Bones of Contention

📅 Published on November 2, 2020

“Bones of Contention”

Written by Darren Todd
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 9.60/10. From 5 votes.
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The bones arrived on a Friday, in a pine crate the size of a steamer trunk.

“Is that it, Mr. Evans?” Eliot asked, his tone lacking awe. The rest of the earth science class conversed in whispers or stared out the row of bay windows overlooking the high school parking lot.

Mr. Evans seemed puzzled at the size as well, his brow wrinkling. He checked the manifest from the state museum. “Well,” he said, extending the word as he studied the plastic-encased paper slip. “Pachycephalosaurus. Yep. That’s the right one. It’s heavy enough, that’s for sure. I’ll grant you the box doesn’t exactly impress. Still, count us lucky. We’ll only be the third high school to earn a genuine fossil display.”

“How big will it be?” Eliot asked, his voice warming.

“It’ll fill the plinth nicely. Bigger than a velociraptor. Ought to turn a few freshman heads.”

“I can’t wait to see her,” Eliot said, rubbing the crate’s unfinished wood.

“Looks like Elie found a prom date,” came a voice from behind him. He turned to see Bryan Pagan smirking down at his phone, his two toadies cackling at the joke.

“It’s ‘Eliot’, Mr. Pagan. And do put that phone away,” the teacher said. “You know the rules.”

Bryan’s smirk widened. He kept his eyes on the screen in his hands. “Sorry, Teach. Just gotta put Elie’s loving caress on Instagram real quick.” He looked up. “Those rare moments of true love are such a gift.”

At this, his cronies laughed harder, and half the class joined in.

“That’s not my name,” Eliot mumbled. He had bristled at Bryan’s belittling nickname since the bully came up with it freshman year.

[irritating bell sound] The bell rang, ending class. The students filed out, none so much as glancing at the box of bones. Only Eliot remained. He waited several seconds for Mr. Evans to finish rooting around the storage locker.

“Where is that damned hammer?” The barrier between student and teacher lowered with the others gone. That Mr. Evans could speak frankly around Eliot made the senior smile despite the lingering angst Bryan had left.

“It’s in the chest with the rock samples,” Eliot said. Mr. Evans looked up, incredulous. “You used it to open a geode a couple weeks ago, remember?”

The teacher shook his head, laughing. “If half the class paid that much attention, my job would be several orders of magnitude easier.”

Eliot huffed. “If Bryan Pagan vanished off the face of the earth, that might just happen.”

The teacher looked around the empty classroom. The new STEM wing of the high school had opened only a month before. Every noise echoed in the space. He stepped closer to Eliot and spoke in a low voice. “Off the record, I’d feel no remorse if Mr. Pagan found another class. Not vanished off the face of the earth, but rather discovered a venue that appreciated his unique skill set.”

“Heckling every person outside his clique, you mean?”

Mr. Evans smiled. “Perhaps. But if he left, someone else would take his place. Besides, I lose far more kids to social media than I do Bryan’s sedition.” He placed a hand on Eliot’s shoulder. “You can’t let him get to you, Eliot. It only feeds the fire. You’re a senior now. You’ve got, what, a hundred and fifty days of high school left? Then you’ll leave it behind forever. I’m not suggesting you’ll miss it; I don’t. It’s just that, by the time you find your feet at State, Mr. Pagan will be a distant memory, as unimportant as what you’re having for lunch.”

Eliot nodded but felt no better. Bryan Pagan was a thug, and ignoring him only reaffirmed that. Eliot turned to leave but whipped back around. “Speaking of lunch, you care if I swing back by and help put her together?”

Mr. Evans crossed his arms. “What makes you think I’m willing to skip eating to assemble a sixty-million-year-old fossil?”

Eliot smiled and shrugged.

“All right, you got me. Sure. Come by and we’ll see how much we can get done. I’ll have it laid out by then, at least. I’ll get my bio class to unpack it for me.”

