We used to always love hanging out by the dead guys. We sat in the park near the edge of the graveyard with our Arizona iced teas and water bottles filled with whatever alcohol we could scrounge for, surrounded by all the men who got shot or blown up or stabbed by bayonets or gassed in the trenches. The guys who died in World War I and World War II had it pretty good: they had a giant flagpole and two bald eagles with beady bronze eyes and glossy black stones for the names. The ones who died in the American Revolution got an engraved stone, a plain old rock, really. I thought it was kind of sad that war only got a little rock, since it was pretty important in our nation’s history and all. But I guess it was because there were fewer of them that they didn’t quite deserve an eagle. I could never believe how many dead guys there were all over the park. I used to think that all the skeletons were buried right there, right under our feet, but I found out later from my dad that it wasn’t a real graveyard, that the stones were just memorials. The guys were actually buried in cemeteries all over, sometimes in different states. But because they were born here, they were stuck here in some form just like the rest of us, stuck as names on stupid little bronze plaques in the middle of our stupid little town.
My friend Sherry once found someone with the same last name as her on the American Revolution rock. She was so proud of it, too. She said he must have been her great-great-great-great grandfather (she just wasn’t quite sure how many greats). He crossed the Delaware with George Washington, she said; he shot lots of British bastards and helped bring freedom to the American people, dying bravely on the front line. I said that probably wasn’t true, that he most likely died of disease, or as a prisoner of war maybe. That would be cool. Or he got shot and then the wound got infected and his flesh started rotting away. Besides, if he died young, it was probably before he could even have kids, so how could he be her great-great-great-great grandfather? Sherry got a little pale when I started saying all that stuff, because she really didn’t really like talking about dead guys as much as I did. Then Sherry said he was probably a great-great-great-great uncle or something, and I should stop being so mean.
Sherry was the mean one, though. She was always ordering us around. It was because of Sherry that all the rest of this stuff happened; we never would have been there in the first place if it weren’t for her. Alexandra and I didn’t really want to do it, but Sherry insisted that we go digging around in the park the night after the big back-to-school dance was held there. We had heard from Lisa, who was a sophomore, that some kids buried bottles of vodka in the park to dig up once they got to the dance, and now we were trying to see if we could find one they forgot. It was desperate, I know, but it’s not like we had anything better to do. We had tried to sneak into the dance but we didn’t have high school IDs, so the cops at the entrance wouldn’t let us in. When we left, I saw this one boy arguing with the cops, punching and clawing at an officer. The cop’s nose started to bleed.
So there we were, heading to the park as soon as it got dark to dig through the dirt. I thought it was a pretty dumb plan—couldn’t we just steal the Grey Goose from Alexandra’s house like we usually did?—but Alexandra said her parents were starting to get suspicious and we probably shouldn’t do that anymore. Come on, Stella, she said to me, giving me that look that I always hated because it made me feel like she was calling me stupid. So I went along. I guessed even if we didn’t find anything, it would be an adventure.
I was the first to catch a glimpse of something in the dirt—a bit of glass. It was only a green shard of a beer bottle, but it gave us hope that maybe there would be something here. Alexandra found a shoelace and a used Band-Aid covered in dried blood. Sherry found a few weirdly-shaped rocks. We eventually decided we should probably spread out a little more. I went to the other end of the park, near the big pine tree that was lit up to be our town Christmas tree in a whole big ceremony each December. I thought about the last time we all went to the tree lighting together, how this one girl Samantha sang the most awful rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” I had ever heard. The poor kid shaking the jingle bells next to her was off beat, too. It was brutal. Still, I would’ve rather been listening to that than crouched in the dirt digging with my hands. We were so dumb that the only shovels we had brought were the little plastic beach ones. There was no point to any of this.
Of course Sherry noticed the minute I stopped digging. “Hey, Stella,” she called, “come on! Keep going!” Why did I have to be digging when I didn’t care that much about unearthing some vodka? I was fine with just hanging out in Alexandra’s basement drinking Coke and eating Cheez Doodles while gossiping about the dumb kids in our class and watching a scary movie.
Alexandra had stopped digging, too. She was near the park benches, kind of hunched over. “This is where Jason and I used to spend all our time,” she said, just staring at the bench.
“Oh, shut the fuck up about Jason already,” Sherry spat back. “He had stupid hair anyway.” Sherry was getting real fed up with Alexandra. I was too. It had been months since they broke up, so I didn’t want to hear it anymore. All Alexandra cared about was boys now. I didn’t really think about boys all that much, honestly.
“Come on you guys!” I said, “we’re not gonna find anything if we just sit here. Let’s dig for a little bit longer and get out of here.”
