BONES OF CHANGE by Travis Heermann

Copyright 2017 © Travis Heermann. “Bones of Change” was originally published as a stand-alone. This story may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission.

BONES OF CHANGE

by Travis Heermann

The doorbell rang, prompting Alicia Clark to sigh and pause Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. She scooped up her bowl of Halloween treats, with its the scant handful of remaining candies. The clock read almost ten p.m.

It was a little late for trick-or-treaters. Nevertheless, the simple distraction of an evening full of adorable little ghosts and goblins let her pretend for a while that her life had not been blasted off the rails.

She opened the door, and the stench hit her first. Death and fresh earth.

The bowl clattered at her feet, scattering candy.

She let out the kind of gasp that got the angels’ attention. “Oh, Lord! Oh, Jesus!” she shrilled, throwing herself back against into the door jamb. The strength gushed from her legs until she could only sink to her haunches on her doorstep.

Collapsed, half-lidded eye sockets stared her in the face. Gray flesh stretched over cheek bones. The funeral suit was stained and stiffened by dirt and the juices of decomposition. Clumps of grave earth gathered in the creases, in the dark thatch of kinky hair, in the lightning bolt shaved above one ear.

Thank the Lord the body wasn’t moving or she’d have made an Alicia-shaped hole in the back wall. The corpse was propped up against a narrow slab of plywood, secured by loops of wire around his chest and neck. The plywood slab leaned against one of the porch roof supports.

Tears burst out of her. Her chest felt like a great claw squeezed it tight. Her lip began to tremble.

Pinned to the lapel, scrawled on notebook paper: TRICK OR TREAT UPITY BITCH.

It was not a trick.

It was not a joke.

It was not a prank.

Because that was the suit he’d gone to prom in last year, the suit she’d buried him in. The white rose from funeral was still pinned to his lapel, now gray, stained, and desiccated.

She still remembered how that face had looked when it emerged into the world. She had combed the boy’s hair. Wiped his nose. Kissed his hurts.

But there was one great gaping hurt she could not kiss away, an exit wound her whole hand could not have staunched.

“Oh, Anthony,” she said into her hand, choking back the thick sobs.

She used the door jamb for support as she staggered to her feet and took a step toward him on trembling legs, scanning the street for whoever had done this.

Because they were watching. No one would do such a thing and not watch the results of their handiwork.

But she would not give them the satisfaction. They would not see her cry again. She had done too much crying on television.

Alicia’s house lay on a dark stretch of Rose Street, shadowed from the single streetlight by a huge oak tree. Jack-o-lanterns glowed on porches and stoops, but the scampering superheroes should all have sugar-crashed by now. The only cars on the street belonged to neighbors, and Alicia had lived on Rose Street all her life. She knew her neighbors. She knew her community. Her church was a six-block walk every Sunday.

“I know you’re out there,” she said to the tree frogs and whippoorwills, forcing steadiness into voice. “Someday, the Lord’s gonna judge you. It ain’t gonna be me.”

How many heartbeats—how many centuries—passed as she stood there looking at her son, she did not know. Her breath came in short, shallow gasps, and her heart felt cinched tight by barbed wire. She wanted to bring him inside. He must be cold, after six months in the ground. But her strength had deserted her. Nevertheless, she couldn’t leave him there.

She backed into the house, never taking her eyes from Anthony’s slack, gray face, so devoid of life, until she had to step into the living room to grab her cell phone. Her thumb poked the “9,” but hovered over the “1.”

Would anyone bother to come?

Police cruisers did not venture down Rose Street nowadays. The wounds were still too raw on both sides, the killer’s acquittal too recent. She had stood at the forefront of the black community’s pleas for justice, faced swarms of reporters, and became the voice of a movement, at least for a little while. Bill Baxter, her son’s killer, still had friends on the police force, even though he had been fired, which meant that she had enemies on the police force, white men who might harbor personal vendettas.

