Brain, you never imagined you’d like the taste of taffy, but you liked the scent of it, like melted sugar, as you and Tulimaq carried the wrapped loads of candy to Kolariq’s cave by the beach. You both glanced warily behind you, at the town on the tundra, wondering if anybody there ever wondered where you two went, like clockwork, whenever you left.
You climbed down the short cliff first, and he handed you the wax bundles before climbing down himself. He frowned, dusting off his hands. “What do you think Kolariq is going to make us do with this?”
You passed half the taffy back to him. “Is that a question you actually want answered?”
He shrugged. “Seeing as how we’re going to find out anyway, it might as well be sooner, right?”
You didn’t argue. Strolled across the rocks fading into sand to the cave under the hill. He sighed loudly, eventually following you.
The cave was only a cave until you turned right, past the hanging creepers. Then it opened into a wide sitting room, fireplace against the wall, plush chairs and rugs softening the chiseled walls to only slightly-less-than-imposing. Only one other boy was in there, the blond one, the one who was orphaned young enough he’d spent years as a street thief. Didn’t remember his parents. They must have been from the islands, though, to the north and east.
He glanced from the thick book in his hands at the wax paper crinkles, hair sweeping over his face. Tulimaq admitted once he liked the kid, and you nearly smacked him. He said that’s why he fell for you, and then you couldn’t decide if you should still smack him or hug him.
The other boy just pointed to the door. Then he turned back to his book and sank even lower in the red giant of a chair.
The door was ajar, so you walked inside. Kolariq was sitting on the dirty table again, striking a statue-pose like he was thinking deeply, and he didn’t even flinch like both of you when the other door clicked shut. Somebody’s footsteps echoed, diminishing, and you asked what that was about.
Kolariq rose, waving a hand. “Nothing of import,” he said. “Merely an assignment.” He smiled as he eyed the taffy. “Tonight, four of you are going to stick together a skeleton.”
You nearly dropped the wax paper rolls.
“We have a skeleton?” Tulimaq exclaimed.
Kolariq grinned. “Of course we do. That’s what the assignment is for,” he laughed at your dumbfounded expression.
That was the first time you ever saw a skeleton, brain. It looked less neat than all of Kolariq’s diagrams. Which he kindly gave you stacks of to model the heap of yellow, dust-covered bones after. You, Tulimaq, the yellow-haired boy, and his boyfriend were the four Kolariq assigned to put the skeleton together. Not that that bothered you. But the boyfriend sure seemed intimidated by Tulimaq. You hid a smirk as he jumped when Tulimaq announced, “I call not working on the hands.”
The blond boy lowered a diagram, eyebrow raised. “There’s two of them. I suggest you two take the left half, and we’ll take the right half.”
The boyfriend nodded, and you decided to call him cyan-eyes. Instead of boyfriend.
Tulimaq sighed, and you nodded in assent. That was probably fair. “We’ll start at the foot,” you said, picking a roll of taffy from the stone floor.
“Great,” Cyan-eyes said, plopping a second roll of taffy on the table. Half the bones rolled in his direction. “That means we’ll do half the teeth.” he grinned, poking his tongue through a gap in his mouth where some of his own teeth had yet to grow in.
Tulimaq was already pulling a wad of slightly-goopy taffy from the wax paper you held. You set it on the table gently, then plucked a toe bone–according to the diagram, it looked like the end of the fourth toe–from the table’s corner and stuck it in the goop. Tulimaq pulled most of the wad away, leaving a pale glob at the base of the bone. You hesitated, staring at the halfway sorted bones strewn across the table. “So…which one goes next?”
He peered over your shoulder at the diagram. “How should I know?”
You sighed. “Maybe we shouldn’t stick things in taffy until we actually put all the bones in the right places.”
Tulimaq grimaced, revealing sticky hands. “Oops.”
I avoid other travelers. When there are other travelers. Skeleton Cook keeps his hood up, and I carry the heavy sack, hoping Skeleton Cook will look as invisible as possible. Invisible as a regular traveler, walking the road in a cloak to ward off early-summer’s chill, ice and snow receding like somebody with an old grudge they want to cling to. I have no cloak. Just a shawl, and the sack.
We reach the frost orchards before the sun falls; but that means little. Early summer’s ice-grudge only lets go when the sun’s eye glares most of the day.
I conceal Skeleton Cook in a bush by the roadside, a bush still covered in freshly fallen snow. I take his cloak and use it to curl up, unable to sleep until the sunset fades to black. Unable to sleep as the frost orchards frost over. Unable to sleep as under glimmering starlight, frozen whorls pattern across Skeleton Cook’s ribs. Tracing them, I somehow drift, lost in a pattern I can’t comprehend.
And wake, to the sunrise, mind aching and eyes wincing. I sit up, hand Skeleton Cook the cloak, and we keep walking. I pull yellow fruit from drooping trees, I pick violet berries from snow-covered bushes, I drop a trail of plant skins and when I look back, there are only our footprints.
Aching brain, you put that entire skeleton together, even though the ribs sagged. Even though you couldn’t find a quarter of the wrist bones in your half. Even though all four of you had taffy smearing your skin up to your wrists, clumping in your hair, solidifying on your cheeks.
“Please say we don’t have to do that again,” blond boy said when Cyan-eyes returned with Kolariq.
Kolariq ponderously circled the table, peering at the chest cavity, sniffing at the skull. “Not with candy, you don’t,” he said, puzzling over the missing wrist bones. You tried to ignore him, turning to the pile of seven diagrams the four of you tried to use.
Kolariq added, “Now you get to learn how to do it with magic.”
You paused. Turned away from the counter. Blond boy was gaping, one eye twitching.
“Is…the magic version less sticky?” Cyan-eyes asked. Blond boy managed to giggle through his unmoving jaw.
Kolariq stood up. “Well, obviously. But there’s no working together to stitch a skeleton together.”
You sighed, puffing air out your lips and up your face.
“You four may eat the rest of the taffy now,” Kolariq said, approaching the door to the hallway. “Although I would recommend bathing first.”
You wrinkled your nose in disgust. Taffy you’d just been using to glue bones together?
Tulimaq glanced at you, obviously as uninterested as you were.
I avoid other travelers. Even at the hill where I can first glimpse the city. I stop there for the night, build a shelter of wind-carved rocks, hide Skeleton Cook’s body underneath them. I inhale through my nose, concentrate on the invisible strings holding him together, concentrate on this place in the boulder-strewn landscape. I will find him again.
I toss and turn in the darkness, bundled in a cloak. I took the ribbons from my hair two days ago, painted my face in a shard of broken ice, to practice. Washed the mistakes of fluttering eyelids in the stream of melting snow. I tell myself I don’t have to be perfect. That it doesn’t mean anything about me. I am an expert at disguising this jaw line. Softening my chin. Turning the crook of my nose into more of a sparrow than a hawk. I don’t need to make my eyes look beautiful.
I roll over, stare at the mound of rocks covering Skeleton Cook. It doesn’t mean I still don’t try to be.