Lucy Zhang

Growing Bones

There’s a miniature graveyard in the basement, where extra jugs of Wesson vegetable oil sit, where spelling workbooks whose pages have gone stale lay crushed under old Java textbooks and encyclopedias, where buckets of dried paint hide under the staircase, where a pillar is stained the tiniest brown, a smudge of dried blood from the time Cal fell while trying to hang streamers along the ceiling pipes and nicked his forehead on the edge of the ping-pong table. Cal thinks no one remembers so he keeps telling everyone he was attacked by a ghost. Only Sisi believes him. Especially when Cal says her stuffed animals will be ripped apart by the ghost if she forgets to bring them back upstairs.

Sisi thinks she’s a smart girl even though she’s four years younger than Cal. She’s already taking algebra and the teachers call her “motivated” and “mature for her age”, her favorite compliment. In fact, Cal is the one who’s always making bad decisions and causing problems, always late for dinner, constantly asking Dad for more cash because he spent all of his five dollars on Snickers bars from the school vending machine, never remembering to toss his dirty clothing into the laundry basket so Sisi has to be the one to clean up the bathroom before she takes her shower. Cal can’t even wash dishes properly; he leaves the glasses stained with greasy fingerprints, he forgets to soak the rice cooker pot in soap water overnight. No, Sisi wouldn’t believe Cal’s nonsense if it were only his word against common sense.

But Sisi did see a graveyard in the basement, a week after Mom was cremated and shoveled into a brass urn, so it isn’t entirely inconceivable that Cal hit his head because of a ghost and not his usual absentmindedness. The graveyard is in the back of the basement, behind mushy cardboard boxes full of Christmas tree lights and chipped ornaments. Sisi doesn’t play tennis like Cal, so her arms are too weak to lift the boxes, but, unlike Cal, at least her right arm isn’t noticeably larger than her left. She drags and pushes the boxes by their flaps, kicking them when her arms and back need a break, but she only damages her overgrown toenail. She always forgets to cut her nails like she forgets to eat vitamins or apply ChapStick, the vanilla-scented lip gloss Mom gifted her every year, long expired.

The graveyard looks the same as it always does: a small square of dirt in the middle of the concrete basement floor, little tombstones dispersed across the area, protruding at different lengths with different headstone shapes—arches, peaks, semicircles, square tops with ogee shoulders (which she looked up outside of her designated fifteen minutes of computer time, while Cal went to take a dump and forgot to log out).

What would Cal do? Sisi wonders, hands on her hips. He would probably dig up the stones as soon as he discovered the place, trying to verify if there really were dead things under the basement. The idea of dead things under their house tempts her curiosity too. But she knows better. She had done just fine in the marshmallow test in school—the teacher even used a S’Mores Pop-Tart instead of a marshmallow, which was like the difference between an ice cream bar and the free cartons of milk they offered in the cafeteria—earning herself a full pack of S’Mores while her classmates chowed on the bait. Sisi drags a folding chair in front of the graveyard and pulls out her vocabulary book. Maybe if she finishes her homework and waits, something will happen, no action on her part needed. She unhooks the beluga plush backpack clip and places it next to her. A second pair of eyes never hurts, and she can’t trust Cal to sit quietly—no, Cal would start pacing and stomp upstairs for a bag of Ritz Bits and stomp back downstairs while chewing with his mouth open, crumbs getting stuck in the stairs and attracting bugs from who-knows-where, not that spiders or ants seem to survive very long in the basement, maybe because of the humidity or radon.

 

It takes one week’s worth of chorus after-school programs, two days of rectangular pizza and chocolate milk cafeteria lunches, one day of swim class where the instructor kept pushing Sisi’s head in the water even when she wanted to breathe, one hour of memorizing the one-paragraph story of Ragnarök in a book of myths that might’ve been fun to read if Dad didn’t insist she memorize one story a day because he thought school didn’t assign enough work, five minutes of stalling in the basement, waiting for a sign of motion beneath the patch of earth. She imagines a roly-poly conglobating under her stare, relaxing a moment later, wriggling into soil, crystallizing copper and arsenic in its midgut.

A pinky finger-sized bone emerges from the dirt. Just a stub. A tinge of ivory.

Sisi thinks she’s going crazy.

Cal, she whispers. Maybe the telepathic sibling bond is real. Maybe even dumb Cal can hear through layers of drywall and carpet and headphones cushioning his ears, blaring heavy metal or Beethoven or whatever his next music phase is—it changes every week since Mom died.

 

During their first extended family dinner in years, Cal and Sisi communicated exclusively in shared glances and secret eye-roll exchanges. A slight twitch of the eyebrows meant lol I’d be annoyed if it were just me and them, a glare meant rescue me right now, a full eye roll meant actually kill me.

