At the end of a long corridor under a forgotten Philadelphia basement, Jeremiah opened his eyes and sat up. For the first time since the Middle Ages, he awoke without precise knowledge of why he had been roused. He knew he had to open The Shop--that went without saying. The question was: Which of the many items above wanted to go out into the world?
Jeremiah got out of bed and went through his usual routine. He shaved, dressed with care, then climbed the long set of stairs leading to The Shop.
Sometimes he lay underground for decades without being called, then a suddenly flurry of activity would commence, keeping him awake for weeks. He never knew which piece of merchandise would reach out to bring in a buyer.
Which brought Jeremiah back to his present dilemma. He toured the floor, trying to pinpoint the cause of his awakening. It had to be a piece that didn't get out much, otherwise the ability to call would be sharper, more developed.
He found the article that awakened him buried in a cobweb-shrouded corner.
"At last, old friend," he said, regarding the brittle bones before him. "It’s been two millennia since we last spoke. You’ve found someone, and the fact that you’ve waited so long is proof that the time is right."
Jeremiah almost skipped with pleasure. The opportunity to send something different into the world always made him happy. In anticipation of Mr. Todd's arrival, Jeremiah carried the skeleton out of the corner and gave it a position of honor in the middle of the sales floor.
When everything was ready, Jeremiah smiled his brown, uneven smile and tried to curb his rising excitement. By the time today was over, Mr. Todd would have a tool he could use to help him reach his goal.
How the tool would use him was another matter.
Bruce roamed the back neighborhoods of Philadelphia, his Army surplus coat hugged close to keep out the cold. Flakes of snow battered his exposed face and hands. The neighborhood, thick with litter and smelling of sour urine, was the last place anyone would think to look for him, especially on a foul day like this.
He was cutting class again. Why bother going when you were about to be kicked out anyway, he reasoned. He hated sick people; he only enrolled in medical school to please his mother. The way things were going, though, the cancer would take her before he graduated. The prestige was a small factor in the decision, but the money he’d make once he got out was the carrot that got him to sign the papers.
After two weeks of classes, he knew he’d never get the chance to make her proud. The reason was simple: Gross Anatomy. He didn't have enough imagination to picture where everything went, and what was connected to what. It was stupid to learn all that stuff anyway, when he planned to go into Psychiatry. All you had to do was sit around and listen to a bunch of people tell you their stories, then count the bucks at the end of the day. No need to learn what a metatarsal was for that.
Bruce glanced up the street. One of his professors came out of a restaurant in the next block. He knew it would be all over for him if the Prof spotted him. He was already on probation for skipping yesterday’s lecture. If he got thrown out his mother would cry and he’d feel like a failure again. He hated that.
The professor turned in his direction, taking the short-cut back to Temple Medical School. Bruce saw a set of stairs going under the street and dived down, letting his hand skim the top of the ice-encrusted railing. At the bottom of the stairs was a door. He hesitated, but the sound of footsteps grew closer. The Prof stopped on the street to continue his conversation with some guy in a suit.
Bruce swore under his breath. He’d trapped himself like a rat in a cage. Left with nowhere else to go, he opened the door and slipped inside.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the basement of some abandoned rowhouse. At first glance it looked like his grandmother’s attic. He soon realized it must be some sort of store. Narrow aisles overflowed with cast-off junk. He spotted a suit of armor, looking dented and rusty in the meager light. Next to it, a three-legged table, so old it had a depression worn in its scratched top, leaned against the pealing paint of the wall. Elsewhere, more rickety tables groaned under the weight of chipped china figurines and tarnished silver. Dust rose up from the floor when he moved, tickling his nose. The place smelled moldy and stale, like it hadn’t been opened in about a hundred years.
Bruce blinked for a minute, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. And then he saw the skeleton.
It stood to the right of the door. He knew it was a complete specimen before he went to examine it. It was real, too; not those plastic pieces of shit the other students had. The bones were almost black with age and strung together with something that looked like fishing line.
For a minute, Bruce saw his future. If he had a real, honest to god skeleton like this to study, he’d pass anatomy without a problem. Then he remembered the contents of his wallet. He’d bet a real rack of bones would cost more than twenty bucks.
"You may touch it," a voice said.
Bruce started. He’d forgotten there’d be a salesman. Instead of taking the man up on his offer, Bruce shoved his hands in his pockets and turned toward the shadowy corner where the voice originated.
