by Charlotte Dobson
At the end of a long corridor under a forgotten Philadelphia
basement, Jeremiah opened his eyes and sat up. For the first time since the Middle Ages,
he awoke without precise knowledge of why he had been roused. He knew he had to open The
Shop--that went without saying. The question was: Which of the many items above wanted to
go out into the world?
Jeremiah got out of bed and went through his usual routine.
He shaved, dressed with care, then climbed the long set of stairs leading to The Shop.
Sometimes he lay underground for decades without being
called, then a suddenly flurry of activity would commence, keeping him awake for weeks. He
never knew which piece of merchandise would reach out to bring in a buyer.
Which brought Jeremiah back to his present dilemma. He toured
the floor, trying to pinpoint the cause of his awakening. It had to be a piece that didn't
get out much, otherwise the ability to call would be sharper, more developed.
He found the article that awakened him buried in a
"At last, old friend," he said, regarding the
brittle bones before him. "Its been two millennia since we last spoke.
Youve found someone, and the fact that youve waited so long is proof that the
time is right."
Jeremiah almost skipped with pleasure. The opportunity to
send something different into the world always made him happy. In anticipation of Mr.
Todd's arrival, Jeremiah carried the skeleton out of the corner and gave it a position of
honor in the middle of the sales floor.
When everything was ready, Jeremiah smiled his brown, uneven
smile and tried to curb his rising excitement. By the time today was over, Mr. Todd would
have a tool he could use to help him reach his goal.
How the tool would use him was another matter.
Bruce roamed the back neighborhoods of Philadelphia, his Army
surplus coat hugged close to keep out the cold. Flakes of snow battered his exposed face
and hands. The neighborhood, thick with litter and smelling of sour urine, was the last
place anyone would think to look for him, especially on a foul day like this.
He was cutting class again. Why bother going when you were
about to be kicked out anyway, he reasoned. He hated sick people; he only enrolled in
medical school to please his mother. The way things were going, though, the cancer would
take her before he graduated. The prestige was a small factor in the decision, but the
money hed make once he got out was the carrot that got him to sign the papers.
After two weeks of classes, he knew hed never get the
chance to make her proud. The reason was simple: Gross Anatomy. He didn't have enough
imagination to picture where everything went, and what was connected to what. It was
stupid to learn all that stuff anyway, when he planned to go into Psychiatry. All you had
to do was sit around and listen to a bunch of people tell you their stories, then count
the bucks at the end of the day. No need to learn what a metatarsal was for that.
Bruce glanced up the street. One of his professors came out
of a restaurant in the next block. He knew it would be all over for him if the Prof
spotted him. He was already on probation for skipping yesterdays lecture. If he got
thrown out his mother would cry and hed feel like a failure again. He hated that.
The professor turned in his direction, taking the short-cut
back to Temple Medical School. Bruce saw a set of stairs going under the street and dived
down, letting his hand skim the top of the ice-encrusted railing. At the bottom of the
stairs was a door. He hesitated, but the sound of footsteps grew closer. The Prof stopped
on the street to continue his conversation with some guy in a suit.
Bruce swore under his breath. Hed trapped himself like
a rat in a cage. Left with nowhere else to go, he opened the door and slipped inside.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the basement of some abandoned
rowhouse. At first glance it looked like his grandmothers attic. He soon realized it
must be some sort of store. Narrow aisles overflowed with cast-off junk. He spotted a suit
of armor, looking dented and rusty in the meager light. Next to it, a three-legged table,
so old it had a depression worn in its scratched top, leaned against the pealing paint of
the wall. Elsewhere, more rickety tables groaned under the weight of chipped china
figurines and tarnished silver. Dust rose up from the floor when he moved, tickling his
nose. The place smelled moldy and stale, like it hadnt been opened in about a
Bruce blinked for a minute, waiting for his eyes to adjust to
the gloom. And then he saw the skeleton.
It stood to the right of the door. He knew it was a complete
specimen before he went to examine it. It was real, too; not those plastic pieces of shit
the other students had. The bones were almost black with age and strung together with
something that looked like fishing line.
For a minute, Bruce saw his future. If he had a real, honest
to god skeleton like this to study, hed pass anatomy without a problem. Then he
remembered the contents of his wallet. Hed bet a real rack of bones would cost more
than twenty bucks.
"You may touch it," a voice said.
Bruce started. Hed forgotten thered be a
salesman. Instead of taking the man up on his offer, Bruce shoved his hands in his pockets
and turned toward the shadowy corner where the voice originated.