It was getting pretty dark. There were some lights in the park, but they weren’t that bright, and at Sherry’s insistence we weren’t allowed to have flashlights. It might attract too much attention, as if three girls digging with plastic shovels and their hands wasn’t already conspicuous enough. I made a half-assed show of digging again, and was ready to give up when Sherry screamed.
Shrieked, really. It was so high pitched that it sounded kind of fake, like a sound effect in a movie. “Alexandra! Stellaaaa!” she screamed. And I started laughing. I wasn’t quite sure why—maybe because she was being annoying, so I was glad she was a little afraid; maybe because she sounded exactly like Marlon Brando in that scene in A Streetcar Named Desire that my dad always liked to reenact for me around the house.
“Come over here!” I got up and ran over to her. I had to admit I was a little curious. She wasn’t moving, but she was shaking, vibrating almost, and pretty pale. I looked down to where her shaking finger was pointing: half-buried in the dirt in front of her was a human skull.
I didn’t know what to do. I knelt down to get a closer look, guessing that she was probably messing with us; I half-expected to find a price sticker still on the bottom of it. But somehow I could tell right away that it was real. It was relatively small, and kind of yellowish. I wondered if I was supposed to feel scared, all cold and tingly, like the way they always describe in spooky stories. I wasn’t scared, though. To be honest, I thought it was kind of cool, kind of exciting. I felt myself smiling a little. Then I noticed Alexandra and Sherry were looking at me strangely.
“Huh. It’s pretty small. It must be some dead kid,” I said finally.
That was definitely the wrong thing to say. Alexandra burst into tears. “What the heck is wrong with you? Why would you say something like that?” I always thought it was funny how she still said “heck” like it was a bad word.
“Maybe it’s an animal skull?” said Sherry, her voice cracking a little.
“It’s gotta be fake, right?” Alexandra offered.
“Yeah, definitely. Or, like, this is one of the people from the war that’s buried here!”
“Looks kind of small to be some soldier, don’t you think?” I said, turning it over in my hands. “Maybe someone just stashed the skull here—abandoned some kid.” And then a thought struck me. “Or maybe someone was murdered.”
“Shut up, Stella!” screamed Alexandra.
“It’s not like a murder would actually happen here,” Sherry said. She was probably right. I felt like we were suddenly transported to some Stephen King novel, that we weren’t in our regular town anymore. The biggest scandal I could remember around here was when the Spanish teacher from the middle school got arrested for shoplifting from Whole Foods. That was kind of a big deal for us, something new for once. We always did the same thing every day: we went into the toy store and rearranged all the Rubik’s Cubes. We went to the library and looked at the medical encyclopedias or biographies of old ugly white guys in wigs. We watched the boys on their skateboards who would constantly fall off while performing tricks and pretend it didn’t hurt. Nowhere were we supposed to find a skull. But I was glad we did. I couldn’t stop staring at it, running my fingers over its surface.
“Well? What do we do?” Alexandra said finally. “Are there other bones there? And are we totally sure that this is real?”
“It looks pretty real to me,” said Sherry, and started backing away from the skull as if she was afraid what would happen if she touched it again.
“So, back to my murder theory—what do we think happened?” I asked. The skull looked like it had been there for a while, but was still so shallow in the dirt, enough for Sherry to unearth it with just a persistent plastic shovel. It was pretty weird to think about, that someone had died, and we had no idea who they were, or how the whole thing happened.
I wasn’t really scared like Sherry or Alexandra. I guess I always loved that kind of spooky stuff. When I was little, I used to read the police blotter in the newspaper, or watch all the crime reports on the evening news. But something about this still felt a little funny: it was different when all this stuff was happening right in front of you. What happened? Did a killer come after her—I decided this little skull was a her. A little girl, probably, lured into a white van or something while walking home from school, one of those clichés. Was whatever maniac did this still out there? There were still cars passing by, a few lit shops in the distance, but there was still a kind of feeling that something was going to pop out of the darkness.
“Should we get out of here?” Sherry said. It wasn’t a question. Alexandra just nodded. They were so ready to run away, and just watch a cheesy rom-com until we forgot all about this. But something inside me said I had to stop them.
“We can’t just leave.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do?”
“And how would we explain this anyway? We just randomly decided to dig in the grass at nine o’clock, for fun?”
“We could make an anonymous call. Or just leave it here—someone is sure to notice it tomorrow morning. The police can deal with it,” Alexandra said.
“We have to help this person. Find who did this to her,” I said.
“No,” Sherry said, more scared than angry. “What if they see our fingerprints on it or something, and try to blame us? Can they do that? What if they bring us in for questioning?” She was frantically smoothing her hair, her hands shaking. “My parents would kill me.”
