of frenzied light.
Around her neck, just peeking over the collar of her sweater, was a silver
chain, and on that chain hung a tiny cloisonné heart.
It was a fragile thing, like a bit of bone china, but it held the power to
freeze Jim before he took another step.
"That's . . . that's very pretty," he said. He nodded at the
Instantly her hand covered it. Parts of her fingers had rotted off, like
He looked into her eyes; she stared—or at least pretended to—right past
him. She shook like a frightened deer. Jim paused, waiting for a break in
the thunder, nervously casting his gaze to the floor. He caught a whiff of
decay, and whether it was from himself or her he didn't know; what did it
matter? He shivered too, not knowing what else to say but wanting to say
something, anything, to make a connection. He sensed that at any moment the
girl—whose age might be anywhere from twenty to forty, since Death both
tightened and wrinkled at the same time —might bolt past him and be lost
in the crowd. He thrust his hands into his pockets, not wanting her to see
the exposed fingerbones. "This is the first time I've been here,"
he said. "I don't go out much."
She didn't answer. Maybe her tongue is gone, he thought. Or her throat.
Maybe she was insane, which could be a real possibility. She pressed back
against the wall, and Jim saw how very thin she was, skin stretched over
frail bones. Dried up on the inside, he thought. Just like me.
"My name is Jim," he told her. "What's yours?"
Again, no reply. I'm no good at this! he agonized. Singles bars had never
been his "scene", as the saying went. No, his world had always
been his books, his job, his classical records, his cramped little
apartment that now seemed like a four-walled crypt. There was no use in
standing here, trying to make conversation with a dead girl. He had dared
to eat the peach, as Eliot's Prufrock lamented, and found it rotten,
"Brenda," she said, so suddenly it almost startled him. She kept
her hand over the heart, her other arm across her sagging breasts. Her head
was lowered, her hair hanging over the cratered cheek.
"Brenda," Jim repeated; he heard his voice tremble. "That's
a nice name."
She shrugged, still pressed into the corner as if trying to squeeze
through a chink in the bricks.
Another moment of decision presented itself. It was a moment in which Jim
could turn and walk three paces away, into the howling mass at the bar, and
release Brenda from her corner; or a moment in which Brenda could tell him
to go away, or curse him to his face, or scream with haunted dementia and
that would be the end of it. The moment passed, and none of those things
happened. There was just the drumbeat, pounding across the club, pounding
like a counterfeit heart, and the roaches ran their race on the bar and the
dancers continued to fling bits of flesh off their bodies like autumn
He felt he had to say something. "I was just walking. I didn't mean to
come here." Maybe she nodded. Maybe; he couldn't tell for sure, and
the light played tricks. "I didn't have anywhere else to go," he
She spoke, in a whispery voice that he had to strain to hear: "Me
Jim shifted his weight—what weight he had left. "Would you . . .
like to dance?" he asked, for want of anything better.
"Oh, no!" She looked up quickly. "No, I can't dance! I mean
... I used to dance, sometimes, but ... I can't dance anymore."
Jim understood what she meant; her bones were brittle, just as his own
were. They were both as fragile as husks, and to get out on that dance
floor would tear them both to pieces. "Good," he said. "I
can't dance either."
She nodded, with an expression of relief. There was an instant in which Jim
saw how pretty she must have been before all this happened—not pretty in
a flashy way, but pretty as homespun lace—and it made his brain ache.
"This is a loud place," he said. "Too loud."
"I've . . . never been here before." Brenda removed her hand from
the necklace, and again both arms protected her chest. "I knew this
place was here, but . . ." She shrugged her thin shoulders. "I
"You're . . ." lonely, he almost said.
As lonely as I am.
". . . alone?" he asked.
"I have friends," she answered, too fast.
"I don't," he said, and her gaze lingered on his face for a few
seconds before she looked away. "I mean, not in this place," he
amended. "I don't know anybody here, except you." He paused, and
then he had to ask the question:
"Why did you come here tonight?"
She almost spoke, but she closed her mouth before the words got out. I know
why, Jim thought. Because you're searching. Just like I am. You went out
walking, and maybe you came in here because you couldn't stand to be alone
another second. I can look at you, and hear you screaming. "Would you
like to go out?" he asked. "Walking, I mean. Right now, so we can
"I don't know you," she said, uneasily.
"I don't know you, either. But I'd like to."
