Loose Change

By Taylor Creollo

Madelaine woke up with a piercing pain on the side of her head and something wet oozing onto her pillow. Raising a hand to the pain, she frowned as it was met with a warm stickiness that smelled metallic and fresh. It was difficult to see in the dim lit room, but the scarlet blood was unmistakable as it coated her hand, dripping down like wax onto her white sheets. 

It took a moment to register, but once it did, she cursed and scrambled out of bed. The blood dripped onto the floor slowly like a broken faucet, the sound taunting her exhausted mind. Her ear stung even worse as she gradually became more awake and aware, making her way to the bathroom adjacent to the bedroom of her apartment with her hand clasped over it. 

“Shit, shit, shit,” she hissed and flicked on the lights, wincing at the brightness that hit her eyes and burned into them. “What in the fresh hell?”

There was a white shard of something wedged into the dip of her ear. It seemed to be the source of the blood and Madelaine wondered why she hadn’t felt it before. She finally let her hand fall, rinsing it off with ice cold water that left her hands red. Her fingers were too large and clumsy to get a good grip on the slippery object. Digging around in the top drawer of her cabinet, her icy fingers latched onto a pair of rusting tweezers and pulled them up to her ear, painstakingly yanking the object out of her ear. Her teeth clenched as she dropped it onto the counter top, leaning down to peer over it. It was a  tooth.

Her eyebrows furrowed. “Where…”

She turned the piece over in her hands, little patches of blood coating her fingertips. The piece that had embedded itself in her ear was the sharpest edge, nearly piercing the skin of her finger as she held it closer to her face. It didn’t even seem human.

“Maddie?” a croak said from the bathroom door. Her roommate, Nia, stood there in her pajamas, eyes squinting at the bathroom light. “It’s 3am.”

“It… it is?” Madelaine’s voice sounded panicked, even to her own ears. “I’m sorry.” She held out the piece of bone to the other girl. Her hand shook. “But you see it, right?”

Nia yawned. “Do I see what?”

“The tooth,” Madelaine said frantically, thrusting it even further forward. “In my hand. And all the blood.” 

“Maddie, I…” Nia frowned. “Are you feeling okay? Do you have a fever? I can call Lexi if—”

“Don’t you dare,” Madelaine said, lowering her voice. Her fingers began to stiffen “Just look. I woke up and it was on my pillow, in my ear.”

“What, did you leave it out for the tooth fairy to come grab?” Her roommate took a step back, stretching with a soft chuckle. “Go back to bed. You obviously need some sleep.” 

“Nia, I’m not crazy,” Madelaine insisted, pulling the tooth back to her chest. “I don’t get how you don’t see this.” She gestured vaguely to the bloody counter and waved the tooth in front of the other girl’s face. 

“You need sleep,” Nia repeated. “If something really is wrong, I can—”

“Don’t call Lexi.” Her sister would immediately jump to a wild conclusion and send her back to the last place she needed to be. It was always what separated them, the common stubbornness that slowly destroyed their relationship and contacting her about something like this would only make things worse. “Please.”

Nia’s eyes darted down as she quietly said, “I won’t.” 

After she left, disappearing around the corner, Madelaine took a wet washcloth and gently cleaned up the crusted blood around her ear. She yanked a  bandaid out of the medicine cabinet and situated it over the wound before turning off the light and falling back into bed. As she rolled over, she nearly forgot about the previously bloody pillow before noticing it out of the corner of her eye. 

It was pristine. 

 

***

The second time Madelaine was jarred awake, it wasn’t from blood, but a clinking sound from beside her in bed. With a groan, she rolled over, reaching out in the general direction of the sound. Her fingers were met with a handful of  irregularly shaped objects. Movements clumsy, she reached over to turn the lamp to the right of her bed on. 

“What the…” she muttered, staring blankly at the pile of bones on her pillow. They were yellowing, a few whole, a few broken in half. They looked like femurs, or perhaps a tibia; like a bone that a dog would bury in its backyard. But they were barely longer than her pinky. 

