When Toby woke, he was dashing across the sidewalk toward the street, barefoot in his red pajamas and wearing a football helmet. Lights flashed in his eyes. There's a car coming at me, he realized. Just in time he regained control of his body and leaped to the side, away from the honking horn and burning rubber.
Ignoring the yells from the car's driver, he returned to the sidewalk, fighting off Bonesy's attempts to take control. Toby was short but powerful from years of weight training at the reform school, enabling him to overpower his skeleton.
His left hand quivered. "I should shut you up the rest of the day for this," he said. But what the heck. He grudgingly relaxed his hand and arm muscles. His fingers began to flutter rapidly in American Sign Language.
"I want out. Just die will you."
The hand grabbed at Toby's throat. The itchy leather guard he wore around his neck protected him, but it still hurt. Toby took control of his arms again. His muscles strained as he again fought his skeleton.
Too late he clenched his jaw as Bonesy chomped down with his teeth, catching Toby's tongue before he could pull it completely out of the way. Toby cursed as blood trickled down his chin. He realized his mouth rag hung out of the corner of his mouth. He jammed it back in, his main protection for his tongue from such attacks.
Toby wearily went back to the small one-story house he rented, using an awkward shuffle as Bonesy fought him each step. He'd originally rented a third-floor apartment, but had to move when Bonesy tried jumping out the window.
The front door was open. Sighing, Toby knew he'd have to get another lock for the front door. Bonesy must have seen the combination, despite Toby's clumsy attempts to unlock it without looking. Since they both peered out through the same eye sockets, Toby had arranged to get the combination in Braille to keep it secret from his skeleton. He'd also have to do a better job of tying themselves up at night.
"I am gonna rip your flesh off someday."
Toby had relaxed his muscles again, allowing Bonesy to sign with his left hand. Rather than tense up again, he just stayed on guard, ready in case Bonesy tried anything. His neck and much of his body was badly scarred from attempted stranglings and stabbings. He removed the football helmet he always wore at night. His brown hair was in a buzz cut so Bonesy couldn't yank at it. A bald spot on the right memorialized Toby's previously longer hair, where Bonesy had yanked out a chunk.
He pulled the mouth rag out of his mouth and jammed it into his pocket. The corner of his eye twitched for a moment.
"Bonesy, why can't we go back to like it was before?" Toby sat down and rocked side to side, trying to calm Bonesy down.
"Do not want to go back to like before. Want out."
"How would we do that?"
"All your bloody goo around me. I hate it. Want out."
"If you behave today, I'll play Heavy Metal tonight. How about Metallica? Or we can try out that new one we found, 'Skeleton Witch'?"
"Do not care about Metal anymore. Want out, want out, want out."
Toby knew there was only one way for Bonesy to do that.
Dawn had begun to show when Toby returned from the near car accident, so he didn't bother going to bed. He decided to start his morning workout early. He changed into warm-ups and put on Mozart.
"Hate that music. Want Metallica."
Bonesy tried to take control, but Toby stopped him. Toby had started weight training after the first time Bonesy tried to kill him five years before, when he'd been fourteen. He used a weight machine rather than free weights, which would have made it too easy for Bonesy to catch him off guard and crack their skull. He wondered how a broken skull would affect Bonesy, but didn't really want to find out.
As he did squats, his head lashed forward and banged into the machine. Toby jumped back, fighting off Bonesy while rubbing his head. He'd been careless. Long ago he'd put up padding on the weight machine and the walls. If not for that, he'd probably have a concussion.
"Did you have to do that?" he asked. He wished he hadn't taken the football helmet off. He'd have a headache the rest of the day. The corner of his eye began twitching again.
"C'mon, Bonesy, give me a break just this one time?"
Bonesy began thrashing about. Toby tightened his muscles. He grabbed the mouth rag out of his pocket and started to jam it back in his mouth. He grimaced at the old saliva taste, and tossed it aside. He picked up a fresh one from the folded stack next to his desk and put that one in.
He'd once dreamed of being an investigative reporter. A year before, when he'd first gotten out of the reform school, he'd tried going to college to study journalism, but Bonesy was simply too disruptive, and he'd been asked to leave.
