After the Outing – For Edward Gorey

Zillah raises the glass to her lips and tips the gin into her mouth. It hits her tongue with a dry coolness—she has long since become desensitized to the sting—and its arid, herbal vapors tickle the inside of her nose. No tinkle in her glass, no ice cubes to fence out with her lips. As always, she drinks it neat.

She sets her glass down on the round oak table and regards Miss Bones, seated on the other side of its polished surface. “You know what today is, Miss Bones.”

Miss Bones stares back, unspeaking. A wedge of late afternoon sun slanting through the sparsely-populated bar infuses her white dress with a golden glow.

Zillah picks up her glass. “Today was Victor and Winnie.” Her gaze drifts above Miss Bones’ head, settling on nothing in particular. “To Victor and Winnie,” she murmurs, and drains her glass.

She raises a knobby finger to get the waiter’s attention, then taps her glass. He nods. It would be quicker if she sat at the bar, but she can’t tolerate those stools without back support. And besides, it would be unseemly for a woman her age, closer to eighty than she cares to think about, to sit alone at the bar for hours on end.

But then, she isn’t alone today. Today she’s brought along Miss Bones, despite the fact that Miss Bones never keeps up her end of the conversation.

“You know,” Zillah begins. She pauses when the waiter approaches with her gin, neat, and clears away the empty glass from before. “Thank you.” She gazes absent-mindedly in his direction as he departs. Waiters in her day wore white shirts and vests, not T-shirts and jeans. She watches him take an order from the couple two tables over. He would look smart in a white shirt and vest.

She turns back to Miss Bones and wraps a hand around her gin. “To Victor and Winnie.” She purses her lips. “You know, I always thought something might happen to Victor. But Winnie?”

Even before the pupils of Miss Petersen’s class began disappearing one by one all those years ago, Zillah had had a feeling something would happen to Victor, with his propensity to linger at the train tracks on his way home from school. They found him the same day as they found Winnie, in late spring. At this milestone—seventy years now—Zillah is timing the segments of her project to coincide as closely as possible with the grim discoveries of that academic year.

It all began with Amy on the first day of third grade. Classes hadn’t even started yet—that morning the girl was so excited about seeing all of her friends again, she tripped and fell down the stairs in her haste to leave home. The principal made the sad announcement of her death the following day.

Zillah picks up her glass, shaking her head. A shame. She hadn’t been close with Amy, but she’d liked her well enough. So young. But then, they’d all been so young.

Zillah wets her lips with the gin. She’s going to make this one last. The couple two tables over laughs, and Zillah turns her head. The woman has inky black hair like Clara’s. But Clara wasn’t next. Right after Amy came Basil.

Everyone said it was irresponsible for Basil’s parents to let him miss the first week of school. His parents’ defense was that they hadn’t been able to get a camping spot at Yellowstone any sooner, and spending time amidst the wonders of nature would more than outweigh the benefits of the first week of classes. But Zillah overheard her mother telling her father the neighbors’ comments about the rough justice that had been served when Basil got attacked by bears. Not that anyone had wanted him to die, her mother stressed, but it was rather instructive, didn’t he agree?

Her mother kept all of the clippings, transferring them from a spot on her nightstand to a shoebox as they accumulated over the course of the year. Zillah would often peek through the cracked-open door of her parents’ bedroom and watch her mother rifle through the shoebox, pick out a story, cluck over it as she read, and put it back.

Zillah still has the newspaper clippings. After her mother’s death, Zillah took them out of the shoebox, put them in order and transferred them into slick plastic sleeves in a black leather binder. First Amy, then Basil, then Clara. Clara is next in the binder not because she died next—it took months for her to waste away—but because she was inconsolable after her twin brother Basil’s death. She stopped eating that very day, and thus, it seemed fitting to put her next, close to her twin.

“Ma’am, you all right?”

Zillah starts, spilling a bit of her drink onto her chin. It would seem she’s been holding the glass to her lips the whole time. The waiter hovers over her with a mix of pity and concern.

“Yes, young man, I’m fine.” She downs all the gin. “Except my glass is empty.”

“Ma’am, if you don’t mind my saying—”

She shoots him a look to confirm that she does indeed very much mind him saying.

The waiter retreats and Zillah smirks at Miss Bones.

Now, where was she? Yes, Desmond was next, after Clara. Well, before Clara’s actual death that cruel winter, but after the onset of her wasting. After a thin, early snowfall that September, Desmond was knocked out of a sleigh during an unconscionably premature sleigh ride. Then came Ernest, who choked on the summer’s last peach.