"I'm . . ." Her hand fluttered up to the cavity where her nose
had been. "Ugly," she finished.
"You're not ugly. Anyway, I'm no handsome prince." He smiled,
which stretched the flesh on his face. Brenda might have smiled, a little
bit; again, it was hard to tell. "I'm not a crazy," Jim reassured
her. "I'm not on drugs, and I'm not looking for somebody to hurt. I
just thought . . . you might like to have some company."
Brenda didn't answer for a moment. Her fingers played with the cloisonné
heart. "All right," she said finally. "But not too far. Just
around the block."
"Just around the block," he agreed, trying to keep his excitement
from showing too much. He took her arm—she didn't seem to mind his
fleshless fingers—and carefully guided her through the crowd. She felt
light, like a dry-rotted stick, and he thought that even he, with his
shrunken muscles, might be able to lift her over his head.
Outside, they walked away from the blast of the Boneyard. The wind was
getting stronger, and they soon were holding to each other to keep from
being swept away. "A storm's coming," Brenda said, and Jim
nodded. The storms were fast and ferocious, and their winds made the
buildings shake. But Jim and Brenda kept walking, first around the block
and then, at Brenda's direction, southward. Their bodies were bent like
question marks; overhead, clouds masked the moon and blue streaks of
electricity began to lance across the sky.
Brenda was not a talker, but she was a good listener. Jim told her about
himself, about the job he used to have, about how he'd always dreamed that
someday he'd have his own firm. He told her about a trip he once took, as a
young man, to Lake Michigan, and how cold he recalled the water to be. He
told her about a park he visited once, and how he remembered the sound of
happy laughter and the smell of flowers. "I miss how it used to
be," he said, before he could stop himself, because in the Dead World
voicing such regrets was a punishable crime. "I miss beauty," he
went on. "I miss . . . love."
She took his hand, bone against bone, and said, "This is where I
It was a plain brownstone building, many of the windows broken out by the
windstorms. Jim didn't ask to go to Brenda's apartment; he expected to be
turned away on the front steps. But Brenda still had hold of his hand, and
now she was leading him up those steps and through the glassless door.
Her apartment, on the fourth floor, was even smaller than Jim's. The walls
were a somber gray, but the lights revealed a treasure—pots of flowers
set around the room and out on the fire escape. "They're silk,"
Brenda explained, before he could ask. "But they look real, don't
"They look . . . wonderful." He saw a stereo and speakers on a
table, and near the equipment was a collection of records. He bent down,
his knees creaking, and began to examine her taste in music. Another shock
greeted him: Beethoven . . . Chopin . . . Mozart . . . Vivaldi . . .
Strauss. And, yes, even Brahms. "Oh!" he said, and that was all
he could say.
"I found most of those," she said. "Would you like to listen
She put on the Chopin, and as the piano chords swelled, so did the wind,
whistling in the hall and making the windows tremble.
And then she began to talk about herself: She had been a secretary, in a
refrigeration plant across the river. Had never married, though she'd been
engaged once. Her hobby was making silk flowers, when she could find the
material. She missed ice cream most of all, she said. And summer—what had
happened to summer, like it used to be? All the days and nights seemed to
bleed together now, and nothing made any of them different. Except the
storms, of course, and those could be dangerous.
By the end of the third record, they were sitting side by side on her sofa.
The wind had gotten very strong outside; the rain came and went, but the
wind and lightning remained.
"I like talking to you," she told him. "I feel like . . .
I've known you for a long, long time."
"I do too. I'm glad I came into that place tonight." He watched
the storm and heard the wind shriek. "I don't know how I'm going to
"You . . . don't have to go," Brenda said, very quietly. "I'd
like for you to stay."
He stared at her, unbelieving. The back of his neck itched fiercely, and
the itch was spreading to his shoulders and arms, but he couldn't move.
"I don't want to be alone," she continued. "I'm always
alone. It's just that ... I miss touching. Is that wrong, to miss
"No. I don't think so."
She leaned forward, her lips almost brushing his, her eyes almost pleading.
"Eat me," she whispered.
Jim sat very still. Eat me: the only way left to feel pleasure in the Dead
World. He wanted it, too; he needed it, so badly. "Eat me," he
whispered back to her, and he began to unbutton her sweater.
Her nude body was riddled with craters, her breasts sunken into her chest.