Eliot’s smile faded as he turned for the door. The idea of other students handling the bones soured his stomach. He knew the thought was silly; bones that survived sixty-million years could endure teenagers laying them out for assembly. Still, his peers’ flippant attitudes concerned him. At least once a day, a student dropped a five-hundred-dollar phone onto the school’s concrete floor, only to pick it up and discover that the screen now resembled a spider web. They protested, of course, but never blamed themselves. Always the stupid phone, the stupid case, their idiot parents for not buying them the stupid one they wanted.

Any of them could as easily drop a bone and break off a vital piece, an evolutionary marvel encapsulated for ages, and show no more regard. The idea stole Eliot’s awareness, and he walked far beyond his next class. The late bell returned him to the moment, and he bolted back the way he’d come.

Eliot ate most of his lunch — a small sandwich and chips he’d packed himself — while walking to the STEM wing. He moved between the other students, most of them eager to reach the cafeteria, voices already reaching a crescendo.

He passed the statue of Nikola Tesla that divided the science lab from the tech center and engineering department, surprised to find no one around. He entered Mr. Evans’ classroom and found it empty, the lights off. The bones lay across several desks pushed together. There were so many that Eliot wondered how they all fit in that single case.

He ran his fingers over the brown, smooth surface of what must have been a leg bone, much like a human femur. When he did so, something happened. For an instant, he knew the life this creature led, eons ago. Nothing as concrete as images, but flickers of emotion, the adrenaline-fueled thrill of a hunt, the sound of a million insects buzzing like power lines. Even smells — an earthy aroma that lingered in his nostrils despite the pervading odor of paint and floor varnish in the lab.

His heart sped as if waking from a falling dream, and he struggled to find enough oxygen. Despite the near-panic, he gripped the bone like a club, eager for the flash of that other world to return.

He jumped when someone pushed open the door: Mr. Evans.

“Hey, Eliot. I guess you beat me here. I was just—.” He stopped and walked closer. “Jeez, bud, you look a little off.  You all right? You need me to call the nurse?”

Eliot stood in place for several seconds, then returned the bone to the desktop. Heat swelled along his back like he’d just run a mile. “No, Mr. Evans, I’m fine. Just….” He gestured in front of him. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.” He attempted a laugh, but it came out a gasp.

Mr. Evans’ frown remained. “Y’know, you don’t have to help, Eliot. The administration only wants it up before the wing kickoff in two weeks. And a colleague who staged skeletons up at State is coming next week.”

Eliot shook his head. “I don’t– I mean, I do want to be here, Mr. Evans. I want to help.” He gestured to the crate.

The teacher shrugged. “Okay. Let’s get to it.”

For the next half-hour, they sorted the bones into groups according to a set of arcane instructions that had Mr. Evans spewing PG curses, which echoed off the high, empty walls. “I’m gonna find out who wrote these and send them a thank you letter in Gaelic,” he said. He shook the folded papers as if to force them to make sense.

“It’s okay, Mr. Evans,” Eliot said, taking a small bone and holding it up to the light. “I think I get it. It sort of makes sense to me.”

Mr. Evans smiled. “That’s enough for now, Eliot. Why don’t you get to class?”

For the rest of the day, Eliot thought only of the bones. He’d handled them all throughout lunch with no further flashes, but surely he hadn’t imagined it. The sensations lingered in his mind. What if that other place were here so long ago? This very spot, millions of years before man built upon it. It had been wild and unfettered then. Now humankind had tamed it so completely that strangers could send their children to learn together without worry. Brutes like Bryan Pagan could spend hours tormenting weaker people with no fear of reprisal. In that land, in that time, Bryan’s bullying would meet with quick and absolute justice.

The nagging feeling made Eliot circle back toward the STEM wing after the final bell rang. If he saw Mr. Evans, he would make up something about forgetting his notebook. He hoped to find the lab empty. The halls dwindled of students and teachers alike, all eager to start the weekend.

The flash had come before Mr. Evans met him during lunch. So, maybe if he could touch the bones again with no one else around….