Zillah twists her lips, trying to look somber about Ernest. She never really liked him. He’d teased her mercilessly, pushing her at recess, pulling on her hair in class. Not that that meant he deserved to—

“There you are, Ma’am.” The waiter sets down a glass of water and a fresh glass of gin. Zillah eyes the gin. Did they skimp on the pour? Before she can say anything, the waiter is gone.

“Well, at least he brought you some water,” she says to Miss Bones. “If you want anything else, my dear, just shout; I’ll get his attention.” She waits for a moment, eyebrows raised solicitously—the poor dear hates to make a fuss, so Zillah always has to ask on her behalf.

Miss Bones merely smiles. The square of sunlight has floated further down her dress, making her eyes hollow and dark by comparison. But her teeth shine bright in the shadow. “No? Well, then, where were we?”

Where, indeed? Zillah begins to blush when she realizes she can’t quite remember where she left off. She was thinking about Ernest and the peach, but she can’t recall how much she’s actually said to Miss Bones and how much she’s merely thought to herself. And Miss Bones will be too polite to tell her if she repeats herself or leaves a gap.

Where to start again?

Zillah smiles and raises her new glass of gin, short or no. “To Victor and Winnie.”

Ah yes, she was talking about Victor, saying that by then, after all those children before him, he should have known better than to stand on the tracks looking for trains. She honestly can’t understand how his parents allowed it to happen, after Amy and Basil and Clara and Desmond and Ernest, then Fanny (which is why she never goes swimming…) and George (…nor has any rugs…) and Hector (…nor walks home alone. She and Miss Bones always stick together).

And on and on, one by one, until Miss Petersen’s third grade class dwindled over the months from twenty-six to just one. Just her.

She puts down her glass without drinking.

After Hector came Ida and James (drowning and poisoning), then Kate. Zillah shudders. The axe. The trail of bloody footsteps leading off into the woods. The crime scene photos touched off a controversy; the newspaper’s editor was sacked for running them. Yet her mother kept the clipping with all the rest, and Zillah slipped it into a plastic sleeve, folded so the picture wouldn’t show. But she can still see the image, burning through all those layers of newspaper, filmy plastic and black leather.

She can’t forget that image, or any of the others she’s conjured up herself. Leo: she imagines him sitting on an oversized Ottoman, heels kicking at its braided fringes, hand over his belly, trying to still the handful of tacks he’s swallowed. What could ever have possessed him to do such a thing?

After Leo, Maud’s father tried to take her as far away as possible from the school, from the whole town. But their ship was lost at sea, and they were never heard from again.

After Maud, all the families decided travel was too dangerous. Most took their children out of school, kept them inside, didn’t let them out to play with anyone. And in short order, poor Neville died of boredom. And in a way, Olive did as well. Zillah winces, picturing the awl dropping out of the air, its steely point closing in on Olive’s head as she played drum majorette.

Zillah shifts and looks around, desperate for a distraction. The bar is starting to fill up (five o’clock already?), but not enough to cause concern. Nothing like what happened to Prue could happen here. Although no one said it outright, everyone tacitly agreed that it had been downright negligent of Prue’s mother to let her go fetch her father at that bar full of miscreants.

Zillah stays away from such establishments, as well as from mires (Quentin) and open flame (Rhoda).

In fact, since that year she’s stayed away from just about everything and everyone but Miss Bones. And gin. She does like her gin…

She raises her fingers at the passing waiter, who reluctantly, she can tell, stops at her table. “Don’t worry, young man,” she purrs. “I’m just asking for water, please.”

The bartender raises an eyebrow, then nods. “Yes ma’am.” He gives her the type of smile young people give the old, and leaves.

Zillah frowns. “Patronizing. But never mind,” she says, shoving her gin and Miss Bones’ water glass aside. She dumps her oversized purse on the table and fishes out a large, square sketchbook. “Today is for Victor and Winnie.” She takes a long, slender cylinder out of her purse and opens it to reveal an elegant, silver-tipped fountain pen. Next comes the glass bottle filled with velvety black ink.

She flips through the stiff, cream-colored pages of her sketchbook, landing on her drawing of Susan. She’s sketched her classmate splayed out atop an oversized Ottoman—what is it with her and Ottomans? Or is this one more of a couch with no back, or a large sort of seat?—hand clutched to her throat, hair falling down over the edge of the cushion. Zillah has no idea what the scene really looked like, was never inside Susan’s house, yet she has somehow conjured up this image of the girl’s last, fatal fit. Fit of what, exactly, no one will ever know.

