Then A Skeleton Popped Out

By Nicholas Bernhard

Illustrated by Hal Robins

skeleton

Then A Skeleton Popped Out

By Nicholas Bernhard

Audio Recording © 2019 NDH Ltd.

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Sometimes I get asked about my Dad and his work. This usually happens at bioscience conferences, where his celebrity endures. These questions begin at the hotel bar, after someone reads my conference badge and recognizes the last name. They want to know about the day Dad unveiled the skeleton.

In all my years of conferences, I've never told anyone about that Fall semester. They imagine I beheld Dad's revolutionary inventions with the same wonder as the myrrhbearers who came upon Jesus' empty tomb. I know it's hard for them to hear, with me being his son and his student, but I tell them I'm the wrong one to ask. So, I've let those questions die in the air of the hotel bars and conference halls.

Then, last month, Dr. Hendricks over at the medical school called me. He'd started a volunteer group, reading stories to the persistently vegetative patients in the coma ward. The university recently set volunteer quotas for professors, and he wanted his friends in bioscience to have first dibs.

The coma ward is in a far wing of the teaching hospital. Tonight it's just the graveyard shift, and the patients. It's been painful to hide this story. The human urge to tell all can be overwhelming. After all these years, the story doesn't have to die at the hotel bar. It can die with you.

Dad had spent all summer working in his basement. After Mom left, and the money from Dad's genius grant ran out, we'd moved to the High Plains. He worked as a science teacher at William Waddell High, Sedgwick School District RE-2. It was a Saturday night, and I'd hitched a ride to the outskirts of Sedgwick, for Vanessa's last party of the summer. Vanessa's party was at an old house along County Road 5. The brass-plated chandelier in the dining room wobbled in its fixture, spurred on by the beat of the electro-dance music upstairs. Cans of cheap beer clinked as they collided in the ice water of the kitchen sink.

Upstairs there was usually an assortment of pills from everyone's medicine cabinets. I didn't touch that stuff. I just let the dull cut of the beer buzz around in the back of my brain.

The beer came from Dian, the golden child at school. Same went for the slate, sleek Escalades that had chauffeured the varsity football team. Dian wasn't the kind to call himself a gift from God, other people did it for him. When he moved here a couple years ago, he became the Varsity team's first-ever sophomore starting quarterback. His father was a liaison for Guangszhou Drilling, a Chinese firm that had put millions into the gas drilling potential of the panhandle. It also helped that Dian wasn't built like a quarterback. He was built like a Sherman tank. I have never heard a crowd roar with quite so much visceral, unhinged ecstasy as the one at Dian's first playoff game with the Sedgwick Riders. He'd scored a touchdown with four Lamar Homesteaders trailing off of him. The crowd erupted, and he just stood there in the endzone, arms flat at his side, the Lamar players lying in the grass. The Lamar team didn't even try for another touchdown the rest of the night. Soon, people were driving all the way from Denver and Omaha to see him play. The beer was going right through me, I needed a piss real bad. That meant a possible encounter with Dian. I could hear him upstairs, size fifteen shoes thudding through the floorboards. These were followed by the clatter of stiletto heels. I guessed it was Vanessa. She ran the pep rallies. I figured that in two minutes, Dian would have her bent over the upstairs sink. Perks of the varsity team. If I didn't pee soon, the bathroom would be occupied and I'd be doing it in the bushes.

I got to the top of the wooden staircase, balancing my beer in its red cup. There was something oddly pleasant about drinking as you stood over the bowl peeing, but I was too afraid to ask if anyone else shared this sensation. The electro-dance pounded out of the first bedroom, overflowing with dancing students. The far hallway light was broken, and I saw Dian's form in the shadow, his shoulders almost spanned the hallway width. Beyond him, I heard a strained giggling. I could see Vanessa, cheeks red from liquor, teetering on her heels. She was laughing, but it was laughter meant to defuse tension. She was telling Dian that she had to get back downstairs, someone needed to ask her a question, if she wasn't back down soon they were going to be mad. Dian took a step forward, pushing them both towards the back bedroom. Vanessa laughed again, and said Dian was being stupid. The light from the one good bulb in the hall caught her eyes, looking around for a friend, but her friends couldn't hear her over the pounding music. She laughed once more, and her smile turned to something nauseous and desperate. I grabbed Vanessa's wrist. “Didn't you have something to ask me?” I said.

