Even before she grew a clock over her heart, Alcine was a little different from those around her. While her peers lived in houses where they used every room, she and her mother dwelled in an old villa by the lakeside where a layer of dust had conquered everything but the kitchen and the attached bedrooms. By the time her classmates hurried to the school bus in the morning, Alcine had sat bleary-eyed in a train for two hours (even though her father used to teach at a perfectly nice school a five minutes' walk away, with a darling view of the lake from the cafeteria).
And, when the girls in her class became obsessed with boys, Alcine found the face of a pocket watch on her chest and became obsessed with skulls. Fox skulls, mole skulls, rabbit skulls, crow skulls lined her room, where she spent her days thinking about the lives they'd led and of the stories they might tell if they could speak. For a while, she'd even grown orchids inside a human skull, but the police had taken it from her after she'd brought it to school for a show and tell.
"Must you always be so morbid?" huffed her mother once, when Alcine had brought up the clock and said it ticked for the time when someone might grow flowers out of her skull. "Why is everything always about skulls and bones with you? ('Not bones, only skulls,' corrected Alcine) There's no reason why the clock wouldn't tell you when you're about to miss the train, or something else that's useful to know."
Alcine found this laughable and refused to acknowledge she hadn't missed a single train in the time she'd had the clock.
One morning, when Alcine was on her way to school, the clock gave a chime. "How odd," said Alcine, opened her coat and pulled aside the neckline of her shirt for a look at it. The clock had never chimed before, though its ticking made falling asleep bothersome. She stopped for a minute, taking the moment to appreciate how far autumn had come and how lovely the leaves swirling on a gust were. Winter was close; before snows came, she would have to make a round in the woods to look for animals who might've gotten ambushed foraging or shot by the boys with pellet rifles. When she was content the chime hadn't marked the end of her time, she carried on down the path towards the tracks.
Alcine waited ten minutes for the train, then fifteen, and after she'd forgotten herself to admiring the sunrise over the lake—the stop was at the end of a bridge high over it—she realised an hour had passed without the train showing. "How upsetting!" said Alcine, in the vexed huff she'd learned from her mother. Alcine was the only passenger boarding at this stop; there was no station or even a timetable where she could learn if something had changed with the schedule.
There was, however, an old man living in a shack just down the tracks. After waiting another five minutes to make sure the train wasn't coming, she jogged towards the house.
Alcine knocked on the door. The old man appeared in a morning robe, with a coffee cup in his hand and a dog squirming to see the visitor past his legs.
"Hello," said Alcine, smiling first at the man and then at the dog.
"Hello," said the old man, sizing Alcine up while he took a swig of coffee. "What can I do you for?"
"I was wondering if you saw the train come around this morning."
"Nope. Made me oversleep, too. Usually I wake up when it comes clankerin' past."
"How inconsiderate." Alcine was about to thank the man for his time when she heard another chime. She pulled down her neckline for a look, startling the man—but when he noticed there was nothing to peep at even if he hadn't averted his eyes, he ogled openly at the clock over her heart.
"Little girl, don't you know that ain't the sort of ticker you're suppose'ta have?"
"Of course I do!" Alcine snapped, zipping up her coat. It hadn't been long since she'd brought a boy home from school and had gotten her first—and, she feared, last—kiss, when he'd slipped a hand under her blouse, found the glass face grafted onto her chest and run off screaming exactly that.
She and the man started and jumped towards the noise when a train's horn blew. "How peculiar," said Alcine. "I didn't know another train came this way."
"Maybe it's someone who thinks you're important."
Alcine smiled at that. "Maybe it is. Thank you and goodbye, mister. And you, dog."
When she came running back to the stop, Alcine found a train quite unlike any she had seen before, not only the one she took daily, but different from the dozens they had travelled on when her father still lived and had taken Alcine and her mother on a trip around Europe. There were drapes over the windows, tattered and dingy like funeral palls that had seen too much use. The cars were all grey with dust and had their numbers scraped onto chipped paint.
Odder yet, the conductor beckoning her over had nothing but an otter's skull between his hat and collar.
"Come, come, Alcine!" said he (for it was distinctly a he, and a he with a preference for tobacco and whiskey at that), despite Alcine seeing no tongue inside the skull. Had there been one, she might've instead wondered how an otter could speak in the first place, but now she was preoccupied trying to figure out how it produced those sounds without the necessary musculature. The otter in a suit tilted its skull-head when Alcine circled him, then asked, "Are you not coming aboard?"
"I suspect," said Alcine, "that you are not taking me to school."
"You've been invited to a party," said the otter, reaching as high as he could for a push at the small of her back. "Come along now. We must depart."
