Skeleton in the Closet

Author: Josh Gash

Content Advisory: Moderate Violence

The tinny tinkling of a bell made Estelle Veltren look up from her worn book. A young man, maybe sixteen or seventeen, wearing what appeared to be stable boy clothes, or maybe a poor guild artisan’s apprentice outfit (one could never really tell), timidly walked into Estelle’s tidy shop. She traced his hesitant, meandering path through the neat rows of shelves full of herbs, flowers, seeds, powders, and bottles. The light from the spotless glass storefront illuminated his messy brown hair as he stared at the floor. He reached Estelle’s front desk and finally forced his swampy green eyes to meet her piercing blue gaze. A warm smile broke across Estelle’s face and she tried to put him at ease.

“Welcome to my humble little shop; what can I do for you?” she asked, adjusting her thick bifocals.

“Well, I, ummm…” he trailed off. His thin face was the color of a cooked beet and he looked close to tears.

“Now, now, little one. There’s no need to fret, I won’t bite. And even if I did, some of my teeth have fallen out, so it probably wouldn’t hurt too bad.” She laughed, a shrill, high sound like a chirping bird. The boy cracked a smile and some of the color left his face.

“I’m here about a girl,” he almost whispered.

“I see. That look in your eye tells me everything. Let me guess, she got turned into a squirrel snake and you want to fix it? Or maybe a throat constrictor? No, no, that’s ridiculous. Must be a viper. It’s always vipers this time of year.” By now, the boy was quietly chuckling.

“No, no, nothing like that. I just want her to notice me. But I’ve been trying for so long, and she doesn’t even know I exist. So I was thinking…” he trailed off.

“You were thinking? That’s an improvement over most boys your age. What were you thinking? Come on, you can tell me. Actually, no. First thing’s first. What is your name? I don’t just want to call you boy. Unless your name is Boy?” she asked.

“My name is Jaspen, ma’am.”

“Who are you talking to? I don’t see a ma’am here. I’m just Estelle, Jaspen. And what an interesting name you have there. I knew a Jaspen once, many, many years ago. He was a horse thief. You’re not a horse thief are you?” She eyed him suspiciously.

“No ma’am. I mean… no, Estelle.”

“Good. I don’t have a horse anyway, but if you’re willing to steal something as big as a horse, what aren’t you willing to steal, you know? Anyway, about that girl. What did you want me to do to get her to notice you? I’m not much of a wingman these days.”

“I had heard that you help people with unusual problems, or normal problems with unusual solutions, I can’t remember which.”

“Well, you’re in luck, because I do both. For the right price, that is,” she winked. “It sounds like what you need is a love potion.”

“Yes! That would be perfect! Then she would have to pay attention to me.”

“And which girl is this, if you don’t mind my asking? And even if you do mind, I still want to know.”

“Her name is Lillith. She’s the daughter of the innkeeper that’s down the road, to the east,” he said with a hint of a smile.

“Oh, Lillith! I know that darling girl. She comes to me for peppermint and lilac to make the tavern smell a little less…well, like vomit. But just between us, I give them to her for free because that tavern really does smell like a bucket of vomit died in it,” she said in low and serious voice, peering over her bifocals. “I do like that girl; I hope you’ll make her happy,” she beamed.

“So you’ll help me?”

“Of course! I’ll get started on it right away. There’s a little waiting area over there to the left,” she pointed. In the corner, there was a small table with two chairs. The table displayed a ceramic vase of pink roses as well as a plate of cookies. “Help yourself to the cookies, Jaspen, I’ll be a few minutes. We’ll discuss payment afterwards, don’t fret.”

Jaspen eagerly walked over to the waiting area and sat down, gingerly sampling a cookie before scarfing it down. Estelle smiled with satisfaction and then scurried over to the opposite corner of the shop, where a purple velvet curtain hung in front of a thick oak door. She pushed her way through, locking the door behind her with an ornate silver key she produced from deep in her bun.

The room she was now in was dimly lit by a dozen short, fat candles scattered throughout, each in a white porcelain bowl to prevent the wax from making a mess. The room was ringed by a stone countertop running the edge of the entire room, save for the two doors and a break in the counter on one side housing a tall wooden cabinet. A shallow pit in the middle of the stone floor held neatly split logs, with a large black cauldron, sitting atop them. The countertop was littered by items similar to those found in the shop: glass bottles of strange colored liquids, boxes of powders, bundles of herbs, and the like, along with books, ladles, and knives.

