by John Thornton

Rob bought Katie the skeleton for their three month anniversary. She was fifteen and in high school; he was twenty-five and already in med school. "It's kind of a warning," he said.

Katie spread the cottage cheese evenly across her lettuce leaf. "I don't know what you mean by that," she said.

"So think about it," said Rob as he rapped her on the clavicle with his class ring. "It'll come to you."

She broke up with him. Katie could read hearts, and she knew that he was just into her because she had cool hair, was weighed down by her big breasts and wide hips, was crazy in bed, and knew who Poe was, even though he didn't (he mentioned all of those to his med school friends, except that he didn't know who Poe was. That he never mentioned.) But she kept the skeleton anyway. It was a good one: Rob had stolen it directly from the anatomy class supply closet, and it had all two hundred eight bones, each one clasped to its neighbors by metal rings so thin that they were invisible, except for a faint sparkle when Katie bent the joints. It was molded from real plaster that had a hint of green to it, and Katie almost believed that it had come from a real grave. She wondered whether it was a man or a woman. Its eye sockets were abnormally large and painted a thick, smooth black.

At first she just left it hanging in her room next to her punk records and her oak dresser with the squat bottles of glitter and goop resting on top. She put it in front of her full-length mirror and watched its skinny hips sway back and forth with the air conditioning. "Kind of a warning," she said to herself. "Fuck you, Rob." But she brought the bowl of cereal she had planned to eat back down to the kitchen, and she didn't look in the mirror again, or at the skeleton again, for at least three days.

One night, though, her friend Larea invited her to a party she was having over at her house while her parents were at the crafts fair in Portland. "It's going to be a Chaos and Combinations party, so you have to bring a date," she said. Chaos and Combinations was a party game invented by Larea's boyfriend, Parker, who was president of the Math and Chess clubs. The game was played by an equal number of boys and girls. One boy and one girl would get together and submit the names of another boy and girl who were, it was thought, an ideal combination. The compatibility of the nominated boy and girl were tested via a number of algorithms, all invented by Parker: analysis of birth date, star sign, grade point average, height, "kissability", and a number generated via the answers to a complicated and invasive five-question personality survey. All of the calculations resulted, via some numerical alchemy of Parker's, in a single number from negative to positive five. If the number was anywhere above a two, the nominated couple had to make out (at least to second base, read Parker's rules) before the eyes of their peers. If the number was a two or below, the boy and girl who had initially nominated the couple had to do the same, as a penalty for reckless nomination. The game never went more than two rounds before it dissolved into groups of osculating, groping teens in the more comfortable rooms and people who loudly complained about how stupid the game was all huddled around the beer cooler in the kitchen. Parker had invented it in order to finally get laid, and it had worked.

Katie hated Chaos and Combinations because she always got nominated and she was always ranked above a two. She glared at herself in the mirror&$8212;her hips were marshmallows, her breasts pillows, her lips the chocolate mints beneath; her whole body was a cuddly stuffed animal for all the boys to hold and suck their thumbs—and then, eyeing the skeleton, she told Larea that she would be there. She took the skeleton down from its hook and held it out at arm's length: it was only slightly taller than her, and looked, she had to admit, rather dashing. She took her father's red "job interview" tie from his closet and put it around the skeleton's neck: better still. Then she ripped a hole in the waist of her mother's floral sundress, threw it on, and in a few minutes she was ringing Larea's doorbell, the skeleton's arm thrown around her shoulder with a cavalier air.

"Oh my God, Katie," Larea giggled.

"Hi," said Katie as she barged in with the skeleton, avoiding the kitchen.

Everyone nominated Katie and the skeleton on the first round, but there was some difficulty in running the skeleton's calculations. "Work with me, okay," said Parker in his nasal voice as he punched the buttons on his graphing calculator. "Do you know its date of birth? Whether it, you know, studies?"

"This is taking too long," complained Katie, and she shoved the shoulders of the skeleton back—it collapsed, with no resistance—and, straddling its ribs and the job interview tie, she pressed her open mouth against its merry teeth. The boys hooted and cheered, and all of the girls shrieked with laughter and said "Katie, you're too much!" and "Oh, Katie, you're so crazy and random!" Katie kept making out with the skeleton, though, thrusting her pierced tongue against its fixed grin with a clack and thumping her floral-shrouded pelvis against its spine, and slowly the laughter and cheering died down, and all of the students went into Larea's kitchen for a drink, muttering.