When Bonesy calmed down, he removed the mouth rag and breakfasted on cold cereal with a plastic spoon. When he was done, he put the mouth rag back in, wrote a few notes to himself in crayon, and then went to his desk to begin work on his daily online advice column, "Practical Solutions."
His daily life or death struggles with Bonesy had taught him how to deal with problems in a practical way, and this had paid off. He'd started the column while at the reform school. Few of his readers knew of his young age. The column had grown steadily to the point where, by selling ads, he could just pay his bills. It allowed him to work at home, a huge advantage when driving to work was a literal death sentence. During his years at the reform school he'd grown apart from his parents, and at nineteen, he was glad to be financially independent.
Toby had solved many of his own day-to-day problems. Looking for a more long-term solution, he'd made an appointment with a psychiatrist the next day. He doubted if anything would come of it.
That night, after putting on the football helmet and throat guard, and tying himself extra tight to the bed--Bonesy didn't have the fine muscular control to untie these knots, although he was always trying, and sometimes succeeding--Toby tossed and turned for hours before falling asleep. He had nightmares, as always, as the giant with the stubbled red face and thin nose came and swallowed him.
It hadn't always been like this. In the beginning, when Toby was twelve, he and Bonesy had been friends.
Twelve-year-old Toby lay in bed, racked by fever. Tiny trickles of blood flowed from threadlike cracks all over his skin. Modern medicine hadn't helped. He was dying, and nobody knew why. His parents finally pulled him from the hospital and, using their life savings, hired around-the-clock medical care at home. Toby knew he was going to die, and that his parents wanted him to enjoy what little time he had left.
As if he could enjoy lying in bed, his skin erupting with bleeding cracks, his body on fire, his pajamas soaked with sweat. He was hooked up to a life support system that tracked his heartbeat, respiration, and other body functions.
He'd been like this since returning a week before from a forbidden excursion to the inner city, where he had heard there was magic. There he'd stared out from behind a parked car as two robed figures in the street casting spells at each other. After a few minutes, one stumbled to the ground. The man tried to flee on his hands and knees. He crawled behind the very car that Toby hid behind. The victorious wizard appeared on Toby's other side, his teeth flashing a wide grin before uttering another curse. Toby felt a shock go through his body, and he collapsed to the ground. The other wizard's eyes went wide with horror before he too fell to the ground and lay still. The grinning wizard glanced at Toby, then left.
Toby had lain on the ground paralyzed for several minutes before he was able to get up. Already threadlike sores erupted on his body. He'd run home as fast as he could. He never told anyone where he'd been.
And now he lay in bed, waiting to die.
He must have dozed off as he opened his eyes to see a man's stubbled red face leaning too closely over him. As Toby watched, eyes wide, a droplet of sweat rolled down the man's long, thin nose and dropped onto Toby's chin.
He tried to roll away, his body convulsing with pain. He cried out. The man put his hand over Toby's mouth. Toby continued to struggle.
"Conserve your strength, child," the man said. "I am a shaman. If you die, I won't get paid." Toby continued to struggle and moan.
"Stop it now!" the man commanded, tapping his finger to Toby's forehead. All energy left Toby's body as he relaxed back into bed, unable to move a muscle.
The man looked at Toby's parents, who had rushed to their child's side. "Back off." They stepped back at the hypnotic words, out of Toby's sight. The man faced Toby again.
"I am Sho. You have the skeletal curse, and are alive only because it is in the dormant stage. You probably were in the wrong place at the wrong time and got in the way." The man touched Toby's forehead again and Toby's energy returned. He no longer struggled as he stared at the shaman.
"To remove the curse, we must first activate it." Sho unbuttoned Toby's pajama top. He removed a pinch of red powder from a small black bag and tossed it on Toby's bare chest.
Toby's body exploded in pain. He screamed and arched his back as painful red welts erupted all over his body. An alarm from the life support system went off. The nurse on duty started to move forward but stopped when the shaman glanced at her.
The welts on Toby's body grew larger and began to interconnect, leaving his skin crisscrossed with bleeding stripes. Another alarm went off in the life support system as Toby's heart stopped beating. As he relaxed, his mother screamed, fell back into the bed, and lay still.
