He Who Picks the Bones

by Frank W. Haubold


For J. G. Ballard

Bapom, pom, pom

Muted pounding pierced the darkness in Morten’s consciousness. He tried to ignore it but something in his mind had already taken up the rhythm and amplified the drumbeats to an angry hammering.

Tatom, tom, tom, tatom

“Not again!” Morten yelled and tried to cover his ears.

It was only when he felt his palms against his ears that he finally came to and open his eyes. The familiar surroundings calmed him somewhat, though he couldn’t explain why his hands were no longer restrained.

And what was with the light?

A single, faint emergency light bathed the walls in a green glow. Morten raised his head, listening, and peered at the surveillance camera. It wasn’t moving. Even the camera’s red diode of an eye had stopped squinting at him.

How could it be? Some disaster?

Still, Morten couldn’t imagine a disaster big enough for him to be left unattended. Something like that would be dangerous, and it had something to do with the drums in his head. For the moment, they were silenced but it meant nothing more than a momentary pause.

He sat up and loosened the restraints that were wrapped around his ankles. If this was all some new trick the whitecoats were playing, then it was time to put an end to it. But there were still no footsteps to be heard in the hallway.

Carefully, he slid out of the bed and nearly fell to the floor. His knees were wobbly. He must have been asleep for a very long time. He stumbled clumsily to the door and slowly leaned against it. It swung open so easily that he almost lost his balance.

But he hadn’t won yet. The deciding obstacle remained to be the shatterproof glass door that separated the closed section from the rest of the building. It was considered insurmountable because it could only be opened from the office outward. No matter what had happened here, it was certain that no one would do him that favor. Carefully, Morten slinked down the half-dark hall toward the exit and realized with surprise that the door already stood wide open.

He was free!

But his elation was soon mixed with a sinking feeling that worsened as he noticed that in neither the stairwell nor the adjoining sections of the clinic was there a sound to be heard. Still, the absence of sound was merely the most palpable part of the indescribable sense of abandonment that filled the building.

How long had he been unconscious?

Morten didn’t know. The medication had wiped his sense of time. How often he had awoken with the feeling of having slept for several days when in reality only a few hours had passed. Maybe this time it was the other way around. Even if that were the case, where were the others? Not that he missed them, but they couldn’t have just vanished into thin air.

He pushed the elevator call button and jumped back in shock as the doors slid open with a hum, revealing a rectangle of light. As his eyes adjusted to the light a little, he noticed something on the floor of the elevator. It was a brown leather loafer.

Somebody sure must have been in a hurry, thought Morten, and in the same moment knew he wouldn’t get into the elevator. Not for any price. The ownerless shoe, however, was not the only reason for the aversion he felt for the tirelessly humming stainless steel monster that was so readily offering its services. Against all reason, he was almost certain that this thing had an agenda that had little or nothing to do with its actual function.

Ridiculous. I have to get out of here and call Dr. Ferguson. The rest will take care of itself.

Dr. Rachel Ferguson was a psychiatrist and the only person who took his talk about the drums seriously after his arrest. Before that, they x-rayed his head, electronically cut his brain into slices, and made countless encephalograms without ever finding anything unusual. He had to fill out dozens of questionnaires full of questions which, under other circumstances, would have earned the one asking them a row of broken teeth. No, Morten had never felt the desire to sleep with his little sister or even his mother. No, he didn’t hate his father. And no, he didn’t get an erection when he saw little girls on the monkey bars on a playground. He didn’t know what had happened to the people in the photos they kept putting in front of him. Or did he? It was all connected to the drumming in his head, but there was nothing about that in the pre-printed questionnaire…

As Morten reached the reception area, for a second he thought he heard the drumming again. But the sound was different, less rhythmic. A muted drone that rose and fell again. It was true that Sinfield was on the coast, but he hadn’t realized that the sea was so close that you could hear the surf from the clinic. The monotonous Cha-Boom that filled the reception area made him uneasy. It sounded like a threat. Unsettled, he headed for the nearest payphone before it occurred to him that he didn’t have any change. After a sudden inspiration, he walked over to the abandoned information counter and let his gaze wander across the receptionists’ desks. He helped himself to a few quarters from an invitingly open cash register but resisted the temptation to fill his pockets with bills. Morten didn’t want to steal anything. He just desperately needed to make a phone call…

He hurriedly shoved the coins into the slot and dialled Rachel Ferguson’s number. It was ringing. His heart was pounding as he pressed the receiver to his ear, but Rachel wasn’t answering. After the fifth or sixth ring, he heard a metallic click.

The answering machine, he thought to himself, disappointed, and winced as a muffled sound persisted from the earpiece. Albeit hushed and somewhat distorted by the long transmission over the phone lines, it was unmistakably rising and falling like the sound of languidly rolling waves on the shore…

Morten let the receiver fall and walked slowly like a tired old man to the exit.

