Sundays are fickle. During the school year a few hours of sermon are a small price to pay for the hours of freedom earned. You would think that it would be easier to bear in summer when there are six days a week dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of ice cream. You would be wrong. In the mind of a child, those few early morning hours in that oppressive theater are unbearable. The preacher’s voice assumes the gravest level of monotony. The sunny arches, left open to entice a breeze, served as portals to the morning that could have been.
Dad’s hands rested on his knees, which gave me an unfortunate view of his wristwatch. I did my best to distract myself, playing silent games of row-sham-bow with my sister, Lacy, but she was seven and chose rock every time.
The last prayer was for my grandfather, who the pastor knew wouldn’t be with us long. I think mom told him to do that. Lacy perked up at the mention of her name but wasn’t really paying attention. Then we were finally released into the wild. The other children ripped off their church-wear and made for their parent’s minivans. Only Lacy and me were left behind. Our parents were volunteering for the annual book drive, which meant we had to stay for another couple of hours. We didn’t mind. The church sat on the edge of a hilly field that the kids called the red sea for the crimson poppies that bloomed there in spring.
I wanted to go down the trails alone and ambush the dog walkers like Robin Hood, demanding toll, but Mom insisted that I take Lacy. She liked to go to the ‘pretty place,’ a narrow valley that a stream flowed through. The flowers were thickest there. She begged and pleaded until I gave in. I enjoyed the summer perfume as much as she did, though as a boy, I had a duty to pretend that I didn’t notice.
Lacy used to wear polished black shoes like a doll to church, but after her second or third voyage into the red sea, Mom gave up and allowed her to wear ordinary tennis shoes. When we came over the hill she ran down it’s face to the stream and splashed in the water.
“Careful,” I called down to her. “Mom will get mad if you ruin your dress.”
She didn’t listen to me but kept on splashing, giggling as her socks became soaked and drops of water rolled off the awning of her dress. I sat down on the hillside while she played. One of the flowers was twitching and it caught my eye. A caterpillar had climbed to its peak. I was watching the orange and black striped grub use its mandibles to take small bites from the petal when Lacy screamed.
“What is it?” I shouted, jumping to my feet and running down to meet her.
She ran and hid behind me, the water from her dress quickly soaking through the back of my jeans. She pointed.
On the shore was a bird, sugar white wings spread wide. There was a cavity in its stomach where some animal had clawed its way though to get at the muscle. I grabbed a stick from the shore and prodded at it, to make sure it was really dead. It didn’t twitch a feather.
“Leave it alone!” Lacy yelled.
I knew that I should but I couldn’t help myself. I’d seen dozens of birds at the feeder mom kept in the backyard. I’d heard the racket when too many of them sang different songs. I’d seen their twitchy heads and agile wings. I’d watched them hop across the lawn and dart away when Grandpa’s cat Puddles tried to catch them.
I kept prodding at it the way you pick at a scab. When I was satisfied that there was nothing more to see on the outside, I probed the cavity. With my instrument I pulled out yarn sized threads of intestine and fleshy pebbles that might have been kidneys or other mysterious organs. I tried to find the heart but the bird’s ribs adequately protected it from my investigation. I needed to know how it worked and why it didn’t anymore.
I ignored Lacy’s protests but stopped when she started to cry.
“All right, all right” I said, nudging the bird into the stream where it sailed away and throwing my stick after it. “There it’s gone. Do you want to play now?”
“No, I want to go back to Mom.”
So I took her back to St. Peter’s parking lot, thinking that once I had unloaded Lacy, I could go out adventuring. As soon as she was in sight, Lacy sprinted away and collided with Mom’s leg.
“You’re back already?” she asked. “Oh Lacy, your dress is soaked. I didn’t bring a change of clothes for you. Wait, have you been crying? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Will, he k-k-killed a bird” Lacy stammered, a tick that only manifested when she was trying to get me in trouble.
“I did not” I responded indignantly. “The bird was already dead.”
“He p–p-pulled all its insides out with a st-st-stick.”
“Is that true William?” Mom asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. There’s a point where speaking only gets you in more trouble and I sensed that I‘d reached that threshold.
Mom had the worried look I could sometimes catch in the rear view mirror when dad came close to red lights without breaking. She chewed on her nearly skinless lower lip for a moment and then told me to follow her into the church. She led me to the pastor who was carrying up boxes of old donations to bring outside and told him what happened. He listened with rapt attention and then, when she was finished, bent over with hands on knees so as to look me in the eye, and gave me a practiced smile.
“You were just curious, right Willey?”
I hated being called Willey. I’m not sure why, it’s just never suited me but I could tell he was trying to give me an out, so I nodded.
“Would you like to learn more about bodies?” he asked.
I didn’t know how to respond. I glanced at my mother who still looked worried but nodded encouragingly.