“Get out of here” said Dian.

Vanessa squinted in my direction, as if she couldn't recognize me. “Yeah, it's fine, everything's fine.” “See?” said Dian. “Everything's fine.” He stepped forward again, and Vanessa had to step back, almost to the far bedroom's door jamb. Dian tapped me on the shoulder, from him it felt like a hard shove. “Back downstairs.”

I looked at Vanessa. “Is that right, you're good?”

She looked up at Dian, having to crane her neck to do so. She looked back at me, that same look that was close to a dry heave. “Yeah, Quint, just get out of here, okay? No one needs you here.” I took a step back in surprise.

Dian turned toward me, the hallway floor creaking under the weight of his feet. “No one needs you here” he repeated. This time he did shove me to the wall. I heard a photo frame crack behind me. Dian nudged his head right, a signal for me to crawl back to the living room couch. He looked down with a sneer:

“Fucking faggot.”

Sometimes, when you're drunk, words take on mass, and they can push you side to side. I guess I didn't realize how sloshed I was, because the instant those two words left Dian's mouth, I flicked my wrist, sending my drink into his face.

It sounds like a move by a brooding anti-hero. It wasn't. It was beer, weak beer. I didn't order vodka and tabasco sauce on the off-chance I'd need to take down a burly assailant at the bar. The move bought me one second of Dian's confusion as I pulled Vanessa toward the stairs.

Vanessa was yelling at me to let go when one of her heels buckled on a stair, sending her crashing into me. I saw the rays of approaching headlights outside, and I pulled Vanessa toward the front door. With only one heel, Vanessa lurched and knee-kicked her way behind me.

We got outside just as the car was pulling up, the Harvey Brothers, Erik and Stan, from Wray, stragglers to every party.

I yanked the passenger door open. “Hey man, Vanessa's been puking all over, you gotta get her to the drug store.”

Erik started to get out. “Let someone else take her.”

“C'mon, man,” I pleaded, “She needs to get out of here now-”

I felt my entire body mass slam into the car with a metallic thud, and get yanked back up again. I stumbled, trying to find my footing. Vanessa put a hand on Dian's arm as he lumbered toward me. She was telling him to stop, that it was a misunderstanding. In the front yard, the floodlights caught Dian's bloodshot eyes, channeling a rage that was gift-wrapped with a bow on top for me and me alone. His arms didn't swing as he walked up to me, and I felt a warm spot forming around the fly of my jeans.

I made my first and only move, and my one mistake: I put my arms up in non-resistance. Dian took a swing, a fist to my right cheekbone. My knees buckled. I hit the dirt.

A soft, red shape with wriggling tendrils appeared before my eyes. When my vision cleared, Dian was on top of me, and a knee smashed my balls. The pain radiated up from my groin to my guts. I felt my mouth coat with the tangy spit that precedes puking. Dian socked me on the nose, and the shapes in front of my eyes turned purple and gelatinous. I heard voices all around.

My vision briefly resolved to the sight of a crowd gathered in the driveway.

I felt my neck bend as my chest was yanked up by my shirt collar. All I saw was the shadow looming above me, the floodlights still catching the bloody hate set in the sockets. Dian brought my face up to his, and made a taurine snort that blew my hair back.

“Mind your business, faggot.”

Every time I was lifted off the ground, I got socked from the front, and the earth came up behind me for another hit. Something hot and wet was flowing down my face. Somewhere, Vanessa was screaming.

My hand shot up to fight off the blow I knew was coming, Dian's left hook came for my ear, and I heard the low tolling of some dark bell. I'm told I still don't hear as well on that side.

Dian pulled his fist back again. My gasp for air turned into a cry.

“Dian, stop!” shrieked Vanessa.

The punch hit my mouth at a weird angle. I felt the flesh of his hand grind against the edge of my upper teeth. I heard a yelp, in my right eye I saw Dian holding his bloodied hand, and sucking on it. For a flash, Dian was gone, replaced by a frightened toddler who has learned by firsthand experience that Mommy's curling iron is very, very hot. The cut looked deep. He looked like he might cry.

Dian uncradled his hand. His body lifted, the next punch would carry the whole of his weight.

“Motherf-”

I heard a sound that was both soppy and cracking, like when you bite into the joint of a chicken leg, as what was left of my nose gave way. The purple shapes before my eyes spilled over into black ink, and I passed out.

When you get knocked out, you're not out for a long time. That's movie bull. I was awake shortly afterward, but I wish I hadn't been. All I remember is my head coiling in on itself as it throbbed to my heartbeat. The lights in the ER hallway burned white hot.

Some time later I woke up again and heard voices behind the hospital curtain. I recognized one of them as the physician. The other voice was asking the physician about new coagulants on the market. It was Dad. He didn't ask much about me.

The Sunday before school started, I found myself sitting in the principal's office. The high school athletic director stared at me from the corner. My nose was still bandaged, and my face had as many colors on it as a crayon box. The principal directed my gaze to the office window. I saw a northern view of the football field. Beyond the gridiron, I saw the frame of an unfinished, three-story building. That, I was told, was the future Guangzhou Sports Center. It would be the most advanced high school athletic center in a hundred miles. Every cent was paid for by Dian's family. The athletic director was leaning against the filing cabinets, arms folded. “Dian says you're the one who cut him on the hand. You could have severed a tendon or an artery. Try throwing a pass when your hand won't stop twitching. Do you realize what you could have done to our team, you little shit?” The ‘t’ at the end came with a hard click.

“Dian's father was very upset” said the principal. “The school is very lucky they didn't pull him out.”

My head was aching more every minute. “I'm not sure Vanessa would agree.”

“Listen, smart mouth,” said the director. “You think you're big because your dad teaches science here? You think a lot of book smarts makes you better than Dian? You think it makes you better than me?”

He was leaning over me by then, the overhead light shining off his crown line. It hurt to look up at him. “He was going to rape her,” I said.

There was a long sigh from across the desk. The director shot his eyes over to the principal, who returned a look of assurance.

“I tried,” said the principal. “Two days detention, young man.”

Before I could register the news, the director put his face inches from mine. “I want to see this school get fat off Dian. No he said, she said, clouded by booze, will get in the way. Dian means fiscal generosity to this school, and raw athletic potential. A football dynasty. I call that gift from God. Do you believe in God, Quint?”

I told him I did. I still do.

“I won't have our school's rising star slandered,” said the principal. “Try to remember that it's not always about you!”

The sky was already darkening as I walked home. I began to notice a gamey smell in the air. It was smoke. A few miles from my house, the land rises up to a hill, crowned by a grove of cottonwood trees. The profile of each tree was visible to me, lit up in a glow. The fireglow reminded me of driving with Dad to a Christmas pageant in Fort Morgan, where the lights of the city made the clouds glow a dim orange. The fire must have been some distance beyond the trees, I couldn't hear any sirens, and the air was very still that night.

I entered the front door. The living room lights were flickering and popping, which meant Dad was running his experiments downstairs. A note on the door told me there was moo goo gai pan in the microwave, and that he'd be up for the news at seven.

I threw my clothes off and took a shower. I removed the nose bandage, the dried blood fell away from my nose and snaked into the drain. Everywhere I focused I found a murky tar-pit of hate. I felt that hate in every atom of my body. I moved away from Sedgwick long ago, and have been married seven years now, but I hope my wife never learns the full extent of the hate I felt that night, and the things I wished for. Looking back, it set the stage for everything that followed.

The smoke from the fire made my nose run. I fell asleep staring at the ceiling, thinking of the long day ahead. A long week. A long life.

School at 7:30 AM on a Monday, what a sick joke. Ride a bus through the rainy September cold with a broken heater, then sit in a classroom bathed in humming fluorescents and the stench of dissection preservatives. I tried to clear my mind, but I kept thinking about the coating on my teeth, made by the syrup on my waffles.

Dad stood at the front of the class in his lab coat. “For far too long,” he said, “the public school system has seen fit to instruct students of biology using the flat pages of a committee-designed textbook, and chloroformed frogs. We are far removed from the great naturalists who studied at Venice and Padua with human cadavers. I have been warned by the local health board to not resume that practice.”

My dad moved over to a corner of the classroom behind his cramped pasteboard desk. In the shadow of the broom closet, a shrouded figure was standing. I hadn't noticed it before.

“Today,” he said, “we make history. I have spent the past year developing special processes and compounds that will imitate the very anatomical methods you'll learn.” Dad unsnapped a button on the shroud. It pooled onto the floor.

It was a skeleton, bleached and hanging high on a hook. It was nothing we hadn't seen before in an earlier class, the cliche of every science classroom in high-school movies.

Dad kept talking. I had never seen him so excited about something. “This here is a bleeding-edge replica, of my own design. It was made by the application of gelatin-kiln moulding, silicate case-hardening, and ancient Polynesian scrimshaw. Do not be alarmed by the family resemblance, students. What you see… is not real.”

“What you see… is not real…” That didn't feel right, the skeleton was there in front of us.

The lecture passed by in a blur, I had learned most of it by reading through Dad's home library. He talked about our skeleton's distinctions from the great apes and old-world monkeys, and then the commonalities it shared with all vertebrates. He charted our skeletal lineage in reverse, relating millions of years in a few sentences, all the way back to the primeval Devonian epoch, when the first proto-Crocodilians crawled from the sludgy shores of Panthalassa.

The bell rang, and I filed out past the skeleton. Up close, I could see the millimeter grooves and ridges of the bones. The plates of the nose didn't come together at a clean angle. There were slight chips at the edges, and it was hollow in-between. God, the thing was convincing.

I walked back along the football field and realized something was missing. Most days, I'd walk to class as the Varsity team finished their 5:30 AM practice. Each time, Dian would be training on the tackle sled, and his impacts thundered up the street. There was a flock of pigeons that roosted in the frame of the Guangzhou Sports Center, and the impacts would send them into a slapdash flight over the gridiron.

As I'd come into school that morning, the football team was finishing up. The thunderous crash of Dian against the tackle sled was gone.

The football team had an away game in Hoyt on Wednesday. When Dian didn't show up, a palpable unease began bubbling in the halls. Without their quarterback, the Sedgwick Riders lost the lead in the first half and never took it back.

The next Monday, Dad taught the nervous system. Overnight, he had applied the next stage to his skeleton. Rivulets of nerve tissue coursed down the spine and across the limbs.

Dad stuck his pointer stick into a nerve strand at the base of the neck. “Atop the bones lies man's gateway to knowledge. Electrical signals in the nervous system are generated by everything we touch, hear, taste, and see. Our ability to integrate these impulses into judgments leads to the possibility of survival. If our nerves sense cold, we ought to seek shelter. If nerves tell us fire burns, then we ought not to touch it. If the nerves in our stomach wall react well to a new kind of food, then perhaps it is safe to eat. Only when we reject these impulses, get the wrong ones, or refuse to learn from them, is death certain.”

The nerves added to the skeleton. Before, you could think of it as a collection of bones, but now the nerves draped and sloped across the bones, and tied them together. It was a system, parts made whole.

A red-head kid named Bryce raised his hand. “Could it feel now?” he asked. “I mean, what would we feel with only nerves?”

Dad tweaked his lips to a hint of a smile. “You'd need a brain to feel,” he said, “that comes later. You would also need limbs, and organs like the dermis on top, to contextualize the sensations. Otherwise, every micron of the forty-five miles of nerves would be exposed to the open air. Your whole body would feel like a deep wound scrubbed with salt and rubbing alcohol. It would be pain that makes an eternity out of a second, for hour upon hour.”

We all glanced up at the skeleton, as if to get its take. The fractal nerves gave it a human appearance, but the hollow eye sockets seemed indifferent, too cool for school.

When school got out, I headed for the front office. The receptionist handed me a stack of practice standardized tests, Dad graded them during lunch for extra money. I headed for his classroom to drop them off.

I passed through the cafeteria, where the floor-to-ceiling windows offered a panorama of the track, the football field, and the empty husk of the athletic complex. No-one had seen any more work on it since Dian left. I heard a wrenching sound, it was the custodian mopping the floor. Before summer break, he'd told us that the donations from Guangzhou Drilling meant big things for Waddell High. He thought a raise was on the horizon. Now, he stared straight at me as he wrung the mop into his bucket, the plastic handle creaking in his hands.

I got to Dad's classroom. In between a poster of the human genome and the window frame, I could see the lights were off inside. I dropped the papers on his desk. I turned around, and stopped. Two pinpoints of twinkling light caught my notice.

Illustration for Then A Skeleton Popped Out By Hal Robins

"Set into the skull of the skeleton were two eyes..."

Illustration by Harry S. "Hal" Robins

ORDER A PRINT

Set into the skull of the skeleton were two eyes.

For a second, I thought they were looking straight at me. My whole body clenched. I felt my nuts suck up into my body. As I moved away, I realized the eyes didn't track with mine. Instead, they converged on the back of the classroom. It must have been be Dad's attempt at humor. Right?

What the hell was Dad doing in the basement? These eyes were not just convincing. In the years since, I've come to know a man with a glass eye. You would never know he had one unless he told you, but the eyes in the skull… they looked shiny and wet, like a newborn's eyes.

I felt something slip inside my mind.

Down the hallway, I heard someone crying. The custodian watched me as I left the classroom and followed the sound. I stepped into the auditorium, Vanessa was crying on the stage, surrounded by her friends. She saw me, and started back in surprise.

She told me that the school bus from Ovid went up a hill on County Road 8. At the hill's bottom, a small bridge crossed Cottonwood Creek. Just last week, they had noticed the bridge was charred and sooty at the bottom. The high-school groupthink had tied the first sighting of this soot to the morning Dian didn't show up for practice.

It didn't feel right. If Dian had been in a car accident, it would have been front-page news. There had been nothing, no reporters, no police. The principal and the athletic director had lockjaw. “It's inappropriate to ask faculty about personnel matters” they said.

As much as I pleaded with myself to be reasonable, I kept thinking of the orange fire glow that had encircled the hill that night. I could remember the gamey smell of smoke making my nose run. It filled my nose as I stood there in the auditorium.

“I didn't mean it,” Vanessa whimpered. “I didn't want him to die.” I watched her fingers play with the gold cross on her necklace. “It's not for us to say who dies. That's why we have to plan the memorial.”

My voice came out in a croak. “Memorial?”

Vanessa stared off into the shadows of the auditorium balcony. “When he died, the school died,” she whispered. “That new sports building is a tomb now.” She gripped the crucifix in a fist, clenching her teeth. She sounded like she'd swallowed poison, and was going to spit it up. “I should burn in hell for the things I said.”

“And what about Dian?” I asked. The question came out sharper than I'd intended. Everyone turned toward me. Vanessa looked at me like I'd asked her something truly absurd that insulted common sense, like imagine water that isn't wet. Her reply came flat: “He's gone, Quint.”

I turned back for the exit. He isn't gone, I thought, that's the problem.

For the next two weeks, I only saw Dad at school. There was a shiny new deadbolt on the basement door, and the tart air of ozone coming up through the vents. I didn't come home except to sleep.

The football team was enduring an unheard-of string of shutouts, and at some point the school decided I was to blame. I'd spent one lunch period mopping the hallway after someone packed my locker with water-filled condoms.

A coat of pink now spread across the skeleton's bones. These were the core skeletal muscles, regulating body movement, or as Dad put it, corporeal locomotion. Muscle fibers made a quilt-like patchwork across the face, downward strips formed cheeks, and contours defined the shoulders and abdomen.

As our spirits lowered, Dad's soared. “You're as close as it gets, students. The high-tension fiber covering these bones (patent pending) is only a few protein folds away from real animal tissue. This is man below the hood, boys and girls. This is man stripped of his finery.

“This model is so authentic that he is decaying even as we speak. The synthetic muscle fibers are drying by the minute-” Dad heaved a bucket onto his desk “-it must be hydrated with a special emulsion every twenty-four hours.”

“I could ask for volunteers…” he began. “Instead, I will thank the following selfless conscripts…”

Bryce and I painted the skeleton with Dad's cocktail three lunch periods a week. Always, the eyes in the body's head stared down from its high hook. The skeleton watched us, every week, as each new layer brought new, hideous aspects.

Another layer of muscle was added which further defined the face. The wet, glistening fiber came to an abrupt end right before the lips, which Dad toiled over for hours each night. Every morning, he'd shuffle around the kitchen as I ate breakfast, muttering about how he didn't quite have the lips right yet.

Without the lips, the skull had peeled back into a bulging-eyed, ear-to-ear grin. It was the face of someone in a hospital after they've had their jaw wired shut, and the anesthetic is wearing off: “Sho nieshhh of you to shhhtlop in… gotta shhhlay I've shhhleen bettoor dayeesh.”

As Bryce and I ran our brushes over the muscles, beads of milky fluid appeared on the chest and arms. I dipped my brush in the bucket and painted over it again. Now, the beads appeared on the legs and groin.

I told Dad about it at home during a commercial break in the seven o'clock news. He laced his fingers together and leaned back on the couch. “Fascinating. The protein compounds must be undergoing a stress reaction.”

“To what?” I asked.

“To the open air” he said. “Muscle isn't meant to be exposed like that. It puts the body into shock, producing lactic acid. I often see it in my part-time work at the Medical Examiner's office. It's most obvious in motorcycle accidents where the skin has been sanded away. I must make note for further study, excuse me.” Dad got up from the couch, and I heard him clomp down the stairs. I didn't know he was working at the ME's office again. That's where they processed all the bodies after car crashes.

There was an incident that Friday. Vanessa had brush duty. When students came back from lunch they found her huddled against the hallway lockers. In the classroom, the skeleton skull lay crooked on its shoulder, jaw wide open in what would have been a scream. Vanessa's brush sat in a red puddle on the floor, next to a snapped yardstick. She said nothing in detention.

Wednesday. Dad had fixed the skull's jaw hinge. Bryce had learned how to get his brushing done fast. The face had pulled back even tighter, even though we'd been adding an extra coat. The eyes were starting to push out of their shrunken sockets.

I heard there'd be a party on Saturday, back at Vanessa's place. A Halloween party. The football team would be be there, not that they had anything else to do. They were miles from getting to this year's playoffs. I wasn't going to be caught dead at that party. I could just imagine myself pulling into that gravel lot, and everyone looking at me, in the very spot where-

I heard the voice as clear, crisp, and unwanted in my mind as my 6:30 alarm clock. The bucket hit the floor. I looked over at Bryce, he was frozen, with the look of an animal that's heard the mountain lion's approach too late. Without moving his head, except for the tiny shiver I saw building, he looked over at me, and I knew: we had both heard it.

“Mind your business, faggot.”

I turned around, and this time it wasn't the eyes of the skull looking back. I knew who it was. It was a corpse decomposing in reverse, unfolding backward from charred bones, to scorching nerve endings, to a flayed prisoner, hanging in the commons for the spectacle of the villagers. I realized Vanessa had heard it, too, she must have.

The whole semester, he looked back on us in judgement. Our hatred had made this happen, and now he watched us, stripped and skinned, with that insane, pearl-white smile, at the torture we had inflicted. His eyes stayed locked with mine. Those eyes seemed to be pushing their way out of the skull, trying to close the distance between us, and I could hear the words, from behind that broad row of glinting teeth, burrow between my ears:

“You did this to me…”

I don't remember how I got home that night. I remember sitting upright in my unmade bed, and covering my ears. My boombox was blasting out Korn so loud the bass rattled the bed frame. My clothes felt cold and wet on my body from sweating. I ran over to the window and pulled over the blinds, the sky was turning dark. School must have ended hours ago.

I ran into the hall and checked the basement door. It was unlocked, and the light over the stairs was off. Dad left it on if he was working downstairs. He never went out on Wednesdays.

I felt the panic come on as a sharp pain in my chest. It radiated out across my body. As it fanned through my fingers, they curled into fists. I couldn't see, I couldn't breathe. Out here on the plains, people try not to get sick, since the ambulance could be an hour away. My flight instinct had kicked in, but I knew if I ran I'd probably keel over on the dirty living room carpet. I braced myself against the wall and slid to the back door.

We kept a rifle in the backyard tool shed. My hands were shaking so bad it took me twenty tries to load the six rounds, the rest lay on the floor. I spent a good five minutes curled up against the shed with the rifle against my chest. I watched the last warm colors bleed from the sky. Then I realized I was an idiot. If something was coming to get me, it would have done it hours ago. I picked up the bullets and put the rifle back on its shelf. I was almost asleep when Dad came home around eleven.

On Friday morning, the stench of formaldehyde was thick in the classroom.

“Bryce,” I said. “Bryce!”

Bryce looked up from his worksheet. “What?”

“Hand me the forceps.”

It was dissection day. A gooey carp lay on each group table in the back of the classroom. I guess even with Dad's inventions, this particular tradition was ineradicable. I did the cutting, Bryce wrote down his observations. He handed me the forceps, I had two fingers holding open the carp's digestive system.

Bryce's writing was one long scrawl. Every group's incisions along their carp's belly was rough and jagged. The insistent stare of the skull left us rushed, to say the least.

The door swung open. Dad was cradling a heap of papers, wobbling side to side to keep them balanced. “Students, superlative news! The National Biology Education Board has published my findings! They just faxed over their acceptance letter. This will change the teaching of school anatomy forever! Now quick, finish those worksheets, I want us to take a photo with my creation.” He shook his hands in a shooing motion. “Why aren't you finished, anyway? Bryce, go around and staple those reports together, quickly!”

Bryce began moving from table to table, grabbing people's worksheets and binding them with the snap of a stapler.

“Wait!” said Vanessa. We looked over at her, Bryce stood in place. “Next week, we're doing the memorial, out by the athletic building.”

“Vanessa,” I began.

“We wanted to do it during assembly, but the principal said no. Anyone who's coming should meet during lunch.”

“Why?” I asked.

“So we can go over how we're going to group everyone.”

“Bryce!” my Dad shouted from his desk. “I don't hear a lot of stapling.” Bryce resumed his duties.

I grunted. “For chrissake, Vanessa, are we mourning the President?” I pushed through the rising uproar of the class. “Should we get a twenty-one gun salute?”

“Quint,” Vanessa snapped, “that toxic, shitty attitude is killing us. We're drowning in your hate. Bryce, hold on a second.” Bryce froze again.

“I wanna know,” said Vanessa, “what gives you the right to speak ill of the dead? It's so selfish I could scream!”

“What about you?” I asked.

“You better stop, Quint.”

How about you, huh? You told me you hated him, and that you should burn in hell for it.”

My Dad boomed from the other side of the room. “Bryce! I want those papers five minutes ago!” Bryce dashed to the next table, offering Vanessa an apologetic look.

Vanessa's eyes burned at me. “I never-” her voice halted, she touched her cross necklace, “I never wished him dead, Quint. If you wish someone dead, you've committed murder in your heart. Murder!” She emphasized each syllable of the word.

“Then I guess I did!” I said. “I murrr-durred him in my heart a thousand times! He beat me to a bloody pulp in front of everyone! And what'd he try to do to you?”

“Nothing!” said Vanessa. I heard the snapping of the stapler at faster intervals. “He didn't do anything to me, okay?”

“But you said-”

Vanessa slapped a palm down. I heard a hard click as her purity ring hit the tabletop. “He never did anything to me! He didn't hurt anybody, Quint! I loved him!”

I heard the stapler press down, and a sharp gasp. Bryce's eyes were wide, looking down at the papers he'd just stapled through his thumb.

Bryce ran toward Dad, “Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod-” He knocked his way through the grid of desks, flailing his hands. With the papers hanging from his thumb, he looked like a desperate soldier waving a white flag of surrender before the next mortar burst.

I saw Bryce get his foot caught on the under-seat rack of a student desk, propelling him forward on one foot. He made one awkward hop on the foot and crashed head-first into the skeleton. It fell onto him with a heavy thud. Bryce was screaming in such a panic Dad couldn't grab hold. Bryce kept trying to push the skull away from his head, but his hand just slid off the slick muscle of the jawbone, opening it again and again, as the spring hinge whined “Eee! Eee! Eee!”

I swung my leg without thinking. The kick was solid. The skeleton lifted off Bryce and hit the chalkboard with a hammering blow. Dad looked over and saw me standing above the red mass, I sent another kick to the skull, the eyes rolled in their sockets. One final whine escaped the jaw, my next kick knocked the jaw off its hinge and into the trash bin. I swung at anyone who got close, and I realized it wasn't Bryce's screams I heard now, but mine.

My kicks had begun indenting the skeleton into the wall beneath the chalkboard. I heard twangs like guitar strings breaking as the high-tension fiber of the skeleton's synthetic muscles snapped, unraveling into locks of scarlet fiber. By the time I was pulled away and dragged into the hall, the skeleton was a loose mass of bone in a pool of gumbo. I heard later that something had rolled out of the pile: a single eyeball, staring into the fluttering overhead light.

I got three weeks suspension, and Dad ran out of back-breaking labor for me to do. I spent hours defrosting freezers with ice picks. I pulled up tree trunks, and shed my calloused palms like snakeskin. I rooted out racoon nests until my arms were criss-crossed in long, thin scabs and they looked like sunburnt aspen trees.

My punishment continued through winter break. Many people told me they were sorry to lose my free labor, and hoped my days as a delinquent would continue. In spring, science class moved on to physics, where the only bodies were celestial.

There's one other thing I need to say. Back in community college, I took an internship with the county Medical Examiner. It helped ease the college admissions anxieties about my high school record, and I'm grateful to them. I kept my mind on my work, but when you work somewhere long enough you can't help but pick up things. If you read between the lines of the medical reports and police files, you can put the picture together.

There had been a car crash on the Cottonwood Creek bridge, but it wasn't Dian who died. A family was driving across the bridge when they hit another car head-on. The family's sedan burst into flames. No survivors. The other driver fled. Based on the impact damage, the other car was a big SUV, like an Escalade. Dian's family had an Escalade.

There is a big dairy farm along Cottonwood Creek. They had a security camera pointed right at that bridge. The police reports said one suspect was interviewed based on the video, but it went nowhere.

I think Dian's father could buy silence and influence for his son, but covering up a fatal hit and run, one caught on Candid Camera, was the limit. I would guess his father had just enough money and pull to make it go away. In exchange, he had to promise that Dian would go home to China and never return. Without a school board to schmooze, the Guangzhou Sports Center stood incomplete. After an F4 tornado ripped up the county, the school board was caught using federal relief money to finish the building.

I'm not sure it matters if Dian died or fled into exile. In that autumn biology class, I got to see what it might look like if my blackest, most hateful wishes came true. Maybe some people could handle that, given the chance. Maybe they'd even enjoy it. I pray they never have to find out.

These days, I don't watch the news much, and I skip the Sunday sermons where Jesus invokes the hellfire. They dredge up too much wreckage from the depths.

There are demons in this world, they go by names like Rage, Sloth, and Paranoia. They possess us, and remake our perceptions of the world in their own image. I've tried to purge those feelings, but some of it sticks around. Like the little girl at the end of The Exorcist, the demon is gone, but the priest's cross still makes us flinch. The skeleton's still deep in the closet. In fact, you could say there's a skeleton inside all of us.

© 2018 NDH Ltd.

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