In one of the abandoned apartments near the subway, deep beneath the heart of one of the mountains, thirteen year old Ronnie found a skull.
It was an old skull, blackened by dust or dirt or age, transformed into something hard as granite, rough as broken cement blocks, and–to a boy like Ronnie–cooler than anything imaginable.
He packed the skull in his school bag.Â He couldn’t very well put it in his bedroom.Â But Ronnie knew secret passageways, hidden rooms, places he believed no one had seen in a hundred years or more, and one of those places just happened to be accessible through a sub-basement at home.
It wasn’t easy to get to.Â It was a tight squeeze, and he had to crawl part of the way.Â The air was stale and dry and scratchy.
He had a flashlight to guide him, and no fear of make believe things like Spider Dragons and the Nemesai.
Inside the alcove, he could stand.Â An old bookcase stood against one wall.Â Cobwebs draped the bare and broken shelves.Â There was a tiny table beside it, and enough room for a chair.Â He’d checked for other doors, hollow spaces in the walls, anything, but the alcove had been thoroughly walled off a long time ago.
Ronnie set the skull on the top shelf of the bookcase, which put it just low enough that he had to squat to look into its empty eye sockets.
“I wonder how you died,” Ronnie said to the skull.Â He shined the light on it.Â He sat in the dust and continued looking at it and said, “Someone murdered you, that’s got be it.Â But I wonder why.”
As Ronnie sat, staring at the skull, the story came to him in short starts and fragments.Â The skull belonged to the victim of a horrible crime, a poisoning at the hands of a lover so she could be with someone else.Â There’d been money involved, theft by murder.Â An escape had been plotted, but the trecherous murderers never got very far.Â The victim’s ghost led them astray, got them turned around in the labyrinthine underworld of the City of Night, where they must still be wandering today.Â Aimless, misdirected.Â Alone with each other.Â Ronnie loved irony: ultimately, the murderers didn’t love each other, and the rift between them swelled until each blamed and despised the other.
“Sweet justice,” Ronnie, full of pride and grim satisfaction, said to the skull.
After a while, the flashlight’s batteries began to fail.Â The skull grinned in the dimming light.Â Ronnie got up, tenderly touched the side of the skull, and said, “I’ll be back.”
He crawled out of the alcove, into the sub-basement, then went upstairs to his room.Â He replaced the batteries, but also got a couple of candles and matches and chalk.
In the alcove again, Ronnie found the skull still grinning and staring into nothingness.Â He lit the candles, placed them on either side, and said, “I wonder what your name was.”
Ronnie considered a dozen names, including his own, and the name of every missing person he could recall.Â He put his ear to the skull’s toothy mouth as though it might whisper its name.
“Max,” Ronnie finally decided.Â He scratched the letters into the wall with the chalk.Â Ronnie sat down again, told the skull, Max, stories about the unsavory fates of his murderers, and spent most the day with his new friend.
The skull merely grinned.
Later, after Ronnie had gone off to bed and the candle had been extinguished, if he’d been there to lean close enough to the skull’s toothy mouth, he might’ve heard it whisper, “I can answer to Max for a little while.”