She had thought the night before was some sort of fever dream. Nia didn’t mention it in the morning, just chattered away like she normally did, her short figure bustling around their shared kitchen while making coffee. It was as if the night before hadn’t even happened.

Madelaine was sure that her history with things like this were not tipping the scales in her favor. She figured perhaps that things would be different if most of her time was not spent alone in waiting rooms, or laying on a frayed couch, or getting her weight checked before a prescription refill. 

The alarm clock on her nightstand blinked red. 

3:34am.

There was no way she was going back to sleep now. 

 

***

They always disappeared before the sun came up. 

The third time it was a couple of ribs, the fourth half of a  hip bone, but it was the fifth that drew the line. Madelaine woke up with a  skull clutched in her grasp. It was barely the size of a dodgeball. The round top of it was completely smooth, the bone was a chilling pure white, and the top row of teeth were sharp. Just like the first tooth she had found in her ear. 

Madelaine hadn’t brought it up to Nia out of fear of Lexi, but this was unmistakable. There was no ignoring the tangibility of it, how solid and real it was. She slid out of bed and walked across the soft carpet to Nia’s room, knocking gently on the door before opening it slowly. “Nia?”

A grunt was the only reaction that the creaking of the door and soft call had provoked. 

“Nia, I need you to look at this.” Madelaine approached the bed and shook her friend’s arm. “Please wake up.”

“Jesus Christ,” Nia mumbled, turning over in her bed and rubbing her eyes. “Why are you dead set on not giving me any sleep?”

“Sorry,” Madelaine said, “I just had to show you.” She held the skull out, trying to force her hand to steady. The eye sockets seemed to stare straight through her, as if looking at something beyond, behind her. 

“Show me what?” Nia asked, pushing herself up into a sitting position. “Turn the light on, I can’t see a goddamn thing.”

Madelaine flicked the light switch up and held the skull out again, like a deranged Shakespearean actor. “This.”

“That,” Nia said flatly, “is your open palm.”

“No, the skull,” Madelaine said, pointing at it with her other hand. “Right there.”

“Maddie, that’s just air.”

“No, it’s a skull. With, like, crazy shark teeth. Can’t you see it?”

“No.”

“Why can’t you see it…”

“Madelaine, if you just—”

“Don’t say it.”

“I already called her.”

Madelaine crushed the skull in her fist and could have sworn that Nia flinched slightly. The distinct, sharp, nasty taste of betrayal sat heavy on her tongue. “I asked you not to.”

“I could tell something was wrong. I’ve been living with you long enough to know that you weren’t okay,” Nia said, sighing. “I was just doing what I thought was best.”

“You don’t get to make that decision for me,” Madelaine said quietly. She stared at Nia, the pieces of the skull falling out of her grasp and onto the floor. The landing was silent. “What did she tell you to do? Lock me up? New shrink, new drugs, new f—cking straight jacket?”

“You know I would never do that to you,” Nia said. “I didn’t mention the… the bones. I just said that you seemed like you weren’t doing well. That’s all, I swear it.”

“But you still said something.” Madelaine pressed her lips into a thin line and nodded slowly. “Good night.”

“Maddie…”

“I said, good night.” Madelaine slammed the door behind her and left to the sound of jingling in the distance. 

 

***

They stopped showing up after that. Nia was around the house less and less, the only words spoken between the two roommates short and clipped, and few and far in between. It was the first time in years that they had a falling out like that, and Madelaine hated every second of it. 

Nia had never been perfect. She was strange; strange looking, strange acting, but overall a sweet person and reliable roommate. She always paid rent on time, albeit in the form of a trash bag full of quarters that Madelaine had to drop off at a conversion machine in the nearest grocery store. She cleaned up after herself, quicker than anyone Madelaine had ever met. And she always seemed to know what to say to strangers that knocked on her door. 

