By Nicole Wolverton
The longing squelch of bagpipes wails against the sound of the subway rumbling below ground. A police siren competes for a moment, then goes silent. At a few minutes past midnight, the full moon is a little too bright for my tastes. It glows silver, making Ezra momentarily wolf-like—all long nose and shadows thrown over her normally sweet face. She looks as though she might drop her black backpack, throw her head back, and yowl into the steaming city air.
“Do you have the jigsaw?” Ezra’s ears seem to perk.
I nod. “Fully charged, ready to go. And you have the climbing gear?”
She pats the backpack. “Everything we might need.”
The crackle of firecrackers from what sounds like a few streets over startles me.
“The jigsaw’s going to be loud,” I say for the hundredth time. The sound of bagpipes grows fainter. Who the hell plays bagpipes in the middle of downtown Philadelphia—in the middle of the night, no less?
“It’ll be fine. It’s a Saturday night—tons of bars on the surrounding streets, lots of traffic noise, people shooting off fireworks. And it’ll only take a minute—maybe less—to crack the plexiglass, right?”
“Yeah . . . but we should have a plan. What if there’s a security guard? Or what if someone’s working late?” Beads of sweat roll down my back. My bra clings damp against my skin.
“It’s a holiday weekend—no one is working today. And there’s never even been a security guard stationed here. Never. And I have it on good authority that the security cameras aren’t functional at the moment, either.”
Ezra has friends in strange places—I wonder what strange place I inhabit in the odd configuration that revolves around her like planets to a sun. In that way, I’m more of a piece of space junk caught in her orbit, constantly trailing her, moving in her trajectory.
“Okay,” I say, “but there are National Parks Service people.”
“They’ll be elsewhere. It’s the Fourth of July. No one’s hanging out behind a museum in a courtyard.”
Ezra stops and pivots, almost knocking me over. “Liss, come on—we’ve been planning this for weeks. You gave me the Liss Burney Seal of Approval last Tuesday.”
We’ve been planning for months, really. Or Ezra has, ever since she read that document from the university’s Ben Franklin archives and found that note written in the margin. That ‘Seal of Approval’ wasn’t so much approval as the acknowledgment that her scheme might work.
“The bones are bound to be down there,” she says. Her face is set—even more wolf-like now and glowing in the moonlight like a star. Normally she’s a short preppy girl, platinum-hair, which is now hidden under a baseball cap. I told her it would be best to dress like we were going to a bar, but unless she’s heading to a super air-conditioned goth establishment, no one will believe it. I fit in—cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, my black hair tucked back in a ponytail—but she’s in a long-sleeved black shirt and leggings. Less wolf, less planetary body, more cat burglar. If someone sees us, she can run and hide in the shadows, while I can maybe pretend to be a drunk girl who got lost walking home from the club.
Just a piece of space junk.
Maybe Ezra has the right idea for espionage—but it’s still nearly a hundred degrees and humid on top of it. She must be on fire beneath her clothes.
“I’m fine. Really,” I say. “Let’s just get moving.”
She squeezes my arm, and somehow her fingers are like ice. It burns me just the same. Over the silhouette of roofs to the south, several mortars explode and shower the sky in white brocade and red flitter trails.
The museum is at the end of the next block. It squats, a stolid red brick building that looks more like an old school than a place that would house a priceless collection of artifacts. A black metal gate slices across the pillared entrance to the courtyard. The moonglow is brighter than even the streetlights but not enough to illuminate the edge of the hinges, hidden behind one of the pillars. Ezra hands me her pack and shimmies into the space along the brick column, squeezes herself around the end of the gate. I hand her bag through the slats, then give her mine.
She grins. “Come on, Liss—piece of cake.”
For just a moment her teeth look too long, as though she’s grown fangs. A trick of the light: Whether her own or the moon’s, it’s hard to tell. My grandpappy used to talk about seeing the animal in people—how us Burneys could always see past the surface of things to the heart of what is. “We’re special, my cub. We have the x-ray vision. We have the laser eyes.”
Grandpappy had those things. I have always just seen what everyone else does—followed in the path that others have blazed. And I see Ezra now, just as she is, beckoning to me from the other side of the gate, commanding me to take my place in her wake.
I’m so sweaty that I imagine it possible to slip through the gap along the gate’s edge as slick as oil and ball bearings, but my t-shirt catches on the rough brick. The metal bars trap my bare legs, jolting painfully at my kneecaps. I slither in, though, because it’s expected. I press all the air out of my lungs, panic rising in me, and I push until I squeeze around the hinges, until my body pops out the other side—and then I am newly birthed a criminal. I think of Grandpappy again. He liked to talk about how we become something new all the time, like stars become red giants and red giants become white dwarfs. I doubt this is what he meant, though—me, becoming what Ezra needs me to be.