"No thanks. I was just looking."
His shifting gaze located the source of the voice. An old man
with thinning gray hair stood behind the counter, polishing some silver. Despite the
clouds of dirt that hovered in the air, he didnt appear to have so much as a speck
on his crisp tweed suit.
Bruce glanced again at the skeleton, then took another,
closer look around the shop. They were alone.
Piercing, watery eyes locked with his. Bruce felt as though
the man could see into his head. He fought the urge to run.
"Medical student?" the geezer asked in a shaky,
"It's quite reasonable, you know," he said.
"Ive been looking for a way to unload it. It had a tendency to scare the women.
I could let you have it for a fraction of its value."
"Twenty dollars and its yours."
Bruce almost laughed. It was as if the man knew how much
money he had. He tried to appear disinterested as he considered. "You gotta be nuts.
The bones are in poor condition. Theyre old and stained. Ill give you
The old mans eyes flashed. "Fifteen."
Bruce tried to control his excitement. "Im doing
you a favor, taking it off your hands. How about twelve?"
"Very well. Twelve it is. Ill put it in a box for
"Great. Id look pretty weird carrying that thing
through the street."
Bruce handed over the money and accepted his change. While
the old man wrapped his purchase, he glanced toward the street. The wind howled,
scattering trash and dirt along the sidewalk. Except for a few strung-out bums sleeping in
boarded-up doorways, the street was deserted. The Prof was nowhere in sight.
He toured the shop, wishing the geezer would hurry it up. He
stopped beside an easel, thinking the frame might make a nice present for his mother, if
he could get it cheap. "How much for the picture?"
The old man winced. "Thats a portrait, and I'm
afraid it's not for sale."
Whatever you wanted to call it, it was awful, Bruce thought.
The woman looked like she was about to throw up, and the man wore an awful Austin Powers
get-up -- ruffles and velvet everywhere.
"When you get the skeleton home, lift it by this piece
of fishing line and hang it on the stand," the old man said, demonstrating.
"Ive packed it so it will come up in one piece. Just be sure to carry the box
"Right," Bruce said, accepting his purchase. He
opened the door to admit a gust of frigid wind. The wind caught a sign handing against the
glass. He read the old-fashioned letters.
"No Sale Is Final Until The Merchandise Is
Cute. He smiled, hefted his box, and exited the shop.
Back in the dorm, Bruce spent most of the night cutting out
shapes representing the human anatomy and taping them inside the skeleton. When he
finished, he stared at his creation for a long time, memorizing the location of each
The next day Bruce went to class and answered his anatomy
professors questions with the right answers. He knew they watched him, thinking
hed found an inventive way to cheat. That didn't bother him.
That night, Bruce worked late again. Using a ball of string
he found in his closet, he looped it around the bones to imitate the muscular system. The
skeleton attracted a lot of dust. Short, wispy trails of the stuff hung from the fingers
and surrounded the bones of the toes, but he was too busy with his project to worry about
it. Instead, he wound the string over the dust and went on with his work.
When the alarm went off the next morning Bruce had a hard
time getting out of bed. The long hours of study were beginning to tire him. He felt he
was moving in slow motion. It was an effort to get his hands to do what he wanted them to
do. Simple tasks, like buttoning his shirt and tying his Nikes, took forever. He managed
and, grabbing his books, dashed out of the dorm.
Getting through the day was an ordeal. Bruce was glad it was
Friday. He felt more uncoordinated as the hours passed. When the last class ended he
concentrated on getting out of the chair and putting one foot in front of the other.
Walking across campus took more than an hour; he stopped every few steps to rest. He
decided he needed a night away from the books.
When he reached the dorm, Bruce showered and changed his
shirt. On the way out, he took a look in the corner to make sure no one had filched his
He stopped to take a second look. In the gloomy winter
evening, it almost looked like the thing had moved. His hand shaking, Bruce reached for
the light and switched it on. He swore.
The string hed spent so many hours attaching lay on the
floor in a heap. In its place, some asshole had sprayed the skeleton with what looked like
a dozen cans of pink Silly String.
Bruce laughed. It was a good prank. Someone missed a whole
days lectures to work on it. He took it as a flattering indication the other
students were beginning to accept him. Prior to this, hed felt a little left out of
things. The others were so dedicated, so positive this was where they needed to be. There
were times when he wished he could feel that commitment.
He didnt waste a lot of time wondering who was behind
the joke. No doubt the perpetrator would confess sooner or later. His smile broadened when
he decided hed drag the asshole back and make him clean up the mess. Thatd
Keeping to his plan, Bruce headed for a local watering hole.
