art by Billy Sagulo
by Jeremy Minton
A skull stares from the floor beside the bed. Grasses sprout from the hollows of its eyes. Ralph hardly notices. He scans the grass for hidden thorns, for anything that slashes, stings or bites. Finding nothing dangerous, he puts it out of mind.
It's just another skull. He's seen so many bones by now, they've ceased to signify. They're like the flies, the flowers, the green-tinged light. They're like the cracked and peeling walls, the rot, the dust, the creepers on the floor, the sleepers dozing in their cloaks of mold. Tom had said--
But Ralph does not want to think about Tom, not while Tom still hangs upon the thorns just twelve yards from the bottom of the tower. Trying to forget his friend (all freshly dead, still firm of flesh, not picked clean like the one who went before) Ralph perches on the bed. Flies jostle and buzz. Creepers fight for light. Ralph stares at the figure laid out on the counterpane.
This is Tom's goal, Tom's girl, Tom's prize, the thing he died for. Golden hair, pink skin, soft palms half curled in sleep. Ralph brushes cobwebs, dust and petals from her face. He lowers his mouth to hers. And almost chokes. Her breath is rank: thick with sleep and sticky, warm decay.
Tilting his head, he has another go. This, after all, is how it must be done. And with Tom dead, it's up to him to do it. But it doesn't feel good. He does not feel good. His heart's too full of grief to feel like kissing. And his body stinks. It is even worse than her breath. He is sweaty and dirty. His clothing torn, skin bloody from days spent hacking through thorns and creepers, nettles, suckers, and ivy.