Eliot knew the lab might be locked; the fossils were worth a fortune. But when he twisted the stainless-steel knob, the door opened. He entered and called out for the teacher but received no response. The light from the eastern-facing bank of windows had paled, leaving the lab dim and lifeless.

He eased over to the desks still rife with bones both big and small. Eliot swore he could taste them in the air, as if the fossils had taken over the artificial miasma of the new building. He reached toward what looked like a foot bone, gnarled and knuckled. He held his breath, closed his eyes, and invited another episode.

“Back to grope your girlfriend, Elie?”

The voice was unmistakable, as was the chuckle of Bryan’s friends. Eliot’s blood chilled, and his legs felt instantly flimsy. His mouth dried, and he licked his lips. But as he stared down at the bones, bravery bolstered him, as if the ancient relic had infused him with power. His lips curled back, and he balled his fists. He imagined the crunch of Bryan’s nose cartilage giving under his knuckles. Finally, he felt ready to face them. He turned.

The hit to his stomach came right away. It stole his breath, and the panic of suffocating overrode all else. He fought the urge to puke, riding the pain out.

“I got in-school suspension for having my phone out, you little prick,” Bryan said.

Before Eliot could even raise his head, Bryan sent a boot to his stomach, forcing out what little air Eliot had sucked in. The pain coursed through him, as if the bully had stomped him all over.

“You should think about staying home,” Bryan said. One of his toadies cackled like his leader had delivered the final punch line of a stand-up routine. Bryan squatted and leaned down to Eliot’s level. “I’m serious, Elie. I don’t want to see your face again. It makes me sick. So do whatever you have to.” He grabbed Eliot’s face and dug an angry thumb just under his eye socket, sending fresh waves of pain through him. “Say you’re sick. Tell Mommy you’d rather kill yourself than come back here. Hell….” He dug his thumb deeper still, and Eliot wailed in agony. “Just go ahead and kill yourself. That’s probably best. It’d be easier.”

Bryan released him, and the pain tapered. Tears rolled down Eliot’s face.

“It’s okay, Elie,” Bryan said. “You’ve still got your bone.” Then he kicked him impossibly hard in the groin. The pain shot up from beneath and seized Eliot’s stomach. He retched, but nothing came up. The dry heave seemed to last forever. The strain blurred his vision, and he teetered on passing out.

When he regained control, Bryan and his buddies were gone.

Eliot lay on the cool floor and cried for what felt like an hour. When he finally stood, the light had faded further. He wiped his face on his sleeve and looked into the parking lot. He spotted his car —a beat-up Ford Escort he’d saved for during the better part of a year — and two others. When his breathing slowed, an eerie quiet crept in. He walked to the lab entrance and peaked out into the empty hallway. The only lights remaining came from the emergency boxes set at intervals just beneath the drop ceiling.

He walked back to the line of desks and the bones, but the power they’d given him vanished, replaced with an overwhelming despair that sapped his will even to touch them.

Eliot picked up his pack and headed for the door. Once in the hallway, he spotted movement farther down. A beam of light danced back and forth, landing and resting on each door. The sound of the knobs shaking preceded the silhouette of the security guard making his rounds.

Eliot swore to himself and ducked back into the lab. He’d done nothing wrong, but the thought of facing the guard and explaining himself only served to heighten his anxiety. Eliot had never encountered the guard personally, but stories preceded the mid-thirties officer: tales of unreported abuse, pepper spray malfunctions. No complaints didn’t mean no injustice; Eliot knew that better than most. After all, Bryan’s suspension was the first sign of his tyranny receiving any adult attention.

He ducked out of sight, crawling beneath a wraparound desk topped with a plastic model of the cat-sized Compsognathus dinosaur. So close to the floor, the myriad industrial smells seeped up, potent as perfume. At least he wouldn’t dirty his pants; most floors in the school resembled a coffee-stained tabletop by now. Eliot knew, since he kept his head down as a rule. From his position, he could just make out the flashlight beam when the guard shined it on the classroom door. The light peeked in through the narrow window.

“Nothing to see here,” Eliot whispered. “Go away.”