I’ve thought it through—the implications of this night. I’m an adult before the law, and this is trespassing. That’s up to a year in prison and $2,500 in fines. Maybe more since this is a National Park site. Definitely criminal. Ezra doesn’t care—she does, but she doesn’t. I’m only along because she couldn’t possibly pull this off by herself. I’m along because I can’t let her try. And I’m along because I don’t trust anyone else to have her back like I do . . . and because, when it comes down to it, this is my role in Ezra’s life.
I’ve tried to talk her out of this, although Ezra wouldn’t recognize it as such. She sees what she wants to see. But it’s not exactly a win-win situation. If we get caught, that’s bad for both of us. But if she actually finds the bones she keeps talking about, that she’s sure rest at the bottom of this pit, she’s screwed. Sure, she’ll make a name for herself as an historian and her doctoral dissertation will be a foregone conclusion, ethics notwithstanding—but that’s big girl jail time. What will I then become?
She nudges my arm. “Hey, stop worrying. I told you—if anyone asks, I’ll say the plexi broke, and I fell down the shaft.”
It’s as though she can home in on the very surface of my brain waves. I’ve known her long enough, I guess—since freshman year of college, when she arrived in our room the first move-in day and immediately dragged me out for an illicit beer. She’s been the de facto leader of our small group of friends ever since. The sun. The alpha, I suppose.
“We’ll still be trespassing. And what if they find the jigsaw and climbing gear?”
“So what if they do? You enjoy woodworking, and I like climbing. And gee, officer, we were taking a shortcut back to the apartment and stopped to look at this famous and historical privy pit on this most sacred of American holidays. I am after a PhD in History, after all.”
It smells of fresh-mown lawn in the moonlight, and the grass is springy under my feet, as pliant as a forest floor. She tugs me across a path of large pebbles, a rough-hewn shadow-laden sea that leads to smoother concrete. Abruptly, the toes of my shoes line up against the plexiglass rectangle that covers the privy pit. The tall stone walls cast shadows here, scattering gloom on the scratched and clouded plexi that covers the top of the pit. The circular hole is lined with charcoal-stained bricks and descends to a blackness so bleak that I cannot fathom how deep the pit might actually be. It’s perhaps three feet in diameter. Warm goosebumps spread over me at the thought of Ezra lowering herself to the bottom of the vast darkness that awaits below, the sooty bricks passing only inches from her face.
“And you really think there’s something down there?” I say. “This pit and the other one were thoroughly excavated.”
“Uh huh. They found a perfectly intact china tea set down there.” Ezra gestures at the hole. “Not even a chip in the sugar bowl. The marginalia in that document, though—it was made by the chief archeologist in charge of this project. You don’t donate your papers to a university and demand that the contents not be made public for a hundred years if there’s nothing potentially interesting or controversial in the collection. So when he says they didn’t bring up everything they found, I believe it. And while nothing I found explicitly says this, it’s entirely possible this wasn’t a privy pit at all. I mean, really—who tosses a tea set down a privy pit?”
“What do you think the pit could be?”
“I don’t know, but the founding fathers were a sneaky bunch. Don’t you want to find out?”
I shrug. I’m here, aren’t I? Supporting Ezra as always, following her around like a puppy.
We crouch next to the hole, knees crowding the plexi. The sound of the bagpipes on the wind wafts through the space like a ghost, bringing with it the scent of overturned earth. I dig through my bag to produce the electric jigsaw.
“Wait until the next round of fireworks starts,” Ezra says.
I nod, finger on the trigger. We don’t have long to wait—it sounds as though someone set off an entire warehouse full of bombs within seconds. The percussion thunders up from the concrete and through the bones of my legs. The jigsaw blade chitters, turning to a high-pitched whine when I set it against the plexi. Ezra presses her palms to her ears and grins widely.
Surely someone has called the police by now. Even with the fireworks and the sound of traffic and the subway rumbling, the jigsaw scream must be louder still. It would be a suspicious sound at any time, but coming from a museum devoted to an American hero it would be downright alarming. I think again of Ezra howling at the moon and keep cutting.
