Skeleton Lake

by Stanley Sciortino © 2002

Where the others ran in terror, Carlsbad stayed behind seeking opportunity. His two friends shrieked when they saw the gathering of animated skeletons scurrying haphazardly on the shores of the unnamed lake. Skeletons missing limbs crawled along the ground. Others, quite intact, ambled upright with clacking certainty. One rode a battered bicycle, creaking rhythmically on tireless rims, in aimless circles upon the oily bluestone beach.

His friends left Carlsbad at the remote polluted lake where they had once studied toxic dumping. After careful observation, Carlsbad greeted the bony bunch and offered to bring goods to the lake to end their apparent boredom. Later, he convinced them to earn their keep by stringing dream catchers, unearthing phony magic crystals, and polishing ordinary stones for shipment and sale under the trademark of Skeleton Lake. They traded their labor for brand-new bicycles, inflatable rafts, and multicolored nail polish to adorn themselves in war paint and ancient markings.

Carlsbad organized teams of intact skeletons to find bones for those missing limbs. His crews dug up new employees trapped deep in the ancient burial sites that ringed Skeleton Lake. He taught them to speak by vibrating their creaking vertebrae. They emitted a buzzing sound, like a low-pitched electric toothbrush, that was intelligible and soothing. Though they first spoke in an ancient Native American tongue, they quickly learned English to better negotiate with Carlsbad. They came to call themselves Skulls, because the skull provided the basic unit of their preternatural existence.

Carlsbad's next great idea was to bring in tourists to marvel at the industrious mortal remains. For a large fee the tourists would camp and observe them from a bluff overlooking the lake. And when tourists, hoping for reanimation, asked to bury their relatives in the ancient polluted soils, Carlsbad could not refuse. He slowly expanded his empire and brought in tanker trucks of select industrial waste to spread over the unpolluted lands beyond the lake. There he buried the newly deceased. In a matter of two to three years his new employees would emerge, neatly stripped of all mortal flesh, to be pressed into service.

Carlsbad charged for the toxic dumping, for the burials, and for relatives to come see their resurrected kin. He was really raking it in. In contrast, the Skulls received scant compensation for their undying efforts. And they had little leisure time to enjoy their purchases. Though the newcomers disliked the wind whistling inside their exposed and empty chests, they were not allowed to wear clothes; tourists demanded Skulls in the buff. The Skulls complained quietly at first, but their complaints were ignored.

"You're dead, goddamn it. You ought to be grateful for all I've done for you." Carlsbad would respond.

The Skulls organized a union and went on strike, demanding each Skull receive a share of the profits and a voice in decision making. Carlsbad refused to recognize their bargaining power. He threatened to scatter their bones to the four winds with the sharp edge of his shovel if they did not get back to work.

"One Skull, one share." They chanted in an eerie buzzing chorus like a thousand dentist's drills ululating in unison. They surrounded Carlsbad on the beach where he had first greeted them. He swung his long-handled shovel, fending off the war-painted assemblage that pressed in around him. The Skulls' living relatives, supposed descendants, and supporters cheered them on from the tourists' bluff.

"You stick monkeys get back to work right now, or there'll be hell to pay! You betcha," he threatened above the din.

He leapt forward. Swinging his shovel wildly, he decapitated the skeletons in front of him. The first wave of indignant Skulls yanked the shovel from his hands. The second wave lifted Carlsbad up. Whirled aloft by their bony fingers and arms, they carried him, still yelling threats and abuse, to the closest grave site. There they buried Carlsbad alive in the ancient soil near the beach, his screams and insults silenced finally by the clods of poisoned earth they packed into his mouth.

You can recognize Carlsbad today shirking his duties, bullying the other Skulls, and trying to get others to make up his quota for the day or the week or the month. The other Skulls push him aside and remind him, one Skull, one share. Trilling angrily, he argues that he made them what they are. The other Skulls laugh and force the diminished Carlsbad to mutter his protestations for the tourists.

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