The strangest thing about her, though, was the fact that ‘Nia’ was not the name on the lease that the two shared. Sure, Nia didn’t look completely like the rest of the people in their community, but she’d never mentioned anything about being foreign. The sign on the lease was a jumbled collection of figures that Madelaine had never seen before. It didn’t look like any language she was familiar with, and she had no idea how to pronounce it. So when her new roommate introduced herself as simply ‘Nia’ Madelaine hadn’t questioned it. 

But as odd as Nia already was, as time went on, she seemed to somehow get even weirder. Her light stayed on at night and Madelaine could hear her rummage around in the early hours, too angry to ask her to quiet down. Madelaine found a strange marking on their kitchen counter made in some dark powder, but it was gone when she walked back in with a wet hand rag to clean it up. Nia hadn’t been home. 

The bones had stopped, though, and Madelaine was beginning to question what it all was. Maybe she was crazy, and all the concerned yelling that ensued once she picked up the many calls from Lexi was warranted. Maybe she did need to start seeing someone again. 

It wasn’t until a rainy Wednesday evening that Nia came through the door with a huff and set a bag down on the table. “It’s the first of the month.”

The bag was larger than it usually was. Madelaine approached her cautiously and pursed her lips. “Yeah, it is.”

“This month’s rent,” Nia said, nodding towards the bag. “Thought I’d give you enough time to run down to Walter’s.”

Madelaine mumbled her thanks and lifted the bag up. It was heavy as it always was, perhaps even a bit more. Without saying anything, she slung it over her shoulder and turned away from her frowning roommate. On a whim and surge of bravery, she whipped around and said, “Why quarters?” 

“Excuse me?” 

“Why do you pay in quarters? It’s not the most accessible form of payment, so why?” 

Nia shrugged. “Work is… unorthodox. I’ll start converting them myself if it’s easier.”

Madelaine shook her head. “It’s not a problem. Just tell me why.”

“No.” The reply was quick and snappy, the most confrontation Madelaine had ever heard in Nia’s voice. The short girl was standing tensely, eyes on the bag in Madelaine’s hands. “Just go convert it before Laurence gets here.”

“Why can’t you just tell me?”

“Because it’s none of your business.”

“Except it is.”

“Is it really? I give you the damn money, on time, every month. I pay my share and take care of this place, so I think I’m allowed to not want to tell you where the money comes from.”

Madelaine gave up. “Whatever.” She left straight out the door with the bag, not even bothering to put on proper shoes or even a jacket. She had no clue why Nia was being so difficult all of a sudden, after years of living together. 

The breeze was chilly against her bare arms as Madelaine hurried down the stairs with the bag in her grasp. Trying to let every thought of Nia, Lexi, and the bones out of her mind, she made her way down the frosty sidewalk and breathed ice into her lungs.

 

***

Madelaine woke up unable to breathe. Hundreds of suffocating weights were all over her body, her bed; swallowing her whole. She thrashed in place, hands trying to make their way up to hold her throat, but she couldn’t move them. Her eyes stung as she attempted to keep them open, staring into a black expanse of nothing. She didn’t dare open her mouth.

It was silent as she continued to fight to sit up. It felt like something was sitting heavily on her entire body, pinning her to the mattress and squeezing all the life out of her. Breaths came in quick spurts, filled with dust and a little bit of lost hope. It was all-consuming, draining, exhausting to fight against it, but eventually she freed her upper body and was able to situate into a sitting position, head breaching the insane pressure.

Madelaine gasped, blinking around at what she slowly began to recognize as her room. She forced her legs to slide over the edge of the bed, wading through to make it to her lamp. With a shaking hand, she reached forward and tugged it on, pupils widening at the scene that unfurled before her. 

Thousands of skeletons were piled up, completely swallowing her room about halfway like a sick ocean. She didn’t realize she was screaming until her throat began to burn. 

“Where did you come from?” She held onto her neck, trying not to squeeze. “Why me?”

“I told you not to ask questions.” Nia’s voice was haunting. “I figured if the crazy girl found the bones, no one would care.”  

Madelaine froze. 

Nia’s grin was wicked and she flicked her fingers. “And I had to dispose of them somehow.”

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