The Bone Machine by Chris Preston
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Young Joseph watched as his mother approached the dining table with a bundle of cutlery and three plates in hand. It was their weekly take-out night and rotisserie chicken combos had just been delivered, but Mom still insisted they eat with proper dinnerware. The smell made Joseph’s stomach grumble. She placed one plate down for him, another for herself, then paused.
“I don’t know why I…” She sighed. “I don’t want to hear about it tonight, Joey. Not a word.”
Mom turned and headed back to the kitchen with the one spare plate. A clang of dishes rang out.
I never say anything, he thought. Not when you still put your clothes to only one side in your closet, or even when you avoid sitting on the far right of the couch.
Joseph took out the various pieces of dinner and arranged them on his plate alone.
It was four years since his father had disappeared. Joseph had been only five.
Few memories had stuck since then. He could still see the winter night he disappeared. He’d been at his bedroom window looking down at his Mom, who was waiting out front of their split-level bungalow in the cold, wearing a parka over her blue pajamas. Her skinny legs had shivered for hours until they just stopped, giving up long before her worries did. Tears collected snowflakes as they travelled down both cheeks.
Some memories were even smaller, like fragments. Withering orange peels left on the coffee table, rotting under sunrays from their bay window. A coffee mug spinning in the microwave, then forgotten about. The revving of his father’s red sports car in the driveway until plumes of smoke bellowed out the back.
Even his face was blurring. Blonde hair, rough skin. Pictures around the home were sparse after Mom put most away in storage.
That voice though, gruff and dry, still rang through in Joseph’s mind. And it said just one phrase over and over.
“Beware the Whirling Bone Machine, Joey. Don’t let it catch you.”
After eating, Joseph helped clean up, bringing their take-out containers to the kitchen while she collected used cutlery. He pushed the peddle of the garbage bin down with his right foot and tossed one of the remaining bits of carcass in. A bone fell to the tile flooring.
“One more for the bone machine.” He picked it up threw the bone in, hearing a clunk.
“What did you say?”
He spun to see her at the doorway. “What? Oh, Mom. Nothing, I—”
“You better not be talking about what I think you’re talking about. That stupid saying from you-know-who.”
Those words were banned. Joseph blamed himself for causing Mom to go to such extremes, asking her one too many times what they meant until she couldn’t take it anymore.
“Sorry, Mom.” He gazed up at her eyes. They were blue like marbles, so unlike his dad’s brown eyes, and so unlike his own. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s okay.” She bent down to match his height. “If that man were here now, I’d straighten him out for ever scaring you with that nonsense. Let’s hope I never find him.”
But you won’t. Joseph knew Dad was dead. In that moment, he wanted to just say it out loud and relieve her of having to hide it any longer.
It was Mom’s words that confirmed it last Easter. After being punched in the gut by his cousin Billy, both boys were sent to separate rooms for playing too rough. Joseph had snuck back out to apologize but instead overheard her, his aunt and uncle openly discussing what she had done with his ashes. He slunk away before they noticed him peeking out and drove his head into a pillow to cry without making a sound.
He let Mom walk out of the kitchen without saying anything more, allowing the lie to continue. Like how Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy were still real. It seemed to make her happy, and that was reason enough for him to continue with the ruse.
After Joseph slipped into bed later that night, Mom looked in from his bedroom doorway. “Get some sleep. I don’t want you late for school again.”
“Okay, Mom. Love you.”
She closed the door behind her.
Joseph tucked himself tight under the sheets, palms beginning to sweat. His father’s words stuck on repeat as he lay there. Nightmare fuel. With just a night light on, he focused on the stipple ceiling to count the number of shapes he could find. Last time he felt frightened, it took finding about thirty-five distinct shapes before falling asleep.
Beware the Whirling Bone Machine, Joey. Don’t let it catch you.
Don’t let it… catch… you…
Consciousness slipped away.
Joseph was alone, standing in a dark, vacant parking lot. At first, there were no lights at all. Even the sky was starless. Then, a floodlight turned on somewhere above him. Something was out there, blanketed in the surrounding darkness. It approached with the faint sound of metal-on-stone, like a large object being pushed along the ground. It grew louder, soon accompanied by the clanking of chains. Joseph’s own quickening heartbeats joined the cacophony.
The Whirling Bone Machine.