With no one there to watch, the game became less interesting, and Katie eventually stopped. She pressed her hand against the skeleton's breastbone to calm what would have been its racing heart, and with her other hand she gently wiped away the white lipstick that had stuck to the green bone. Then she went into the kitchen and bit the top off of a bottle of beer with her teeth.

"That was so hot," she said. "You all see that?"

Larea, the good host, put her hands on the hips of her peasant skirt and clucked her pink tongue. "Oh, Katie," she said. "What are we going to do with you?"

Parker laughed, and everyone else joined in, and the conversation turned to a group recollection of the crazy things Katie had done in the past—a frequent topic at parties, among this group.

"We don't need them, do we," said Katie as she drove her and the skeleton home, illegally, in her father's rusty coupe. "No we don't." She extended her finger and flicked an imaginary dust mote from the skeleton's dainty nasal cavity. She imagined it blushing, its cheekbone flaring to baked terra cotta for a moment before fading back to cool jade.

The skeleton story began to circulate around the few unlucky friends of Larea's who had not made it to the party. It became so popular, so much a warped trademark of Katie's, that of course she had to do it again at the next Chaos and Combinations party a month later. This time no one nominated her or the skeleton, but she straddled it anyway and messily bit at its jaw just as the first lucky couple had been deemed compatible and the gathering of boys and girls had just begun the ritual chant: "Chaos! Combinations! Make—OUT!" Katie and the skeleton were not invited to the next Chaos and Combinations party, or any parties for some time. Katie didn't mind. She got a job at a thrift store and brought home lots of spare clothes for the skeleton, men's clothes. She brought home a smart little fedora with a tall red feather and left it balanced on the skull. She would dress up the skeleton in the most fetching clothes she could think of—suits, tuxedoes, a white lab coat, suspenders and spats, a grease-spattered T-shirt and blue jeans with a switchblade tucked into their pocket, a casual tennis outfit complete with headband and racket—and then she would play records of 1960s lounge music and put on the outfits that made her look the fattest and gave her the deepest cleavage, and she would hold onto the skeleton's yielding arm and look at them both in the mirror for a long time before she told herself that the record needle was about to scratch and broke away to adjust it.

She brought the skeleton to her prom. She saved up her wages for a month—it wasn't that difficult, she had lots of extra bonuses from never taking a lunch or a break—and she put down the deposit to rent both a tux and a prom dress. She chose a simple black tux for the skeleton, accented with a yellow cummerbund and yellow pinstripes that she thought would, in conjunction with the tone of the plaster, give her date a certain tactful yet bold air. For herself she found the pinkest, poofiest dress available—the bunched lace at its sleeves rose actually above the height of her hair, even when spiked—and she cut holes just below the throat line that showed the inner hydraulics of the complicated strapless bra that had come with the dress. She couldn't afford a limo, but she tied a white rose and a long stream of lace to the antenna of her father's coupe, and as an afterthought also attached four old cans on strings to the bumper. The flashbulbs went off when she walked down the red carpet, dragging the skeleton with her and smiling at all of her classmates in their black silk and embroidered nylon as they stared back at her and whispered. She waved, feeling like Jackie Kennedy and feeling the urge to throw up. She ordered eighteen full-size copies of the photo. She was so hideous; the skeleton, by contrast, looked so pure, befuddled, looking out with its black eye sockets at the prom and just seeing a gathering of people, not knowing that what it wore was a tux meant to convince girls to sleep with it due to its status and broad chest, not knowing much of anything, except that it hung on the arm of the one who had brought it there, who gave it clothes, stroked its bones, held it tight and smiled with real terror and devotion as the camera shutter clicked and flashed.

She won a scholarship to college, quite by accident (her English teacher nominated her; she would never have nominated herself.) In packing, she threw away most of her clothes and books, but she kept her records and she kept the skeleton. When she got to her dorm room, she unpacked the skeleton first and lay it down on the bed so that it wouldn't be uncomfortable while she arranged the rest of her things and set up its hooks. Melissa, the girl the computer had assigned as her roommate, arrived along with her mother and father, among the three of them carrying seven navy suitcases and five multicolored shopping bags full of hangers and clothes, and her mother wheezed under the weight of a large rolled rug in the school colors which she and Melissa had decided to buy "while they were out" in hopes that Melissa's new roommate would like it and be willing to pay half of the cost. Melissa was just at the point of introducing this plan to Katie when Melissa saw the skeleton. It was still sprawled across the bed, legs crossed at the ankles and one hand arranged as if it were scratching a nagging itch on its thigh. A copy of "Tropic of Cancer" lay open across its face, since Katie had thought that it might get bored with the tedious decorating and want something to occupy its mind. Melissa stared down at the skeleton, then back at Katie, and then she picked up all of the suitcases, the shopping bags and the rug and went to see the dorm administration. So Katie and the skeleton got to be alone for the whole semester.