Business was good because of the weekend. The place was packed with med students, but no
one came forward to rib him about the skeleton. After downing one beer, Bruce reached for
a second. His hand wouldnt close around the lass. He knew it was time to leave. He
was so tired he had to drag his body back to the dorm.
As he undressed for the night, Bruce caught a glimpse of his
reflection in the mirror. Hed never been a big person, but he looked even thinner
than normal. Too thin. Holding his hands in front of him, he could make out every bone,
every piece of cartilage, every stringy tendon. Under the thin layer of skin, he saw veins
and arteries bulge in response to the beat of his heart.
I look like a poster for Feed the Children, he thought. And
no wonder. Hed been studying so hard he couldn't remember his last decent meal.
Turning away from the mirror, he walked to the skeleton. His
mood lightened. The pranksters had been at it again.
Someone had gone through a lot of trouble to run red tubing
through the bones. The Silly String muscles were thicker, more grainy. Life-sized
reproductions replaced his flimsy paper organs. They looked real, although shriveled.
Bruce suspected someone broke into the autopsy lab to steal organs from a cadaver.
He chuckled in appreciation of the joke, but he was too tired
to return the parts to the lab. He'd take care of it in the morning. He turned out the
lights and collapsed on the bed, exhausted.
When he found he couldn't get out of bed the next morning,
Bruce became alarmed. He was so weak he couldnt roll onto his back. Sitting up was
an exercise beyond his capabilities. Nevertheless, he tried. He realized he was close to
succumbing to whatever ailment had him in its grasp. The closest phone was located at the
end of the hall, and he knew if he didnt summon an ambulance soon, hed die.
Using the last of his dwindling strength, Bruce turned his
body and rolled off the bed. Then he rose to his elbows to crawl toward the door.
"It's no use, you know."
Bruce barely heard the thick, rusty voice when it broke the
silence of the tiny room.
"Thank God," he said in relief. His own voice
sounded weak, faded. "Call 9-1-1. Hurry."
He looked around, unable to distinguish the source of the
raspy voice. His vision was cloudy, his other senses dull.
"I'm afraid they can't help you, and I wont."
The voice laughed. Bruce stiffened, convinced his mind had
begun to wander. He shook his head and resumed his efforts to summon assistance.
"Help," he shouted. "Help me, someone."
He paused to listen. No one answered, no one came.
He raised his head, determined to get to the door. He tried
to raise his elbow, but found it wouldn't move. Then, for the first time that morning, he
looked down at his arm. There was practically nothing left. A few patches of skin covered
gray, brittle bones. He dropped his head to the floor and used one of those thin, dying
hands to feel his face. His cheekbones were exposed. His fingers moved a little, causing
the remaining skin to peel away. It fell unfettered to the ground.
Bruce screamed, but no sound came out. His flaking skin
floated through the air, toward the corner.
The source of the voice moved.
Reaching up, the skeleton unhooked itself from the stand that
supported it. It walked over to Bruce.
No. No longer a skeleton. A complete man.
Bruce lay on the floor, looking up at the apparition. He was
convinced he was in the final stages of delirium. He felt his heart weaken, his breathing
grow more shallow.
He was the skeleton, and the skeleton was . . . him.
"No, my friend," the voice said, "not you.
Bruce's mouth fell open. The last of his cartilage moved to
its new owner. He had no control over his diminishing body.
"Not diminishing," the voice said.
"Transferring. I cant allow you to take an oath you have no intention of
keeping. My oath."
Bruce felt the last of brain tissue weaken. Before it was
gone, he used his last ounce of strength to form a mental question.
"Who am I?" The voice laughed. "Im
Hippocrates. For breaking my oath, I relegate you to the same hell I have endured for 2000
The new Bruce Todd lifted the skeleton and carried it to the
stand. He hung it on the hook using an indentation in the clavicle, then stepped back to
admire the effect.
"Hippocrates, youve defied death and come back in
this great, modern age," he said with a mocking laugh. "What will you do
He walked to the door, pausing on the threshold to regard the
books on the desk.
"Why, Im going to medical school, of course.
© Charlotte Dobson
Charlotte Dobson has won 7 awards for fiction,
including 3 for her suspense novel CRYSTAL WATERFALL. She has a horror novel due out in
February, 2000 from Hard Shell Word Factory, entitled INCUBUS. She has also
published in non-fiction with several articles on writing, and one on writing horror