Estelle deftly stowed her key back into her silver bun and skittered over to the cabinet. Knock, knock, knock.

“Feeee-LIX!” she screeched. “Felix! Time to get up, we’ve got work to do!” A dull clattering rattled from the cabinet for a few seconds before the door opened and a lanky skeleton stepped out. His bones seemed to move through the air as though they were connected. A deep amethyst glow emanated from his eye sockets, lending him a semblance of life. He closed the cabinet door behind him and stood still, facing Estelle.

“Come on, Felix, we’ve got to mix up a special concoction today.” She flipped through several books around the room, searching for the recipe with Felix in tow. Flip, flip, flip. “A wretched boy came in today asking for a love potion. Can you believe it, Felix?”

Felix stared blankly back at her.

“I know, right? The nerve! Expecting me to help him trick some poor girl into thinking she loves him.” Flip, flip, flip. “The print on this one is too small, fetch me my trifocals, will you, Felix?”

Felix reached down, gently removed Estelle’s glasses, and handed them to her.

“No, Felix,” she sighed. “These are my bifocals. I need my trifocals. I think I left them upstairs.”

Felix stared for a second before crossing the room to one of the doors. He tried to turn the knob, but it was locked.

“Felix, you know that’s the door to the shop. That’s why I lock it, remember? The other door goes upstairs. Check my night stand, that’s where I usually leave them,” she suggested, strain in her voice.

Felix tried the locked knob once more before pausing and crossing the room to the opposite door, opening it and climbing the creaky spiral staircase to Estelle’s apartment above the shop.

The clacking of Felix’s bones on the hardwood floors filled the cozy apartment. He walked past the simple paintings hanging in the entryway and pushed open the door to the bedroom. The double wide bed had a nightstand on each side. Felix approached the left and gingerly picked up the glasses he found there. Next to where the trifocals had been, a circular golden locket that had long ago lost its chain caught Felix’s stare. He lightly touched it with the tip of one bony finger. His touch lingered for a moment before he turned and brought Estelle’s glasses down to her.

“Thank you, Felix. Now we can get started. There’s been a change in plans,” she said, flipping through the books with renewed vigor.

“I could have forgiven him for being insolent, he is a teenage boy after all, but I cannot forgive him for his intended target,” she growled. Estelle hurled a book across the room. Felix followed it with his eyes and walked over to where it lay, old pages strewn about the floor. He stooped down and began gathering them up as Estelle ranted.

“You remember Lillith, don’t you, Felix? I’ve told you about her; she’s the girl who’s father owns the tavern down the street. She’s such a kind and gentle soul, and I won’t see her used and manipulated by that boy. So, he has to die. Instead of a love potion, I’ll be cooking up an incredibly potent poison for our special customer. If I do this right, all trace of the boy will be eliminated forever. Not just his body, but every memory of him in anyone’s mind, save my own, of course. It will be taxing, but the only way that Lillith will ever be truly safe from him is if he is erased.”

Felix brought the book back to Estelle, the pages that had fallen out in a neat stack on top.

“Thank you, Felix, but I won’t be needed the books. I’m going to do this one from scratch,” she responded with a gleam in her eye. “It’s been so long since I’ve gone off book, it should be delightful.” She cleared off a section of counter and began her work.

“Felix, bring me some nightshade berry, would you? That’s what I’ll use as the base. That alone would kill him in a high enough dose, but of course we need something more,” she said pensively. “Something for that pesky flesh, something acidic maybe?” Felix brought over a sprig of the deep purple berry to Estelle’s work station, as well as a lemon.

“Felix, what is this? Why did you bring me a lemon?” she asked, concern in her voice. “Are you alright?” Felix simply stared back. “Oh! It’s because I asked for something acidic, isn’t it?” Her laughter echoed throughout the stone room. “You always know how to make me laugh, don’t you? But I’m afraid I’ll need something a bit more corrosive than a lemon for this one. Let’s see… Spit?” she pondered. “Reptilian, of course. No, not spit. Venom! That’s the word. Could you check to see if we have any venom of the Vula Snake? That should melt the skin right off the bones from the inside,” she said, beginning to grind the nightshade berries into a paste with a mortar and pestle. Felix brought to her a brown glass bottle stoppered with a cork.