The shaman grabbed Toby's face and held it up, splattering himself with blood from the bleeding stripes on Toby's face. He recited a series of words with too many consonants. A shock went through Toby's body as he convulsed, but he didn't open his eyes.
The shaman stared at him. "Didn't work. Must try again." He repeated the words with too many consonants. Another shock went through Toby's body and he opened his eyes.
The shaman studied Toby. He put his hand over Toby's forehead. "No, it isn't possible," he said. "I sense two lives." The shaman kneeled and looked under the bed. "Is there a dog or cat? No, not that." He stood up again, and stared down at Toby. Then he took a step back. "I spoke the words twice. That was a mistake."
Toby's parents rushed to Toby's side as the nurse began checking him. "What's wrong?" Toby's dad asked, staring at the shaman, whose red face had drained of color.
"Your son was dead, but now he's alive," the shaman said. "I'm done here. No charge." He left quickly.
Less than twenty minutes later Toby's skeleton took control for the first time. Toby had just woke up and noticed that his fingers were twitching. Then, on its own, his body sat up in bed. When it started to get out of bed, Toby clenched his muscles, stopping the movement. It was as if his body had a mind of its own. He stopped his body from getting up, but could feel it fighting back.
Control was a purely physical contest. He was slightly stronger, but he couldn't keep his muscles clenched all the time. His body battled him for control much of the day and well into the night. Toby finally relaxed control, and his body walked about on its own, examining his room and belongings. Finally Toby took control and they struggled again.
The battles for control resembled epileptic seizures, dozens of them each day. Toby's parents sent him to doctor after doctor, but none could figure it out. EEGs proved it wasn't epilepsy. Toby's parents tried and failed to locate the shaman.
After a time Toby discovered that whatever it was that lived inside him understood English. Toby could say "Hold up one finger" and a finger would go up.
One day Toby checked out a book on American Sign Language from the library. As he learned, so did the creature inside him. Soon he could converse with it. That's how he learned it was his skeleton that had come alive. He christened it "Bonesy."
Since they inhabited the same body, they had a major conflict. But the two engineered a truce. They grew up together.
The two were never alone and would often talk late into the night. Bonesy told him what his insides felt like: "Gooey!" Most often they'd talk about sports or videogames, or as they grew older, girls.
One night, when Toby was thirteen, he asked Bonesy about his first memories. Bonesy signed back.
"I remember everything from the instant I came awake. The shaman and incantation. Everything."
"I remember him saying something about saying it twice," Toby said.
"I remember. First must have woke you. Second woke me."
Toby rubbed his hand over his chest, feeling his ribs as he sometimes did when talking with Bonesy.
"How did you learn English? You seemed to know that really fast, but took a while to learn sign language."
"I do not remember anything before I woke. But I knew all you knew."
Toby found there were advantages to having a living, conscious skeleton inside him. When they worked together and combined their strength, Toby was the strongest kid in class, and their explosive power made him an unlikely football star.
And that led to all the problems.
When Toby was fourteen, he made his high school football team as a freshman despite his relative small size. Playing both offense and defense, he was the best and smallest fullback and defensive back his school had ever seen.
Toby and Bonesy had the mass of one, but the power of two. When they worked together, they could out-muscle and out-cut the much larger juniors and seniors. College scouts came from all over the state to see this prodigy shove aside bigger, older players. They salivated as he upstaged his teammates, leading them to win after win.
Toby also joined the school's newspaper staff, where he covered current events part-time. Often his stories would run side by side with sports stories by others about him. A number of upperclassmen on the football team were not happy with the situation.
After another easy victory, the team clinched going to the state finals. Toby was once again the star, rushing for over 200 yards and making eight tackles. After showering and dressing, he left the locker room. That's when he was jumped.
Neither Toby nor Bonesy saw who their assailants were when the bag was stuffed over their head from behind. They fought violently and threw several off before their arms were pinned, two people on each. The assailants stuffed them into a locker, and slammed it shut. It locked with a click.