"No thanks. I was just looking."
His shifting gaze located the source of the voice. An old man with thinning gray hair stood behind the counter, polishing some silver. Despite the clouds of dirt that hovered in the air, he didn’t appear to have so much as a speck on his crisp tweed suit.
Bruce glanced again at the skeleton, then took another, closer look around the shop. They were alone.
Piercing, watery eyes locked with his. Bruce felt as though the man could see into his head. He fought the urge to run.
"Medical student?" the geezer asked in a shaky, cracking voice.
"It's quite reasonable, you know," he said. "I’ve been looking for a way to unload it. It had a tendency to scare the women. I could let you have it for a fraction of its value."
"Twenty dollars and it’s yours."
Bruce almost laughed. It was as if the man knew how much money he had. He tried to appear disinterested as he considered. "You gotta be nuts. The bones are in poor condition. They’re old and stained. I’ll give you ten."
The old man’s eyes flashed. "Fifteen."
Bruce tried to control his excitement. "I’m doing you a favor, taking it off your hands. How about twelve?"
"Very well. Twelve it is. I’ll put it in a box for you."
"Great. I’d look pretty weird carrying that thing through the street."
Bruce handed over the money and accepted his change. While the old man wrapped his purchase, he glanced toward the street. The wind howled, scattering trash and dirt along the sidewalk. Except for a few strung-out bums sleeping in boarded-up doorways, the street was deserted. The Prof was nowhere in sight.
He toured the shop, wishing the geezer would hurry it up. He stopped beside an easel, thinking the frame might make a nice present for his mother, if he could get it cheap. "How much for the picture?"
The old man winced. "That’s a portrait, and I'm afraid it's not for sale."
Whatever you wanted to call it, it was awful, Bruce thought. The woman looked like she was about to throw up, and the man wore an awful Austin Powers get-up -- ruffles and velvet everywhere.
"When you get the skeleton home, lift it by this piece of fishing line and hang it on the stand," the old man said, demonstrating. "I’ve packed it so it will come up in one piece. Just be sure to carry the box with care."
"Right," Bruce said, accepting his purchase. He opened the door to admit a gust of frigid wind. The wind caught a sign handing against the glass. He read the old-fashioned letters.
"No Sale Is Final Until The Merchandise Is Satisfied."
Cute. He smiled, hefted his box, and exited the shop.
Back in the dorm, Bruce spent most of the night cutting out shapes representing the human anatomy and taping them inside the skeleton. When he finished, he stared at his creation for a long time, memorizing the location of each organ.
The next day Bruce went to class and answered his anatomy professor’s questions with the right answers. He knew they watched him, thinking he’d found an inventive way to cheat. That didn't bother him.
That night, Bruce worked late again. Using a ball of string he found in his closet, he looped it around the bones to imitate the muscular system. The skeleton attracted a lot of dust. Short, wispy trails of the stuff hung from the fingers and surrounded the bones of the toes, but he was too busy with his project to worry about it. Instead, he wound the string over the dust and went on with his work.
When the alarm went off the next morning Bruce had a hard time getting out of bed. The long hours of study were beginning to tire him. He felt he was moving in slow motion. It was an effort to get his hands to do what he wanted them to do. Simple tasks, like buttoning his shirt and tying his Nikes, took forever. He managed and, grabbing his books, dashed out of the dorm.
Getting through the day was an ordeal. Bruce was glad it was Friday. He felt more uncoordinated as the hours passed. When the last class ended he concentrated on getting out of the chair and putting one foot in front of the other. Walking across campus took more than an hour; he stopped every few steps to rest. He decided he needed a night away from the books.
When he reached the dorm, Bruce showered and changed his shirt. On the way out, he took a look in the corner to make sure no one had filched his skeleton.
He stopped to take a second look. In the gloomy winter evening, it almost looked like the thing had moved. His hand shaking, Bruce reached for the light and switched it on. He swore.
The string he’d spent so many hours attaching lay on the floor in a heap. In its place, some asshole had sprayed the skeleton with what looked like a dozen cans of pink Silly String.
Bruce laughed. It was a good prank. Someone missed a whole day’s lectures to work on it. He took it as a flattering indication the other students were beginning to accept him. Prior to this, he’d felt a little left out of things. The others were so dedicated, so positive this was where they needed to be. There were times when he wished he could feel that commitment.
