Many Happy Returns

Entry by: Freya

15th April 2016
The bone collector

The first time he returned, nobody noticed. Most likely because nobody saw Lucas leaving in the first place. At that time, it was as if he did not exist.
He strode towards it as soon as the twilight shrouded the derelict bungalow. After observing it for a few days, he knew it was uninhabited and the only neighbour, an old lady, toddled to church every evening. As the windows of her cottage darkened, and her slight, bent figure vanished on the tiled path between the bushy trees surrounding the two houses, Lucas approached the back door. It was locked, but its hinges were rusty and the door itself made of cheap pretend-wood partly devoured by the mildew. One kick was enough for the door to give way.
As he crossed the doorstep, the dust whirling in the air pushed into his nostrils and he sneezed. From the hall, he advanced towards the kitchen. In passing, he glimpsed the living room. His father’s old TV remained intact. It was the only valuable object in his father’s possession, so Lucas mused on why no one had tried to steal it at the time when it could still have brought some cash. A house with such a history must have repelled even the thugs, he concluded.
As he reached the entrance to the basement, he stopped and stared at it for a minute, before negotiating his way through a narrow corridor leading to a flight of stairs. He grabbled the wall in search of the light switch. It didn’t work, of course. The connection to electricity must have been cut a long time ago. He fetched his torch.
To his adult eyes, the underground cave appeared smaller than it used to be. An old armchair’s yellowish cover was torn and punctured. The mouse droppings scattered around the seat told him it became the rodents’ playground. His gaze shifted towards the narrow bed crammed in the far corner of the room. He approached and fingered the ruffled sheets. A large bloody stain was still where Lucas remembered it to be. But the reek of unwashed bodies and excrements had completely evaporated, replaced by a neutral dusty scent.
He tilted his head and his eyes rested on the wrought iron table standing on the shabby rug opposite the bed. He pushed it aside and then rolled the rug. The hatch he uncovered was made of cheap metal. He lifted it and held his breath. But no unpleasant smell attacked his senses. He moved his torch deeper within the hidden compartment.
The bones were arranged by size. He reached for what used to be part of a finger. A thumb to be specific. It was silky on touch, well preserved, clean. Behind the rows of bones, rested a medium-size steel box. His father’s tools. He opened it and eyed well-polished drills and hammers of various shapes and sizes. All in order. Ready for use.
His heart skipped a beat as he heard a noise coming from upstairs. In a quick set of movements, he latched the hatch, unrolled the rug and arranged the table in its usual place. He then listened, his full attention on the sounds around him. Water was dripping down the wall, forming a little puddle next to the armchair. No other sound had spoiled the silence. It must have been a draft, he guessed. But it was also a warning. Enough of memories for one day.
Climbing up the stairs, he searched his feelings. Some sadness, some relief, but also satisfaction. It felt good to be back.
The second time he returned, somebody did notice his presence.
He strode straight to the basement and made sure he locked the door from inside. This time he brought a halogen lamp with him. It drowned all murkiness in a split second with its powerful white light. Lucas’s eyes wandered to the bed again and rested on the short chain attached to its metal frame. He looked at his wrist and massaged the scars. But he then recalled the hatch.
He removed all the bones and arranged them neatly on the floor alongside the bed. Their bleachy pallor always fascinated him. Since the moment his father showed Lucas his collection, there had been no day when he wouldn’t picture them in his mind. They had bellowed to him over the forests, rivers and fields all these years. They were what brought him back. Well, not just them. He also sought reassurance.
Recalling his father’s instructions, he arranged the bones into a shape of a human’s skeleton. But a few remained unused. He wondered briefly whether his father might have stored some spare ones, but deep in his heart he knew that was not possible. His father’s disciplined mind wouldn’t deviate from his goal. A complete bone framework, each element acquired from a different donor.
He mused for a moment longer and then placed the missing pieces at the base of the wrist. These were the carpals. He forgot yet again. Last time he did, he spent five days chained to this very bed. The hand was always his failing, hence the penalty of being chained by the wrist. The son of an anthropologist extraordinaire had to know his bones or else suffer.
He swept all the bones into a pile and transferred them back, one by one, into the hidden compartment.
As he negotiated the stairs on his way out, he searched his feelings. Contentment. Some self-reproach. He should have remembered the carpals. Some anxiety, but satisfaction as well. Stronger and more tangible than the last time he returned.
Stepping away from the backdoor, he caught light in the corner of his eye. It shafted through the blinds in the neighbour’s living room, but as he advanced towards the cottage, she switched the lamp off. He tiptoed towards the back of the house and hid in the bush opposite the kitchen’s window. The little old lady was having her dinner. He eyed her toothless gums as they mashed the fried beans. She wore thick spectacles on her hook-like nose. She couldn’t have spotted him in the dark but even if she had, he wasn’t planning to be back any time soon.
The third time he returned, because he did return – the bones sang to him, many people noticed.
As he was spreading the bones on the basement’s floor, a voice coming from upstairs disturbed his peace. He started and waited for it to disappear. But it didn’t. A second and then a third and a fourth voice joined the first one. So he wasn’t the only visitor in the house. Perhaps these were some petty burglars who would leave as soon as they learnt there was nothing to loot.
He carried on with his bone puzzle. He set himself a difficult task this time. The skeleton was to adopt a foetal position, its arm and leg bones and its spine arranged accordingly. He groaned with effort as he ensured the set of tiny phalanges clutched the fists.
Somebody pressed the door handle. He knew they couldn’t get in unless they had another key so that didn't bother him. The voices murmured for a time, before dying down yet again.
When he was almost certain that whoever visited the house had gone, something heavy hit the door, breaking it in half.
Lucas leapt to his feet and then perched on the bed, the bones by his feet.
A man in a police uniform appeared in the crevice followed by another one, both holding guns in their hands.
An old lady’s cry came from the corridor.
‘That must be the killer, returned to the scene of the crime. Be careful, officers!’
Lucas exhaled a long breath. He searched his feelings. Fright. Resignation. But satisfaction ruled.
Stubbing his father was a good decision after all. He felt it more profoundly each time he returned to the basement that witnessed what his father did to his victims, Lucas his only survivor. After the others, merely their bones remained.
The prison beckoned, but he’d always known that the justice system would catch up with him one day. This was as good a time as any. And he would have the memory of his three happy returns to cheer him up through the lonesome days.
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