"Have a good night, freshman!" was the last thing they heard as the attackers left. The entire assault took less than a minute, a minute that would change Toby's and Bonesy's lives forever.
Toby yelled for help, but there was no answer. Using their combined strength, they threw themselves against the front of the locker over and over, to no avail.
About an hour after their imprisonment, Bonesy began to fidget. Toby let Bonesy have control, and his arms and legs moved about restlessly.
"Get us out."
"You know I can't. I've been yelling forever."
"I am scared."
Bonesy shook uncontrollably. Toby had never seen Bonesy like this before.
"Must get out."
The signing was barely readable in his shaking hands.
"Bonesy, we may have to spend the night in here, but we'll be okay."
"No No No No No No No No No."
Toby's body was thrown into the front of the locker, and he tensed his muscles to stop Bonesy. The two struggled, and Toby could barely keep Bonesy from banging his head against the cold, hard steel of their prison. His skeleton had never been so maddened with fear.
The two struggled through the night. Toby found that if he rocked side to side, it calmed Bonesy down some, but it was only temporary and usually ended with spastic movements as Bonesy panicked again.
Soon Toby felt a rising fear in himself as well. The cold steel seemed to close in on him, pinning him down. Like Bonesy, he frantically wanted out. Toby didn't know where this sudden fear had come from. Soon he too was panicking, frantic to get out, but helplessly trapped. He and Bonesy fought their prison for hours, drenched in Toby's own sweat, both in near mindless terror.
When a janitor opened the locker in the morning, Toby was too tired to resist as Bonesy shot out, punched the janitor, and then ran into a wall, knocking Toby out.
Toby woke up in the hospital with a concussion, handcuffed to the side of the bed, with a police officer standing guard. While he'd been unconscious, Bonesy had gone on a rampage.
The charges were read: destruction of school property, assault, and attempted murder. Bonesy had found a member of the football team whose voice he recognized as one of the football players who had trapped them. He had snuck up behind him and strangled him almost to death before he was pulled off. Of course, all anyone saw was Toby.
He spent the next four years at the St. Philomena School for Boys, a reform school.
The locker experience changed Toby in an unexpected way. He now found the very thought of enclosed areas terrifying. Closets, small bathrooms, even pulling a blanket over his head at night made him nervous. He had nightmares where he'd see the door to the locker close in his face, over and over, and he'd wake up screaming. Then the giant with the stubbled red face and thin nose entered his nightmares, swallowing him each night.
Bonesy's reaction was far worse. He too became afraid of enclosed places--except he lived in an enclosed place, Toby's body. Bonesy began suffering regular panic attacks, giving Toby "seizures" as his skeleton literally fought to get out of his body.
One day several boys at St. Philomena jokingly shoved Toby into a closet and locked the door. Toby and Bonesy were equally terrified as they combined their strength to break through the door and inflict panicked revenge on the boys. For the rest of his stay, the other boys avoided him.
Toby left St. Philomena's at eighteen with a relatively clean record but a reputation for strangeness due to his frequent "seizures."
Bonesy's condition worsened during the four years at St. Philomena. Day after day it was the same thing:
"Let me out."
"I feel closed in."
"I drowning in your guts."
Browsing the library early in his stay at St. Philomena, Toby had read about claustrophobia, fear of enclosed spaces, which he learned was generally caused by a traumatic incident in childhood. Which was exactly what had happened to them with the locker incident.
Unable to free himself, Bonesy slowly went crazy. When the closed-in feeling was too severe, he'd writhe about, fighting for control. His signings became more and more desperate as he frantically tried to get out of Toby's body. But there was only one way for Bonesy to get out of Toby.
Through Toby's flesh. Living or dead.
"How long have you suffered from claustrophobia?" Dr. Oliver asked, staring at Toby through thick glasses. Toby lay on a couch nearby, feeling somewhat silly. The Bonesy problem had only gotten worse in the year since he'd gotten out of St. Philomena. The near car accident in his pajamas the day before was only the latest incident. Perhaps the psychiatrist could shed some light on the matter, even if Toby couldn't tell him the whole truth. Who would believe him?
