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Yesterday, we posted an excerpt from 'Because I Prayed This Word' by Alex Dally MacFarlane. Today, you can read an excerpt from 'Skeletons' by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam.
We’re about to go camping. Cathryn’s undressing before the closet in her garage apartment. I’m trying not to watch, though she wants me to. Instead I peer into her glass terrarium where the skeletons live, three of them: a dwarf T-Rex and two dwarf stegosauruses. The T-Rex stands atop a lonely pile of rocks.
“I was going to leave them extra food. You think that’s okay?” Cathryn rummages through the clothes pile on the floor, such beautiful chaos. I stare at her reflection in the glass. Her bra, lacy and black, makes me want to glimpse what’s underneath, even though I have before, five times.
“I guess so,” I say. I look back at the T-Rex. His name, Cathryn tells me, is Ronald. The steggos are called Thelma and Louise; she thinks she’s being ironic. The T-Rex’s bones are so small I’m sure that if I picked him up I would break him. His eyes are tiny as sequins and suspended in empty sockets. He wails like a cat in heat. “I think something’s wrong,” I say.
“He’s just hungry, Emma. Feed him. Food’s next to the cage.”
I open the yellow bottle of skeleton food; the musty smell makes me cough. The bottle is full of squiggling little worms. I pour some into the terrarium. Ronald clambers down the rocks. He dips his jaw into the worm pile and scoops them into his mouth, swallows. I can see them travel down his throat and into his empty bone stomach where they wriggle inside him.
Cathryn clears her throat. She stands before me with her hands on her hips, wearing tight blue jeans and a bumblebee-striped halter top. She’s dressed for clubbing, not camping, and I realize that the kind of camping we’ll be doing won’t require the hiking shoes or the toilet paper I brought. I tell her she looks great. She does. I look back at the tank. The T-Rex peers up at me.
“Let me free,” he whispers. His voice is like an echo. I can’t. We’re going camping.
In the shallow forest we set up our tent. The land has been cleared for people like us, who want to be in nature but not too far in. Our tent is a miniature house. The box says it will fit twenty people, but we’ve only got five. It has French doors that fold down and collapsible walls to give everyone a sense of privacy, but through the first night I hear Cathryn and Anne, the girlfriend she brought along, their heavy breath and little moans. They make the whole tent sweat.
The site is close to the river, but not too close. At night we cannot hear the current. The bathroom is just around the corner, and there’s a leaky water faucet next to where we parked the car, ten feet from the tent. Our friend Wendi brought a portable mini fridge and a fan; they run on batteries, but the fridge eats two an hour so we have to run to the store once a day and buy at least twelve packages of four. We make a game of it. In some ways the drive is the best part of the trip, mostly because Cathryn is the one with the car, and she’s asked me to go with her each time. We roll the windows down. She talks about the new girl, Anne, how they’ve just met but already spend nearly every night together. Every word she says feels like a secret between us. I don’t want to hear about Anne, but I don’t not want to hear about her either, because I want to know if she’s better than me. I want to know when we’ll share a bed again. I try to deduce the information from the cutesy story of how they met at the campus coffee shop, but I can’t, because Cathryn has always been unpredictable, mysterious. With her unflinching face she reveals nothing. Every time she asks me to get in the car with her, I do.
The nearest trash can is two whole miles from our site, so we’re forced to rough it in that regard at least, dumping our food scraps into a plastic bag. Most of what we brought is food. Peanut butter, bread, baked beans in a can and hot dogs with mustard, two bottles of cheap red wine and a plastic handle of rum. Our broke friend Mike does the cooking. It’s his way of paying us back. He also does the majority of the drinking. He’s brought his set of oils, and his paint-stained hands dye whatever he touches. Each hot dog bun has a blue handprint, and by the time dinner’s finished the rum bottle is covered in fingerprints.
The second night Wendi builds a fire and we sit around the flames. The smoke follows Cathryn. No matter where she sits, the wind moves in her direction. Finally she settles in one spot, lights a cigarette, and lets the smoke clog her eyes. We play a drinking game, Never Have I Ever.
“Never have I ever been to Disney World,” I say. Cathryn and Wendi put down a finger; they went there once together.
“Never have I ever done acid,” Wendi says. The rest of us admit defeat.
“Never have I ever been in love,” Cathryn says. No one puts down a finger; no one is sure enough to commit to that. We all four of us look at Cathryn through the smoke. Her hair is up, the skin of her neck glistening with sweat. That we all want her is common knowledge; we can’t help ourselves. This is what holds our friendships together, the flame to which we are helpless as moths.
That night, as we sleep, trees rustle, and the fallen branches on the ground crack like knuckles. When I leave the tent early in the morning to walk to the restroom, I find the contents of our trash bag scattered, the bottom ripped. By the river I spot a leopard, its white fur stretched so tight the bones poke through. In the disappearing moonlight I nearly see the heart pumping in its chest. It’s looking right at me, and I stand and stare until the sun creeps up and the leopard, its fur no longer see-through, bounds into the brush.
Back at the campsite a crowd is gathered around the dying embers of last night’s fire. A dodo skeleton hops around the fire pit. One of the bones from its foot is missing. Without the feathers it looks just like any other bird. We only know it’s a dodo from its fat chest, its dodo beak. Plus it tells us what it is when we ask it.
Cathryn shoos the bird. “Go, fly away.”
“Dodos don’t fly,” it says, lifting a bone wing. The invisible joints crack. “I’m stuck.