“She shouldn’t have pulled all those all-nighters at work,” Aunt Yihon said. “I knew she looked sickly months ago—should’ve spent more time under the sun. She should have cooked healthier meals, not just for herself, but for the kids too. You can’t survive on Chef Boyardee.”

Uncle Pan nodded while spitting out fish bones. Sisi had taken it personally, the corner of her eye twitching, but Cal shook his head. They both liked discovering Chef Boyardee stuffed beef ravioli in their lunchboxes, the few times Mom could be bothered with packing them lunch. Sisi kept quiet.

“You should’ve married that Su girl, the one with good skin. She gave us three homegrown squashes the other day. Super fresh. She takes her kids to swimming class too, it’s good they’re learning to swim, never know what might happen one day, it’s easy to drown.” Aunt Yihon could talk forever, but Dad wasn’t saying anything, and Cal seemed like he’d shoot lasers from his eyes if he could so Sisi said she wanted juice and dragged Cal along.

 

The bone protrudes further out of the ground. Maybe this is some kind of plant, Sisi thinks. One that survives without sun or rain.

She rolls up the right cuff of her sleeve. It’s Cal’s old track sweater, more bag than clothing, but she likes how the forest green cotton shields her body, how cold air creeps through the openings like wind can see her limbs quake.

Sisi bends down on her knees and reaches over, pulling at the bone. She rocks backward, her body’s momentum dragging the bone and widening a hole in the earth. It pops out. She falls onto her butt, bone in hand. She flicks it with her fingernail. It’s the length of a plastic spoon, thin and curved, like a fractured piece of skull: two compact layers sandwiching spongy tissue. From the hole the bone had come from, something glints under the dim, string-drawn basement lights.

Sisi plucks it from the ground. It’s a ring lined with rounded diamonds. Sisi lost her mother’s engagement ring years ago while playing in the backyard. Her mother had said Sisi was worth more than the ring, but Sisi couldn’t help but wonder how long she’d have to live to ensure her life earned back the monetary value of the diamond. Most people would rather steal a ring than a random child, right? 

She holds it up to the light, brushes some dirt away with her thumb, wipes her thumb on her sweater.

There’s no such thing as ghosts. Everyone knows that. Sisi pockets the ring, drags and kicks the boxes to cover the patch of dirt and leaves the basement.

 

Dad is home late again. Cal begins to fill the rice cooker with water and Sisi takes chunks of chicken breast from the freezer and places them in a bowl to defrost. They operate like a factory, wordlessly assisting the other: Cal kicks the stool over to Sisi as he closes the cabinet containing the twenty-five-pound bag of rice, Sisi steps on the stool to find the salt and peppercorns to dry brine the meat. Mom taught them to cook when she insisted they make family meals during the weekends, waking them up at eight a.m. to start proofing doughs or marinating meats or wrapping wontons to boil for breakfast. Weekends were the only time Mom cooked, too busy on weekdays to even change out of her dress pants when she returned home before dashing to the study room with her briefcase. Sisi enjoyed folding the wontons, but Cal would always mess up the shape—the ugly ones are mine, he’d say with a grin and Sisi would turn to Mom, mine are so much better.

Come with me? Sisi tugs on the hem of Cal’s hoodie.

She leads him into the basement, pushes the boxes away, steps to the side and points to the dirt, the tombstones that Cal says are just rocks. There was a finger bone in there. There might be more. Cal kneels and digs his hands into the soil only for them to come up clean, tiny particles of silt and sand and rock slipping through his fingers like water. It’s there, it’s there, she wants to tell him. But it’s like blowing bubbles: as soon as someone lets out a sound, the bubble pops and nothing is left. Water trickles down the basement pipes; the sound makes Sisi shiver. Phantom toilet flushes, Cal had called it.

I don’t see anything, Cal says. He turns around to head back up the stairs, check on the rice, give it a fluff if needed. Sisi reaches to grab the hem of his sweater, but her arms are too short, his strides too long. Wait, she wants to say. Please stay. His slippers thud against the stairs. Sis glares at the dirt; another bone—maybe the ulna this time—would probably emerge from the ground now that Cal was gone, just you wait, and only she’d be there to see it. It’d be their exclusive relationship. She’d call the bones Mom:Mom, keep growing; Mom, come here; Mom, where are you? Cal was missing out.





Lucy Zhang

Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in the SFWP Quarterly, Fractured Lit, The Conium Review, Contrary, New Delta Review and elsewhere. She is a finalist in Best of the Net 2020 and included in Best Microfiction 2021. She edits for Barren Magazine, Heavy Feather Review and Pithead Chapel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.