What would be the police response when she told the operator who she was?

She hung up the phone.

How long must her poor Anthony stand on the porch?

In Oak Park Cemetery, her baby’s grave now yawned open and defiled.

Out there in the dark, within sight of her porch, the perpetrators hid, at least two of them. Digging the grave, securing the body, toting it up onto her porch silently enough for her to have heard nothing, had to be the work of at least two people.

What hate had to exist in someone’s heart for a deed like this? This was an effort of concentrated, clinging malignancy.

How big was the leap from such hatred to violence?

She picked up the phone again.

***

While she waited for the police, she locked the front door, then went through the house and checked every door and window. Everything looked secure. Then a strange, tingling hunch seized her.

She set her cell phone to record video, streaming the recording to an internet archive, as the entire community had learned to do in the wake Anthony’s shooting. Then she placed it in an innocuous corner near the television, where it would have a broad view of the room. The way the police had turned on the peaceful demonstrators had been a harsh lesson. There wasn’t a cop in this town—good or bad—who didn’t know who she was. She would never interact with them again without video evidence. Not that video evidence had brought Anthony any justice, but somewhere, sometime, things had to change. As police brutality videos from across the country flooded the internet, even white people were finally taking notice and demanding change. For the black community, police indifference and brutality were a fact of life going all the way back. But now, change was being built with the bones of dead young men.

The sound of heavy feet on the porch brought her to the door. Two cops—white males—stood staring at her son’s corpse. Her heart skipped a beat and her hand trembled on the door knob.

“Is that who I think it is?” said one.

“Maybe,” said the other.

She opened the door and eyed them warily. “Officers.” She couldn’t bring herself to produce any pleasantries or gratitude.

“How long has this been here?” said the first one. He was a barrel-chested man about her height, salt-and-pepper crew cut, mustache like a soiled brush. His name plate read Harris.

“I don’t know for sure. Half an hour?”

The two officers regarded her son’s body as if it were a museum exhibit. Being so close to two cops sent a cold tightness up her spine. The sight of Anthony, desecrated like this, flanked by two men wearing the same uniform as the man who murdered him, the same as those who’d brutalized demonstrators with truncheons and rubber bullets, tightened her hands into fists, whipped her pulse into a run. One of them smelled of sweat and booze, detectable over even the stench of the grave.

“Aren’t you bringing an ambulance or something to put him back?” she said.

“We need to investigate first,” said Harris. “Graverobbing is a felony.”

She wondered if the cameras on their chests were turned on. There was no way for her to know. After the demonstrations subsided, the city had made a great show of requiring body cams for every officer, but the fine print allowed the officers the discretion to turn them off.

“This your boy?” Officer Harris thumbed toward Anthony’s body. Something about him was familiar. Had she encountered him before?

She nodded.

Anthony’s sunken empty eyes stared through her. If she could have afforded to have him embalmed, he’d be more presentable right now. A strange thought.

She said, “How long you gonna leave him standing there?”

Harris said, “The morgue is on their way.” Meanwhile he stepped off the porch and shined his flashlight around the flower bed, walking toward the corner of the house.

The flashers on the cruiser were dark, but by now her neighbors would have noticed its presence. What would she tell them tomorrow?

The other officer, in his twenties, tall and blond, said, “Mind if we come in and take your statement?” His name was Dalton.

She wanted to say no, but she’d set up the video camera. “Come on in,” she said. She couldn’t keep the tension out of her voice.

Before she led Dalton into the house, she scanned the darkness one last time for whoever might be watching.

In the living room, Officer Dalton took out a notebook. Alicia sat on the sofa. Anyone else, anyone else, she’d have offered tea.

Then began the long string of questions. Dalton scribbled while Harris poked around outside. Her back was rod straight, hands folded in her lap as she talked. In this city, a black woman did not spend twenty years teaching public school without a backbone. She wished Latisha were here. Alicia’s daughter had been her rock all through the dark times, but Alicia had insisted Latisha go back to law school for the fall semester. They couldn’t afford to lose her scholarship.

There was almost nothing to tell in her statement. She had been watching TV. There was a knock on the door. Her son’s corpse was on her porch. She called the police. End of story.

Harris came in. “No footprints or anything. I did find this, though.” He threw a plastic bag stuffed with dried green leaves onto the coffee table. “That much Mary-J amounts to Intent to Distribute.”

“That’s not mine,” she said, her heart tripping over itself, her breath quickening. Dizziness washed over her. This was it. This was how it started. Criminalize the victim. All they needed was an excuse, however flimsy.

After Anthony’s death, his innocence had been smeared in every newspaper, on every news network. He became “just another black punk.” Even if the charges were dropped, the damage would be done.

“You put that there,” she said. Not that this would matter, either. If such men could commit murder with impunity, why would planting evidence even raise an eyebrow?

Suddenly Harris’ nose was two inches from hers. “You accusing me of something?” The smell of bourbon flooded her face.

Behind Harris, Officer Dalton stood frozen, a look of uncertainty on his face.

She swallowed hard and met Harris’ gaze. “I’ve been a school teacher for twenty years, and you think I smoke weed?”

Harris lurched back, then snatched her by the back of the head and slammed her face onto the coffee table.

Pain exploded in Alicia’s nose and teeth, bursting through her eyes in blinding sparks, stealing her breath. She cried out in pain.

“Stop resisting!” he roared.

His hands seized her wrists and snapped cuffs on one.

“I’m not resisting!” she gasped, tasting blood.

A fist slammed into the back of her head, driving her eye socket against the anvil of the coffee table. “Stop resisting!”

Officer Dalton was making incoherent noises.

A knee drove into the back of her neck, squeezing her throat against the table, pinching off the blood flow to her brain.

A cuff snapped around her other wrist, then a hand dragged her across the coffee table until she flopped face down on the floor.

Officer Dalton said, “What the fuck are you doing, man?”

“Our job, dickhead,” Harris said. Then he keyed the mic hooked to his shoulder and called for backup.

Alicia’s gasps for air drowned out the dispatcher’s dispassionate response.

Dalton slapped Harris hard on the shoulder. “What the fuck, man!”

“Is your body cam off?” Harris said.

“Just like you said…”

“Do you not know who this bitch is?”

“Well, yeah…”

“Then shut the fuck up. You’re either with us, or against us, you got that straight?”

Alicia raised her voice into a scream. “Help me! Help! Help me!” Her neighbors might be the only thing that could save her life. Her heart swelled with prayer. Dear Lord, please send me help–

A boot slammed into the side of her head.

***

Voices swam in and out of her awareness, more than two of them.

“Wow, you guys were quick getting here.” Dalton’s voice.

A male voice. “Yeah, it’s like we were right around the corner.” His words were slurred.

One of them smelled of cigarettes and rancid sweat.

“Hey! Guys! Fucking bitch is recording this!”

“Oh, shit.”

The sound of crunching glass and plastic.

“You guys are going down.”

“Shut the fuck up, Dalton.”

“No way I’m keeping quiet about this.”

The snap of a holster, the click of a hammer. “I said shut the fuck up, Dalton.”

“Hey, easy, Tom,” said Harris. “He might could come over to our side.”

A second new voice. “This is the question for our friend Dalton here. Whose side are you on? One of these days you’re gonna find yourself out on a call, all by yourself in this neighborhood, with these animals, and you’re gonna call for backup. And then what? Who you gonna trust? Porch monkeys or your brothers in blue?”

“Chambers is right. ’Sides, we’re just after little payback here,” Tom said. “Making sure this bitch knows her place.”

“And you think she’s not going to talk?”

“Who’s going to believe her?”

“What if she was sending that video to the internet?” Chambers said.

“You guys are fucked.”

“We go down, you go down.”

“Fuck it,” Tom said. “Should have done this months ago.”

Rough hands seized one of her arms. “Grab her.”

Agony wrenched through her shoulder. Another pair of hands snatched her other arm. Together they dragged her toward the front door, her feet trailing.

Dull pain throbbed through her face. Her mouth left a pattern of drool and blood droplets on her floor. One of her eyes had swollen shut. The worn planks of her porch drifted beneath her. Anthony’s shoes came into view. One of the shoes quivered and shifted. But that couldn’t happen. Then they were carrying her down the porch steps. Behind her, cloth chafed on rough plywood.

“What are you doing?” Dalton said.

“Put her in my car,” Tom said.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m arresting her. What do you think I’m doing?” Tom said. But something in the way he said it indicated otherwise.

They hoisted her into the back seat of a police car and slammed the door. With her hands pinned behind her, her wrists and shoulders screaming in pain, her head still swimming, she could not right herself.

Down here on the floor of the cruiser, the smell of fresh earth was strong, thick.

“Back off, Dalton. Or we won’t let this slide,” Tom said.

“Yeah, we’re doing the world a favor,” Chambers said from beside the driver’s door. “They’re fucking animals. Don’t you know there’s a war on? Them against us!”

Harris’ voice. “You’re either with us or against us.”

An incongruous sound caught her attention—the sound of splintering wood. Then a clatter. Heavy, lurching footsteps on her porch.

“Jesus Christ!” said the man by the driver’s door.

More crunching wood.

“Get down!” Harris screamed. “Get down now!”

More thumping footsteps on her porch. Another loud, wooden crunch.

Painfully, she wormed onto the seat, struggling to right herself. A cop’s back—the driver’s—blocked her much of her view.

Up on the porch, something smashed across Harris’ face, launching him into the rose bushes. He screamed.

“Get down on the ground!” Chambers shrilled, pulling his gun. A heartbeat later, he opened fire.

“Jesus Christ!”

Something slammed Chambers against the side of the cruiser so hard the rear side-window shattered. His body went limp. Something wet splattered across the sidewalk. The stench of hot blood flooded the interior of the cruiser.

As Chambers’ body sagged out of sight, sliding to earth, Alicia saw something she could not process.

Another gunshot thundered, and the bullet burst through the suit coat of the… of Anthony’s suit coat, and punched through the driver’s window.

More grave stench sprayed over her face, and she fought back a gag reflex.

She could only stare as the thing in Anthony’s funeral suit charged Harris, who was still trying to extricate himself from the rose bushes. A moldering hand seized Harris’ face and squeezed. Harris screamed into the rotting palm, raised his gun to Anthony’s face and managed one shot before the hand crumpled his face like a wet sheet of paper.

Dalton stood in the front doorway, staring, transfixed.

In the distance, her neighbors were calling down the street, investigating the gunshots, but unwilling to stick out their heads.

Tom stood on the front steps, trying to hold his aim steady as Anthony flung Harris’ body across the lawn like a ragdoll. Anthony turned those empty, glass-like eyes onto this man. From those depths, a glimmering orange fire glowed like candlelight through marbles.

Tom’s face jumped into her memory. Tom was not his last name, but his first. Tom Lucas. He was Bill Baxter’s partner. Tom Lucas had watched as Bill Baxter had gunned down Anthony in a convenience store parking lot. Tom Lucas had helped Baxter try to cover up the fact that Anthony was unarmed. Tom Lucas corroborated every aspect of Baxter’s story, even though surveillance cam video made liars of them both. Tom Lucas had sworn, under penalty of perjury, that no secret group of white supremacists had infiltrated the police force, even though circumstantial evidence emerged in social media circles during the trial suggesting otherwise. Bill Baxter had been fired from the police force, but acquitted of all charges.

This was Tom Lucas’ police cruiser. And it smelled like the grave.