He took the box of books he’d been carrying and riffled through it until he found a blue one with a picture of a man on the front. You could see his brain and a network of veins and muscles working their way around where skin should be. It reminded me of the old creepshow movies dad sometimes showed me when mom was away, the kind with mummies and zombies.
“This is a book of human anatomy. It’ll teach you all about how people’s bodies work without you having to gross out your sister. Who knows, if you like this kind of stuff maybe you’ll be a doctor some day.”
“But is he old enough for a book like that?” my mom asked. “He’s only eleven.”
“I should think so,” he answered standing back up. “You’re his mother. If you don’t think he should have it now you can always hold onto it till he’s older.”
“No,” she said, still chewing on her lip. “You’re right, thank you pastor. How much for the book?”
“No charge. Just give your father my best wishes.”
Mom spent a good deal of the car ride telling me that I didn’t have to read the book and not to beat myself up if it was too difficult. Her dissuasions only made me hold onto it tighter. It became a private treasure. I knew I wasn’t supposed to have it but my mother was powerless to take it away.
As soon as we got home I rushed to my room and spent the afternoon devouring its glossed pages. The long Latin names and complicated processes were a little over my head. I could not for the life of me say what a supraorbital foramen or a liacus membrane is, but the pictures told the story I couldn’t read. Over the course of the day, I got a basic grasp of each systems purpose and how they all worked together. I read about how atoms build molecules, which in turn make cells, tissues, organs, organisms and ultimately whole species.
My concentration was only broken by a knock on the door. I’d become so absorbed by the book that I didn’t even notice I’d missed lunch. The last rays of orange sun were peaking through the frayed edges of my Superman curtains.
“Mom told me to come get you. It’s dinner time.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.”
The door opened.
“She said to tell you to put down the book and come eat.”
I was going to yell at her for coming into my room uninvited but the words never made it out of my mouth. A creature was standing in my doorway. It was the same size and shape as my sister. It had her voice but there were no clothes and no skin.
Lidless, periwinkle blue eyes stared at me, protruding from a smooth skull with strands of taut muscle stretching to the neck and jaw. In her chest a tiny heart fluttered like a caged hummingbird. As I looked, I saw through the fibrous organ to the inside as each of it’s four chambers filled with blood and sent it rocketing through the pipeline arteries to the lungs for air, then back to the heart and out to her fingers and toes, revitalizing her tissues. The old blood trickled back through fine roots. On the lean, muscle-bound skeleton I could even see the scarring in the marble bone where she’d broken her right shin falling out of our old tree house last year.
“Why are you looking at me funny?” the creature asked.
I pushed past her and ran down the stars, my feet barley making contact with each step as I launched myself downwards.
“Mom!” I shouted.
I shoved the door into the kitchen open with such force that the little spring on the bottom sent it lurching back at me. I barely dodged it.
“Slow down” she said. “What’s wrong?”
She was the same as Lucy, no skin. The muscles in her arms flexed and relaxed rapidly as she tossed a bowl of broccoli salad that rested on the crook of her elbow.
“No skin” I mumbled, backing into the closed door. “You don’t have any skin. I can see all your muscles and organs.”
Her jaw tightened and she turned to look at the table where my father sat, also skinless.
“I knew that book was a mistake,” she said to him before turning back to me. The vocal chords in her throat took on a lower, more threatening register. “Sit down and eat.”
Lacy came down the stairs and pushed past me to the table. Lowering my head in terrified obedience I sat in the chair opposite my father. He was frowning, which is an odd thing to see without lips. The circular mouth muscle was pushed and pulled by over a dozen smaller elastic bands like an intricate marionette. His muscles were heavier looking than my mothers. You could see how he favored his right, as his build all down that side was stronger and more thickly bound. He leaned across the table and blood rushed to fill the capillaries in his face. It made my palms itch.
“Don’t upset your mom for the rest of the night and I’ll make sure she lets you keep the book,” he whispered, then the muscle around his left eye spasmed. I think he winked but it was impossible to tell.
Mom set the food on the table and shooed away Grandpa’s old tabby, Puddles who, stripped of fur and skin, looked completely alien. The skeletal feline bolted out of the room the second his paws touched the carpet.
“That cat doesn’t have any training at all does he?” Dad asked her.
“I think he’s just upset about all the changes. He lived in that old house his whole life. My father got him when he was just a kitten.”
“Is Grandpa going to eat with us tonight?” Lacy asked.
“Not tonight sweetheart,” Mom answered. “I’ve brought him his dinner already.”
Dad reached for the bowl of macaroni and cheese and immediately pulled his hand back. His palm lit up like an arcade. A pulse of light rocketed through his arm to his spine and up to his brain, where it gave the stem a scalding, white jolt.
“Damn it, that’s hot.”
“Of course it is. What were you expecting?”
I kept my mouth tight shut, even though my belly was full of burning foam. Like Lacy’s heart, I saw deeper into them as they ate. I watched as bits of macaroni and broccoli were mashed to paste and then slid down a gulping tube to the stomach where it collected and floated in a bath of acid. From there it was separated to various lower organs for the stripping of nutrition and separation of waste, which frankly, I’d rather not describe. I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t look away. Everyone knows when you see a rabid dog you don’t look it in the eye, but you can’t take your eye off it.
“I don’t think we can save those shoes you ruined today Lacy,” Mom said as she stood up to clear the table. “We’re going to have to go out for new ones tonight if you’re going to have any for school tomorrow.”
“Sorry.” Her little heart fluttered
“You’re going to have to keep an eye on dad,” she continued to my father.
“Can’t,” he answered through a mouthful of macaroni. “I’m going to be upstairs in the office. I have a lot of work to get through tonight.”
Even though I couldn’t see my moms face, I could picture the look she was giving him. It was something she’d honed over years to instantly turn Dad to putty. He had a countermeasure for this however, and kept his line of sight fixed on his plate, refusing to acknowledge her gaze. After an extremely uncomfortable minute, her lake green eyes rolled to me.
“Do you think you can sit with Grandpa for a little while? I’ll let you bring your book.”
I nodded, eager to escape the table.
Grandpa’s room was dim and quiet. The only sound was the mellow hiss of oxygen routed through acrylic tubing. I sat in the moth-eaten chair beside him and waited. Mom had moved the old tube TV from the den in here. It sat dangerously on a stool at the foot of his bed. There were three bronze framed photographs crowded on top like a game of sentimental Janga.
One was a family picture from the Christmas before last when Grandpa came to visit. We all had to wear our sweaters from the year before even though mom was the only one who still fit hers. You could see dad’s hairy tum poking out the bottom of his but everyone was smiling. The second was an old color photo with that sunburnt orange wash you saw on cheap film. It was Grandpa and a friend of his I’d never met, already old but younger than he was now. They were leaning against an old baby-blue box shaped car with a leather top. They were both smoking in that picture though I’d never seen him smoke before. The third was a black and white of a woman in her mid thirties. Mom told me that it was her mother, which I found hard to believe. I didn’t remember Grandma all that well but the image in the photo didn’t match the memory of wrinkled skin coated in makeup, with painted on eyebrows and thin white hair.
The table beside his bed was a collage of white-capped pill bottles. An IV ran clear fluid into his right hand. On the same wrist he wore a silver bracelet with the letters DNR embossed into the plate in red. He turned his head and his eyes locked onto mine through the fog.
“How are you Willey?” he wheezed. He had to take deep breaths between each word.
“Not so good Grandpa.”
“Oh, why’s that?”
I hesitated. Grandpa was never one of my confidantes. He was a holiday relative. Until he got sick, we barely spoke and Mom didn’t like us coming in here alone. I don’t know why I trusted him. Maybe his discolored, paper skin, missing teeth and bulbous joints already made him so strange and frightening to me that the change was less of a shock. Maybe I knew that he’d seen things in his life that might have made him understand. All I know is that at that moment, he looked like a friend and I needed one.
“I can see though peoples skin. I can see all their insides and no one believes me.”
He had a coughing fit. It could have been laughter.
“How do mine look?”
“Bad.” I answered. I didn’t want to lie to him.
“I imagine that’s true.”
His muscles were withered like leather, tight and frayed. His lungs labored pitifully to cling to the oxygen that was being vented into him. His heart was slow, and refilled for each beat reluctantly. It wasn’t anything like the eager hummingbird that Lacy had or even the metronome in my fathers chest. He was dying and I started to realize what that meant. I wanted to comfort him but I didn’t have the first idea how. I looked helplessly at the stockpile of pharmaceuticals.
“Sometimes,” he said sleepily, closing his eyes, “people don’t see what’s right in front of them.”
I watched as his heart slowed still further. His lungs, utterly exhausted, weakened in their contractions. Every muscle in his body relaxed as all remaining energy left him. Inside his skull, the network of neurons dimmed into nothingness and his brain went dark, quiet and dreamless.
I sat in the chair for hours. I didn’t get up when Mom came home. I felt glued to the seat, like I couldn’t get up until she released me. She didn’t come in right away. I could feel her steps in the floor like a rumbling storm, pacing the house. I braced myself for when it would hit. My stomach felt heavy, like it was full of cold rocks. When she finally walked in, I couldn’t look at her. I kept my eyes fixed on the sliver bracelet. She dropped the bag she’d been carrying and brought her hand up to cover her skinless lips.
“When?” she asked.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t know how.
“How long has he been like this Will? How long have you been sitting here? Why didn’t you say anything? Why’d you just leave him there?”
“Grandpa’s gone,” I answered through choked tears. “There’s nothing I could do, all that’s left is muscle and bone.”
In the doorway behind her, Lucy was crying on Dad’s leg. She was wearing her new shoes.