He didn’t waste a lot of time wondering who was behind the joke. No doubt the perpetrator would confess sooner or later. His smile broadened when he decided he’d drag the asshole back and make him clean up the mess. That’d teach him.
Keeping to his plan, Bruce headed for a local watering hole. Business was good because of the weekend. The place was packed with med students, but no one came forward to rib him about the skeleton. After downing one beer, Bruce reached for a second. His hand wouldn’t close around the lass. He knew it was time to leave. He was so tired he had to drag his body back to the dorm.
As he undressed for the night, Bruce caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror. He’d never been a big person, but he looked even thinner than normal. Too thin. Holding his hands in front of him, he could make out every bone, every piece of cartilage, every stringy tendon. Under the thin layer of skin, he saw veins and arteries bulge in response to the beat of his heart.
I look like a poster for Feed the Children, he thought. And no wonder. He’d been studying so hard he couldn't remember his last decent meal.
Turning away from the mirror, he walked to the skeleton. His mood lightened. The pranksters had been at it again.
Someone had gone through a lot of trouble to run red tubing through the bones. The Silly String muscles were thicker, more grainy. Life-sized reproductions replaced his flimsy paper organs. They looked real, although shriveled. Bruce suspected someone broke into the autopsy lab to steal organs from a cadaver.
He chuckled in appreciation of the joke, but he was too tired to return the parts to the lab. He'd take care of it in the morning. He turned out the lights and collapsed on the bed, exhausted.
When he found he couldn't get out of bed the next morning, Bruce became alarmed. He was so weak he couldn’t roll onto his back. Sitting up was an exercise beyond his capabilities. Nevertheless, he tried. He realized he was close to succumbing to whatever ailment had him in its grasp. The closest phone was located at the end of the hall, and he knew if he didn’t summon an ambulance soon, he’d die.
Using the last of his dwindling strength, Bruce turned his body and rolled off the bed. Then he rose to his elbows to crawl toward the door.
"It's no use, you know."
Bruce barely heard the thick, rusty voice when it broke the silence of the tiny room.
"Thank God," he said in relief. His own voice sounded weak, faded. "Call 9-1-1. Hurry."
He looked around, unable to distinguish the source of the raspy voice. His vision was cloudy, his other senses dull.
"I'm afraid they can't help you, and I won’t."
The voice laughed. Bruce stiffened, convinced his mind had begun to wander. He shook his head and resumed his efforts to summon assistance.
"Help," he shouted. "Help me, someone." He paused to listen. No one answered, no one came.
He raised his head, determined to get to the door. He tried to raise his elbow, but found it wouldn't move. Then, for the first time that morning, he looked down at his arm. There was practically nothing left. A few patches of skin covered gray, brittle bones. He dropped his head to the floor and used one of those thin, dying hands to feel his face. His cheekbones were exposed. His fingers moved a little, causing the remaining skin to peel away. It fell unfettered to the ground.
Bruce screamed, but no sound came out. His flaking skin floated through the air, toward the corner.
The source of the voice moved.
Reaching up, the skeleton unhooked itself from the stand that supported it. It walked over to Bruce.
No. No longer a skeleton. A complete man.
Bruce lay on the floor, looking up at the apparition. He was convinced he was in the final stages of delirium. He felt his heart weaken, his breathing grow more shallow.
He was the skeleton, and the skeleton was . . . him.
"No, my friend," the voice said, "not you. Never you."
Bruce's mouth fell open. The last of his cartilage moved to its new owner. He had no control over his diminishing body.
"Not diminishing," the voice said. "Transferring. I can’t allow you to take an oath you have no intention of keeping. My oath."
Bruce felt the last of brain tissue weaken. Before it was gone, he used his last ounce of strength to form a mental question.
"Who am I?" The voice laughed. "I’m Hippocrates. For breaking my oath, I relegate you to the same hell I have endured for 2000 years."
The new Bruce Todd lifted the skeleton and carried it to the stand. He hung it on the hook using an indentation in the clavicle, then stepped back to admire the effect.
"Hippocrates, you’ve defied death and come back in this great, modern age," he said with a mocking laugh. "What will you do now?"
He walked to the door, pausing on the threshold to regard the books on the desk.
"Why, I’m going to medical school, of course."