“Ok, so let’s take it with us,” I said.
“What the fuck? We can’t take it with us. What if someone sees us with it?”
“Maybe we should just hide it somewhere else. Give her a proper burial,” I said. That was the big thing in all those ghost stories, right? The spirits roamed the earth until they were given a proper burial? But I didn’t even really know what that meant. I guess I had performed a burial ceremony once, for my goldfish. I remembered that pretty clearly. We used to joke that Tuna would live forever, and it seemed he would kill the other fish we put in the tank with him. One day, Tuna’s scales became all reddish and inflamed, so my brother Derek and I frantically dragged our mom to the pet store and bought some weird droplets to put in his tank twice daily. Tuna had been around for so long that we had almost forgotten that he could die. But he did. We decorated an old shoe box that was way too big a coffin for his body, and dug a little hole in the backyard. I guessed maybe making a real grave for the skull, perhaps saying a few kind words, was all we needed. Even if ghosts and stuff weren’t real, that seemed like a nice thing to do. Where was the rest of the skeleton, though, if there was one? It always seemed important in all those stories to have the bones together.
“Okay, first we have to find the rest of the bones,” I said.
“And do what with them? One skull is enough.” Sherry grabbed onto me and Alexandra tightly; her hands were cold. “I don’t want to touch it again or see it again.” Alexandra just kept nodding.
“But think about all she’s gone through—“
“Stop calling it a she!” Sherry screamed. “It’s creepy! We don’t know anything about it!”
I tried to say that was my point; we didn’t know anything about this skull, this person. Didn’t they want to at least try to find something out? But before I could say another word they had already started running in the direction of Alexandra’s house, running until they reached the light of the street. I hesitated for a moment, kicking some dirt over the skull, a pathetic attempt to hide it, and started running too.
We wrapped ourselves in blankets in Alexandra’s basement, and kept our mouths full of popcorn and Oreos so that we wouldn’t have to talk to each other. But I couldn’t stop picturing that little skull laying there in the dirt amid the patchy grass and half-trampled daffodils.
I didn’t even remember falling asleep. I woke up before the rest of them the next morning, curled into a little ball on the couch. Sherry and Alexandra were sprawled out on the floor. I walked home without waking them up, and went straight up to my bedroom. I locked the door behind me, and pulled the skull out of my backpack, turning it over in my hands. My heart was beating fast. Sherry and Alexandra would kill me if they found out that I stuffed it in my backpack when they weren’t looking. I still thought it was pretty cool, finding a skull and all, but at the same time I felt sad if I thought about the girl and how she got to be a skull too much. I put her on my bookshelf, next to my Mr. Met bobblehead and Gumby figurine. I figured I’d tell my mom that I bought the skull at the Museum of Natural History, or that it was a prop from Hamlet, if she ever even noticed it.
I laid on my bed, halfway under the covers, and stared at at the skull. Maybe I should give it—her—a name, and write it in chalk on the American Revolution rock, or carve it into a tree. Make her a little grave somehow. Just then, I heard someone leap up the stairs two by two, landing heavily each time. Great, Derek was home.
“Hey, Stella,” he said, pushing to open my door before realizing it was locked, “Can I ask you a quick question about girl things? I need advice on a present for Nina.” I could hear that all his weight was pressed up against the door.
My brother was a few years older than me, a junior in high school. He had a girlfriend, Nina, a skinny girl with frizzy brown hair who he got together with after she tutored him in geometry. I thought she was nice; she was the president of the Environmental Club and worked part time at the Rite Aid in town. I wasn’t sure why she was with Derek in the first place, honestly, but he was on the hockey team and apparently a lot of girls were into that.
Once I saw her at Rite Aid the day after they had a big fight and her eye was all swollen. She gave me a warm smile and said she was just tired, really tired, and tripped while going to the bathroom the night before. But it was obvious, textbook, and I didn’t know how anyone could believe that. I didn’t know what to do, though. It was just that one time, as far as I knew—I never had any other evidence that Derek did anything to her. Yet I remembered when Derek used to beat me up, too. Once he snapped the head off my Barbie and said he would do the same to me next. Another time he stabbed me in the leg with a sharpened pencil because I tried to play with his G.I. Joe. My mom always said that all this was just because he was a boy, because he didn’t know how to deal with his feelings, but he loved me, he really did, he just had trouble showing it.
I unlocked the door and let Derek in. “How was Alexandra’s house?” he asked me, sitting down at my desk. He kept running his fingers through his stringy brown hair. So gross.
“Fine,” I said, laying back onto my bed. “What do you want?”
“I told you, a present for Nina.” He got up, pacing around a bit. “Do you think a necklace would be better, or a bracelet? Or should I take her out to dinner?”