His heart jumped when the officer turned the knob and opened the door. It stopped halfway open.

“What the hell?” the guard said. “Idiots,” he mumbled and yanked the door closed. The following sound could only be the deadbolt sliding home. The knob shook, along with the door, but neither budged, and the light moved on.

Eliot waited several minutes before slinking out from beneath the desk. He listened for footsteps in the hall but heard nothing. He tried the doorknob. It gave only millimeters in each direction. Locked. In what remained of the light, Eliot examined the lock-plate. On his side, a keyhole stared back at him. No latch: only the port for a key he didn’t have.

His breathing became shallow, and the air thickened with the stench of the new room. Eliot fiddled with a window, finally freeing all three latches. When he tugged on the pane, it created only a four-inch gap to the outside. He examined the fulcrum and, sure enough, it moved no farther. At least the mild breeze coming in cleared the stuffy air.

Eliot tried the door again. He began knocking on it, then banging, then yelling and banging. Sure, alerting the school officer required explaining himself, maybe even getting in trouble, but that beat the panic rising inside him at the thought of being trapped there.

He called out for several minutes, breaking to listen — ear to door — each time his lungs threatened to give out or his throat burned too fiercely to continue. Nothing. Not even footsteps.

“My phone,” he said. Hope rushed through him like ice water on a hot day. He fumbled in the dim light, rifling through his bag, then shook his head. “Guess I can turn on every light in the place now,” he said. He flipped the series of switches. The fluorescent bulbs tinkled, then bloomed with light.

In his bag sat the phone he’d bought last Black Friday, tiptoeing out of his tiny house long before the sun came up, waiting in line for hours, all to have a half-decent phone with what little money he’d saved.

Still, when he found it and pressed the wake button, the screen remained a mirrored black, revealing nothing more than his own, worried face.

“Come on,” he said, his voice breaking. “I charged you last night for crying out loud.” At least he thought he’d tethered it to the white charging cable dangling from the bathroom socket. He shared the bathroom with his mom, and only one of the two sockets worked. They remained in a constant battle between his charging phone and her hairdryer. Had she showered last night or this morning?

“It doesn’t matter, you idiot,” he said through clenched teeth. The phone was dead. Who would he call anyway? His mom spent every other weekend taking care of Eliot’s ailing grandmother, and this was one such weekend. She always called each night to check on him but thought nothing of just leaving a voicemail.

As the remnants of light bid farewell outside, leaving the bay windows reflecting the classroom, Eliot searched Mr. Evans’ desk for the key. The teacher had apparently used the transition between classrooms to pare down his files and supplies. Each drawer contained only a Spartan collection of things dropped in with little thought. The folders lay piled vertically, not yet sorted into their hanger files. The center drawer held only a few pencils, some loose change, and a ruler.

Eliot went to the window, cupped his hands around his eyes, and stared into the parking lot. His car sat alone save for a single other vehicle; it was parked near enough to the track that it might belong to a runner.

“It could be abandoned for all I know,” he grumbled. Still, he stood by the plate of four light switches and turned them on and off several times in succession, checking the parking lot at interval. Still nothing.

In the reflection, he spotted a shape that made him jump. He whipped around, sucking in a breath. The dinosaur’s skull stared from atop a desk. Had it been there before? Surely he would have noticed it, but, then again, he’d only looked at the bones from the other side of the room before Bryan and his goons attacked him.

It was really only the top half, looking to Eliot as if the creature were somehow swimming in the desks, only breaching the surface like a crocodile sliding up to oblivious prey on shore. The bottom half lay a yard away, the teeth between them, laid out at odd angles. Even so, their purpose shone clear. Those teeth had torn through flesh and bone, probably hundreds of times, felling creatures several times the beast’s size without ego or judgment.

Eliot looked around, scouting the parking lot once more to ensure he was indeed alone. The school lay nestled in a broad forest, trees sequestering it from all else, a single access road leading in. He could well be the only person for miles around.

Eliot strode to the desks, holding out both hands like a surgeon after scrubbing up. He stood over the top half of the skull, peering down into the vacuous eyes, dark despite the shining tan surface of the desktop. Eliot brought his hands down onto the skull, holding his breath as if about to latch onto an electric fence, bracing for pain. The moment his flesh curved around the ancient bones, the earlier sensation returned. All day he’d convinced himself of its power, but he’d forgotten its subtlety. He still stood in the modern-day classroom, but a part of him — of his senses — slipped back millions of years into the soul of a mighty hunter, small but ferocious. Only this time the hunter felt him as well. It linked to the present, pulled from a world billions of days before mankind.

The soul of the hunter communicated without words, only sensations. And yet they swirled and collected into a single, harmonizing intention. The hunter avoided layers of benign courtesy and respect, just as a shark — unchanged through the ages — no sooner contemplated human flesh than it did the countless other species it tasted.

The hunter’s will solidified and spiked into Eliot’s mind as neatly as an ax’s wedge cleaves wood. He fell back, hands leaving the skull and moving behind him just in time to break his fall.  He sucked in breath as if he’d been submerged in water for a full minute. He surfaced a new creature, born of a bond between he and the hunter. The invisible thread connecting them traversed years as effortlessly as it did species. The hunter’s bargain sent the corners of Eliot’s lips curving into a smile. His end lay clearly before him, in the bone puzzle waiting to be solved.

Eliot experienced no more flashes, despite touching the bones over and over. None were necessary; he had received the message and needed only to act on his end of the deal. He had built his share of models over the years. One of the few things he ever received from his father was a collection of unopened model cars and planes; he had left them, along with everything else, when Eliot was three.

For years, Eliot worked on the models: at first with shy, inexperienced hands, and later with delicate skill. In the beginning, he did so believing that his father might return, that the models, constructed with such care, would entice him to stay.

By puberty, Eliot knew his dad would never return; but he built the models anyway. By that time, and in the years after, doing so no longer provided him with hope or connected him with his estranged father. Instead, it gave him a way to make himself better than the man who abandoned his own wife and son. The boy finished, even perfected, what his father had failed to do.

Constructing the model of an ancient predator would surely prove no more difficult. Alas, despite the detailed instructions and ample tools, the execution challenged Eliot’s patience like nothing he’d ever worked on.

With models, the size acted as both advantage and drawback. Sure, you had to spend hours in painstaking detail. But the size hid the process itself. Which parts were once separate and which already conjoined? Where did the epoxy end and the snaps begin? A good craftsman – and Eliot indeed qualified – used the small size to cloak his work.

With the bones, however, the opposite held true. Eliot had all the room he could ask for when binding the pieces with the thin copper wire and the special adhesive. But the construct betrayed him over and over. The tools of the hunter’s rebirth shone amid the bones, begging onlookers to scoff at it, to maintain their disbelief that this was ever a creature worthy of respect and fear. No, the binds had to disappear. The illusion remained vital to the bargain.

He worked long into the night, taking periodic breaks to stare out at his car. His vision blurred, and his aching fingers stumbled, but he had only completed a single foot. Exhausted, he collected the dust covers from the dozen microscopes and lined the hard floor with them. He used his backpack as a pillow, lay down, and fell instantly to sleep.

In a dream, he crossed an open field with high grass wet from dew. His feet were bare, and as he walked, he grew colder, and his clothes soaked through. A snarl interrupted the quiet, and he turned to see the bones pursuing him. Not the dinosaur itself, but the animated fossils sprinted across the field. He turned to flee but made it only a dozen feet before the hunter fell upon him.  Claws tore at his back, holding him in place. The skull the size of a cow’s leaned closer. Through the fog of pain, he could still smell the beast’s breath. It reeked of decay and dust. It hovered over him, inches from his face, teeth brushing and catching on his skin lightly enough to leave the paper-thin flesh intact.

“What do you want from me?” Eliot cried. The grass had left him wet, and yet tears moistened his face anew. “I’m doing what you wanted. I’m doing the best I can.”

The hunter leaned into him, the pressure on his face remnant of Bryan’s biting thumb the day before, only infinitely more serious.

“I’ll do it,” Eliot moaned. “I swear I’ll do it. I just need time. Please.”

The hunter pulled back, and Eliot turned to face it in full. The tableau echoed the skeletal dioramas of the exhibits he’d seen before, but where those remained as lifeless as the beasts to which they paid tribute, the hunter hovering over him radiated an unmistakable vitality. Though it seemed impossible, the hunter arched its deadly teeth into an awful smile.

Eliot woke sore and disoriented. Early sunlight seeped from the bay windows, illuminating his meager progress: a single foot that, in the light of day, lacked the exactitude he thought he’d reached the night before. He recalled with clarity the beast standing over him, the tacit threat implied in that toothy grin. He hurled the foot across the room and into the stone wall, where it flew to pieces that chittered on the floor.

“I can do better,” he said and set his jaw.

Thankfully the lab held several taps that poured into deep basins, so water presented no issue. Even after sating his thirst, hunger nibbled at Eliot’s stomach. He ignored it, even slapping his gut when the gurgles sounded, as if training a dog not to beg. He again rummaged through Mr. Evans’ desk, more closely this time, finding two granola bars stuffed between the folders. In his pack, he discovered gum and an energy drink. He imagined the hunter’s life, where every calorie fought till its dying breath to keep from entering its bowels. This bolstered Eliot’s resolve, despite the prospect of an entire weekend with no more calories than those contained in a single meal.

“Finish early,” he said aloud, as if making a pact with himself, “and I’ll break a window to get home.” Erecting the bone display would surely outweigh the trouble breaking a window might put him in.

The day stretched out, as if larded with hours that never existed before. Eliot tried to pull his eyes away from the large clock hanging on the wall.

“This day will never end,” he said. His self-pity swelled for the dozenth time, but he choked it back. He pulled the clock from the wall and returned to work.

The construction grew easier by fractions. He consulted the instructions less. He decreased his reliance on the adhesive and exposed the copper bindings fewer times with each bone he knitted. When he lay down to sleep that night, his fingers shone pink and raw, his vision blurry and head pounding from the intense focus the work required. Despite the hunter’s image that flashed across his mind’s eye when he killed the lights, he fell asleep in seconds.

He returned to the field of high grass, the wet blades swaying in the wind, licking his clothes. He turned and recoiled when he saw a large house on a hill, sure that it hadn’t been there the previous night. The place rang familiar. Lights burned upstairs and down, though no one passed in front of the windows or walked the perimeter. A snarl split the night air, and the hunter crested a copse of trees set behind the house. It eased low to the ground, raising only its head to whiff the cool air, growling at whatever scent it picked up.

Eliot suddenly remembered from where he knew the house. Even in profile, he recognized the ornate front porch from his junior yearbook, the caption: “The King Preparing to Dance with His Subjects” coming to mind. He knew the unmistakable gleam of Bryan Pagan’s cherry red Trans Am beneath the street lamp.

Eliot woke on Sunday to a blend of hope and despair. The end of his work loomed in sight. He’d sectioned the dinosaur into legs, tail, torso, and head. Each appeared well within reach. But his body threatened revolt. His stomach knotted with hunger pangs, but he had already eaten what scant food he’d rummaged. Filling his stomach with water failed to help. His fingers, raw the night before, now felt like blood-filled sausages. Merely flexing the digits sent shards of pain up to his elbows. His headache only grew more intense instead of abating.

Then he remembered that house on the hill and the promise the hunter made as he lingered, waiting in the liminal space between forest and home, between wild nature and insipid civilization.

One more search of the lab revealed a tiny tube of aspirin which Eliot had mistaken for Chapstick before. He chewed the four remaining tablets, the bitterness near unbearable but still oddly satisfying. Eventually he could move his fingers, and the pain behind his eyes tapered. He returned to work.

Several times he teetered on completion, but then a section fell from the body or a rib snapped from the delicate adhesive and the finish line pulled a little farther away. By the time the light began to fade, Eliot gave up all hope of an early finish. He resigned himself to working into the night and even tried to appreciate the inevitability of it. What could he do but wait till school began anyway?

When he finished, and the beast stood before him, complete and glorious, he rehung the wall clock. It read 2:00 AM. He’d guessed ten and laughed at his inept estimate. It didn’t matter anymore. Before him stood the most important thing he had ever built. He turned off the fluorescents and fired only the three LED bulbs that lit the plinth from beneath. The effect was immediate and wonderful; the ancient predator came alive in those bones, and now everyone would see it, even if it were confined to a high school.

He moved the microscope bags and his makeshift pillow in front of the plinth. The pain in his joints and back demanded more aspirin and cried out for a bed not carved from stone. His fingers formed a hodgepodge of open sores now, so stiff and raw he could only place them on his stomach and let the pain throb. Even so, as he stared up at the hunter, he smiled. His eyes shut without permission, and sleep again took him.

No longer spectating, Eliot slid into the dream-space, directly inside the hunter. He watched in first-person as the ancient beast moved from the forest into the open, manicured lawn behind Bryan’s house. The hunter skirted the borders of light cast by the street lamps, slinking from shadow to shadow with a fluidity only a natural predator could manage. No shrieking this time: it moved past the small basketball court, up onto the raised porch, its deadly claws ticking on the stained wood. It moved to the glass patio door, where thick Venetian blinds lay at forty-five degree angles, revealing the den beyond.

Inside, Bryan and his two cronies smoked a bowl in dim candlelight, their muted giggles silent through the double-paned glass.

The hunter nudged the glass like a dog sniffing out possible food, resulting in a series of dry taps as the bones struck the surface. The hunter moved perpendicular to the blind’s open angle, hiding itself from the trio inside, waiting. Eliot’s heart thumped in his head. He couldn’t hear his breathing, but he sensed the air moving in and out of him faster. A swirl of emotions churned in his gut, transmitted from where his body lay in the lab to Bryan’s home in the upscale community far from Eliot’s single-floor cottage.

Shapes shifted behind the blinds; voices shushed and mumbled. A latch slid open, and the glass door rode its track, opening Bryan’s home to the night air.

“What’s that smell?” Bryan said. One of his friends only cackled in reply. He ventured further onto the porch, squinting into the darkness.

“What is it, man?” one of his toadies asked behind him.

The hunter revealed itself from the shadows, sending Bryan against the side of the house, standing on his tip-toes to distance himself from the living nightmare. His eyes widened, and his hands curled into fists. He sucked in a breath with a high-pitched, whining sound. The bones in the beast’s skull shifted, and Eliot knew it had offered the same terrible smile it showed him in his dreams.

Bryan’s jaw quivered, and he shook his head in tight jerks, back and forth. Then his muscles relaxed slightly, his lips moving from fearful sneer to drooping frown. He tilted his head to the side, like a dog discovering some oddity. “Eli—,” he said, but the hunter cut him off, jaws refined by evolution doing the only thing they were designed to do: rend flesh.

Eliot woke to the doorknob shaking. A muffled voice sounded on the other side. He tried to sit up, but the weekend left him so feeble that his body refused to cooperate. He breathed in, held it, and rolled onto an elbow when someone keyed the lock and opened the door.

He turned to see Mr. Evans balancing a cup of coffee in one hand, a key ring and the handle of his briefcase occupying the other. He held a book beneath his chin. When the teacher looked up, all of them fell to the floor.  The coffee made a wet squish as the flimsy, paper cup erupted its steaming contents onto the tile. It pooled beneath Mr. Evans’ bag, soaking the book. The teacher didn’t seem to care.

“Oh my god,” he said. “Eliot, what… what’s going on here?”

Eliot took several seconds to rise to his feet, his legs shaky. His hands were so swollen and sore that they were just wads of flesh dangling from his arms. He held them protectively at his mid-section. Still, he couldn’t resist smiling. He even let out a small laugh and indicated the plinth with a tilt of his head. “I finished the dinosaur, Mr. Evans.” His shoulders rolled forward, his body threatening to buckle. “I… got locked inside the classroom over the weekend, so I finished her. Well, him, actually.”

The teacher surveyed the room as if seeing it anew. Confusion knit his brow and his lips protruded, hovering on the verge of speech.

“It’s okay,” Eliot said. “I’m not mad; I’m all right. I just got locked inside, so I figured instead of sitting here all weekend—”

“It doesn’t work that way!” the teacher yelled.

Eliot recoiled. He’d never heard Mr. Evans raise his voice. “I know that, sir. I’m sorry. I just figured since I was here—”

“The lock, Eliot,” the teacher broke in. “The lock doesn’t work that way.” He stepped through the pool of coffee and yanked the open door toward him. He pointed to the lock-plate on the classroom side, and the impossible happened.

“It wasn’t like that,” Eliot stammered. “It was another keyhole. There was nothing I could do.” Eliot continued to stare in disbelief at the vertical latch on the door, the kind used to toggle the deadbolt.

“This is a school, Eliot,” the teacher hissed. “You can’t be locked in, for Christ’s sake.”

“Sir, I don’t know what’s happening here.”

“And what in the name of God gives you the right to mess with these fossils? Do you have any idea how much they’re worth? How much trouble I — the whole school — would be in if you broke any?”

“But I didn’t,” he whined. Unbidden tears erupted. “Look at it. I did it just like the instructions said. It’s perfect, I swear.”

The teacher breathed in and out audibly and seemed to calm. He looked over the dinosaur bones for several seconds, first from afar, then from up close. “Eliot, I’m not sure what to make of this. I have to notify the principal, your mom. Jesus, Eliot.” He shook his head but continued to stare at the bones. “Well, I know just enough about displays to get myself into trouble, but from where I’m standing it looks amazing. How the hell you did it….”

“You like it?”

The teacher turned back to Eliot, sighed, and nodded. “It’s fine work, but this behavior… It’s insane, Eliot. You could get me or the night guard fired just for not knowing you were in here.”

“I won’t say anything,” Eliot pleaded. “I thought I was locked in. It’s my mistake.”

Mr. Evans sighed again and returned to the bones. “Amazing. I’m just curious about the posture. Christ, Eliot, you’d think it’s stalking prey the way you staged it.”

Eliot squinted. “That’s what I was going for,” he said, thinking of the hunter executing Bryan and his toadies with surgical precision. “You don’t like it?”

The teacher laughed. “Again, it’s amazing. But it’s not exactly accurate, bud.”

Heat washed over Eliot, his body threatening collapse. He walked to a lab stool and sat. “I don’t understand.”

“Pachycephalosaurus, Eliot. It’s a plant-eater, not a predator. The only thing this guy’s creeping up on is a nice, dewy leaf,” he laughed. “Just look at the teeth,” he said, pointing.

Eliot really looked at the bones for the first time that morning. Sunlight overtook the ominous underglow of the LEDs. In that wash of yellow, the bones held none of the malice they had over the weekend. The eyes were just holes, the teeth blunted nubs, the claws short and utilitarian, meant only to anchor and grip the earth, not tear open prey.

“That’s not… it changed, Mr. Evans. I swear it was….” A deluge of memories from the last two nights flooded him, overwriting the ones he knew to be true until that moment: memories of an open field, a copse of trees, and a home. The images flickered past, amending his memory like a computer downloading updates. “No,” he whined. “That’s not what happened.”

“Eliot, are you all right?” the teacher asked.

“I didn’t… it wasn’t me.”

“Jesus, Eliot, calm down. Take it… Eliot, why are your hands bloody?”

“I was working with the bones. I worked so hard on them.”

“No, bud, they’re bloody. Look at them.”

Eliot shook uncontrollably, his vision blurring with tears. He looked down at his ruined hands, solidifying what he already knew. He was the only killer in that room.

Rating: 9.60/10. From 5 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Darren Todd
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Darren Todd

Publisher's Notes: N/A

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