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Bone Thief Excerpt from Bone Thief

by Thomas O'Callaghan



Chapter One

It was an autumn day, brisk with the threat of a harsh winter. The air was filled with moisture. The weatherman had predicted rain.

A flock of laughing girls had braved the elements and had come to the park to see me play. Like a chorus of cheerleaders, they lined the sides of the playing field.

"Go get 'em, Colm!" their voices echoed as I took my position on the offensive line.

The play was called. The ball was snapped. I began to run, watching as the pigskin spiraled toward me. Just as I was about to catch it, I was tackled by an off-leash golden retriever intent on being part of the game. The collision with the dog leveled me.

"My God! Briosca knocked him out!"

"Give him room to breathe!"

"Someone call an ambulance!'"

***

"Wake up! Wake up!"

My eyes opened to the dreariness of my tiny room. The dream evaporated, replaced by the nightmare of wakefulness.

Mother's eyes, grim and remorseless, stared at me, and I felt a tinge of nostalgia for the dog that had assaulted me, wishing to return to the dream, where the perils were predictable.

"Get up," she said. "Your father wants you."

Mother prided herself on being the obedient wife, and in that capacity, was exercising her duty to execute Father's wishes, no matter their eccentricities. She had been ordered to awaken my sister and me and to bring us down to the subcellar, where Father skinned his birds.

A chill came over me when I sat up. I knew it wasn't the temperature of the room. My body was girding itself for the approaching horror.

My sister, Rebecca, came racing into my room, the remnants of sleep still fresh in her eyes.

"Colm, Colm, again?" she whimpered.

Mother returned and led Rebecca and me downstairs. We were prodded through the cellar, passing a gurney where a gutted heron, an egret, and a peregrine falcon waited to be skinned, stuffed, and mounted.

Down in the subcellar we were brought before Father. He sat at the blood-soaked worktable, crouched on his rickety stool where he could coil and strike like a venomous snake. His pockmarked face, weathered by time and ravaged by overindulgence, surrounded deep-set eyes. Eyes that seemed lifeless, like those of a hooked fish. The glow at the end of his cigarette struggled to stay lit, gasping for oxygen, breathing the emanations of his alcohol-drenched sweat.

Mother, who always looked as though she were about to be thrown from a plane, rummaged through the pocket of her soiled apron and produced a vial. She unscrewed the cap and shook out two yellow tablets.

"Time for your chemo," she said.

"To hell with the chemo! I wanna be buried with hair on my balls!" Father bellowed, swatting the pills  out of mother's hand.

"Oh, Bugler," Mother sighed.

"I don't have much time, Evelyn. The children must learn this trade. Gather 'round the table, kids. Watch my every move."

I looked at my sister, who had positioned herself across the table from me. Mother and Father acted as if we had been summoned to this dreadful place for the first time. We were not. We were part of the hellish ordeal nightly.

It was as though Father had read my thoughts, for he sneered at me as he reached for a large bird from a wooden shelf. "This here is a pheasant from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania," he grumbled. "A twelve-gauge Mossberg brought the sucker down. Now watch, I'm placing the bird on the worktable, spread eagle, breast up. I'm stuffing the beak with cotton to catch the blood."

I closed my eyes and fought back the urge to vomit.

"Pay attention!" Mother barked, swatting me on the back of my head.

Father's angry eyes found mine and rested there for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, withdrawing his glare, he picked up a lance and continued the lesson. "This here's a lance, and I'm gonna use it to cut below the pheasant's neck to its asshole. You wanna open the skin only. Stay away from the flesh. See how I peel away just the skin with my fingers?" Father stopped. He looked to Mother. "Evelyn, where's the damn flour?"

"Rebecca, get the package of Pillsbury from the kitchen and bring it here," Mother ordered.

Becky scurried up the stairs, her ponytail flapping behind her. When she returned, she was holding a sixteen-ounce bag of enriched confectionery flour.

"Look, kids, I'm sprinkling the flour on the bird's skin. It sops up the scum."

A second wave of nausea hit me. I looked at Becky. Her face was ashen, her eyes half closed.