With unseen propulsion, it slid under the flood light and cast him in a shadow. It was as a carousel-like contraption, like the ones he rode at carnivals. But this one was different. Joseph could make out splashes of crimson and ivory as it spun.
Its rotation slowed after stopping just a few feet from him. He could now see the collection of ribs, femurs, skulls, and spines that were fixed to rusted poles with coarse yarn. Atop the makeshift seats were figures donned in black cloaks. They whispered in tones he could not understand.
Two of them pointed at Joseph, then jumped down and approached. He felt cemented in place by fear, unable to run as the figures flanked him. They both grabbed an arm each. Their fingers penetrated his skin, rummaging underneath for bones. More bones for their infernal contraption. They pulled. Harder. And harder.
Joseph was damp from head to toe, sheets clinging tight to his pencil-like frame. After giving his heart a moment to slow, he pulled the covers down and went to his dresser to change. While pulling a new shirt over his head, Joseph contemplated telling his mother of the nightmare. Though, she had made it clear to not speak of it.
She can’t help me. Nobody can stop them because they move in dreams. Maybe she couldn’t help Dad either. That’s why she doesn’t like talking about the bone machine.
He let this thought play out, giving contemplation to various ways which he seemed like his father. Something that connected the bone machine to them both. Same last name? Same eye colour? Same house?
After an hour of ruminating on this, sleep slowly crept over him.
Phys-Ed followed lunch. For mid-October, the air was still warm enough for all students to be outside. Today, the coach had them begin with a run.
Joseph pushed himself while sprinting to pass others around the school’s quarter mile track. His new shoes, donated to him by a member of Mom’s Facebook group, were laced up tight. Joseph had complained to her about his joints with the old shoes, something she swore he was just parroting after hearing shoe store employees suggest the same thing. But this new pair quieted those joint pains.
He got by the other usual stragglers first. Joseph barreled forward during the straight sections of the track, passing other kids one-by-one. The leaders were just ahead.
If I can be faster than them, I’ll be able to outrun the bone machine too.
While coming around the final stretch, he felt his right foot land on something other than asphalt. A pebble, or rock. Joseph slipped, tumbling toward the outside of the track. When he stopped, he was flat on the ground and partially off the outer lane. Other kids stampeded around him, one knocking their shin into his side.
Nobody paused to help him up.
Grass stuck to his bare shins as he tried to find his footing again. He planted his right foot and a spike of pain shot up. Joseph yelped, then was breathless. Somewhere in the distance, Coach Marley asked if everything was okay. Joseph drew in air through the anguish and managed a more drawn out scream this time.
His coach’s voice neared, as did other students, but Joseph was losing track of his surroundings with the radiating pain. One girl said the word ‘ambulance’ and he wanted to tell them not to bother, as Mom would be pulled away from work. Though, he couldn’t talk or do anything other than scream.
With teary eyes, he didn’t notice the flashing lights approach until the ambulance was through the school gates and weaving in their parking lot.
“The kid just stumbled,” he heard Coach Marley say to the paramedics as they leapt out of their vehicle.
Getting moved to the stretcher hurt. Being pushed inside the vehicle hurt more. Every little jostle sent bolts of electricity through his foot.
No, he was able to think for a second. Not my foot. My ankle.
“I’ll call his mother,” said his coach as the ambulance doors slammed shut.
During their drive, the paramedic stationed back with Joseph asked the same questions over and over. Easy ones, like what’s his birthday and what his full name was. While Joseph was still having trouble talking, he did manage to squeak out the answers.
The ambulance slowed and took several turns. Joseph noticed a red sign that read, ‘EMERGENCY.’ The paramedics wheeled him in through the doors, passing curious onlookers who were walking out. Inside, the questions kept coming from staff and nurses. His coach arrived minutes later to begin some of the paperwork that had been stacking on Joseph’s stomach.
While working through several details with Joseph, Coach Marley’s attention was caught. “Misses Langdon! Over here!”
Mom flung into view from behind his stretcher like a speedboat.
“Oh my god, oh my god, what happened, Joey?”
“My shoes slipped. I do like them, Mom, but I slipped and hurt my ankle. The right one. It feels broken.”
“My poor boy.” She placed both hands on Joseph’s cheeks and kissed his forehead. Then, she turned her attention to the crowd of adults for a briefing.