Outside the building, he could not only hear the sea but smell and taste it as well. The air was moist and smelled like seaweed and fish that wasn’t quite fresh anymore. A wall of dark clouds hung over the city and draped the streets and houses in gray twilight. The parking lot in front of the clinic was empty, the reserved and visitor spaces alike. Only a red, rust-eaten Pontiac Firebird with bald, cracked tires waited patiently for the return of its owner. It had New Mexico plates and a long cross-country drive behind it. Who did it belong to? Lost in thought, Morten started to cross the street but jumped back at the last second as a taxi with dimmed headlights suddenly sped past him. He hadn’t heard it coming. Startled, he watched it drive off, but the dirty yellow sedan hadn’t slowed down at all and had soon vanished from sight.

I must have been mistaken, thought Morten with shaking knees, trying to suppress the fear that had overtaken him at the sight of the taxi. Not because he had nearly been hit, but rather because the seat behind the steering wheel had been empty…

Of course, he knew that taxis don’t make rounds without their drivers. But weren’t it just as improbable that the employees and patients of a renowned clinic would literally disappear overnight? And what about the other inhabitants of the city? In spite of the fact that it was quickly getting dark, he couldn’t see light coming from any of the buildings near him. The streets and sidewalks lay empty before him.

It had started to rain and Morten pulled up the collar of his jacket. Only then did he become aware that he was still wearing hospital clothes. In the confusion, he hadn’t even thought about finding something less conspicuous to wear. The roar of the sea had become louder. A gust of wind threw cold rain at him in waves that drenched his cotton clothes. Morten was freezing. It was time to look for shelter.

A flickering light, like that of a broken neon sign, piqued his interest. He hurried out and was soon standing in front of an unremarkable building at the corner of two streets with the words “Seaside Palace Hotel” in glowing, sickly green letters above the door. The glass door was unlocked and from inside the building, a faint light was shining into the foyer.

“Is someone there?” Morten called and groped for a light switch in vain. No one answered, just the distant sound of the surf. Carefully, he crossed the hall and called out again. No answer. The door to the room with the light shining from it was cracked open and bore the tantalizing word “bar.”

Why not, thought Morten, ignoring the drumbeats that melded themselves with the ever-present sound of the sea.

“Hey Buddy!” a none-too-shy sounding male voice greeted Morten as he entered the room. Blinded, he closed his eyes. The beam of a flashlight stayed pointed at his face as someone gave him a good whack across the back of the neck, knocking him forward.

“Whacha runnin’ for buddy?” asked the voice, amused. The drumming in Morten’s head was quickly getting louder.

“You lookin’ for trouble?”

He still couldn’t see his opponent. It was only when someone jammed a fist in Morten’s stomach from right in front of him that he understood that there were at least three of them.

“Get out of here, get lost!” groaned Morten when he caught his breath and listened to the thud of the punches that were threatening to break open his skull.

Tatom, tom, tom, tatom…

The men laughed and then it was all over. The next blow shattered Morten’s perception like a brick thrown through a windowpane and hurled him into a different world: Blackbirds dove from the sky, cawing hoarsely and pecked at his eyes. Instinctively, Morten threw up his arms, swinging them around him, but the beasts came at him from all sides and tore bloody ribbons out of the skin on his arms. Sometimes he succeeded in grabbing one of his attackers and throwing it to the ground. Delirious with pain and rage he would spring to his feet, then pounce on the twitching body and savor the sound of its bone crunching beneath his weight.

Tatom, tom, tom, tatom…

The rhythm of the drums grew faster and pulled Morten along with it, dancing like some mad dervish on the crumpled bodies of the dead wretches. His arms, though shredded to the bone, snatched wildly at his attackers surrounding him in a cloud of blood and black feathers.

“Yeessss!!!” howled the blood-soaked skeleton with a voice that no longer sounded remotely human, and finally collapsed only after the drums fell silent.

Breathing heavily, Morten knelt on the ground, unable to open his eyes. A wave of nausea swelled within Morten at the sickly-sweet smell of blood. He had to get out of there before he threw up. Nervously trying to keep from looking at the bodies of the dead men, Morten stumbled out of the room. Only after the door clicked shut behind him did he exhale.

In the hotel men’s room, he stuffed his blood-smeared clothes into the trash and tried to wash himself off. He hadn’t meant to go into any of the hotel rooms, but now he desperately needed clean clothes. Barefoot, he climbed the stairs and found most of the rooms unlocked. The drums in his head were silent, so there was no one else there. Hurriedly, he looked through the suitcase and dresser until he came to the room of a man who was his size. Had been his size? Morten didn’t know. He was exhausted and barely in command of his senses. He had just enough strength left to drag the suitcase into an unused room and bolt the door. He then fell onto the large, soft bed and immediately fell to sleep.

That night Morten dreamt of the sea.