"First tell me something. Did my clock chime because the train arrived?"
"Why, yes. What good is a clock that doesn't tell you when you're about to miss the train?"
"No good at all, I suppose," said Alcine, disgruntled by her mother's uncanny ability to always be right.
Once she climbed aboard, the conductor blew his whistle and the train shuddered into motion. Her car was empty, but Alcine heard music from up ahead; its beat was asynchronous with the tick-tick-tick in her bloodstream, frustrating her musical sensibilities beyond reason. The taps and claps matching the lively tune suggested other listeners had no such issues.
Alcine followed the otter to the next car. The only seats were around the tables in each corner. In the middle of more small creatures with skulls for heads was a stage with a band. Squirrels in suits, rabbits in dresses, kittens with shoes and bows on their bare pates jumped around the car. The jaws of the fox playing an upright bass clack-clacked as he danced around his instrument. The sparrow playing drums seemed to have as little trouble keeping time as the otter had talking, despite his lack of hands. And when the frog, with his tiny piano, bounced up and down to play with his hands and legs in turn, Alcine couldn't help but to laugh. Everyone looked just as she'd imagined them, in her daydreams of what the skulls might be like if they'd led secret lives of which people never knew.
"Yeah, that's the spirit!" said a mouse, rocking his waist. Upon noticing Alcine with the otter, he did a double-take and shouted, "Hey, everyone! Alcine's here!"
The music stopped, and all the animals turned to look at her.
They cheered, then went back to dancing.
"Oh, man!" said the mouse, shaking his tush. "I love this song!"
"What is it called?" asked Alcine, who couldn't help but to dance.
"Skullboogie! Do you feel it?"
Alcine did, though the song didn't sound particularly nice in her ears. It was just as fast and lively as the other one, just as upbeat in melody, but there was something about it that didn't sit right with her.
"Mister," she said to the otter. "I think I'd like to sit this one out."
"Sure, doll," said he. "And you can call me Franklin."
They went back to the first car. When Alcine sat down, the door opened again and the mouse came in. "How come you're not dancing?"
"I didn't feel like it," Alcine said. "I don't like that song."
The otter, paws wrapped behind his back, only nodded; the mouse waved his and said, "Whaaaat? But it's the best darn song ever written!"
"I don't like it. It's sad."
"Nonsense! It's the happiest song I ever heard!" insisted the mouse, but, when the otter placed a paw on his shoulder, added, "Though it might be a bit of a grower."
The door swung open. A pigeon and a mole peered in.
"There you are!" said both, hobbling to Alcine. "Aren't you dancing? They'll play Skullboogie all night for us!"
"Alcine isn't feeling well," Franklin said. It was difficult to read expressions from faces permanently grinning, but his consoling tone made Alcine wonder if they now looked upon her with disappointment. "I'm sure she'll be right there when she rests her feet a little."
"Okay then. Come on, Henry. I want to dance with you," the mole said and the mouse left with them.
"How come they all know me?" asked Alcine when they were alone. Franklin laughed (with his mouth open, making Alcine's brow furl with the need to know) and hopped to sit beside her.
"Why, you're the most important person in the world, aren't you?"
"Now there's something I haven't heard in a while."
Franklin hummed. "How old are you again?"
"Ah. Well then, it was about time you did."
Alcine smiled, then turned towards the door. "The song sounds a little nicer all of a sudden."
"It is a bit of a grower. Would you like to go back?"
Henry and the mole spun around to the music, kicking their legs up together every time they completed a spin. "Oh!" said Henry, when he noticed them coming in. He left his partner spinning and ran to Alcine. "I almost forgot! The band wanted to ask you something."
Henry only shrugged, then dashed back to grab the mole when her whirlwind ended and she teetered around on the brink of collapsing.
Alcine went to stage. The frog noticed her coming and said into his microphone, "Folks, we're taking a five. Kick back and rest your feet, 'cause when we're back we'll party all night long."
The tap and stomp of feet turned into an excited murmur. Every now and then, Alcine noticed someone glancing at her and speaking in a quicker squeak.
"Hello," said the sparrow, shaking Alcine's hand with his wing. The grip felt an awful lot like a firm hand would. "Johnnie Sparrow. Big fan."
"Mike Fox," said the fox. "Also."
"Bob Frog," said the frog. "Thrice so."
The trio had the same names she'd given to the skulls in her room, and Alcine wondered if that was a coincidence at all. "Hello, all," she said and curtsied. The animals shared a look and bowed. "Henry tells me you wanted to ask something."
The sparrow and fox pushed the frog in front and took a step back. He looked over each his shoulder with a nasty eye at them, then cleared his throat. "The thing is… you are our muse."
"We learned Skullboogie for you. It would be a great honour if you played it with us."
"I don't think I can. I haven't played the piano in years."
"You never forget these things," said the fox.
"Music's inside you," the sparrow agreed.
Alcine frowned. There was another thing her father had used to say, popping up all of a sudden. "I suppose I can try, if you show me how. I can't read notes."
"No problem!" said the frog, leaping up to take her hand. He caught onto her finger and hung there. "I don't know why I expected anything different. Could you drop me by the piano?" he went on, when his weight wasn't enough to make even the finger budge. When Alcine did, he showed the keys. "It's a-this and a-that and then it's all boogie!"
"A-this, a-that, all boogie," said Alcine, but her fingers were too big for the keyboard.
"Oh. Hum," said the frog. "Ah! There's a piano big enough for you in the next car. Maybe we can move the party there."
"I should practice first," said Alcine.
"Do you remember how it goes?"
"A-this and a-that and then it's all boogie."
He gave a frog's impression of thumbs up. "Good girl. Don't be long."
Franklin unlocked the door to the next car when the animals went back to dancing. Between the cars, Alcine heard another piano up ahead; she'd heard its tune somewhere before.
She gasped when they came in. There were no seats here either but for one by the piano. Playing it was a man with a coat just like her father's, trousers like her father's, shoes like her father's. The hat of her father's was missing from the skull-head, but otherwise it was just like the body she'd found in the forest the day before she'd gotten the clock on her chest.
"Hello," said Alcine, voice aquiver.
The man stopped playing and faced her with the rictus once abloom with orchids. "Hello, Alcine."
Alcine took a deep breath and, though she already knew the answer, asked, "Are you my father?"
"You really want me to be," said the man, "so I would like to say yes, but I would also like not to lie to you."
"That's okay. I know you aren't."
"But you really, really wish I were."
"Yes. Then I would know where he is and why he hasn't come back."
"He's not a very good man, Alcine."
"Don't say that."
The man shrugged and went back to playing. Alcine chewed her lip, then said, "He used to tell me nice things."
"And then told them to someone else."
"That doesn't make him a bad man."
"Maybe not. Just not a very good one, either."
"Are you sure you're not him?" Alcine said, trying to make her angry tone sound hopeful. "Your clothes look so much like his."
"They are his. He came by my house on his way to the train and gave them to me in a suitcase."
"If someone isn't growing flowers in his skull, why hasn't he come back?"
The man and the otter looked at each other. With a sigh, the man got up to let Alcine rest her shaking legs.
"Maybe your father can't say nice things to you anymore, but if he has a mouth full of leaves, he can't say those things to other girls who aren't you or your mother either, and he'll always look at you with blooming eyes. Isn't that what you thought?" said the man, with a hand on her shoulder.
"And skulls, I suppose, don't make fun of you for being a little different, for having no father and a mother who's too sad to look at the rooms where you laughed and danced and listened to him play the piano."
"The thing is," said Franklin, folding her hand in his paws, "when you think about something too much, it tends to take a life of its own in your head."
"Those somethings aren't your father, but us," said the man. "And we'd like to rest our feet for good."
"But don't the others like it this way?" said Alcine. "They love Skullboogie so much."
"Well… Now that you mention it, I still think it's a little sad."
"Why don't you try playing it?" said the man, sweeping a hand over the keyboard. "Maybe you'll remember how it goes."
Alcine hummed and placed her hands on the keys the frog had shown. A-this and a-that and it was all boogie when the song returned from the depths of memory. When she remembered it, she stopped playing at once and pressed her hands on her lap.
"I think it's time for me to go," said Alcine, clutching her skirt. "I would like to step off at the next stop."
"Sure, doll," said Franklin.
"And don't ever call me 'doll' again."
The man went back to playing, but as the otter opened the door, he stopped and said, "Alcine, would you do something kind for an old man?"
"You don't seem that old."
He shook his head. "Not for me. Do you know the man who lives near the train tracks with his dog?"
"I've met him."
"I'm his son. After the police took my skull from you, they decided that I had done something bad to myself and told my dad just that. I would like it if you told him I wouldn't have hurt him like that, and that I love him and he should forgive himself."
"Okay," Alcine said, startled by the way the skull-man's shoulder's drooped.
"We had been fighting, you see," he said after a pause. "I stormed out of the house into the night and I stumbled and that was that. It's a little selfish to ask you this, but it's difficult for me to sleep when he comes to the cemetery every Sunday and stinks of sadness."
"I don't think it's selfish at all."
"Thank you, Alcine. I wish I could tell you where your father was to make up for it."
