I stood at the mouth of the cave, blinking at the brilliant white of the sky and the uneven white of the ground. In the distance, a black scratch of a figure marred the white expanse.
I pulled down the too short skirt of my dress, tugging it over my hips. It was small and black with a starched white collar and felt like it was meant for a smaller girl. My feet were in black Mary Janes of the sort I hadn’t worn for some decades.
As the figure neared, I could make him out more clearly. He was tall, stick-like, spindly. His black clothing flapped about him in tatters, occasionally caught up by a howl of wind that whipped across the plain and then died back. His face was elongated somehow. Was it a mask or…?
When he finally stood before me, I saw clearly what had puzzled me. A goat skull covered the front of his head completely, though there were no buckles or clasps to hold it in place. I couldn’t see his eyes through the cavernous sockets — only shadows.
He folded his long body into something approximating a bow and pulled from inside his coat a fully inflated red balloon. It bobbed up and down in the air as he handed it to me.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Your father is dead.”
I clutched the string of the balloon and opened my mouth to speak but I found no words.
“As per your wish,” he added.
A sigh whispered from my mouth before I forced words out. “That was more than thirty years ago.”
“I am but a humble spirit of vengeance,” the man said, with a flourish of his hand which was anything but humble. “I cannot be everywhere at once. I got here in the end and that’s the important thing.”
“Yes,” I said. Better late than never.
“Now it’s time for your side of the bargain.”
“I….” What the hell had I promised all those years ago?
“You did say anything,” the spirit prompted.
“I was eight,” I balked. The first time, anyway.
He raised one long, bony finger towards the balloon and stroked it with a sharp black nail. It made an excruciating squeak before I pulled it away.
“Okay,” I said hurriedly. “What do you want?”
The spirit pulled his hand back from the balloon and waved it casually. “Oh, I don’t know. Something traditional, perhaps. Serve me for a year… fall in love with me… kiss me under the light of a full moon. I’m almost certainly a handsome prince under all this.” He gestured to his skull mask.
Somehow, I doubted this claim.
“What if we skip the year of service and I just kiss you?” I suggested. “Then we’ll know one way or another.” I could close my eyes and pretend his face wasn’t a skull. I mean… I’d had worse. He did have a certain flair, for a goat-skull-faced man.
The spirit leaned his head to one side and folded his arms. “I think true love is supposed to be involved.”
“I am very grateful,” I assured him. “That might do.”
The ground shifted and rattled under our feet. The uneven white piles I’d taken for pebbles were made up of bones.
He looked around. “We can’t stay here. This place is unstable.”
I nudged a long leg bone with the toe of my Mary Jane and tried not to think too hard about where it had come from.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ve crafted a staircase out of his ribcage. It’s our only way out of here.”
“Whose…” I blurted, before I could stop myself.
“Your father’s, of course,” he replied cheerily. “Enough bones to fill your whole world. Well, there would be, wouldn’t there?”
He took my free hand and pulled me away from the cave. We crunched unsteadily over my father’s bones, towards the gleaming stairs that floated in the sky. I clutched my balloon and made a point of not looking down at my feet as they clomped up the curving stairs, kept afloat by nothing but this creature’s will.
“This leads to my palace,” he said from above, very pleased with himself.
At the top of the stairs, we disappeared through the air with a pop. The air spat us out into a much darker place. We stood inside a stone tower, rough walls rising high on all sides. The structure ended abruptly above, as if a great hand had come down and torn away the top, leaving jagged teeth of masonry where the roof might have been. In its place was a deep blue night sky pricked with a million stars.
“It needs a little work,” the spirit admitted.
“You said palace.”
“I expect if you kiss me, it’ll be transformed into a great palace.”
A chunk of stone fell from the top of the tower, shattering as it hit the ground just a metre from where I stood.
“You could stay here and be my bride.”
“I have a life.” I frowned, trying to soften my tone. I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen if he popped my balloon, but I didn’t want to take the risk. “I have responsibilities. People will miss me.” Not many people, true. A couple of friends. A trail of failed relationships. They’d all turned out to be my father. I’d given up in the end. A small flat — more a bedsit — but it was mine.
“I could make you that big black dress from the film you like.”
The film I…? “It was the 80s. I was eight.”
His shoulders sunk as though he was deflating and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He was trying.
“Come here,” I said, holding out my arms. “Let’s try a kiss. Maybe you’re right. Maybe something nice will happen.” Maybe I’ll close my eyes and find a way out of this dump.
He stepped into my arms, his long bony face looking down at me, his cavernous eye sockets black with shadow. “Do you really think so?”
“Sure. Why not?” I closed my eyes, leaned forward and planted a light peck on the end of his bone snout.
“Wake up, darling.”
I stared bleary-eyed over the top of the duvet.
My husband set a steaming mug of coffee beside me on the bedside table and leaned against the elaborately carved four-poster bed, which was draped with black tulle. A bright line of morning light cut rudely across his gaunt frame.
“Come on, you’ll be late for your father’s funeral.” He smiled cheerily and flashed a black-edged card at me, decorated with gothic script. He handed it to me between two long, bony fingers.
“I’m not sure you should wear black nail varnish to a funeral,” I said, examining the funeral card. It was a little overdone. What had I been thinking? “Do you think the font’s a bit much? I don’t want to offend anyone.” I traced a finger across the red balloon in the border.
The red balloon?
“What is this?” I asked, edging out of bed.
“It’s lovely, darling,” he said, his dark eyes twinkling in their deep sockets. “I love what you chose.”
“What I chose?” I laughed. “You think I’d put a balloon on a funeral card?” I tried to recall ordering the cards, but my memory of the last few days slipped further away the harder I focused.
I ran my hand along the perfect magnolia paint of the wall as I made for the window.
“You… have balloons for celebrations.” He faltered, his voice rising at the end so that it was almost a question.
I shoved the blood red drape further back. Outside, a perfect suburban scene stretched out before me: rows and rows of identical houses built from sunny yellow brick, with twee porches and small, perfectly even lawns, as if someone had taken a ruler and a pair of scissors to them. A woman wheeled a pushchair along the pavement. A man strolled beside her. They smiled at each other, flashing their gleaming teeth.
“Oh look,” my husband said. “The Joneses are taking little Emily for a walk. She’s such a poppet.”
My fingers tightened round the card, crumpling it in my fist. “Who the hell are the Joneses?”
“But don’t you see?” he asked, resuming his cheery tone in the face of my anger. He gestured around him, stopping to adjust a swathe of tulle so that it hung straight. “Everything’s just right.”