He stood on the edge of a cliff and watched the waves crash against the rock tossing water up to his feet and shower him with white foam.

“Mor-ten,” tolled a voice that seemed to call to him from the depths of the sea. “Come. It is time!” Frightened, he wanted to retreat but his legs refused to comply.

“Where were you, Morten?” hissed the waves, sprinkling him with foam like spoiled children. “We looked for you everywhere.”

“Why?” He whispered, terrified, as an enormous wave rose before him like a dark wall.

“We wait for you,” the sea droned with the air of a promise, “for you are he, who picks the bones.” Morten thought about that while the foamy whitecaps folded at his feet, and the roar of the sea ceased for an instant. And suddenly, he understood where he would find the inhabitants of Sinfield, along with those of every city everywhere. The sea had beckoned them all to itself. As the wave took him in its midnight blue arms, he was ready. He surrendered to the sea and let it carry him, listening to its voice…

Morten woke with a smile on his face. Good-humored, he showered and carefully chose his attire. Only as he went into the bar once more, did his facial expression darken a little and he find himself fighting feelings of nausea. But he found what he was looking for: a sawed-off shotgun and a .45 magnum with three extra clips.

In the kitchen, he fried some eggs, brewed some coffee and ate with a surprisingly good appetite. Then he went to the door and stood in the morning light. He could hear the sea and a shore wind blowing the wispy cirrus clouds westward. It was going to be a beautiful day. Morten examined his weapon and waited. When a red sports car approached, he smiled and admired the bright shine of the paint job and the chrome rims. It was a 73 Firebird with New Mexico plates. The car stopped right in front of him and waited with the motor running until he got in the passenger’s side. “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Stones was on the radio and Morten drummed along with his fingers on the dashboard. Then the 8-cylinder motor growled and tossed the passenger back into the cushion of his seat.

Near a junkyard he heard the drums for the first time and shot three bums who were too drunk to answer the call of the sea. Half an hour later, he missed the refrain of Donovan’s “Atlantis” because he had to deal with a pale-faced girl who was about to shoot another dose of dreams into her veins. Annoyed, Morten wiped the blood off his face and decided to only use the shotgun in emergencies. A crippled veteran blessed Morten as he walked with the loaded weapon into the old man’s room, which stunk of urine and confusion. Morten smiled courteously and fired three shots into the crying man’s face. For lunch, he made up for the slice of sticky individually wrapped gas station pizza with an ice-cold beer and the first cigarette he’d smoked in years. It made him a little dizzy, so he stretched out sleepily in the car seat and listened to Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” till the Pontiac started to move again. Like an eager bloodhound, the red car prowled the streets and brought Morten to the shadiest, bleakest, and saddest parts of town. By the afternoon he was running low on ammunition but fortunately, the drums in his head remained silent. The town was dead. As the firebird once again sped toward the edge of town, Morten opened another beer and turned the radio all the way up. “Sky Pilot” blared from the speakers and Morten, a little flat and a little choked up, sang the refrain: You never, never, never reach the sky… He hadn’t planned to do that, but what the hell? He was going straight uphill past randomly parked cars toward eagle’s rock, the highest point in the surrounding area. The road got narrower, and sometimes the Pontiac had to ram a few of the cars out of their jumble into the ditch. Having steadily lost speed with each collision, the car eventually rolled unhurriedly to a halt at the top of the cliff, offering an impressive view of St. Georges Bay.

All of a sudden the radio went dead and the agitated churning of the sea drowned out the sound of the motor.

“Mor-ten,” sang the waves before they stormed into the cliff with an impish mischievousness. “Mor-ten, it is time!”

“It is time!” screeched the gulls that swarmed over the bay and dove like an arrow at their unseen prey.

“We’re waiting,” called the sea with its dark, alluring voice, “for him who picks the bones.” One last time the firebird’s motor roared, the rear tires squealing against the pavement as the car flew at the drop-off like a bat out of Hell. “I’m coming!” Morten cheered as the Pontiac broke through the wooden fence, sailed a few more yards, almost level, and then in a long elegant arch, fell toward the sea.

“I’m coming!” Morten whispered once more as an invisible hand tore him from his seat and flung him against the windshield. It was only in the seconds before the impact that Morten saw what had drawn the gulls into the bay by the hundreds and opened his mouth in one last breathless scream.

Frank W. Haubold was born in Frankenberg (Saxonia) in 1955. After taking his A levels and military service he studied computer science and biophysics in Dresden and Berlin. Since 1989 he writes novels, tales and short stories in various genres. He has published numerous books and contributions to anthologies and magazine in Germany and abroad. As the first writer at all he won the German Science Fiction Award (Deutscher Science Fiction Preis) in both the novel and the short story categories in the same year in 2008. He also won the renowned Kurz Laßwitz Preis in 2012. His latest book is the mystery thriller Dämonenstadt (Atlantis).