His own was sallow and emaciated, and between his thighs his penis was a
gray, useless piece of flesh. She reached for him, he knelt beside her
body, and as she urged "Eat me, eat me," his tongue played
circles on her cold skin; then his teeth went to work, and he bit away the
first chunk. She moaned and shivered, lifted her head and tongued his arm.
Her teeth took a piece of flesh from him, and the ecstasy arrowed along his
spinal cord like an electric shock.
They clung to each other, shuddering, their teeth working on arms and legs,
throat, chest, face. Faster and faster still, as the wind crashed and
Beethoven thundered; gobbets of flesh fell to the carpet, and those gobbets
were quickly snatched up and consumed. Jim felt himself shrinking, being
transformed from one into two; the incandescent moment had enfolded him,
and if there had been tears to cry, he might have wept with Joy. Here was
love, and here was a lover who both claimed him and gave her all.
Brenda's teeth closed on the back of Jim's neck, crunching through the dry
flesh. Her eyes closed in rapture as Jim ate the rest of the fingers on her
left hand—and suddenly there was a new sensation, a scurrying around her
lips. The love wound on Jim's neck was erupting small yellow roaches, like
gold coins spilling from a bag, and Jim's itching subsided. He cried out,
his face burrowing into Brenda's abdominal cavity.
Their bodies entwined, the flesh being gnawed away, their shrunken stomachs
bulging. Brenda bit off his ear, chewed, and swallowed it; fresh passion
coursed through Jim, and he nibbled away her lips—they did taste like
slightly overripe peaches—and ran his tongue across her teeth. They
kissed deeply, biting pieces of their tongues off. Jim drew back and
lowered his face to her thighs. He began to eat her, while she gripped his
shoulders and screamed.
Brenda arched her body. Jim's sexual organs were there, the testicles like
dark, dried fruit. She opened her mouth wide, extended her chewed tongue
and bared her teeth; her cheekless, chinless face strained upward—and Jim
cried out over even the wail of the wind, his body convulsing.
They continued to feast on each other, tike knowing lovers. Jim's body was
hollowed out, most of the flesh gone from his face and chest. Brenda's
lungs and heart were gone, consumed, and the bones of her arms and legs
were fully revealed. Their stomachs swelled. And when they were near
explosion, Jim and Brenda lay on the carpet, cradling each other with
skeletal arms, lying on bits of flesh like the petals of strange flowers.
They were one now, each into the other—and what more could love be than
"I love you," Jim said, with his mangled tongue. Brenda made a
noise of assent, unable to speak, and took a last love bite from beneath
his arm before she snuggled close.
The Beethoven record ended; the next one dropped onto the turntable, and a
lilting Strauss waltz began.
Jim felt the building shake. He lifted his head, one eye remaining and that
one sated with pleasure, and saw the fire escape trembling. One of the
potted plants was suddenly picked up by the wind. "Brenda," he
said—and then the plant crashed through the glass and the stormwind came
in, whipping around the walls. Another window blew in, and as the next hot
wave of wind came, it got into the hollows of the two dried bodies and
raised them off the floor like reed-ribbed kites. Brenda made a gasping
noise, her arms locked around Jim's spinal cord and his handless arms
thrust into her ribcage. The wind hurled them against the wall, snapping
bones like matchsticks as the waltz continued to play on for a few seconds
before the stereo and table went over. There was no pain, though, and no
reason to fear. They were together, in this Dead World where love was a
curseword, and together they would face the storm.
The wind churned, threw them one way and then the other—and as it
withdrew from Brenda's apartment it took the two bodies with it, into the
charged air over the city's roofs.
They flew, buffeted higher and higher, bone locked to bone. The city
disappeared beneath them, and they went up into the clouds where the blue
They knew great joy, and at the upper limits of the clouds where the
lightning was hottest, they thought they could see the stars.
When the storm passed, a boy on the north side of the city found a strange
object on the roof of his apartment building, near the pigeon roost. It
looked like a charred-black construction of bones, melded together so you
couldn't tell where one bone ended and the other began. And in that mass of
bones was a silver chain, with a small ornament. A heart, he saw it was. A
white heart, hanging there in the tangle of someone's bones,
He was old enough to realize that someone—two people, maybe—had escaped
the Dead World last night. Lucky stiffs, he thought.
He reached in for the dangling heart, and it fell to ashes at his touch.