“Yes, this should do nicely.” She unstopped the bottle and poured a few drops into the paste, mixing it with the pestle. “Now, about those bones. We can’t have those just lying around, now can we? We either have to liquify them, or else break them to dust.” Felix began searching through the cluttered countertop before finding a hammer and bringing it to Estelle.

“I appreciate the thought, but I’m not going to break his bones to pieces by hand, that would be crazy. I’ve got it! I’ll combine the memory wiping with getting rid of the bones. I’ll add something that will burn the bones to ash and scatter them into the air. Anyone who breathes the ash will forget all about him. I suppose it won’t necessarily get rid of all traces of him, but erasing him from the mind of anyone within a mile of wherever he lives should be sufficient. But for that, herbs and venoms won’t do. We’ll need some magic.”

Estelle turned her attention to the cauldron in the center of the room and snapped her fingers. A small spark quickly lit the kindling before going out. A frown creased her face and she snapped again. Again, a small spark lit before dying out.

“Are you kidding me? Come on, Estelle, this is simple.” She put out both hands and clapped, and the wood beneath the cauldron burst into flame. “Oh, thank Zadrial, I didn’t want to have to light that by hand.”

Mortar in hand, Estelle shuffled over to the cauldron and emptied the paste into it. She began waving her hands over the cauldron and whispering a harsh, guttural sounding incantation. Deep violet smoke began to rise from the water inside as it began to boil. Estelle’s eyes began glowing with the same amethyst light that shone from Felix’s eye sockets as her chant became louder and faster. Her long silver hair became unraveled from its bun and began to float about as if she were underwater. Still chanting, she gestured towards the counters with each of her hands, and a glass vial flew into her right hand as a stopper topped with a glass heart flew into her left. She held out the vial, and drop by drop, the mauve liquid rose from the cauldron and filled it. She stoppered the vial, and the spell was complete.

Still clutching the vial, she fell to the ground and panted, the purple light shining through the hair draped over her face. Felix rushed over and helped her up as the glow faded from her eyes. “Thank you, Felix…” she mumbled. “…a bit harder than I expected….” she continued. “But worth it.” She bent down to pick up the key that had fallen out of her hair. She smoothed her dress, tied her hair back up as best she could, and collected herself.

“Back into the cabinet, Felix, I’ll be back after the shop closes.” Felix closed himself back into the cabinet and Estelle brought the vial into her shop, locking the door behind her. She donned her brightest smile and walked back to her front counter.

“Jaspen, dear? I apologize for the wait, but your order is all finished,” she beamed. “Now, let’s discuss payment, shall we?” Jaspen stood quickly, bumping the table and nearly knocking over the flowers. He sheepishly slunk to the counter and scratched his head.

“As far as money goes, Estelle, I haven’t got much. Maybe I could work for you to pay off the debt?” he begged. “I just really need that potion.”

“Work for me? I wouldn’t hear of it! Despite my age, I still believe in love. And the knowledge that I can help bring some love to world is payment enough for me.”

“Wha– really?” he sputtered. “You would this for me?”

“Not for you, for her,” Estelle smiled. “Do try to make her happy, won’t you? Treat her like a princess, and cherish every moment you have with her. If you don’t, I’ll find out,” she winked.

“Sure I will! I’ll do everything I can to provide for her and our family. All I need is that potion so she’ll love me,” he promised.

“And you shall have it. Although it works a bit differently than you might expect. You have to be the one to drink this one. All you have to do is drink it before bed tonight, and then in the morning, it’ll be like you’re gone forever and someone new has taken your place. Then, go to her tomorrow and she’ll love you for sure,” she explained.

“Oh thank you, thank you! I’ll be sure to name one of our children after you. And that’s a promise!”

“Ohhh, how sweet. Now here, take this and run along. I’m sure I’ll see glimpses of you around very soon.” He thanked her profusely as he clumsily hurried out of the shop, almost knocking over several items in the process.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Estelle dropped the beaming, motherly smile she had been using to reassure him. She sighed, massaged her left wrist for a few moments, noticed it was already starting to bruise, then returned to her reading.

