Ossuary by Liam Hogan (December 2021)
The end of the world came and went, and we were left behind, none of us any the wiser. Some said we were in limbo, others purgatory, and some claimed we were never going to be saved anyway, as we weren't “the chosen people”.
If this had been Twitter, that would have ignited a flame war, but the white heat of anger was gone, along with the Internet and around a thirteenth of the population. The lucky ones, I guessed. It might not sound like very many, but under normal circumstances, it would have been enough to bring civilization to its knees. That it didn't was because 'civilization' didn't need food anymore. Or vaccines, or housing, or cigarettes, or pretty much anything. The temperature was a steady neither-too-hot-nor-too-cold, whether you bothered to wear clothes or not. Those that didn't weren't molested, as that particular urge was gone as well.
People sat, or lay, eyes closed but awake, or stood, shoulders slumped. Some wandered the earth beneath sullen clouds that refused to shed rain. Many, no doubt, were looking for answers. Others, myself included, did it for something to do.
I came across Gareth in the bone fields. There had been a lot of talk about returnees; the sea and the earth giving up the dead. But it seemed they had merely spat up the remains, the difficult-to-break-down bits.
When I saw my first mound, pale coloured, an uneven jumble perhaps twenty to thirty feet high, I didn't realise what it was. It was only as I got closer that I saw a grinning skull. If fear hadn't been taken along with hunger and tiredness, I might not have stuck around long enough to find I wasn't alone.
I'd just circled the mound, wondering how many different people's remains it contained, when I saw Gareth.
He had a bundle of bones tucked under one arm and his downcast eyes glued to the fringes of the mound. He manoeuvred around me without looking up. A couple of feet beyond, he snatched up a tibia, or maybe an upper arm bone, and added it to his collection before scurrying away, weaving between the mounds.
Still with nothing better to do, I followed.
All the mounds we passed were random piles, bones thrown on top of bones, some bleached, some less so. But when Gareth – though I didn't know he was Gareth, not yet – got to where he was headed, there was a circle, a neat torus, about head height. His head height, not mine; a lanky six foot or so. The bones were interlocked, like a log cabin.
He dumped most of his load and scrambled up the side, a couple of bones wedged into the pockets of his scruffy tweed jacket. It would ruin the lining, no doubt, but I guess it’s difficult to climb while holding someone else's legs.
“What are you doing?” I asked, as he ummed and ahhed before snapping the bones into place with satisfaction.
He peered over the side. “Can't you tell?”
I shrugged and he clambered down to pick up the rest of his haul. “Building a tower, that's what,” he said.
“Out of bones?”
He blinked, held my gaze for a moment. “What else do I have?”
A fair point, though I still couldn't see the why. But senseless though it appeared, the man had a goal. An enviable purpose.
“I'm Corinne,” I offered.
He was already at the top of the wall again and didn't bother to look down. “Gareth.”
I watched him work for a while. Followed as he picked – seemingly at random – another mound to loot bones from. He didn't just take the long ones. Sometimes, he plucked a skull, sometimes a half-dozen ribs. Even little finger bones: metacarpals? Each had its purpose, each helped the tower grow.
Other times, I explored his structure while he was away. Tugging at a clavicle to find it tightly bound, though there were no nails, no mortar. The torus had a doorway and inside, there was a bone staircase, spiralling into the gloom.
I took a few steps, but I guess it wasn't properly anchored yet, as a jaw bone fell from above and clattered into me.
It didn't hurt. I nudged it into the dark beneath the lowest step with my toe. When Gareth returned he frowned but then continued his work without a word.
Over time, as the tower grew, other spectators arrived. By then, Gareth's creation was taller than the surrounding mounds, and still climbing. A lighthouse, a rare beacon of order, for miles around.
I'm not sure what the others, or I, were hoping for. Perhaps, if it reached high enough, it might deliver us to heaven? Perhaps to hell.
I could see the sense of the staircase when the tower got too tall, or too fragile, to scale. The one, twisting inside the other, both slowly narrowing, as Gareth used steadily smaller bones. Children, perhaps, were next.
He searched longer and longer, followed by more and more of us, looking for the perfect bones for the next level. Days, perhaps. If we still had nights.
But I wasn't there when the tower collapsed, burying him at its heart. I just saw the people streaming slowly away, looking for some alternative distraction.
I brushed past, heading in as they headed out. It was only the settling dust that told me which mound had been Gareth's tower. There was nothing else to tell it apart from the others, and even that didn't last long.
I thought briefly of digging through it, trying to find Gareth. Was he dead or alive, and was there any way of telling anymore?
Sat, slumped on my own, I wondered what there was left to do. Was there anything, anywhere, in the whole wide world?
By my feet, two long bones lay and, as I stared down, something shifted in my mind. I took them up, held one on top of the other, saw how well they fit together. Though they fell apart again as soon as I let go.
Perhaps, if they could be locked in place...?
I carried the pair over to a bare patch of ground, put them carefully down, and went in search of the next bone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 & 2019, and Best of British Fantasy 2018 (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories and lives and avoids work in London. More details at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk