A Skeleton Story

Val Howlett

A young girl has a dream about a monster. The monster is gray. It enters her window at night, just pulls it open and slides through, facing her, sagging and infinitely wrinkled, with rotting teeth. It reaches its long shadow-arms into her parted lips and down her throat to grab her life, to take it from her. She wakes up screaming.

Her parents rush upstairs, stroke her hair, tell her that monsters aren’t real. They are lying. They have lived many years and have encountered innumerable monsters: cancer monsters, plastic surgery monsters, drug monsters, monsters driven by money, or doctrine, or flattery, who are consumed by dead love, who are consumed by fear, monsters who feed on sex, or pity, or control. The modern world is full of monsters.

It is easier to be a monster than a girl.



Sonia opens her front door to behold Nicole, back from a weeklong family vacation in Cancún. She is newly tanned, with colorful beads tapping against each other at the ends of her hair. She is wearing a blue dress that wraps around her body, and she carries a matching sky-blue handbag. She looks a lot older, not like a girl from Conshy anymore.

“Hey, loser!” Sonia says. She holds out her hand so Nicole can slap it, which is the first move in their secret handshake. Instead, Nicole steps forward and gives the air around her a hug.
“Sonia,” she coos. “How are you?’

Sonia doesn’t return the hug. “Why are you talking weird?”

“What do you mean?” asks Nicole, but she can’t hold her innocent look. “It’s part of the new me!” she says. “Let me in and I’ll tell you about it.”

She can’t even wait until they reach the kitchen. She follows Sonia, saying, “So you know my cousins went with us on the trip, right? The ones that are in high school? Well, they never paid attention to me before, but this year they decided to make me over!”

There is no nervousness in Nicole’s face, just a stupid oblivious doll smile, like it doesn’t even matter what Sonia thinks. Sonia rips open a bag of chips. She doesn’t say anything.

“I have all these plans now that are real seventh grade plans, you know?” says Nicole.  “Like getting a boyfriend. And I want to go to a real party, not a kid party—one where the parents aren’t there and there’s music playing and, you know… all that stuff.”

She lays her handbag on the counter. “Cori says she can get me into her friend’s Halloween party. You can probably come too.”

That’s when Sonia loses it. “Probably?” she says. “Trick or treating is ours. We’ve been going together since fourth grade!”

“Okay!” says Nicole. “I didn’t mean probably. Definitely. We can definitely both go to the party.” She flashes Sonia another doll-smile, as if the problem is solved.

There is so much more Sonia wants to say. Like: I don’t want to go to the party. I want go trick or treating. Like: How can you change your whole self in just one week?

She doesn’t, though. Nicole seems so happy. What if she protests and Nicole decides to go to the party without her?

“Oh,” says Nicole. “I got you something.” She reaches into her handbag and shuffles its contents until she locates something small. She pulls it out. It swings around as Nicole stretches out her arm, offering it to Sonia.

“A skeleton?” Sonia asks. She doesn’t take it.

“Well it was either that or a keychain that said ‘Mexico,’” says Nicole, and her voice gets closer to deadpan, like way she used to talk. “I figured this was better.”

“I guess,” says Sonia, watching the skeleton’s legs dangle. Nicole is holding it by the skull.

“You guess?” says Nicole, but then she stops. She pulls her face into a smile, forces a too-high laugh. “Well, you’re welcome!” she says.

“Thanks.” Sonia takes the skeleton keychain. It rattles until she stuffs it in her pocket.



Sonia is over most monsters, like ghosts and zombies, but she is still afraid of skeletons.



When Sonia was four, she and her sister Rose owned a DVD called Kids Sing. They devoured it, sucked it dry, played it every day until it skipped and sped and the songs sounded drowned sometimes. During most numbers, Sonia and Rose sang along, jumping on the couch, out cool-ing the pitch-perfect DVD kids. Rose was the better singer, but Sonia could always make her laugh with her wild saunter across the living room during “Hound Dog.”

But when “These Bones” came on, Sonia could not watch. The song itself did not scare her; the words were just about how human bodies are built:
The toe bone’s connected to the… foot bone!
The foot bone’s connected to the… ankle bone!
The ankle bone’s connected to the… leg bone,
These bones gonna walk around!
But the kids on the DVD sang the song in a science classroom next to a grown-up-sized skeleton, and on that last line, on “These bones gonna walk around!” the skeleton came to life and started dancing with the kids.

Even if Sonia braved the beginning, the dancing skeleton would always get her running. She would hide in the shadows of the blue bathroom, covering her ears, until Rose yelled that it was okay to come out again.

She’d slink back warily, just in case, and Rose would laugh in a tinkling mommy way and slide her arm over Sonia’s shoulder and keep it there for all of “Lullaby of Broadway.”

“What are you so scared of, Sonia?” she’d say. “Skeletons are just bones inside us, you know. Everybody has a skeleton inside.”

Sonia could not explain why they were scary. They just were. It was something about the way they danced—shaking, out of control—and their big gaping hole-eyes, and the way the shapes of their jaws looked like exaggerated empty smiles.



There is no skeleton in Sonia’s dad’s classroom, but there is a poster of one on the wall. It stands, of course, beside Sonia’s desk, grinning down at her during class. If she looks up, she can see the names of bones stacked up on either side of the skeleton.

Cranium. Mandible. Femur. Firm, imposing words that make Sonia think of companies with big buildings or villain names in superhero movies. But when she looks at Rose’s bones, they seem the opposite, so frail.

Her dad doesn’t see Rose’s skeleton.

He is Rose’s defense at dinner, when their mother announces that Rose can’t leave the table until she eats all her pasta—not just cuts it into pasta confetti, but gets the contents of the plate into her mouth.

“I can’t!” she wails, balling her metacarpals and twisting her vertebrae until she’s appealing to the air above them. “Can’t you understand that I’m full? I’ve eaten so much already, Mom! I swear I’ll throw up if I have to eat more.”

And there’s Mr. McGinter, turning away from his daughter. “Susan,” he says, “don’t make her sick, for Christsake! She’s fine.”

“She’s not fine,” says Sonia’s mother, and Sonia tunes her out. She can’t stop looking from her so-smart sister, all contorted, to the mashup on Rose’s plate.

Sonia stands up, demands, “How could you possibly be full? I mean, how could you think we believe such a total lie when your plate is filled with food? You didn’t even eat lunch.”

“Sonia?” Rose says, “Shut up. You don’t know anything.”

And even in the room’s shocked silence, Rose holds her ground. “I already have Mom barking down my throat, watching me all the time,” she says. “I don’t need you too.”



Do not expect loyalty from skeleton girls. They will be fiercely devoted, adamantly your friend or sister, until you threaten their skeleton. Then, forget it.

Their skeletons take over.

Skeletons’ words are confusing, babbly. Don’t touch me. I’m fine. You’re butting in. You’re just jealous. You’re crazy. Why are you doing this to me?

Don’t listen to the words themselves. It’s more about their ferocity, the threats in them that seem to say something else.

Like: Push me and I will push you away.

Like: Take me like this, or you’ll lose me. Your choice is either skeleton or nothing at all.



Nicole is getting a lot of looks at school.

She wears a wrap dress almost every day (she must have bought forty of them in Cancún) and when she doesn’t, she wears ruffled tops and gauzy skirts that trail after her when she moves, and it looks like she glides instead of walks the way normal people do.

She already has a boyfriend. He goes by Tommy C., because there are two boys named Tommy in their class.

“He’s just my practice boyfriend,” she tells Sonia. “I really want a high school boy.”

She texts Tommy C. during lunch, smiling when he texts her back, laughing like an old movie actress when she reads the messages. Sometimes she walks to class with only him, leading him, holding his hand.

The other girls in seventh grade swarm Sonia, asking her questions. What happened to Nicole? Did she tell you why she changed? Why is she walking with Tommy C. instead of you? Does she think she’s better than everybody else? Aren’t you jealous? Aren’t you mad?

Yes, Sonia wants to say, YES! But she doesn’t. She defends Nicole, because they have always defended each other, because she doesn’t want to be friends with these girls either, these girls who watch her and Nicole like reality TV, like they can’t wait for things to get worse.

“Stop talking about Nicole,” she forces herself to tell them. “Mind your own business.” She walks away. From her backpack zipper, her skeleton keychain swings.



“We can’t dress up as babies for Halloween,” Nicole says. “That’s… that’s like the kind of thing we would have done last year.”

Nicole has gotten an official okay from Cousin Cori: she and Sonia can both tag along to the Halloween party of a girl named Stacy Landen. Stacy is a Plymouth Whitemarsh High freshman, which means she is in the same class as Rose.

Rose was not invited to the party.

She has been so nice about it, though. “Oh, I know Stacy!” she said without even a hint of jealousy when Nicole bragged about it. She even baked for Nicole and Sonia’s costume brainstorming session, chocolate chip cookies she mixed and shaped and removed from the oven, setting the tray on the stovetop to cool. “I can’t wait to eat them,” she said, and for a moment, Sonia let herself hope that the real Rose, the Rose of the past, had gained control over her skeleton.

Nicole leans on the counter in a thinking pose, her head in her hand. Then she gasps, a smile spreading slowly on her face.

“What?” asks Sonia.

“I have got the best idea,” Nicole half-whispers. “We could be an angel and a devil.”

Sonia tries not to roll her eyes. “Let me guess,” she says. “You want to be the devil.”

Nicole bites her lip. “Yeah,” she admits. “Why, did you want to be…?”

“Nobody wants to be an angel.”

“Well,” Nicole glances at the ceiling, setting off her hair beads in a series of clicks. “You don’t have to be, like, a childish angel. My cousin Andrea was an angel last year, and she just wore a white peasant top and a tennis skirt and lots of body glitter, and, you know, wings and a halo. She looked really cute.”

Sonia doesn’t want to look cute, but she doesn’t want to look hot, either. She has no idea what she wants to look like. She isn’t excited for the party at all, where Nicole hopes to snag a high school boyfriend, where everyone will probably be kissing. She doesn’t want to kiss. She’s never had any desire to kiss a specific, actual boy, one she’s seen in class instead of the movies.

She changes the subject. “I think the cookies have cooled down,” she says.

And then Nicole says, “Oh, I don’t want one. I’m on a diet.”

Sonia’s eyes snap to Rose, but her sister shows no signs of listening. All Sonia can see is the back of Rose’s French braid bent over her textbook.

“That’s stupid,” says Sonia, and she jumps up to grab the cookie tray. She clanks it in front of them. “Diets are stupid,” she practically yells. She wants to scream.

“Well,” says Nicole, smiling like it’s all a joke, “maybe just a little one.” She holds her hand over the tray for a minute before selecting a medium-sized cookie. “I didn’t eat any junk food for lunch,” she says, “so it’s okay.”

“You don’t even need to diet,” Sonia tells her, but she looks at Rose. “No one in this room does.”

“I do, though,” says Nicole, in a gooey apology voice. “I have, like, love handles.” She whispers the phrase love handles. Sonia doesn’t even know what it means.

“Plus,” Nicole says, “My face is fat.”

Rose stands up, grabs her book.

“Where’re you going?” asks Sonia.

“Upstairs. Geometry is hard—I need total silence to focus on it.” Then Rose smiles, so kindly. “Have fun, though.”

She leaves before Sonia can ask Rose to have a cookie, although who would want a cookie after Nicole’s speech? Nicole, though, is reaching for a second.

“I thought you were on a diet,” says Sonia.

“I know,” moans Nicole, stuffing her face. “I just can’t control myself!”

Sonia excuses herself to the bathroom, even though she doesn’t have to go, just to get away from Nicole and her disgusting, fake, showy diet. What Rose is doing is terrible, but at least it’s real. Sonia can’t help admiring Rose’s willpower and thoughtfulness, the way she eats so little food even though her body must ache for more, the way she bakes cookies without eating a single one, the fact that though she is hurting herself, she is trying so hard not to trouble anyone else.



A week later, Rose collapses for the first time.

Sonia finds out at the end of the day, when she opens the door to her dad’s classroom and her English teacher is there. The teacher starts babbling, but Sonia doesn’t have to listen to know that within the three hours since science class, something happened to Rose.

She is surprisingly calm as she waits for her Dad’s car, as if her mind has been turned off and her body is moving without it. She gets into the car. She hears her Dad’s story in pieces.