The blade rips across the plexi, and Ezra scoots backward, away from the hole. She grabs hold of my t-shirt, as though her grip can save me if I fall. I’m stronger than she thinks. I always have been—it’s part of why I can’t tear myself out of her orbit. A splatter of sweat from my forehead dribbles along the ragged cut of the blade. My heart vibrates in time with the jigsaw. Every time I move the hand that’s keeping me steady, it leaves a fog-filled print of anxiety against the plexi. After what seems like an hour, I have a hole cut through.
I don’t know what I expected the two-hundred-year-old privy pit of a famous person to smell like, but it’s not this—I swear there’s a hint of perfume drafting up the hole. Roses. Freesia. I sniff. My grandpappy’s roaring grumble hisses in my ear: That roommate of yours—she’d like to think her shit don’t stink. I almost laugh. That’s Grandpappy always thinking he sees through the heart of things, I guess. He never liked Ezra. He gets all bristly around her.
The fireworks and explosions have stopped now, but the city is anything but quiet. Maybe the sound of the jigsaw really did fit right into the cacophony. Oddly, though, while the surrounding streets may be loud, the courtyard is silent.
“Ready?” Ezra says. “The bones are bound to be down there. That’s what the note in those papers said. I can feel them, waiting for me at the bottom of the pit.”
“Whose do you think they are?”
She shrugs, although the dark mostly hides the action. I can feel it more than I can see it. Sense her movement. “There was a daughter who died when she was young. Officially, a fever carried her off, but there was a rumor at the time that she was murdered—that there was a secret society that the founders were a part of that demanded the occasional sacrifice. Cannibals, y’know?”
“So you’re hoping to a find the gnawed-on bones of a little girl? That’s kind of warped, Ezra, even for you.”
Her strong hands are busy getting the anchors into place, setting up the belay device. “I don’t want to find her. Okay, that’s not true—I’d love to find her. But the bones could be anyone. Or they could be animal bones. Maybe an animal used the tunnel as a den. Anything could be down there, and I want to be the one who discovers it.”
“Animal bones in a den, huh? Like wolves? Or bears?” I shiver despite the heat.
“Sure. Both were plentiful in this area at one point or another.” She slides into the climbing harness. “There’s another harness in the bag in case of emergency, and I’ll be placing anchors the whole way down in case something happens up here with you. It should be easy for you to come down to me, or for me to get back up the hole. No worries, okay?” She hands me several glowsticks. “If anyone comes around and you have to abandon ship, snap one of these and throw it into the pit. And I mean it—if there’s even a chance of you getting caught, leave. I’ll be fine on my own.”
I nod, and she swings her legs over the hole. My mouth is dry as chalk. Something beneath my skin crawls, something reacting to Ezra, no doubt. To her putting herself in danger, perhaps. I hand her two flashlights on carabiners, which she clips to her harness.
“Do you have your walkie talkie?” she asks.
I laugh uncomfortably. “I feel like we’re in one of those seventies movies about a band of plucky, adventurous kids.”
“Cell phones might not work underground.” I catch a flash of her teeth before she squirms into the hole. “Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” I say, but she’s already descending into the blackness. Before long, the top of her cap disappears—and I’m left with only the slip-scritch of the rope sliding along and another round of fireworks. She’s too far away for comfort, just out of my reach. At least the bagpipes seem to have stopped. Something in the mournfulness of them sets me on edge.
A slight breeze blows through the courtyard. I shiver again and sit at the edge of the hole, legs crossed, walkie talkie in my hand. The hot wind almost feels like it’s urging me down into the pit, practically whispering encouragement, compelling me to do my duty and stick close. I glance over my shoulder, but the large-pebbled path and the fresh-mown lawn are empty. In the distance, just over the tops of buildings, chrysanthemum fireworks shoot purple and pink ribbons into the sky, changing over to sparkling trails as they die out.
“Hey, I’m at the bottom.” Ezra’s voice crackles out of the walkie. Light flashes in the bowels of the pit.
I fumble with the buttons. “So what do you see? Is it just a hole?”
“No, there’s a small doorway cut into the brick—there’s air coming from it. Like I feel it blowing.”
“Maybe it’s cut into the subway tunnels.”
“Could be. I’m going to crawl through. See what’s in there.”
“Be careful. And keep talking to me. I feel better when I know what’s going on.”
“You worry too much.” She pauses. “Okay, I have to put you down for a minute, but I’ll pick up in a minute or two. The space is pretty tight.”
Ezra’s silence makes the fireworks and the shouts and the sirens all the more noticeable. I am left alone with myself and the humidity and the pull of our connection. Nights like this—slick and restless—remind me of my family. Grandpappy used to jokingly call us a sleuth of Burneys.
