“Pop Up” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Dan stared at the towering ossuary, a vast structure of jumbled bones reaching towards the slate sky like the grasping hands of a thousand undead. The only thing he could think to say was: ‘How the bloody hell did this get planning permission?’

Beside him, Tina laughed: ‘It’s a pop-up, it’ll probably be gone in a couple of weeks. Makes a change from the usual.’ She gestured at the sad-looking rows of shuttered shops surrounding it like gravel around a grave.

‘Yeah, but what is it supposed to be? I mean, you’d think there would be a sign or something.’

‘It’s probably a restaurant. They always are. Best case scenario, it’s an ironic homage to Halloween-themed breakfast cereals from the ’80s. Worst case scenario, it’s something political or, even worse, it’s a work of conceptual art.’ Tina raised her phone and took a photo.

‘I don’t know how they expect anyone to visit it. It isn’t like they’ve rolled out the welcome mat.’ Dan put on a silly voice: ‘Welcome, welcome to the house of bones. All the fun of the graveyard in one easy-to-reach location.

The skies darkened. Tina laughed. She tapped her phone a couple of times: ‘Maybe it’s got a website?’ She tapped a few more times and raised an eyebrow: ‘Apparently not.’

Quelle surprise. It looks like it hasn’t even discovered the telegraph, let alone the internet.’

‘No, it’s modern. It’s some underground thing that’s probably shared by word of mouth. On social media, of course. Do people have actual conversations any more?’

‘Aren’t we?’

Tina shook her head: ‘This is more of a discussion than a conversation, I think.’

Amongst the matchstick sculpture of femurs, tibias and scapulas, a single skull stared down at them. Slowly, its hollow sockets began to glow bright orange. Two rows of weathered teeth chattered eagerly, the noise skittering through the air like crickets in a campsite.

Tina’s laughter howled along the deserted street. Dan was about to make a sarcastic comment when the air rumbled. The sky flashed like a selfie and then the rain started to pour. The kind of heavy, opaque rain that Hollywood film-makers like to think that they invented. Gasping, Tina gestured towards the ossuary’s yawning mouth: ‘Come on, let’s get inside!’

As another lightning flash stabbed the sky, Dan pointed his thumb over his shoulder: ‘The bus shelter is closer.’

‘Fair enough.’ Tina said. They ran towards it. According to the parts of the timetable that poked out from behind the burnt and graffiti-stained glass, the 41 bus would arrive in five minutes. More like ten, Dan thought.

Tina huddled close to Dan on the cold plastic bench. Behind the sheets of rain, the other side of the road wasn’t even visible. Then, a pair of lights appeared in the distance. Tina smiled. It’s on time! For half a second, she thought about getting her phone out and documenting this unprecedented occurrence.

The lights got closer. It was only when they were the size of footballs that something began to feel wrong. Neither Dan nor Tina could place what it was. Perhaps it was because the light was a subtly different hue than standard bus headlights? Perhaps the two orbs were a centimetre off from their remembered models of what a bus looked like? They didn’t know. Both of them just stared.

As the lights got closer, they separated. A silhouette appeared against the rain, like a preliminary sketch. With slopping footsteps, the skeleton stepped out of the rain. It raised a large iron lantern and fixed two hollow sockets on the dumbfounded couple.

Dan regained the power of speech: ‘Nice cos…’ His voice broke off as he realised that the skeleton’s neck was too thin to be a costume. Tina gasped.

Seconds later, another lantern-bearing skeleton appeared. In a voice like teeth on a blackboard, it said: ‘Sorry folks, we don’t usually do outreach but the roof is leaking. Any donations will be very much appreciated.’

The other one rattled its head: ‘Yeah, we’re already on our final warning with the health and safety people. Give us a hand. Or maybe a leg?’

Dan laughed and fumbled for his wallet. The skeletons shook their heads. Tina’s eyes widened. They didn’t want money, they wanted…

But, before she could scream, the skeletons said: ‘We’ve got wi-fi and free coffee. Artisanal cupcakes too.’

Who could argue with that?

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