Time continued to go by in waves. Waiting took hours. Getting shuttled around was just a few minutes. Getting scans were painful, he had to contort and stay still, the pain grew stronger than ever. He felt every second crawl by.
Doctors diagnosed a break just above his right ankle. They knocked him out while setting the bone back in place and applied a cast. A nurse, young and smiley, helped keep him feeling comfortable as day turned to night. She had said her name once, but Joseph missed it in his haze.
It was sometime after dinner when a doctor assigned to him, Doctor Cordon, returned with many documents in hand. The man pulled a chair up beside Joseph’s bed, which squeaked when taking on the man’s hefty weight. Mom leaned in to hear their conversation from across the room.
“How do you feel?” asked Doctor Cordon.
Joseph looked down the bed. Television glare illuminated his exposed toes. They poked out the end of his cast; they were plump and deeply discoloured. He tried to wiggle them, but they didn’t move. “Better now. Just sleepy.”
Doctor Cordon shot a brief grin. “Joseph, before your accident… did you have pain in your foot?”
“Sometimes, maybe. I’d complain about my joints, but Mom said it’s just because I’m too skinny.”
“What other joints? Anywhere else, other than your right foot?”
“I guess. Yes, sometimes here.” He pointed to his right knee.
The doctor motioned Mom out the door, leaving Joseph attended by the young nurse. She served him banana-flavoured ice cream.
Mom re-entered sometime later, looking pale and as if she’d been recently crying. Doctor Cordon followed close behind. His large figure partially blocking the entrance, which he leaned against with papers in hand.
“What’s wrong Mom?”
“Joey,” she said. Her words struggled to escape through trembling lips. “It turns out, this is no accident. You’re actually sick.”
“Sick? Because of my ankle breaking?”
“No, no. This is a special kind of sickness that made your ankle brittle enough to break. In fact, you helped the doctors here spot it because of your accident.”
“What is the sickness called?”
Mom looked back at Doctor Cordon, who approached, but she put up a hand. “Cancer.”
I know that one. He recalled signing a card at school for a teacher with cancer. She never returned.
All he could muster was an, “oh.”
“I’m sorry, I really am, Joey.” She angled down to hug him in his hospital bed. “We’re going to fight this, though.”
“I’ll be okay,” he muttered into Mom’s shoulder as she whimpered.
Though, that was a lie. They could call this disease whatever they’d like. He knew it was really the bone machine just wearing him down.
An older nurse, one who took over for his young nurse, cleared him for release the next day.
Mom pulled into the Emergency entrance circle with their white sedan and moved the passenger seat all the way forward to accommodate extra leg room. She helped Joseph stand up from the wheelchair and he insisted on easing himself into his booster seat in the back. Mom placed his new crutches in after. The older nurse said her goodbye, taking the wheelchair with her.
A call came in while they were part way home. “Your Grandma,” she muttered, slipping in one earbud connected to her phone.
Joseph listened in but pretended to focus on the landscape of suburban homes passing by. Mom was good at whispering, but he did pick up small phrases between her and Grandma. “It’s called plasmacytomas. They said it’s genetic, but I’ve never heard of it. Come clean, Dianne. If you know something about this, say it.”
Her eyes would occasionally meet his glances in the rear-view mirror, despite his best efforts to not let that happen. He was aware of the word ‘genetic’ but couldn’t remember from where.
She got louder. “I knew he was seeing a doctor, but for arthritis… yes, yes, he told me arthritis… Well, don’t you think I should’ve known this earlier?” Mom listened to a response, but only briefly. “Doctor, patient confidentiality… you weren’t the patient, Dianne!”
Joseph itched his shin just above where the cast ended and became lost in thought. Amongst a sea of disparate images swirling in his mind, he swore he could see his father’s red sports car whiz by them.
Plasmacytomas. How do you spell that?
It had been a day since coming home from the hospital and Joseph was hiding away in his bedroom all morning. The crutches were tiring to use so he asked to borrow the family laptop in bed.
Instead of watching his usual YouTube channels, Joseph sat back against his pillows and made use of Google to look up this strange word he had heard the other day. Much of his time went to simply finding the proper type of cancer that he had, rather than accidently replacing it with the other complicated words he came across.
Occasionally, Mom would pace by his bedroom door. When she brought him a sandwich for lunch, he minimized the current website he was on. She didn’t stay though, allowing him to continue reading.