Bus line


Kids ran for help

What would it be like, to be doing something completely ordinary one moment and the
next be somewhere else—in the grass, looking up at a sky of stricken faces? Would it be scary, or just strange, the way Sonia is feeling now, as if nothing that’s happening is actually real?

Sonia stares out the window, watching the world move on the other side of the glass. She wonders if this is what it’s like to be Rose, if not eating somehow keeps her from feeling. It is human to feel, and after all, you need to eat to be human.



Rose doesn’t look human. She is all skeleton in her bed, pretending indifference, rolling her eyes, her smirking skin stretching over her skull.

“This is such an overreaction,” she tells her parents, ignoring the tray of food her mother brings her, ignoring her doctor’s threat that if she doesn’t gain five pounds in the next week, she will have to be hospitalized.

“All I did was skip breakfast,” she says. “People faint all the time.”

Sonia wants to shake her, to grab hold of her humeruses and clavicles and joggle them until Rose snaps back into herself. Sonia could probably do it, too. Her sister is that small.

Sonia yells instead, hollers, “How did you get so stupid?” and “Why are you doing this to us?”

But Rose’s skeleton is admirably stubborn. It holds its ground, not cracking when Sonia starts crying, nor even when their mom joins in. When Mr. and Mrs. McGinter turn on Sonia, telling her to be quiet, Rose stares glossily ahead, her eyes two even-colored stones.

Later, over microwave dinners, the McGinter parents speak to Sonia. You can’t talk to your sister that way, they say. She’s sick. It’s frustrating for us too, but we have to encourage Rose. We can’t blame her for this.

Sonia doesn’t want to eat rubbery food in individualized tray compartments. She just doesn’t. She shuts her mouth, leaves her body, hovers around its edges. She throws out the tray once she’s left alone in the kitchen and doesn’t eat breakfast the next day, either.

Her parents don’t notice.



Skeleton girls don’t outwardly beckon you to join them. They will bake you cookies to feed your flesh, as if the parts of them that are still girls are fighting for you. They’re magnanimous when you think about it, skeleton girls. They’ve succumbed, but they’ll be damned if you do too.

But don’t be fooled. The draw of the skeleton is subtle—the allure of power. The knowledge that when your skeleton enters a room, heads will turn.

Skeleton girls want to be invisible, but they want a visible kind of invisibility, a presence that says look how I’m starving and still I won’t bother you, still I can keep it to myself and not say a thing, can stretch out my mouth and smile.



The day of Rose’s weigh-in approaches. Mr. McGinter has taken to cooking rich food—steaks, mac ‘n’ cheese, barbecue even though the weather is getting cold. Rose picks at all of it, but her skeleton writhes, fighting for control.

“Shut up,” it snaps at Mom’s steady encouragements, her toneless stream of “you’re doing great.” It snaps, “I hate you,” and spits out other things, too, curses and threats and pronouncements that would make any sane person fantasize about shaking Rose until her eyes go vacant. Anything to remove that remorseless anger, that steel in her voice, that emptiness glaring around her bones.

Sonia doesn’t, though. She cuts her rich food, rearranges it, taking tiny bites and counting them in her head. Rose is so stupid. If she would just give their parents a little of what they wanted, eat a fraction of food, toss them nuggets of her former sweetness, they wouldn’t even notice her skeleton. They would completely leave her alone.

Sonia is smarter, and the better daughter too. She is not going to faint. She eats grapes for breakfast, bags of cucumber slices plus a measured amount of pretzels for lunch, and a variety of crumbs of all her dinners.

The first few days are excruciating, but after that, it becomes strangely easy to turn down food. It’s thrilling, actually, to give up just a little bit more, to offer Nicole half her sandwich at lunch and watch her eat it and imagine how good that peanut butter and jelly tastes all mixed together, the perfect combination of savory and sweet, but she won’t have any, she won’t snatch it back, because she is bigger than that. She is stronger than her physical self.

She isn’t even scared of the Halloween party anymore. She turns on music and compiles her costume, floating from the closet to the dresser to the bed, dancing a little. She teeters and her heart bounces around like she might fall but she keeps dancing. Will this wildness be what the party’s like?

