The Shivering Skeleton
“So, how are you today, Stephen?”
“I’m alright.” My voice is as stiff as my posture. I sit upright in the wine-red velvet chair, careful not to wrinkle my freshly pressed suit. “You Von Walshes are always impeccably dressed,” she used to say, poking fun at me. She was always dressed in modern attire, silly things like flared jeans and washed-out t-shirts with faded pictures of tongues sticking out and skulls and fire. I hated how the youth of that decade dressed; unrefined and overtly nonchalant. But somehow, she made every outfit look like couture.
“How’s your family, you haven’t spoken about them in a while?”
“I have a large family; do you have all day?”
“Ah, there’s that sly wit of yours Stephen, I thought you’d gone all ghostly on me again.”
I purse my lips. She nods, accepting that today was not the day I was breaking character and cracking a smile.
Valencia Edwards, bartender of the Shivering Skeleton; a friend to many, but particularly, the undead. Edwards is indeed her maiden name, as even after centuries of life, Valencia has never once mentioned a lover.
It isn’t because she is not beautiful; she is tall and thin, but with curves that resembled a statue. And while Her china doll skin and onyx hair are a lifeless attire, purvey to our curse, they look rather striking—and I’m not just saying that because those features mirror my own.
“Alright then, Stephen…” she pulls down her triangular glasses and balances them on the top of her nose. “What about your love life? You’ve never once mentioned a romantic partner in your fifty-three years of drinking bourbon on that very stool.”
“There’s nothing to say.”
“Nobody, in all of your years, not one love?”
“I’ve told you before, my romantic life is off-limits.”
“No.” I grab the arm of my chair, squeezing the velvet in my fist. I flare my teeth, flashing sharp incisors. But Valencia merely stares, just off to the left of my line of sight, as if she’s looking past me. She continues wiping the inside of a glass with an emerald-green cloth. Slowly and delicately wiping it in tiny circles like one would shine a diamond.
“Something is clearly there, and it’s hurting you. I’d like to say we’ve become very good friends after all these years. But if you won’t share this part of your life with me… then I guess you’re just another customer.”
She pauses to hear me speak. But I sit. Slowly inhaling the scent of her tart perfume, overwhelming enough to overpower the stench of death that comes along with the waxy skin and yellow eyeballs.
“What was her name?”
“Valencia, please.” My lip quivers and I can feel my eyes begin to sting.
Valencia tears off her apron, aggressively, and balls it up on the sleek wooden bar. The leather binding is starting to disintegrate, and I swear I see the whole thing fall apart as it accepts her forcefulness. “Then I can’t help you.”
I sigh. Valencia had become quite a good friend. Maybe my best friend. Perhaps, my only friend. I can’t lose her. Besides, I somewhat pity her. She has never had anyone. The least I can do is spare her a name.
“Mallory,” the name stumbles out of my mouth, thick and stuck like the sauce at the end of a ketchup jar. “Mallory,” I repeat, more clearly, this time like her name is water running over my tongue.
“Mallory…” she trails off, taking a moment to ponder as if searching an imaginary attendance for her name. Each syllable sounds sharp when Valencia pronounces it. Her face tightens and her lips curl into a sour frown. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was jealous.
“What happened?” She eventually asks. “Did she leave you?”
“No.” I shake my head. “It’s not like that. She… she wasn’t like us.”
Valencia raises her eyebrows and looks back and forth in a line across the floor. After connecting invisible dots, she finally breaths out. “Ohh.”
“She found out. What was it, a mirror with no reflection? A lonesome her in a photo of the two of you?”
“No.” I shook my head, barely moving a perfectly combed hair.
“I told her. On our first date.”
“Oh… so she freaked out and tried to kill you?”
I chuckled at that. “Worse.”
“Did you… kill her?”
“No!” I gasp.
“Sorry, sorry,” she says, waving her hands up and down to calm me.
“Our first date was… magical.”
“You used a spell? Did you put a potion in her drink?”
“No, no! Not like that.” I shook my head again. Fifty-three years and it was like Valencia barely knew me at all. Though I suppose for someone of our age, fifty-three is nothing.
“We met for dinner, and she was extremely late because she set the fire alarm off in her apartment seconds before she was supposed to leave. Then once dinner started, the waiter spilled red wine all over her cream-coloured slip. But she laughed it off, with the cosmos in her eyes, and musical quality to her giggle, and even said that the red stain gave the dress ‘character.’ After, we decided to walk home. That is before it started raining. It poured and poured and poured but Mallory didn’t want to catch a cab or duck inside. She said she liked the night because she liked how it felt like a different world like she was living out in space or in a shadow realm somewhere. Finally, we made our way to the beach where we skipped stones through the rain until it finally died down. We got hotdogs from a sketchy vendor on the boardwalk and sat, shoulders touching, on a bench on the pier. We fell asleep. When the sun was on its pursuit, and I started to… you know…there was only one thing I could do. Tell her. And the funny thing was, she wasn’t all that fazed. She said, “either you’re joking and that’s funny, you’re lying to get out of this date and you suck, or it’s true and you’re either going to a. Kill me or b…. Well, I don’t know what b is. But no matter which one it is, I can’t do much about it now. It’s not like I’d outrun you anyway.”
Valencia smiles. “That’s sweet. You remember those words awfully well.”
“Those are the words that made me fall in love with her.”
“So, what happened, Stephen? How did you break up?”
I shake my head. “I told you. It’s way worse, okay.”
She waits, leaning over the bar on her elbows. The place is silent, apart from the eerie chime of a lullaby playing through the speakers. It is supposed to be haunting, to fit the overall vibe of the Shivering Skeleton, but it is more so annoying, like a child playing with an old music box.
“We fell in love. We lived together in a small cottage off the coast of a small town in England. We slept through the day and spent the nights gazing at the stars. She would bake loaves of bread and cakes with little pictures of vampires and bats painted on in thin lines of icing, and I would farm our cattle for blood and meat for her. It was a quiet, simple life. And it was the best life, for sixty-eight years.”
“There’s no ‘growing old together’ when you fall in love with a mortal.”
“A mortal?” Valencia gasps. “I figured she was a witch, or a fairy… but a mortal…”
“I told you. It was the worst thing in the world.”
“No. Having her. Without her, I wouldn’t know the pain that comes with losing a piece of your heart.”
“Why don’t you talk about her?”
“It hurts too much. It’s easier to try to forget.”
“I don’t think you should try to forget. You should tell your story to keep her alive, forever.”
“But I will have to live forever, without her.”
“But you had her. And it was amazing, right?”
“Trust me,” she says, grabbing my hand.
“It’s worse to have someone and lose them, than to not have anyone to hold onto, at all.”
I nod, oddly comforted by her chilling hands on mine. I look up and lock eyes with her, and for a moment, my heart beats stronger than it should for the undead. Maybe she’s right. Maybe being hurt is better than being alone.
“Say, Valencia…” I pause, thinking over how my next words could alter my version of forever. “Can I buy you a drink?”
Her eyes widen, stunned. Then, after a moment, she smiles.
“Only if you make it,” she says, gesturing towards the display of liquor bottles lining the back wall.
“Of course,” I say. And after fifty-three years, I finally cross the threshold of the bar, standing next to Valencia, closely, as if a magnet were pulling us together.
“To vampirism!” She says, lifting her glass to mine. I lift mine and cheer her.
“To forever!” I say. She smiles and finally, I smile back.