From what he could understand, it was a type of bone cancer. Images showed cross-sections of infected areas looking like honeycombs. That’s why his ankle was so brittle.
When the sun set, Mom helped him through a very difficult bathing experience before he was able to slide into bed. Their only discussion throughout was how to navigate the swim trunks over his cast, and where any remaining soap suds were hiding.
While laying in bed, he thought of some questions. Three came to mind. He mentally repeated them to not forget.
What happens next?
Will I ever be the same again?
Am I going to die?
He wasn’t ready to ask them, not yet. “Just be a boy,” Mom had told him so many times before. Answers to those questions were more than he felt a boy should know. So, they were put in that same mental corner as Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, and news of his father’s death.
Dad. Is this how it starts? Is this how the machine gets me?
He focused on the impending visit that he was sure to have that night. The Whirling Bone Machine. Returning to take him.
Sleep came, even with the discomfort and pain of his cast. A dream began. He found himself in an attic, though it didn’t resemble theirs. A dead pixie-looking creature lay ahead. It was much larger than him, with teeth scattered on the plywood floor. To the left of the carcass was a big man in a Santa outfit, face-down and not moving. To the right, another person similarly lifeless. It was Dad. Those light jeans, combat boots, and tan jacket. While his facial features were too dimly lit, Joseph knew.
The sound of chains dragged along the floor behind him. He spun to see the horrifying machine looming once more, spinning slowly. The figures that rode it wasted no time leaping down, tackling Joseph to the ground with force. Four of them this time, all grabbing a limb and pulling. His right ankle gave way first, tossing a figure backwards with Joseph’s foot in hand. The other continued, making him feel like he was about to tear apart completely, like his rotisserie chicken from days before.
“Please, wake up!” Joseph shouted. It was no use, this was it. Death.
But, moments later, his eyes darted open to the familiar stippled ceiling above his bed. Still alive for the time being, covered in sweat.
Joseph returned to school two days later, teachers assisted him with every move. The crutches were still difficult to navigate. Mom had informed the adults of his diagnosis but, to other students, Joseph insisted they believe it was just an ankle break.
“Clumsy Joey! Oh, that’s going to stick,” Hunter, the class bully, sneered.
Joseph humoured him and continued smiling as other classmates joined in, showing equal part sympathy and teasing. Throughout the day, his responses were little more than a simple, “yes,” or “no.”
Some kids even had broken bone stories of their own, and they’d explain the worst was getting the cast on. One girl even told him that healing was easy, just keep his weight off it and don’t get the cast wet.
Healing won’t be easy for me.
His cast grew heavier throughout the day. Those who had picked up on his downbeat behaviour seemed to distance themselves after lunch. During math, Joseph’s eyelids drooped from such a poor night’s sleep.
When his mother picked him up, he shuffled into the car and closed the door himself. She had her sunglasses on, despite the overcast weather, and was sipping from a large coffee cup. He figured she was also losing rest.
Joseph buckled in and his first of the three questions slipped from his mouth. “What comes next?”
It surprised him, like a hiccup would.
“That’s quite the greeting, Joey. Well, we’ve got some veggies I’m going to grill for dinner. Your show is on tonight—”
“No. With the cancer.”
Mom winced, as if she had just heard him curse.
“Well, I’ve been talking to Doctor Marley’s office. The man we met at the hospital. There’ll be lots of tests and treatments to start removing it from your body. Chemotherapy.”
“Chemotherapy.” Joseph bowed his head. “Mom, can I ask you something else?”
“You told Grandma it was genetic. Did Dad have cancer? Is that why he left?”
He felt her use the gas and brake pedal just a little firmer.
“Your father was an idiot. Why he left doesn’t matter. The fact that he left though, Joey, that’s what matters. Sick or not, you don’t abandon family.”
“Yeah, but Mom. Maybe he had a reason for leaving. Like, he didn’t want to hurt you and just wanted to get better by himself.”
“No,” she whispered.
He pressed on. “Maybe he knew it would hurt us both if he stayed. Not just with feelings, but maybe we’d get sick too. And Dad was just—"
“Seriously, fuck him! Nobody’s doing me any favours by running away. No, Joey, he was a bad man who abandoned his family. This whole stupid mess is his fault! It’s his blood flowing through you that’s causing you to be sick. Still, you feel the need to sympathise with him. Just, just stop it. No more talk of the man who destroyed our lives.” There was a long pause. “Sorry for swearing.”
