I sealed my own doom with a silly offhand remark last Halloween.
"What if, inside of each one of us, there's an evil skeleton just itching to get out?" I asked my date, a pale redhead named Alison, she with the haunted eyes. We were surrounded by the city elite, a shambling parade of clockwork capitalists, each of us perfectly groomed, perfectly dressed, perfectly dull. Everyone wore masks, and yet it was easy to tell whose predatory gaze peered through the eyeholes. It was the one feature that distinguished each of us.
"Don't joke!" Alison gasped, swatting me on the arm. I shrugged, a little annoyed that she hadn't found the idea as clever as I. What better time for gallows humour than Halloween night?
I tried again.
"No, imagine it," I said. "What if your skeleton grew tired of bearing all your burdens? What if it suddenly seized control of itself and started to...I don't know, flex and rip at the flesh surrouning it? Like it wanted to burst free, kaboom!"
She made a face. "I thought you were in finance, not cheap horror movies," she said.
With that humourless dismissal, I knew the evening was going to be a chore, despite how much I appreciated the curves that filled her black evening gown. Once again my wandering eye had betrayed me; my impulsive invitation at the library had surely backfired.
Still, perhaps there was yet some amusement to be had, if she were really this skittish.
"Oh yes," I whispered, nodding a perfunctory greeting to a passing associate, "That queer assemblage of bone, growing inside us from birth, supporting us all our lives, but trapped within our flesh. Imagine if skeletons could walk and think and need, like the creatures in the movies, swordfighting Greek heroes or hunting down randy teenagers."
"Gross," she hissed, her frown wiped away by a somewhat desperate, "save me" smile as she waved merrily at another guest bearing a tray of pinkish-orange punch. From that moment on, I started counting the minutes. Any one of the skeletons decorating the hall might have been a better date. Soon Alison was chatting amiably with the punch-bearer, ignoring me.
I don't recall the rest of the evening, other than the dull generalities: we drank, talked, discovered we didn't like each other very much, left the party early, went home alone.
But the evening hadn't been a total waste, I thought as I prepared for bed. My strange idea would probably bother the board to no end next week, for I had already promised myself to share it at the first opportunity with those boring old stuffed shirts. I had an eccentric reputation to uphold, after all. Ha! They'd look round the table at each other, wondering how to react, unsure whether they were supposed to laugh.
I slipped into bed with a smile on my face.
A short time later, the first nightmare came.
I was late for the board meeting. Mumbling an apology, I slipped into my seat, trying to appear inconspicuous. Fortunately no one seemed to notice my tardiness, because Maxwell was stabbing his pointer at the whiteboard with such violence that he was putting small dents in it.
"Buxom redheads are not our target market!" Maxwell bellowed, and to my surprise there was Alison on the whiteboard, tacked to it with huge pushpins, moaning in pain as Maxwell jabbed her in the abdomen with his pointer. Suddenly I felt far more warmth and sympathy for her than I had at the party, and I stood up to protest - but her body started to spasm against the whiteboard, limbs thrashing, her head whipping up and down so violently I was afraid she'd break her own spine.
"Stop that, Maxwell!" I shouted. Rage in his eyes, he viciously snapped his pointer across the back of my hand and I recoiled in pain, nursing my hand. Alison started to scream, her eyes bulging, blood oozing from the corners of her mouth, dripping over her chin, down her pale throat. Her jaw was snapping open and closed, her teeth savaging the insides of her cheeks, biting through them until her gory smile reached all the way back to her molars.
The skin on her right shoulder was bulging, stretched thin, and suddenly it split, blood-drenched bone surfacing violently. Her entire body wrenched itself first one way then the other, and with horror I watched as the bones of her arm pulled free of the flesh, as if they were removing a long glove. The arm, emptied of bone, sagged like a balloon drained of air, the empty hand still pinned to the whiteboard.
The room emptied with screams and panic, but I stood frozen, watching as the skeletal hand started to claw at Alison's face, leaving bone-deep gashes in her lovely features. One thin fingerbone thrust into her left eye, popping it like a grape -
- and then I awoke, drenched in sweat, frozen facedown on the bed, heart pounding.
When morning finally came, I felt an irrational need to call Alison. I wanted to warn her (about what?) or at least apologize for being a jackass at the party.
But I couldn't bring myself to dial her number. It was just a dream, and she probably wanted to forget about what had been, for her, just another bad date, probably not the first nor the last she would ever experience.
So rather than pick up the phone, I tried to complete my morning routine as if it were any other day. And sure enough, within an hour the nightmare had faded, as dreams often do, details once vivid dwindling to nothing more than hazy impressions of a fleeting twilight world best forgotten.
Still, those hazy impressions were more than enough to decimate my appetite. I ate only a bit of yogurt and a slice of melon for breakfast, and even that felt like too much. When invited to lunch by my colleagues, I made excuses about my workload and stayed at my desk. I didn't even think about dinner; instead, I cycled on the stationary bike for forty-five minutes, took my dog out for a walk, and responded to the day's emails.
The nightmare came again that evening. If anything, it was more disturbing than the first.