Katie never fucked the skeleton. She masturbated in front of the skeleton, true, and it was also true that whenever she had had a bad day at work (another clothing store, this one catering mostly to business students who wanted checkered ties and funeral suits for their own job interviews) she would take off all of the skeleton's clothes but its brief underwear and she would lounge on the bed in a slip smoking and playing records, and once in a while she would take the skeleton down from its hook and wrap its green plaster arms around her while she softly rocked. And she had to admit that one time she brought the skeleton's well-articulated hand between her legs and inserted its longest finger just the tiniest little bit inside herself, but it was too lifeless and its eye sockets stared at her like whirlpools in a black ocean, and she quickly withdrew the hand and tried not to look at the skeleton for a day or two, fretting constantly about whether this would wreck their friendship. But she never fucked the skeleton. Not once. She told all of the friends she made in her English classes this when she told them about the skeleton, which she always did within the first five minutes of the first conversation, and she was so insistent in her affirmations that no, never had she or would she fuck the skeleton ("I mean how could I. Really. That's so preposterous that I would never even think of it. I mean really") that most of her friends stopped returning her calls after a few nights of amusement at her expense.

On the day after her TA—who she had somewhat respected—made a clumsy pass at her when she was trying to ask his opinion on Hawthorne's symbolism, she came home and stared at the skeleton for a long time. Then she went to the dorm lounge, took a card table and two folding chairs, and set them up in her room. She had a small tea set, and she began brewing a tall pot of lemon mint. She dressed the skeleton up in its most understanding outfit (khaki slacks, powder-blue golf shirt, sensible sandals, bifocals), poured it a cup and led it to its place. Then she took off all of her clothes and sat down opposite it. They drank tea together, and Katie lit a cigarette.

"Do you think I'm attractive?" she asked, holding up her breasts for it.

The skeleton grinned rakishly.

"Would you ever try to fuck me?" she asked, voice faster.

The skeleton grinned devilishly.

"Would you tell your friends that you liked fucking me?" she asked. "Would they be jealous? Do you even have any friends?"

The skeleton grinned despondently.

"Am I your friend?" she asked.

The skeleton grinned reassuringly.

"I never know what you're thinking," she complained.

The skeleton grinned apologetically.

"Tell me what you're thinking," she commanded.

The skeleton grinned mutely. Katie screamed at it, screamed until her voice gave out and then kept on screaming, her throat raw and silent while her cigarette turned to ash. But the skeleton just kept grinning its fixed and meaningless grin, teeth as locked and pristine as they had been on the day Rob had given it to her and rapped her clavicle with his class ring. She was getting closer and closer to his age, she realized, older every day, and there sat the skeleton, as old as it would ever be, as dead and as outside of time.

She took it down from its tea party chair and took off its clothes. Then, both of them naked, she dragged it to the mirror and held both of them up. She could see her bones beneath the surface of her shrinking flesh (but still too thick, too soft, too much), and if she squinted, she imagined that the skeleton was covered with flesh too (like her own, but gentler, more neutral in the way it smoothed and accented its bones.) She held it beside her; she held it in front of her (covering her own reflection); she held it to her, tightly. She put one of her records on the player and lowered the needle: Doctor's Orders, by Carol Douglas. She sang along as she pulled the skeleton around the room with her, its long, gaunt hand with its silver joints pressed into her heavy waist and its eye sockets looking down into her mop of hair with that certain look, that come-hither shine. "Doc-tor's orders say there's only one thing for me," Katie sang to it as they whirled, sending its legs out in a wide, rattling sweep. "No-thing he can do, because only you can cure me." She dipped and its head rolled back on its neck. Both of them grinned, but only she laughed, laughed hard and for a long time.

John Thornton lives and writes in Brooklyn.