Alcine returned a wan smile. "I think I'm done thinking about him for now."
Between the cars, when the music was loud ahead, Alcine stopped Franklin before they entered. "Do you think," she said, frowning with thought, "that it's okay for them to dance a little while longer?"
Franklin waited for her to go on.
"If I stop thinking about you, that's that for all of you. They're having so much fun."
Franklin nodded. "Sure. A little while."
They stepped in. Henry noticed Alcine and cheered, then the band did, and then all the others. Alcine laughed and danced with them all until her feet were so weary she couldn't stand up anymore.
When Alcine opened her eyes, she wasn't in the middle of the animals anymore. She was in a white room, in a white bed with white sheets and a window letting white light in. Her mother came in a minute after Alcine realised she was in a hospital.
"Thank goodness," said her mother, hurrying to her side and setting a paper coffee cup on the table. "Are you okay?"
"How did I get here?"
Her mother frowned. "Don't you remember? Have you been drinking? Taking drugs?"
"I haven't been drinking or taking drugs, mother."
"The nurse said you'd been to a party, and that your friends brought you here after you passed out. First I heard the train never showed, and then you didn't answer your phone… I've been dying to know if you were all right all day. And now this!" Her lip twitched, as though she couldn't decide whether to wear a stern expression or a worried one. "What kind of people do you spend your time with, Alcine? The nurse was so upset she was shaking when I came in. Supposedly they put that on the table, too."
It was then Alcine noticed the otter's skull in which grew an orchid.
"You're not a gothic, are you?" her mother went on in a huff. "I always feared you'd become one with a name like yours, but I liked it so much better than 'Prudence' or 'Gertrude.' When your shenanigans with the skulls began, all I could think of was how there's never been a gothic going by Prudence."
"I'm not a goth, mother."
"Oh well," said her mother, after brushing Alcine's hair for a moment, "I shouldn't mind who your friends are and simply be glad you've made some at last. We haven't had visitors since that odd screaming boy."
At the mention of a hurtful memory, Alcine pulled down the neckline of her hospital gown. "Where's my clock?"
"That's the strangest thing. I asked the doctor what he thought about it, and he only gave me a curious look and asked, 'What clock?'"
"Hum," said Alcine, prodding the skin without a glass face. She closed her eyes, but only heard a gentle wind sweeping autumn leaves outside. The tick-tock in her veins was gone. "I think I know what it was counting down to."
"It's time we did some dusting around the house, and maybe redecorated my room. I'll need a vase for the orchids."
Her mother's mouth fell agape. She pressed it shut, thought a moment, and then smiled. "Just be sure not to miss another train without it. Oh yes, missy. Don't think you're not in trouble for skipping school for a party, new friends or not."
The next afternoon, when Alcine came home from school, she paused on her way down from the tracks. Her eyebrows lifted as she recognised a melody in the air, the same one the skull-headed man had played. It came from the old man's house, and she remembered her promise.
Alcine rapped on the door and the music stopped. The old man appeared in a woollen shirt and jeans, with the dog squirming by his feet.
"Hello," said Alcine.
"Hello," said the old man. "What can I do you for?"
"Your son wanted me to tell you something. He would never have hurt you by hurting himself and he loves you and wants you to forgive yourself." When the man only stared at her, Alcine added, "Your sadness is quite aromatic, you see."
"Who do you think you are, comin' here to upset an old man?" he snapped. "Go on, git! Off with you!"
And then he slammed the door. Alcine blinked at the wood suddenly in front of her nose, sighed and left. When she made it back to the path, she heard the door creaking open and turned. The man was back in the doorway, rubbing his face.
"Hey, girl. You shouldn't go around sayin' things like that, unless you really mean it."
"I really mean it."
"You can't know for sure."
"I know for sure."
"The cops said—"
"They didn't know for sure," Alcine said patiently. "He didn't hurt himself. He stumbled and that was that."
"And—" He choked, cleared his throat. "And you're really sure he's not mad anymore?"
"He wasn't that mad in the first place."
The man nodded, brushing his nose with a sleeve. "That's good to know. Makes the days pass easier. It's been lonely enough without being sad all the time."
Alcine thought a moment, then said, "Mister, did I hear you playing the piano just then?"
"I know a song my mother wrote," said Alcine, "when she was sad and needed something uplifting, before we sold the piano. I would like to relearn it. Could I come over sometime to play yours? I think you'd come to like it, though it's a bit of a grower."
The man blinked with surprise. "Why, sure, if it's okay with your mother you'd spend time with a strange old coot."
Alcine smiled. "I'm sure you're no more unusual than some others I've made friends with."
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex.