He was the man who knew the bones. He carried them over his shoulder, clavicles clinking loudly in cloth—a hidden treasure. At night he would scatter them and let them fall like raindrops across a stained wooden floor before the fireplace, as if he expected the heat to reanimate them, or at the very least warm them.
The bones would never warm.
It was only the skull that he never carried, because if he did, he knew all day he would look down back over his shoulder and through the bag the eyes would be boring into him deep and cruel and cold. So he watched and he waited and he hid the skull under years and years of tearing newspaper that he couldn't bear to move.
The papers were growing yellow like his teeth and when he grimaced the stains would only darken. The few men he knew, used to know, all wondered where his determination had gone; he would come into work late, drunk, and red in the face, possessions slung over his back. Hardly the picture of professionalism. As the days passed, he would appear less and less until they hardly knew who he was and what he had looked like.
Emma couldn't say she knew him; rather, she only recognized him. It was hard not to in such a small town, especially with all of the stories he carried in the stubbles of his thick brown beard. Every morning she would wait for the bus and he would lumber on by with his bag gray against white snow and Emma could feel her mother watching from the window, even though she wasn't sure why. He seemed nice enough, just sad. A big teddy bear, just like the one that was waiting on her bed at the end of every day. Brown and furry, and a little bit tattered and worn. Like Christmastime, but sad somehow. He looked so sad; that was what bothered her. Her mother always said, "Everyone deserves a hug when they're sad." If anyone, it seemed like maybe he needed it the most.
So she watched and she waited and she hid her expression from showing through because it would give everything away. She knew that one day the big man would get her hug and maybe then he wouldn't be so sad and cold and alone. Maybe he would smile at her and hold her hand and he would shave his beard and his eyes would go a little brighter. It was always better to be brighter.
He looked at her sometimes when he walked by, but she never seemed to notice. It was always in passing that he looked, and he looked hard, but he saw all the way through her, way past, to a little girl named Grace in a blue dress who was skipping and singing around his heels. A little wood-nymph tumbled from the branches.
Sometimes when he saw Emma he would see the little Grace that he missed, but he couldn't dream for too long because after a while all dreams go rotten and Grace's skin would go yellow, yellow parchment ripping and coming apart at the touch and touching her would only make her scream and cry and why in the world would you want to hear a scream from a lovely little thing like that?
She was skull and bones towards the end. That, he would never forget, no matter how much he closed his eyes. Her eyes all big and bright but empty when that thing took her from him, that thing he couldn't pronounce, because all of these names were so complicated that they just swam in his head and floated but never settled. That's the doctors, that's how they always got you, with the words that they could say and you couldn't. It made him ache in a way that he couldn't understand or explain until he's collapse onto himself in the cold little cabin when no one was watching and it felt like no one ever would.
It was a sickness that got her, yes. Everyone gets taken away by sickness one way or another. But she was too young, too small, she held onto his shins and climbed like they were trees, she didn't deserve the sickness, he did. He knew it and it made him sick inside. Every night he would take those bones, those yellowed beautiful bones and splay them out onto the splitting floor because maybe one night the fire would warm them and then they would finally just link back together. Like magic.
He hoped it so hard and so often that his fingers rubbed together until one day he could swear that they sparked. But no, the fires wouldn't ever light, not anymore.
And then one day Emma was walking home and the man appeared, a silhouette of big shoulders in front of her, but he didn't see her because his eyes looked straight through and ahead and he kept walking, bag swinging and clacking over his shoulder. Emma knew that this was the day so she smiled and followed, leaving her backpack behind on the sidewalk, walking on the tips of her toes as though it would ensure silence. The element of surprise was integral for the perfect hug. Everybody knew that.
As she walked, it grew colder and Emma pulled her coat tighter around herself, the pink pom-poms of her hat tossing restlessly in the frosty wind. She sniffled loudly, nose tinged with red from the cold and she wished that she had her gloves and maybe the fireplace by her favorite chair in the little corner of her living room, but she stopped and turned around and suddenly didn't know where she was through the trees and they were stretching up high and dark around her. She turned just in time to see the man's brown jacket melt into the scenery, and she picked up her pace, suddenly terrified of being left behind. After she hugged him, he could tell her how to go home. Adults were the ones you were supposed to ask, after all, and he wasn't a stranger. She saw him all the time.