I close my eyes and listen to the heavy air rustle the trees. Sniff the brimstone of the explosives, the scent of car exhaust. The strange dull miasma edged in flowers emanating from the hole. Something isn’t right. Even I know that. Something searing tears at the space where Ezra should be.
“Ezra?” I say into the walkie.
I wait another few minutes and try again to the same result.
My breath slows, comes shallow. This is not how I want this to go. In my head I imagined Ezra would descend, find her bones, catalog the scene, and come right back up. Now she’s below . . . somewhere . . . and I am here, sweaty and worried. Fidgety and feeling . . . oddly set adrift.
I shove my legs into the extra climbing harness and arrange the belay device as we rehearsed a million times, just in case. Just in case! The straps chafe against my skin. In the bright moonlight—even in the shadows—I am pearl-dipped, furred. Bound. Like there are bound to be bones down there. With each inch that I lower myself into the pit, I breathe slower still until only the calm beat of my heart echoes in the gloom, along with something I can’t quite make out until suddenly there it is: the sob of bagpipes. It’s so dark that I cannot make sense of up or down, nor where the sound comes from, but it’s there with me in the blackness.
The time-worn brick brushes my knee now and again as I lower myself. I’ll be smudged with soot by the time I read the bottom. The bagpipes grow louder, growling in time with me, as the scent of roses dissipates. I am suspended in permanent night, so thick the ropes have disappeared, the bricks have gone, and I am nothing. Finally, my feet touch solid ground. The air is cooler here. The palms of my hands guide the way, showing me the small hole that Ezra must have wriggled through. The image of her as a wolf comes back to me—did she use her whiskers to ensure there was enough space to fit? I crouch down and laugh at myself for such a silly thought, and throw myself in headlong, scraping my forehead on stone.
The crouch-crawling goes on forever, and finally a dim light shines on the other end.
“Ezra?” I call.
She does not answer.
I have seen no bones. Not yet. Perhaps the only bones down here are Ezra’s. My pulse quickens. With each jolt forward my body constricts and thickens at the same time. Something about it makes think of Grandpappy again, saying, “You just wait, Liss. The becoming will find you one day.” Never quite knew what he meant, but that’s what it feels like—like I am becoming. Becoming new, becoming old, becoming more of a Burney. Even my fingernails feel different. Longer and sharper. I may be newly a criminal but am I am also newly something else, it seems. But I still follow Ezra’s trajectory—that has not changed at all: I am pulled to her as though tides to the moon.
The bagpipes come clearer now. Not loud enough that the piper might be standing in the space at the end of this crawlspace, but near. As bright as the tunnel glows, my eyesight dims. Not the light itself, but the detail. I am becoming . . . and wrapped in a soft-edged shroud.
And suddenly the scent of Ezra is everywhere. The clothes detergent she uses. Her body wash. The shrimp burrito she ate for lunch. The sweet-sour fear of her sweat.
The channel widens. I trundle toward the opening, toward the light. It feels as though it’s been a long winter—I’m cold enough now to shiver—and I’m coming up for air as the ice thaws and the snow melts. As the sun dims and the gravity lessens. The tunnel opens to a cave, perhaps twenty feet across. My palms come to rest on the chilly ground. I emerge chafed in soot and dirt.
“Ezra?” My voice is low and throaty. Hot meat and the scent of bones pinch up my nostrils.
“I’m here.” I clear my throat. “I’m coming. Where are you?”
“In the next room. I tripped over a boulder or something.”
“Are you hurt?”
We’ve been friends for such a long time. It feels wrong to think about the taste of her bone marrow. I shake my head to clear the thought.
“My ankle might be broken.”
I stand upright, unsteady on my feet. Ezra’s voice comes from the back of the cave, from a smaller room set off the back. The walls are craggy and brown, dusty. She sits on the ground next to a large rock, wolf-like face more ashen gray than the silver-tipped angles she wore above. Her walkie talkie sits next to her. Beneath my skin, something shifts and settles into place. I tilt my head and wait to be caught in her wake.
The bagpipes are a steady drone—and the magic of us seems to be missing now.
She squints up at me. Her eyes widen. “What happened?”
“What do you mean?” I hold on to my human voice.
“You look . . . different. Taller. Your eyes are dark.”
“The light’s dim here.”
And it is—Ezra’s flashlight barely illuminates the room, and my headlamp does little more than that. Her second flashlight is still clipped to her belt. She doesn’t need to worry about me. No matter what I am becoming, there is loyalty between us even though the pull is gone—it’s enough, I think. We can worry about the rest later.