Two or three hours passed rather uneventfully. Only a few regulars came in renewing their orders of various herbs, flowers, or medicines, and Estelle was becoming quite bored. She wasn’t looking for as much excitement as she had been through with Jaspen, but something, anything out of the ordinary would be nice to break up the monotony. Just as Estelle’s glazed over eyes were drifting closed as she read, the tinkle of the bell woke her back up. She blinked a few times, rubbed her eyes, and peered through her trifocals to see who had arrived.

“Estelle?” a sweet, melodic voice called out. “Are you busy? I had something I wanted to ask you about, but I can come back later if you’re having a busy day.”

“Lillith?” Estelle called back. “I’ve got all the time in the world! Well, I suppose that’s not true; I will die as some point. Maybe. But today I have as much time as you need.” Lillith smiled warmly, forming dimples in her pink cheeks. The light from the windows reflected off her auburn hair as she glided through the shop towards Estelle’s desk. She was wearing a white linen dress with brown silk trim on sleeves and hem, which almost grazed the ground as she walked. Her amber eyes met Estelle’s and her dimples deepened as she laughed and approached Estelle.

“Thank you, Estelle, I appreciate it. But can you not bring up your death all the time? It makes me sad, and you talk about death way more than most people,” she asked.

“Of course, dear, consider it done,” Estelle replied, slightly embarrassed. “Now what was it that you wanted to ask about? I know about lots of things.”

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” she said as she wrinkled her small, slightly upturned nose and blushed a bit.

“No need to worry about that, I’m sure it isn’t as embarrassing as the guy who came in earlier looking for a solution to help him stop wetting the bed. Unless that’s your problem, in which case I’ve already got a tincture that can help you with that,” she said, holding up a small glass bottle full of thick black liquid. Lillith giggled a little in response and some of the red left her face.

“Eww, no, it’s not like that. It’s…” she paused. “Am I pretty, Estelle? Some of my dad’s customers say so when they’re drunk, but that’s just to try and convince me to refill their mugs. I just don’t get a lot of attention from anyone my age, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m ugly, or I smell like a tavern, or because I’m not good at anything,” she gushed, almost on the brink of tears.

“Now, now, dear, don’t cry, let’s talk about this,” Estelle said hurriedly, quickly bringing over a chair for Lillith to sit in. Lillith plopped down into and looked intently at Estelle, her eyes the color of honey as they brimmed with tears. Estelle stood behind her and began braiding Lillith’s long, wavy hair as they talked.

“Let’s get one thing straight from the get go: there is nothing wrong with you, Lillith. Let’s break it down one at a time. First, you are beautiful. I was quite the looker myself back in the day, but even then I was nowhere near as beautiful as you are. You have a natural beauty that all those women try to achieve through all those powders, paints, and creams they put on their faces. And if any man would choose that over your beauty, he doesn’t deserve you. Next, you do not smell like a tavern. My herbs make sure of that, but if you’re still worried, I’ll give you even more lilac to help with that. Third, you are good at things. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Estelle rambled.

“Well, I accidentally break dishes a lot, and I tried to make bread the other day and ended up horribly burning it, and my clothes are always a little wrinkled because I’m no good at washing either,” she replied, a tear rolling down each cheek.

“Lillith dear, none of that is your fault. It’s no one’s fault your mother isn’t here to teach you about those things, least of all yours.”

“But it’s like I’m not even a woman! I can’t do anything women are supposed to do.”

“Oh, dear, it sounds like someone’s been brainwashed.I’ll agree with you on one thing: you’re not a woman. You are a girl. You’re only 16, it’s not time for you to be a woman yet. And even if you were older, that’s not what being a woman is about. Just because cooking and cleaning aren’t your strengths doesn’t diminish your value as a person or future-woman in any regard. I have an idea. Let’s practice a little something that will lift your mood. You remember what I showed you last week?” Estelle asked. Lillith nodded and wiped the tears from her freckled face.

Estelle scurried to a shelf and brought over a small flowerpot full of dirt. She set it on the desk in front of Lillith and stood behind her again.