It became harder to follow him after a while because the main roads melted to rubble and rock and the colors of civilization muted into fog, but she continued over fallen tree trunks and loose stones, always able to keep him just within her sights through the thick trees. His pace was slow enough that she scrambled and grappled for her footing just quickly enough to keep up. He didn't hear her at all, or otherwise felt very safe with unnatural sounds in the forest; he didn't look over his shoulder or acknowledge her, not once.
She wanted to speak, to call out to him, because she was getting tired, but she knew that they were almost there and for the hug to be a surprise it had to come out of nowhere. Finally the trees parted and melted into space and sky as they came upon a cabin. Dark and moldy, the wood of the cabin was rotted away with dark green moss and decayed into spiderweb frames that haphazardly slung themselves at sharp, dangerous angles, the wood splintering at every corner.
He entered without hesitation. She meant to follow him, she really did, but a sudden feeling of fear had frozen her when they had come upon the cabin, and something in her stomach was crawling and squealing; everything felt stale and wrong. For a moment, she only stood still, unsure of what to do. She couldn't turn back now, she didn't know how to go back home. But she just couldn't go inside, she just couldn't. It didn't seem right, and she couldn't move anyway, not when she knew that she would be going into the cabin. Feeling that she had to do something, instead of going inside, she crept to the window. She peeked into it as well as she could through the frosted glass, her nose resting just above its ledge.
The room looked frozen, even colder than it was outside, and salty strips of meat bled from the walls and puddled into the wooden floorboards. The sight twisted her stomach uncomfortably, but Emma knew that there was nothing unusual about hunting. Nothing, right? Plenty of people around her did it all of the time and her mom didn't approve but it wasn't against the law or anything. It was just icky. And then the man entered her line of sight and he looked strikingly different than he had before. Sadder, somehow. Even less guarded, which she hadn't thought possible. She saw his eyes big and deep and blue sweep around the room with a curious amount of naiveté—especially for being its sole inhabitant—until they finally rested on her. With a strangled squeak, she ducked her head low and hoped that hiding would suffice.
"Hello? Little girl? Don't stand out there in the cold. Come in." His voice was gentler, softer than she had expected, and she gingerly got to her feet and entered the cabin, the door swinging shut behind her. The boards groaned under her feet and she tried to step more lightly but it made no difference; it almost seemed louder, so loud that the sounds would just swallow her up. Squinting in the dim, flickering candlelight, Emma noticed the stacks of papers littering the floors, rising up so high that they pushed at the ceiling. She walked over and was about to touch one, but his voice stopped her, pinky suspended in air.
"What are you doing all the way out here? It isn't a safe thing, you know, to go out walking by yourself," he admonished. He looked even taller than he had before now that he was standing up straight, now that there was no sack over his shoulder. He sounded confused at her appearance, eyes glassy and unfocused.
"I wasn't alone, I was with you!" she exclaimed, forgetting her fear in her boldness, "You didn't even notice, silly!" She realized how forward she had been, and self-consciously twisted a strand of blond hair around her finger. He watched it. Curl. Uncurl. Bounce.
"I had no idea. Why did you come with me?" He was still standing and it made her uncomfortable; she felt like they should be sitting on a couch somewhere, that they should be drinking tea. Suddenly she didn't really feel like hugging him anymore, but she just couldn't stop talking.
"Well, my mommy says that sometimes when people are sad you need to give them a hug, and when you pass me every morning you look super sad, and the best hugs happen when they're surprises, so I wanted to surprise you!" she said.
"You remind me of my daughter, Grace. She was about your age." He shifted his weight uncomfortably, eyes darting to one of the stacks.
"Where is she?" Emma asked. He didn't respond, and his eyes had reverted to looking right through her. His hairy fists clenched and the tendons stuck out harsh and blue.
"Um, mister?" More timid now, seeing that she had lost him again. She started to walk backwards, hands raised, sudden ugly fear pumping in her chest, until she bumped into a stack of papers beside her and they started to twist and fall and suddenly she was lost and confused and trapped as they fluttered.
His hand flew out and grabbed her wrist and his eyes were starving and mad and she screeched and pulled back and a storm of newspapers whirled around the room and something cracked onto the floor a skull she screamed and screamed and screamed why weren't the walls falling and then after a moment it was quiet.
Maybe Grace hadn't been reanimated, but he had.
The morning lit with a hiss and rustle up in the sky, the sound of heat and warmth and reanimation, and with a freshly pressed suit and a new, close shave, Dr. Anderson astounded his colleagues by arriving on time—smiling, even—for the first time in years.