Dressed, she poses in the mirror. Her tank top and tennis skirt hang off her like leaves. She stares at her fat face, rubs a glitter stick along her bones. Is she kissable? She’s ready to be kissed. Fear only lives outside her, now—not in her stomach and head and footsteps, the way it did before.

Sonia’s backpack sits on her bed. Her keychain watches her with its vacant-hole-eyes. It is always hungry.


To the Bone

Sonia and Nicole shiver their way up the stairs to Stacy Landen’s house. Nicole is wearing a short red dress that ends in jagged triangles, red fishnet stockings, and little red horns. She is carrying a plastic pitchfork. Sonia was right about the angel/devil debate—Nicole looks way more gorgeous than she does. It’s better to be the devil.

They go downstairs to the basement but it’s not like a movie teenager party. It’s not crowded or dark, and there are more girls than boys. Music is playing, but not loud enough for dancing.

No one is kissing.

Nicole screeches suddenly and runs toward two similarly tanned girls in French maid costumes, arms outstretched. Sonia sways in the center of the room. She doesn’t have the energy to follow.

Does she look high school? She doesn’t. She can’t. She screams “baby.” She has to move to the side and figure out what to do and everyone’s probably looking at her and she doesn’t want to be looked at, that’s the whole point. She was going to lose herself in this party and it’s not even dark.

She doesn’t feel well.

She stumbles toward the snack table, but there’s only a bowl of chip crumbs and a lot of bottles of soda and one bottle of some sort of clear alcohol. She can’t see what kind it is because the words on the label are blurring.

A couple of older boys surround the alcohol, joking and laughing as they pour it into cups, mixing it with the soda. They’re not like boys from Sonia’s class. They’re more like movie boys. Could she kiss one of them? But she can’t think like that when she’s a stupid angel and not with a friend and probably looks like a monster.

Still, when one of the boys stares back, asks, “Who are you?” sort of friendly, she smiles too, until the next boy elbows him and grins at her and says, “Fresh meat.”

Humiliation rises hot in Sonia’s throat. She turns away, but the world is spinning faster than she is. She was wrong about fear. It isn’t something you can keep away with starving or dizziness. Fear is inescapable. It’s everywhere.

Fainting is supposed to be romantic, but it is anything but. It feels like a mix of rising and falling, of throwing up and being strangled, of all your organs collapsing in a heap.



When she opens her eyes, it’s loud and Rose’s face is the sky.

“Let her breathe!” Rose yells, and the noise fades to a jostle of people moving back.

“You’re here?” Sonia asks. It’s really Rose, with her French braid and baggy sweater and bitten lip.

“I had to come,” Rose said. “I was worried.” Her eyes are full.

She stretches her radius out toward Sonia and they grip ice-hands, pull at each other until Sonia is standing up. But then Rose looks around instead of at Sonia, as if the other people are all she can really see.

“Rose?” Sonia asks, but Rose doesn’t look. Her head is bobbing for the exit, and when she spots it she says, “C’mon,” and starts walking. She doesn’t look.

There’s a choke in Sonia’s throat and she wants to talk but the choke is closing in. She pushes through it with her sister’s name, a strangled, “Rose,” and she closes her eyes so she can’t see if Rose has finally turned around to look at her. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” she says.    Rose has frozen on the stairs. She starts to turn around, but crumples into herself instead, a ball of Rose on the steps, gripping the banister like she needs it to survive. “I don’t either,” she howls, and the sound is base and piteous and undeniably human.



You must be human to fight a monster. It seems wrong—your humanity, with all its messiness, is also what makes you susceptible to monsters, lets them in.

But you need the messiness. You can’t turn away from any part of what the monster is, why it’s there, what it means. For a monster to truly be defeated, it must be grappled with and known.

Knowing a monster is risky. Countless stories warn us—the actor playing a monster who cannot shake the role, the psychiatrist slipping into the mindset of a dangerous patient. The girl who wants to save her sister from a monster, but gets too close.

There is a fine line between thinking like and becoming a monster.

Sonia will throw her skeleton keychain out the window, but it will still exist in the darkness. Once you awaken a skeleton, it will always be with you, smiling, beckoning with its long, almost graceful hand of bone.

Finalist, 2013 Katherine Paterson PrizeAdidas footwear | Altra Timp 3 Review , Best Trail Running Shoes 2021