"Now, I'm using a surgeon's curved scissor to snip the critter's legs. There. No more legs. That'll make it easier to skin the rest of him. See? Wha'd I tell ya? Just look how nicely this skin slides off. OK, who can tell me what comes next?"

"Off with its head," I muttered.

"That's right. I'm using a boning knife to lop off its head, We'll put the head aside and work on it in a minute. First, I've got to ream a hole at the base of the neck with these here wire cutters. Like that. OK, now it's time for the head. Damn it, Evelyn, where's the borax?"

"Rebecca, look under the sink."

Becky rushed up the stairs again, returned with the carton of borax, and handed it to Father.

"On second thought, hold the borax. These are coming out nicely. Why ruin tomorrow's breakfast?"

He had palmed the pheasant's head and was using a spoon to scoop out the bird's brains, which he plopped into a Tupperware bowl.

"These are for my scrambled eggs," he said, handing the bowl to Mother.

"Colm, these go in the fridge upstairs," said Mother

I flew up the stairs and placed the bowl in the fridge. A third wave of nausea seized me. I headed for the toilet near the back of the house.

"What's taking you so long?" Father bellowed, stopping me midstride.

"Right away, Dad," I stammered as I rushed down the stairs and sidled up to the table. Risking another swat from Mother, Becky and I closed our eyes, for we knew what came next.

Thankfully, Mother stood mute as Father reached for the melon scoop and, staring into the pheasant's dark pupils, plucked out both eyes.

"Colm, line up two number twelves. Make sure they're brown."

"Yes, sir," I replied.

My assignment was to retrieve the cardboard box that held the glass eyes, select the ordered pair, and bring them to Father. I marched toward the metal shelving that lined the rear wall of the subcellar, pulled down the corrugated box, and lifted its lid. A multitude of artificial eyes glared up at me. As always, I shuddered.

"What's keeping those eyes, Colm?"

A shriek came from atop the basement's shelving, shooting splinters of fear up my spine. A skittering sound followed.

"Bugler, what was that?" cried Mother

"Daddy, we got rats!" Becky whimpered, her brown eyes pooling with tears.

"That ain't no rat," Father grinned.

A second shriek, more bone piercing than the first, discombobulated me. The box leaped out of my hands, launching the agate eyes into their own frenzied trajectories. My father's face went through a transformation. The muscles of his jaw knotted. A furrow cut deep into his forehead.

"Now look what you've done!"

He stood up. My heart burst.

His face became warlike. He let loose a cry, unfathomable and archaic, like the howl of a Celtic warrior.

My sister and I watched in horror. I knew my life hung on his very breath. He could choke me with his brute hands or spare my life.

He ground the strewn eyes under the heel of his hiking boot, leaned his distorted face into mine, and said, "I could snuff you out, son. And it wouldn't matter much to the sun or the moon or the stars."

The sound of a blaring siren jarred Colm's consciousness to the present. A homeless woman pushing a Key Food shopping cart had collided with a Volvo, activating its alarm.

In a flash, he refocused on the task at hand. That afternoon he had followed the housewife as she drove that Volvo from the Kings Plaza Shopping Mall to this dimly lit parking lot outside Ralph Avenue's retail strip.

Her sole purpose for going to the mall was to meet with him for the first time. Colm took pleasure in knowing he had stood her up. But what thrilled him more was that she had now become his quarry.

Seated behind the wheel of his van, he watched as she dashed out of the video store toward the Volvo. She got to her car and depressed the panic button, killing the siren.

Colm stared at the stiletto heels she had donned for their first encounter, at her plump fingers clutching the rented tape. Inside his parka, he touched the rag soaked in Halothane. The homeless woman drifted from sight. His target was now alone in the deserted parking lot.

He struck.

As he dragged the housewife's body to the sliding door of his van, his gaze fell upon the videotape she had dropped on the parking lot's asphalt. He picked it up.

It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

That was a flick she'd never see again.

He'd watch it for her.

Copyright 2006 Thomas O'Callaghan