“Now, take a deep breath and sing to the little seed that’s buried in the dirt,” Estelle said gently in Lillith’s ear. Lillith cleared her throat and began to sing.

There were no words, just soft, long notes that sounded like a lullaby. Lillith’s eyes shone yellow as the dirt quivered. A green bud poked out and twisted and grew as the stem appeared and elongated until it was about six inches long. Thorns and leaves began forming on the stem after a few more seconds and then the swollen bud opened and blossomed into a perfect red rose, each petal equally as delicate as each thorn was sharp. Lillith’s eyes faded back to their normal luminosity as the final note of her song tapered off.

“Now look at that, dear. Not good at anything, my foot. I would argue that someone isn’t a proper woman until they can bend nature to their will. Anyone can learn to cook and clean with enough practice, but this, magic, is in your blood, in your bones, in your heart. I’d say it’s a much better indicator of skill than making a perfect cake.”

“Well, if that’s true, then you’re the only woman I’ve ever met,” Lillith laughed.

“You’re dang right I am. The other women around here are fragile little daisies, a strong enough breeze could knock them flat on their painted faces,” Estelle said with satisfaction. “How do you feel now, Lillith? Estelle asked.

“I feel better, thank you,” she smiled. “So what if I’ll need to hire a cook when I’m older? I’m going to have the best garden in the whole neighborhood.”

“That’s the spirit! Now, don’t forget to take the rose and flowerpot with you, and hold on one moment while I fetch your herbs.” She grabbed a bundle held together with twine from a nearby shelf containing peppermint and lilac and gave them to Lillith. She held them in one hand and the flowerpot in the other.

“Thank you, Estelle! You’ve always been so kind to me, someday I’ll find a way to repay you for it all.”

“Pssh, no, you don’t have to do that. I never had a daughter, so it’s just nice to be able to indulge my motherly instincts a bit. Now run along, your father will be wondering where you are if you linger too long. I’ll see you next week, but if you need anything else before then, please do come by,” Estelle beamed. Lillith nodded and left smiling.

By now the sun was beginning to set, so Estelle closed the wooden shutters on the shop windows and locked the front door. After a dinner of some thick bread and thin soup, Estelle began to settle down for the night. She sat in her apartment in a sturdy rocking chair, knitting. Felix slouched on the couch facing her.

“Felix, posture. You know how I feel about that slumping you do.”

Click, click.

“All the way, Felix, or it’s back to the closet early tonight.”

Click.

“Thank you. Quite a day we had today, wasn’t it? Was I too harsh with the boy? His intentions didn’t seem bad.”

Felix stared back silently.

“No, no, I handled the situation perfectly. He couldn’t be allowed to get anywhere near to Lillith. His good intentions would have melted away the minute he had any kind of control over her. That’s how people are, they just want to control everything and everyone. Just like my coven tried to control me…and you, Felix,” she trailed off. At the mention of the coven, Felix twitched and his eyes dimmed for a moment.

“No use dwelling on the past though. They’re all dead as doornails now. One of them I actually turned into a doornail if memory serves. But nevermind that, the point is that I couldn’t bear to see that poor girl accosted by anyone, let alone some teenage boy with a stupid name. Jaspen… Name him Jasper or name him Aspen, any variation except that one,” she seethed. Felix stared back in response.

“Now I’m just in a bad mood, I can’t focus on my knitting at all. I’m going to bed, would you put out the candles for me, Felix?” Estelle asked. Felix stood up and gathered the three stout candles from around the room and dropped them out the window, still lit. There was a dull splash as they landed in a puddle outside.

“Felix…” she started. “Nevermind, that’s what I get for being so vague. Goodnight, Felix. Back to the closet for the night, please.” All that could be seen of him in the dark were the two purple embers of his eyes as he clacked through the apartment and down the stairs.

Estelle sighed and walked over the hardwood floors in the dark by memory. She changed into her nightgown, set her glasses on the left nightstand, and got into the left side of her bed. She gave a weak smile and rolled over towards her nightstand. With shaky, fumbling fingers she opened the chainless locket resting upon it. Inside were inscribed the initials “ E&F ”. A single tear oozed down her cheek, and she mumbled, “Oh, Felix, what happened to us?”

Estelle slept fitfully, as she always did, while outside, ashes drifted into windows and cracks in walls.

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