“Liss, there are no bones.” Her voice catches, thick with disappointment. “Just you and me.”
Bones. I’m thinking of her marrow again.
“Sorry, Ezra. I know how much you were counting on it. Does anyone else know what you found or about your plan for tonight?”
She shakes her head and slips the cap off her head. The blonde hair is bright in the glow of her light, but her shine has dissipated. “Can you help me up? If you can get me back to the little tunnel, I think I can do the rest myself. I was about to start dragging myself over that way when you came bursting through.”
Grandpappy said he always did like the chase. No one knows we’re here. No one can hear us. Loyalty only gets us so far, perhaps.
“Why are you looking at me that way?” Ezra says.
“You know you look like a little wolf?” I say.
“What does that mean?” She is instantly alert. A forest animal aware that something lurks. Something predatory.
I am a Burnley, after all. I’m meant to go my own way.
“Did you know that wolves have no natural predators?” I say.
“No, and that’s so fascinating. Liss, I need your help.” She holds out her hand to me.
“Except bears,” I say. “Wolves are apex predators, but bears eat wolves. Some bears.”
Her hand falters in the dim light. “Hey, Liss.” Her voice is sharp. “Can we talk about this later? I’m in a fair amount of pain here.”
“I can smell it, you know. Your pain.” And I can. She smells delicious and hot. “Tell you what—predators like the chase, and this is no exception. I’ll still follow you in my own way. I’ll give you to the count of fifty.” I smile widely to show her my new canines.
She makes a squeak. “Wh-what is happening?”
“You were right, Ezra.” Power surges through me. “There are bound to be bones down here.” I snap off my headlamp. I don’t need it anymore. I am a shining sun in my own right. “You should really run now.”
Her expression is indecisive, like she can’t tell if I’m serious—but the wolf in her assesses the situation quickly. She staggers to her feet and edges around me toward the mouth of the little cave. I let her go—I promised her a head start. We’ve been friends for so long that it seems the sporting thing to do.
I close my eyes and listen to the tuneless wheeze of bagpipes, how the sound fills my head and gives a layout of the complex of tunnels. Ezra was right about another thing—this was never just a privy pit. Her footsteps echo in the dust as she spins on her axis. She’s limping, crying. Desperate.
At the count of fifty, I lumber after her. From the main room, I follow the curve of one rough-hewn wall to another doorway, this one leading down a narrow, bricked shaft that must be thirty feet long.
I sniff the air and follow the smell of meat. Her fear, though, is gone.
In the room where she should be, there is nothing but a wooden crate and a spent candle.
“The bones are bound to be here,” comes the whisper. It’s Ezra’s voice . . . only not her voice. More like a low and mocking howl, but I can understand it perfectly. I can’t pinpoint her location. Perhaps she has also become in her own way.
Perhaps there is a reason we have been friends all these years. Uneasy friends, but still. Perhaps there is a reason Grandpappy never liked her. Two celestial bodies interacting gravitationally, orbiting around our fixed points. Becoming who we were always meant to be. It just took me longer to break free and catch up.
I step behind the wall to wait. My muscles bunch, ready for her.
Her footsteps are light. “And here they are.” Her voice is beside me, just like that. Fast.
I stare into Ezra’s sharp features, her silver-touched skin, all shadows and angles. Her mouth opens wide in a high-pitched yowl. Her fangs flash.
We are bound, the two of us. Predators. Suns.
I bat at her just as she swipes at me. The sound of us echoes in the chamber, competing with the longing squelch of bagpipes, the subway rumbling the walls around us, the dim pop of fireworks far above us, a cosmic clash of will and wonder. Her teeth close over my neck, and I know it’s over. That roommate of mine—she’d like to think her shit don’t stink. I almost laugh. Never trust a wolf denied the light. A new sound is added to the mix: the silk-slip of my blood and the crack of my bones breaking under her shining jaws.
About the Author:
Nicole M. Wolverton is a Pushcart-nominated writer who lives in the Philadelphia, PA area. She is the author of The Trajectory of Dreams, an adult psychological thriller (Bitingduck Press), and editor of Bodies Full of Burning, an anthology of menopause-themed short horror fiction (Sliced Up Press). Her short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in more than two dozen publications, including the Saturday Evening Post, Hungry Ghost, the Nighty Night with Rabia Chaudry podcast, and anthologies from Dark Ink Books and Ghost Orchid Press, among others. Find her online at www.nicolewolverton.com.