“What’s the occasion?” I paused for a moment. “What did you do this time?”
He just looked at me. “What do you mean? I didn’t do anything. Just wanted to be nice.”
Sure, because he was really nice. “I dunno. Take her out to dinner, I guess. But let her pick the place—don’t just get burgers at Johnny’s again.”
“But I like burgers.”
“But Nina doesn’t eat meat. Remember?”
Derek had stood up, and was now wandering around my room. He started biting his nails, spitting out the ragged nail clippings onto my floor. Disgusting.
“Hey, if you’re gonna be gross, get out of here! You have a room.”
“You still haven’t helped me figure out what to give Nina.”
“I dunno. A necklace I guess is fine.” I pictured him getting her a cheap gold necklace from the Rite Aid, and then putting it in a little velvet box that he took from Mom so Nina wouldn’t know just how little he spent on it.
“Alright. Cool.” He ran his fingers through his greasy hair once more, and turned to leave before he suddenly stopped. His eyes were focused on something—I already knew what. Shit.
“Ooh, what’s that?”
“Nothing,” I said a little too quickly. “It’s, uh, for Hamlet.”
“Ya know… Shakespeare? Ever heard of him?” Derek shot me a dirty look. He walked over to the bookcase and picked it up.
“Don’t touch it.”
“Relax,” he said, not comforting me at all. I felt like I was going to throw up. Derek couldn’t touch it. I felt like it would disintegrate in his hands if he held it.
“Shit,” he said, turning it over in his hands. “This looks real. That’s badass.” I didn’t say anything. “Hey,” he said, looking at me again with excitement, “If this is real, I wonder who this came from.”
“Uh, it was probably someone who died of something sad, like cancer or a car accident or something,” I said. “And then they donated themselves to science.”
“But what if they didn’t? What if they were, like, murdered?” It was creepy how Derek was saying almost the exact same things I had said to Sherry and Alexandra. I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to admit I thought like him. And something about the way he said all of it was too weird, too unsettling. Derek looked at me, as if savoring a thought. “I wonder what it’s like to kill a person.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Do you think it’s fun?”
“Like, these sick bastards probably kill people for fun, right? It’s a kind of hobby for them, I guess. A sport. There must be some kind of rush.”
“Shut up, Derek.”
“Hey, don’t you think it’s funny how they say ‘for sport’? Like I could get a varsity letter in murdering or something?” He was grinning as if it were all just some big joke, but some part of me knew it wasn’t.
“It’s not funny, Derek.”
“Come on, you used to love reading about serial killers and psychos and stuff. What happened?”
My throat was dry. “I don’t know,” I said, my voice cracking. “I used to like it. But I just don’t think I want to talk about this anymore. Give it back.”
“So, how did it happen, huh? Stabbing? Strangulation?” Derek said, not bothering to listen to me. Images of the skull buried in the dirt, of Nina’s bruises, of Derek stabbing me with a pencil started flashing across my mind. As he kept talking, I noticed I had grabbed heavy paperweight that was on my nightstand, gripping it so tightly that my knuckles were white. “Is it possible for like, the autopsy guy to tell how someone died from just a skull? Or is that only possible when the body is… like… fresh?”
“But seriously, I bet these dudes—it’s always dudes, right?— like, get off on killing people. What do you think it was like for this one?” He stepped closer to me, pushing the skull up into my face. “Do you think he was into it? Do you think she was?”
I couldn’t look at his dumb face for another second. I couldn’t keep looking at his zitty forehead, his greasy hair, his sweaty hands rifling through my room or touching the skull or touching anything. I couldn’t stop picturing the disgusting grin on his face as he kept talking about murder, blood, dismemberment, how he said it all seemed cool in a kind of fucked up way. I picked up the paperweight, closed my eyes, and swung until I heard the crack that told me I made contact with skull.
The next day, Sherry, Alexandra and I went back to the spot where we found the skull. Next to that spot was a new pile of dirt from a freshly dug hole. I made sure that one was deep. Sherry and Alexandra didn’t notice it, or if they did, they didn’t say anything.
I looked at all the monuments with all the names of those dead guys. What difference did one more name really make? We sat down on a little patch of grass and opened a bag of chips, just like always. None of us ever mentioned a skull again after that. And nobody ever suspected me.
They didn’t find the bones until years later, when they decided to add bathrooms to the park and had to dig up a whole section for the sewage system. At that point, they couldn’t tell much about the victim for sure—the skull was way too smashed up. But they could guess. After that, the police thought they should just dig up the whole park, but decided it would be bad karma or something to do that to a memorial park. They just declared the case closed. And it’s a good thing they did. Who knew what else lay underneath, just waiting to be dug up.