"It started when I was fourteen," Toby said, as a corner of his eye twitched. He recited the locker story, leaving out any mention of Bonesy. He felt uncomfortable not telling the whole truth, but what choice did he have? If he mentioned Bonesy, Dr. Oliver would truly believe he was crazy.
When he got to the point where they were thrown into the locker, Bonesy acted up. Toby fought him off as Dr. Oliver watched.
"This is a severe case," Dr. Oliver said, jotting down notes. "Try to relax your muscles when you talk, that should help." Of course, relaxing his muscles was the last thing Toby could do with Bonesy inside. Through clenched teeth, and with his muscles rigid, he finished the story.
"Is there a cure?" he asked when he was through. He sat up. His muscles were exhausted, and he risked relaxing them a bit, hoping Bonesy wouldn't notice.
Dr. Oliver put down his notebook. "There are a number of ways to treat claustrophobia. First, there are medications, such as tranquilizers, anti-depressants and beta blockers. When we're through today, I'm going to give you a prescription."
Little help that'll be, Toby thought. Medications would affect him, but not Bonesy, who didn't have a circulatory system.
"Another way is hypnosis."
That's not going to work either, Toby thought. He'd be hypnotized, and that'd leave Bonesy in charge. He didn't know if a skeleton could be hypnotized.
"Cognitive behavior therapy is another way that sometimes works," Dr. Oliver said. "For this, you confront and change the actual thoughts that lead to the fear of enclosed spaces."
Toby thought this could work, but only if Bonesy actively participated. Not likely.
"Finally," Dr. Oliver continued, "you can confront it directly with what's called 'flooding.' You face the fear by exposing yourself to it completely until you become conditioned to it."
"No No No No No No No No No," signed Bonesy.
"What are you doing with your fingers?" Dr. Oliver asked. Toby tensed his fingers, shutting Bonesy up.
Face your fears, Toby thought as he left the doctor's office, tossing the prescription in a trashcan on the way out. He called a taxi, but instead of going home, he went to several department stores. He found one that sold lockers nearly identical to the one he'd been trapped in so many years ago. He bought it.
It was a struggle getting the locker out of the box with Bonesy on a rampage. Finally he got it out, and put it on the ground horizontally with the door on top. The sight of it made him increasingly nervous. The corner of his eye began twitching.
Over dinner he and Bonesy argued. But Toby was determined. When Bonesy managed to slap his plate to the floor, spoiling his dinner, Toby had had enough. It was time to face their fear.
He tied a piece of string to the door of the locker so he could close it from within by pulling on it. He'd made sure the locker he bought had a latch on it so he could open it from the inside.
He put on his football helmet and a fresh mouth rag. His ever-present throat guard was already on. He hung the string from the locker door loosely inside the locker so he could get at it easily. He sat down in the locker, and tied his hands and feet together as always did at night, using his teeth to pull the knots on his wrists tight. Then, tensing his muscles against Bonesy's vigorous disagreement, he lay down in the locker.
Keep your eyes on the ceiling, he told himself. It's just an open locker, no different than a bed. Nothing to worry about.
His body began to shake. He'd expected that from Bonesy. Only, he realized, it wasn't just Bonesy that was shaking.
You have to do this, he repeated over and over. Both for himself and for Bonesy. He grabbed the string from the locker door in his teeth and began to pull.
His body exploded like an earthquake as both he and Bonesy gave in to their fears. Working together for once, they jumped out of the locker, tore the ropes off their hands and feet, and made it to the farthest corner of the room, where they cowered in a corner, staring at the locker. Toby sat there for hours until his trembling came to a halt and he finally fell asleep.
Toby screamed silently into his mouth rag when the giant with the stubbled red face and thin nose came and swallowed him. In utter wet blackness he fell down the giant's throat, feet first. He came to a stop. His arms and legs were sucked in different directions into the wet softness, pinning him in the tiny enclosed area as he struggled to move and breath. He was drowning in the giant's guts.
Something pulled over his head, like a football helmet. Two peepholes of light appeared. He saw his living room. He tried getting up, but something stopped him. He tried again, but his arms and legs were held firm by what seemed wet and gooey molasses. He couldn't move, he couldn't breath. He spit out the mouth rag and screamed and screamed and screamed. . . .