Zillah absent-mindedly dips her pen and inks a second set of circles into the loops adorning the carpet beneath Susan’s ottoman/couch/large sort of seat, pondering what kind of fit she could have had.

Miss Bones clears her throat.

“Oh,” says Zillah, with a start. “You’re quite right. Today is for Victor and Winnie.” She flips past her sketches of Titus with his deadly package and Una falling to her grimy solitary death down a deep, dark drain. Construction work, it seems, drowned out her cries for help. They only found her after a neighbor noticed an increased traffic of rats in the area. Zillah now stays away from construction sites as well. In fact, she doesn’t go out very often at all.

But today is a special day. She flips to a clean page for Victor and looks up at Miss Bones for strength. “I’ll do him in silhouette. He’ll be on the tracks, hand raised to his eyes as always, looking for a train—”

“Excuse me.” It’s the waiter, with a tray full of water glasses balanced on his arm. He places one of the glasses in front of her, narrowly missing her bottle of ink. “Are you using this chair?” he asks, pointing at Miss Bones.

Zillah furrows her eyebrows, confused.

“Are you expecting someone, Ma’am?”

Zillah looks across the dark, polished table. Miss Bones is gone. Zillah opens her mouth, but is silent.

“Because if you’re not expecting company,” the waiter continues, “we could use this chair for that party over there.” He nods toward a knot of people clustered around a large, circular table.

“Oh,” she says again. She realizes with a rush that Miss Bones hasn’t really been there at all, not that afternoon. Zillah nods feebly. The waiter thanks her and leaves, holding the chair in one hand and the tray full of water in the other.

Zillah sits quietly, blinking at the empty space where the chair was and Miss Bones wasn’t. She hasn’t seen Miss Bones in a while, actually.

A fat drop of ink falls from Zillah’s pen onto the page and sinks into the fibers. She puts down her pen and takes a sip of water. The glass clunks unevenly when she sets it back down.

When did she lose Miss Bones? She lost her the way most little girls lose their dolls, she supposes, leaving home and losing track.

But Miss Bones was with her at University, wasn’t she?

Zillah purses her lips and tries to remember where she kept Miss Bones in her dorm room. On a shelf? On her bed? Despite Miss Bones’ odd appearance, Zillah’s roommate never complained, for reasons she never understood nor questioned.

Miss Bones was an unusual doll, after all. She was about two feet tall, and she wore a white cotton nightgown with long, full sleeves and a Peter Pan collar, all trimmed with white lace.

The cut of her gown was modest, revealing nothing but the bones of her delicate hands and her hollow skull. She was, indeed, a very odd doll. When did her father bring Miss Bones home—Christmas? A birthday?

Zillah examines the drop of ink she let fall onto Victor’s page. No matter, it’s going to be a dark picture anyway. She picks up her pen and sketches a spidery line across the page, slightly above midpoint. That will be the horizon. Lots of room for dense, dark crosshatching below. The splotch of ink will be invisible.

Her pen pauses. She got Miss Bones the summer before third grade. And when did she start speaking to her?

Zillah feathers diagonal lines from her horizon to the bottom of her page. She then rotates her pad and reinforces the horizon line, adding indications of railroad ties at regular intervals.

Well, of course she started talking to the doll that year, the year all of her classmates died.

Naturally she needed to talk, and Miss Bones was such a good listener. She always arranged her tea parties with Miss Bones sitting directly across from her, because Miss Bones always paid attention. Miss Bones never stopped watching her out of those deep, black sockets where some poor child’s eyes had been.

Her father was happy to let her believe that last part, anyway, though her mother insisted the doll was a fake, some cheap trinket he’d picked up at the airport on his way back from a business trip to the Congo. She’d hoped he would give his daughter a beautiful mask or shield, she said, not some ghastly voodoo toy. It wasn’t voodoo, he said; that was Haiti she was thinking of.

“Honestly, Harold.” In Zillah’s memory, her mother shakes her head, fists on her hips. “First the shrunken head from Peru, then mummified cat from Egypt, now this?”

Her parents fought over the doll, which Zillah fervently loved from the start. Her mother finally relented and made the gown for her, and Zillah named her Miss Bones.

Zillah dips her pen and thinks. Did she really bring Miss Bones with her to university? Someone would have mentioned her, wouldn’t they? Someone would have said something if she’d whispered to Miss Bones under the drone of a lecture, or over the hum of a café or the whoosh of hair dryers at the beauty parlor, or through the clack of typewriters in the office?

She shook her head. No, surely she wouldn’t have taken Miss Bones with her when she visited her father’s company. She couldn’t have.

