‘I’m doing it,’ Jane says.

‘Don’t be gross,' says Mattie. 'They’ll catch you.’

‘You're such a pussy,’ says Jane. She looks left and right: dull yellow light suffuses the underground cavern, casting the corners into shadow. The tunnel stretches out behind and in front of them, dividing into niches on either side. Inside each niche is a neat stack of bones: a layer of femur, a layer of skull, as though the human body is made from nothing else. Jane dawdles and watches the last of her schoolmates walk chattering past.

Mattie grabs her wrist. ‘Don’t.’

Jane wrenches her arm from her friend’s grasp. A quick reconnaissance: only the front of the stacks are uniform; bones are strewn haphazardly behind the tidy façade. A lone skull sits on a bed of scattered ribs like a pillow mint. She eyes the back of the crowd and then reaches out, hooking her index and middle fingers through the eye sockets.

She lifts, her heart hammering, and the skull comes easily enough, but the jawbone dislocates and clatters to the ground. Mattie whimpers. Jane kicks out without thinking and watches the jawbone skitter into the shadows. She stuffs the skull into her satchel and walks away. It’s a tight fit, and she holds her hand over the bag flap.

‘Put it back,’ Mattie hisses as they run to catch up with the queue at the exit. 'Please. Don't do this.'

Jane eyes the guard at the door. 'Shut your fat mouth or I'll tell Jake how many secret pics of him you've got in your phone.'

Mattie shuts her fat mouth as they approach the paunchy guard. The queue moves lethargically. Jane slips her hand into her bag, tracing the smooth bone dome under her fingers. She gives the guard her brightest smile.

‘What’s that in your bag then?’ he asks. He doesn’t smile back.

‘Nothing,’ she pulls out her hand. ‘Cold is all. Your English is very good.’

‘I’m English, innit. Been living in Paris since I was a lad, though.’

‘Well,’ she tosses her hair across her shoulder. ‘It must be such an interesting job. I really enjoyed being down there, you know. All those… like, wow, so many dead people…’

‘Six million.’ He gestures at the group before her. ‘How long are you lot in Paris for?’

‘Just an overnight trip,’ she says. The queue moves and she takes a few steps to catch up. ‘Well, see ya.’

They emerge into the crisp evening air. ‘He’s still staring at us,’ Mattie says nervously, looking over her shoulder.

‘Keep walking.’ Jane slips her hand into her bag, feels her way past the eyebrow ridge, and hooks two fingers around the eye sockets.


Jane tosses the skull in the air, catches it, tosses it again. One of the front teeth is loose; as the skull soars through the air and she deftly catches it in her other hand, the tooth falls out soundlessly onto the carpet. Jane picks it up and flicks it at Mattie, who is pacing.

Their dorm room is tiny; Mattie paces four steps then has to turn and pace back. Another four steps and she turns again. 'Stop it!' she shrieks as the tooth hits her on the cheek. She picks up the tooth, shudders, and places it gingerly on the windowsill.

‘Why, does it make you nervous?’ Jane transfers the skull from hand to hand like a basketball.

‘It’s…’ Mattie searches for a word. ‘It’s really disrespectful. It was a person once, you know.’

'A person who’s been dead for, like, five hundred years.’ Jane holds the skull up and stares into its eye sockets. ‘They don’t care what happens to them now.’

Mattie’s eyes fill with tears. ‘You’re such a bitch.’

Jane picks up their phones and tries to juggle them together with the skull. The size and weight differences give her trouble; Mattie’s phone drops onto the bed, and then Jane’s phone hits the skull in mid-air, and the whole lot crash-lands in a pile. Another tooth comes loose.

Mattie crosses the room in two strides and grabs her phone from the pile. She inspects it anxiously. ‘You better not have broken it.’

Jane throws the second tooth at her and hits her on the head. ‘I SAID STOP IT!’ Mattie screams.

‘Here, catch,’ says Jane, laughing, picking up the skull. She tries to throw it to Mattie.

‘No!’ Mattie shrieks as her arms fly up and her eyes squeeze closed. But nothing happens. She opens her eyes: the skull is still in Jane’s hand.

‘You're a freaking psychopath,' Mattie howls. ‘I’m gonna sleep in Emma and Sarah’s room.’

The door slams shut behind her.

Jane stares down at the skull in her hand. There is a pull in the centre of her chest, as though someone had stuck a hook through her back and was pulling, ever so gently. She gulps, draws back her arm, and tries again to throw the skull across the room.

It remains in her hand. The force causes it to wobble, and for a moment it feels like it might drop from her palm, but somehow it stays put, like a piece of metal to a magnet.