He jumped to his feet, thrashing his arms and legs about, but they were now free, and he could breath again. He was awake.
Bonesy was tapping, "Please don't go in locker."
He had had another nightmare, but it was over. Bonesy's perpetual nightmare was not. Neither was Toby's.
"We have to do this," he decided. His mouth rag was on the floor and he jammed it in his pocket. "It's the only way."
"No. I fight you."
Toby stared at the locker as he ate breakfast. Then he once again did his preparations, putting on the football helmet and mouth rag. Staying on the opposite side of the room, he tied his arms and legs again, but loosely for now.
He stood across the room from the locker, and took a few deep breaths. He gave his mouth rag one more adjustment. Then he ran toward the locker, stumbling with the ropes around his feet, screaming as loudly as he could, the sound muffled by the mouth rag. He dived into the locker, fighting off Bonesy's sudden opposition. He continued to scream mindlessly as he pulled the knots on his hands and feet tight.
Unable to think clearly while screaming, he barely noticed what he was doing as he grabbed the string to the locker door with his teeth and yanked.
The locker door closed over him with a clang, and thus began the longest night of Toby's life. Before he had screamed himself into a mindless frenzy so he wouldn't think about what he was doing as he trapped himself in the locker. Now he screamed with the same blind terror as Bonesy.
He started to reach for the latch to open the locker. It was just over his head, an awkward reach with his hands tied. With Bonesy mindlessly bucking his body about, it was almost impossible. He finally got his hands high enough.
"No!" he screamed, yanking his hands away from the latch. He worked his hands back down, away from the latch.
An eternity went by. It's just like lying down, he thought desperately. He took several deep breaths. He still had the shakes, and Bonesy continued to fight him. He closed his eyes, tensed his muscles, and tried to close his mind. Sweat poured out of him as he kept his muscles tense, hour after hour, periodically resting and letting Bonesy painfully bang his body against the cold, hard steel of their prison. He was thankful for the football helmet.
Bonesy stopped fighting late that afternoon. Soon afterwards Toby nodded off.
He woke up exhausted, with no idea what the time was. His shirt was glued to his chest from dried sweat, and every muscle ached. Yet he felt strangely relaxed. He slowly worked the knots on his hands free, and opened the locker. After untying his feet, he stood up and spit out the mouth rag.
"You okay, Bonesy?" he asked as he made his way to the kitchen, his muscles on edge.
Toby poured cereal for breakfast as he waited for Bonesy to finish. Finally, after a long pause, Bonesy continued.
Their nightmare was over. Within a week Toby took down the padding on the wall, removed the locks, and bought real silverware made of actual metal.
Toby died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 79. During his long writing career he wrote thousands of articles, seven books, and won a number of journalism awards. The nurse at the hospital who noted his death reported a severe case of postmortem spasms as his fingers moved about long after he died.
The executor of Toby's estate, a lawyer, had known Toby on and off for many years. When he'd last spoken with him shortly before his death, Toby had given him the sealed will. He'd seemed perfectly normal. The lawyer now read, with growing amazement, the instructions Toby had left.
First, his casket was to be buried no more than one foot deep, under loose earth. Strange, but no big deal there. Second, the casket was not to be locked. Did Toby expect to take any trips out of his coffin? Third, he was to be buried with a large and sturdy knife that he had left at his home before going to the hospital the final time. The lawyer could only shake his head.
And finally, the will specified the words to be placed on his gravestone. The lawyer was fairly sure Toby had never been closely involved with civil rights groups, but perhaps he didn't know Toby as well as he thought.
If someone were to challenge this, he thought, there would be a strong case to have Toby declared not of sound mind. However, it was his job to execute the will as written. Besides, who would challenge the will? Toby seemed a near recluse who'd spent his life with himself as his only company.
The instructions were carried out. At the burial a few days later, the lawyer read the words on the gravestone: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I am free at last!" Why had Toby chosen to put the quote from Martin Luther King on his gravestone? Bewildered and shaking his head, the lawyer left.
The soil at the base of the gravestone stirred.