Zillah lays down her pen and lifts the page she’s been working on. Still clean underneath. There’s still room for Winnie, tricked by an early thaw and refreeze, to be embedded in a thick sheet of lake ice.

When did she actually last hold Miss Bones? She can almost feel the doll’s soft cotton nightgown, the scratchy lace at its edges, the smooth, cool bones of her skeletal face. She can smell the slightly stale, dusty odor of her never-washed gown. She never let anyone touch Miss Bones, not even when her mother begged Zillah to let her clean the doll.

That school year, when her classmates began disappearing, her mother became more and more obsessed with Miss Bones. “Darling,” she would say, “why don’t you let me freshen her up?” Zillah always refused. Miss Bones was much too delicate. Much too precious.

One day that spring, she was walking down the hallway with Miss Bones when she saw her mother go into the playroom, then leave empty-handed and angry. She knew from then on that her mother was on a quest to clean Miss Bones—and she wasn’t about to let that happen. She took Miss Bones everywhere with her, to the playground, to her steadily emptying school room, even to sleep with her at night. Her mother grew more and more agitated about Miss Bones, about her dirty gown. She complained that Zillah would get sick from all the germs on her filthy doll.

Zillah’s throat constricts. She snatches up her gin and gulps down half the glass.

Her father poo-poohed her mother’s concerns. Dirt’s good for kids, he would say. But her mother simply wouldn’t let up. There’s something wrong with that doll, she would say. That doll is unclean. That doll—

Zillah empties the rest of the gin down her throat. She flags the waiter from across the room and holds her glass aloft. The waiter hesitates, then raises a just-a-moment finger. Zillah picks up her pen and tries to focus on Victor’s picture.

That doll is unclean, her mother said.

As the weeks wore on, and her mother’s shoebox filled with newspaper clippings, she became more and more adamant about separating Miss Bones from Zillah. She bought Zillah new toys as distractions. She pleaded with her and her father.

She needs a friend, said her father.

We need an exorcism, said her mother.

The waiter approaches Zillah’s table with a pained expression. “Can I get you some more water?”

Zillah looks pointedly at the two full glasses of water on the table, then up to the waiter. “I’m fine on water.” She concentrates on enunciating like a sober person. “I’d like another gin.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but—do you think maybe you’ve had enough?”

She trains her authoritative glare on the waiter’s face while the room tips slightly around him. “Young man—”

“I’m sorry. My manager won’t let me—” He stops and gives her a pitying look. “Would you like anything else, like an iced tea or something?”

Zillah narrows her eyes. “Just the bill, please.”

The waiter backs away, ducking apologetically.

That’s it, she’ll finish the drawing at home, then. She spirals the ink bottle’s cap around its neck until she gets it to fit, then puts her pen away.

Her mother built a bonfire in the backyard one day. Her father was away on another business trip. Zillah came home from school—she was the only pupil left at that point—and her mother ambushed her. Her own mother knocked her over and snatched Miss Bones out of her hands. Zillah screamed. Her mother raced out to the backyard, and Zillah followed, hot-faced and yelling. That’s when she saw the bonfire. That’s when she saw her mother throw Miss Bones into the—

“Your check, Ma’am.”

Zillah drops her money onto the table and crams her sketchpad into her bag. She’ll finish Victor’s picture at home, then draw Winnie in the ice, then Xerxes crouching in the corner before a ravenous horde of mice, then Yorick about to get his head bashed in by a granite pillar at the museum. That last one she can do from memory. It was their last class field trip; a class of two that morning. Just one by the afternoon.

She’ll draw them all today. She’ll buy a bottle of gin on the way home and draw and draw, not stopping until every last one is complete. And then she’ll be done. Then she will finally be finished with Miss Petersen’s third grade class.

Yes, when she gets home, she and Miss Bones will drink their gin and flip through all of the yellowed news clippings and then all of her drawings. She’ll let Miss Bones come up with a caption for each picture in her sketchpad. Miss Bones will whisper them to her, one by one, and Zillah will ink them in at the bottom of each page.

And maybe she’ll let Miss Bones draw one last picture. Miss Bones just might dip the spindly tip of her finger into the ink and scratch away at the page, then scrawl the last caption in her own bony hand. And perhaps, when they finally find the sketchpad, it will be Miss Bones who tells the world what happens to the very last student in Miss Petersen’s third grade class.

Tara Campbell [] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Barrelhouse, Punchnel’s, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Luna Station Quarterly, Up Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, Master’s Review and Queen Mob’s Teahouse.