Anthony stalked toward him, his gait shaky, lurching, but purposeful.

Alicia called through the shattered window, “No, baby, don’t! Don’t do it!”

Lucas’ pistol thundered again and again, but still Anthony advanced. When the pistol’s action locked open, Lucas threw the gun aside, whipped out his night stick, and charged, screaming curses and epithets.

Anthony snatched at him, but Lucas evaded the grasp, seized Anthony’s wrist, and executed an arm lock that snapped Anthony’s elbow like a dry twig. Lucas twisted, and Anthony’s arm tore free. He threw the arm aside and swung his truncheon at Anthony’s face, which was now riddled with ragged bullet holes. With his remaining hand, Anthony seized Lucas’ throat. Lucas’ scream died. The wet, crunching, popping noise would stay with Alicia the rest of her days. She retched onto the floor of the car until a trickle of bile came.

“Please, no. It wasn’t me. It’s not me,” whimpered Dalton.

She wiped her mouth and peered out. Anthony stood on the porch regarding Officer Dalton.

Dalton’s hands were raised, but he stood his ground. “Please, no. You got them. You got them all.”

Alicia’s heart thundered so hard it felt like it would burst out of her chest. “No, baby, stop now!”

Anthony’s cigarette-burn eyes seared into Dalton’s for a long moment, as if he were looking into Dalton’s soul. Then those eyes turned toward her.

Relief deflated Dalton like a balloon. He clutched his cheek and used the door frame for support.

Anthony came down across the lawn and opened the cruiser’s door for his mother.

Alicia climbed out. “You saved me, baby. But you can stop now. Please, stop.”

Anthony breathed deep, expanding his dry, empty lungs like great bellows, his eyes flaring bright. As his chest expanded, shapes appeared on the lawn, in the street, as if he had inhaled them into existence. The shapes coalesced, hazy at first but congealing into faces and torsos, legs trailing away into black. A host of them, eyes like embers.

The nearest wraith she recognized from newscasts of six months ago. He was shot by police while drunk but unarmed. His spectral dreadlocks waved around his head like the snakes of Medusa. Another familiar face from a month before that. Shot by police for defending his girlfriend. Another one, a “suicide” in jail for a trumped-up drug charge. Another, shot in the leg outside a gas station while reaching for his ID. He had bled out before the ambulance arrived. Their faces went back years, decades.

The mob of apparitions stretched away into the darkness.

She knew their names. She knew all their names.

The air itself crackled with their purpose.

On this night when the veil between life and death was thinnest, they had come forth with a hunger for justice.

All those smoldering eyes fixed upon Anthony. Anthony raised his bloody fist, a call to arms.

“No!” She seized Anthony’s coat by the lapel. “Don’t. Please. Violence is not the answer.” Dr. King had often warned of the scars violence left upon those who perpetrated it. It was a lesson she had driven into her children from an early age.

Anthony faced her. His scars would be eternal. His ruined lips smiled. He took her by the shoulders, and her blood turned to slush. Don’t worry, Momma. We got this. Then he leaned forward—the stench of putrefaction flooded her nostrils—and kissed her on the cheek.

These wraiths knew their killers, all of them. A thousand miles was nothing to a thing that could travel between worlds. They swooped off into the night.

God help them all, tonight there would be a reckoning.

Tomorrow, the video from her living room would go viral.

Anthony gave her a bittersweet smile, and shambled off toward the cemetery.

THE END

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, an Active member of SFWA and the HWA, and the author of the Tokyo Blood Magic, The Hammer Falls, The Ronin Trilogy, and other novels. His more than thirty short stories appear in Baen Books’ anthology Straight Outta Deadwood, plus Apex Magazine, Tales to Terrify, Fiction River, Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII, and othersAs a freelance writer, he has contributed a metric ton of work to such game properties as Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, EVE Online, and BattleTech, for which he’s been nominated for a Scribe Award. Find more at http://travisheermann.com/.

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