A clammy coldness pools in her fingertips and toes. She wraps all the fingers of her left hand around the dome of the skull and pulls hard.

It comes away easily, as though the magnetism that held it there is suddenly withdrawn. Her breath gushes out with relief. She moves to put the skull down on the bed.

She lifts her left hand. The skull comes up with it.

Her breaths come fast and shallow. She grabs the skull with her right hand, and her left hand comes away as smooth as water. She shakes her right hand: the skull sticks to her palm.

It is not stuck fast; she could trail her hand across the surface. Her palm and fingers move over smooth pate, the brow ridge, the twin hollows of the eye sockets, slide over the empty nose canal and past what’s left of the top row of teeth. But she finds that she cannot slip the hand further down into empty space. Her fingers scrabble over the empty interior, where brains used to be, and loosen another tooth in the process.

She tries again with the left hand, and then her foot, and then her shoulder. Each time the original limb moves away easily, but the skull becomes stuck to the new part of her, rising from her shoulderblade like a grotesque 80s shoulder-pad, or from her foot like the latest shoe from the Alexander McQueen runway.

It takes some time for her to realise that the frantic whimpering she hears is her own. She shakes, jostles, moves the skull from one hand to the other and back again, rotating it in every direction. It doesn’t matter: it remains stuck to her in one form or another.

The light outside turns from the rose-pink of dusk to the ink blue of night. Mattie does not return. Finally Jane stops. She is drenched in cold sweat and her hair sticks to her forehead in damp strands. She holds up the skull in her hand and stares into its eye sockets, trying to imagine real eyes in them.

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers, willing every scrap of sincerity into her body. ‘I’m so sorry for stealing you and for being disrespectful. Please let me go.’

She waits; tries to put it down gently. The skull moves with her hand. She screams in frustration and tries again to hurl it across the room. The force curls back on her elbow, brings tears to her eyes, but still the skull sits in her hand, staring at her with its black eye holes.

She thinks about the dark yellow light of the catacombs, the neat rows of stacked bones. She looks up the opening time on her phone, sets her alarm and is briefly comforted by her reasoned thinking, despite the circumstances. Finally she falls into a restless sleep.


She wakes several times during the night, each time breathing a nano-second of relief until she brings up her hand and finds the skull still stuck to it, her hand moving smoothly over its surface but unable to pull away. The nightmare mood washes over her and she falls back into her exhausted sleep.

The alarm goes off at 5am. She wakes, goes through the same routine and feels the same cold grip on her stomach as she brings up her hand with the skull still stuck to it. ‘I’m sorry?’ she says again, in a last-ditch attempt, but it elects not to hear.

She gets dressed quickly, transferring the skull from hand to hand. She puts on her shoulder bag, plunging her hand deep inside and burying the skull even deeper. No one is in the deserted dormitory hallway. All her classmates are behind their closed doors, dreaming of pain-au-chocolat in the morning.

The morning is violet-coloured and peppered with rain. She takes the metro, using the last of her carnet. There are only two people in her train compartment, both of them dozing. She tucks her hand even deeper into her bag, stares at the skull-shaped bulge.

It is still raining when she exits the station and runs across the road to the entrance. It is the off-season: there is no queue. She is briefly cheered by the thought until she comes into view of the guard, sitting on his little stool just out of the rain. He is smoking a cigarette, blowing tendrils of smoke out the corner of his mouth. He watches her as she approaches, his eyes darting to her hand in her bag, and then back up to her face.

‘I was here yesterday,’ she says.

He blows a tidy smoke ring. ‘I remember.'

‘I…’ she stammers. ‘I don’t know how to…’ A breath, and she takes her hand out of her bag, bringing the skull with it. ‘Please help me. I don’t know what's going on. It’s stuck to me and I can’t get it off… Please tell me you can help.'

To her great surprise and shame, she starts to cry.

She expects him to be shocked, angry, incredulous, but his face is impassive and he says nothing. He examines her hand with the skull attached. He tries to take it from her, pulling hard, but it resolutely sticks to her hand. She is briefly and surprisingly disappointed; she now realises that she had somehow thought another person’s touch would pass on the curse, would leave her free to run from the consequences of her actions. She had not entertained the notion that the skull would stick to her and her alone.

‘I’ve seen this before,’ he says finally, lighting another cigarette. ‘You’re not the first one it's happened to.’

Hope flares in her like a warm flame. ‘You can get it off?’

He grins. He removes his left hand from his trouser pocket. He straightens his arm and lets something slide out of his sleeve.

His fingers are closed around a femur bone.



Photo by Chelms Varthoumlien on Unsplash