Yogurt and melon became my daily meal; the recurring dream of Alison's gruesome death was killing any desire I had to eat. I'd always been thin, but before long people started making remarks - my secretary even called me "gaunt," one day, a word I'd never even heard before. After looking it up I had to admit that the description was accurate. When I looked in the mirror my cheekbones looked like axe blades. When I lifted my shirt, my ribs looked like they were ready to burst right through my skin.
Six weeks of this nightmare diet took its toll. I fainted one afternoon at the office, and when I woke up I found myself in a hospital bed, hooked up to an intravenous line. A very young, very serious doctor told me that I had to start eating or I'd whither away to the bone.
That made me laugh, but the doctor didn't find it funny at all.
On my third night in the hospital, an intern strolled into my room, pushing a life-sized model skeleton into the corner.
"What's that for?" I asked, pointing to it.
"Need to move some stuff around - need some surge capacity for the flu pandemic," he said, and skittered away before I could protest.
Well, after all, it was only a model. And in a single room, what other company did I have?
But when I drifted off to sleep that night, no smile crossed my lips, not even an ironic grimace.
My eyes snapped open at once when I felt the I.V. being yanked from my arm. I gasped in pain and then shrieked in horror as the skeleton crawled up into bed with me, one bony fist wrapped around the intravenous line. Its hollow eye sockets glared at me, its teeth frozen in a loathsome grin as it flung the plastic tube to the floor. I screamed for help, pushing myself backward toward the head of the bed, but the skeleton crawled after, one bony knee pressing onto my thigh, its fingers wrapping into my hair, the back of its hand caressing my cheek as its mouth opened.
And suddenly I felt my own mouth being forced open, as if my jaw were moving of its own accord, opening for a kiss as the skeleton leaned over me, lowering its lipless mouth to mine. Inside my arms, I felt my humerus, my ulna, my radius wrapping themselves around the skeleton's ribs, my muscles protesting, my skin crawling in revulsion. I screamed as if I were going mad as I felt the skeleton's bare teeth pressing against my own with a horrid, grinding scrape -
- and I awoke again, staring at the ceiling, not daring to glance over to see if the model skeleton were still hanging in place. I stayed frozen still all night, waiting.
I was discharged some time later, a few pounds heavier, with a referral to a therapist and orders to eat regular meals. The therapist was very good, and within a few months the nightmares had stopped and I was back to my normal weight. A little heavier, even. My colleagues were surprisingly kind when I came back to work, and I felt a little ashamed of how I'd thought of them that Halloween night when this all started, as stereotypes rather than people. Maybe I'd do something extra at the company Christmas party - organize a food bank drive or arrange a sleigh ride, something people would feel good about.
I even phoned Alison, finally, to apologize. It took her a few minutes to remember who I was, but I wasn't offended - it was one date, months ago, and she didn't even recall the stupid skeleton idea. She even suggested we might go out again - but not on Halloween, she said with a laugh. We arranged to get together for a movie on Sunday...November first, as it turned out.
But the night before we were to meet, I dreamed again. And in this dream, Alison and I were running through the moonlit woods, terrified. I knew that she was being compelled to run by the skeleton inside her; it was propelling her toward a cliff, where it would fling her over the side to burst open her flesh on the rocks below, and at last her skeleton could escape her prison of skin and muscle.
But before the skeleton could fling her over the precipice, I overtook them, grabbing Alison by the hair and throwing her to the ground. I snatched up a rock and, with tears in my eyes, I started pounding the skeleton with the stone, smashing the bone, crushing it, rendering it helpless, unable to hurt Alison. I smashed the stone into her traitorous skull, her fiendish ribs, her diabolical femur over and over, until at last the skeleton was still.
At first I laughed in relief; it was over; I had saved her. But in the dream, Alison didn't move. Her green eyes stared into nothingness. I'd failed - the skeleton had killed her after all, from within, without even needing to escape. Her beautiful skin was covered in blood and bruises, broken open in places where the skeleton had tried to free itself. Enraged, I started to beat my fists against my own skull, as if warning it not to try the same thing with me, as if wanting to punish one skeleton for its evil even if the first had escaped me in death...
The next morning I told myself that I wouldn't mention the dream to Alison. No reason to remind her of our first, unpleasant date. I was a little annoyed that even after months of therapy I should still be having skeleton dreams, but perhaps it was my own fault; perhaps the prospect of seeing Alison again reminded me of how the whole silly idea started. I was sure that this was just a momentary relapse, not to be repeated.
I arrived at the theatre just a few minutes before we were to meet. The appointed hour came and went. I called her cell phone, but there was no answer - just a chirpy voice mail message. I waited an hour, called again, again received no answer.
I waited another half hour before I gave up and drove home. On the way, a police cruiser sped into my rear-view mirror, blue and red lights flashing, swerving by me to disappear into the night.
I decided not to call Alison again. She probably realized that a second date was a bad idea after all, and I didn't fault her for the choice.
My left arm jerked a little as I pulled into my driveway, a violent spasm that startled me a little. I put the car in park, shut off the engine and stared at it, but nothing happened.
I favoured myself with a self-deprecating grin, shrugging off the whole experience, resolving to be a nicer guy so that maybe the next time I met someone like Alison I wouldn't spoil my chances. It had taken some bad dreams and a medical crisis, but I was finally starting to feel comfortable in my own skin.