“That’s… you swear sometimes. That’s okay, Dad did too. Didn’t he?”
“No, Joey.” She lifted her sunglasses to rub both eyes, leaving no hand on the steering wheel momentarily. “No more talk.”
Despite feeling the urge to continue defending a man he barely knew from the one person he loved more than anyone else in the world, Joseph fell quiet.
If I make her too mad, I’ll be alone. That’s when the bone machine will come.
Joseph remained silent for the remainder of the drive. Once home, he barely ate, and went to bed before his favourite show aired.
Day two of chemotherapy was worse than day one. The bag of mixed fluids being pumped into him at the hospital was making Joseph feel woozy. Just before arriving, he threw up in the front yard. No blood, a nurse asked him to keep an eye out for that, just most of his breakfast.
Other kids were there as well in the other recliner chairs. Maybe a dozen. Some normal looking while others were much worse. White, see-through, tired. Dying.
His mother returned to the side of his recliner chair with a smoothie. He took reluctant swigs while watching the built-in monitor ahead. The headphones and cartoons helped drown out the commotion from the other half-dozen patients and their family.
One girl across the room from him coughed and spasmed, which caught his eye. Each cough came quicker than the last, then she was honking, like geese do while chasing pieces of bread at the pond. Her father rubbed the young girl’s back while she continued without a breath. A nurse came to their aid.
The coughs and gags turned to screaming. “No more! No, Daddy! no more, please!”
Her father asked the nurse could disconnect his daughter’s tube.
“Not until the treatment is complete, I’m afraid.”
This commotion continued as Joseph popped each earbud out. He turned to his mother and asked the second question. “Will I ever be normal again?”
She glanced up from her phone. He could feel her reading him, trying to understand. One of her hands met the top of his, the IV needle between them. “We won’t stop fighting until you are. I know you will pull through.”
“But the doctor said more areas, not just my ankle. It’s spreading. Multiple something…”
“Multiple myeloma. Yes, but real early.”
Joseph’s third question, the one he wanted to ask the most, nearly tumbled out of his mouth right then and there. Fear held it in. Fear of the answer. Instead, he said, “I wish I were better already. I don’t like seeing you so sad.”
She winced and looked away.
He hadn’t meant to make her cry. Maybe, he thought, she was extra sensitive today.
After all, Joseph figured she also noticed what he already observed when first entering this room. All other patients had their dads present.
Joseph didn’t ask his last question until two weeks later. Him and Mom were in Doctor Marley’s office for a debrief between rounds of chemotherapy. Even free of the treatment for several weeks, there was hardly a day that didn’t have some follow-up or discussion regarding his sickness.
Joseph found one aspect of the treatments comforting – he was too ill for dreams. They were nonexistent during the miserable month-long cycle. It was only over the past few nights was he lucid again to notice the Whirling Bone Machine was still there. Lurking in the shadows, readying to approach him once more.
This meeting was about his ankle. The doctor had Joseph sit atop an examination table while viewing X-rays. His cancer had made healing impossible.
Instead, he needed a new ankle. One made of metal and plastic.
“You’ll be like Iron Man, Joseph. Do you like Iron Man?”
“Not really,” he said. Joseph knew Iron Man’s suit was on the outside, not inside his body. “Maybe, more like Wolverine.”
Since treatments began, he had become considerably less hairy than the clawed superhero. And weaker, too.
Doctor Marley chuckled. “The imagination on you, Joseph! Isn’t that right, Mom?”
His mother twirled her hair while listening along but remained mute. Joseph worried she’d twirl it until the strands snapped.
“I know this is a bit of a shock,” the doctor corrected himself back to a more serious tone. He gestured with his hands in the white coat. “Mary will provide you with a surgery date on your way out, which will be in the coming days. Do either of you have any questions at this point?”
Mom looked glazed over. Defeated? He was hit with a sense of panic usually reserved only for his nightmares. His third question found space to escape between these thoughts.
“Am I going to die?”
The doctor brought his chair closer to the examination table and leaned in. “Ah, oh, Joseph.” He drew in a breath before continuing. “Ankle surgery is very routine for us professionals. We perform this often, usually with older patients who can’t even heal as quickly as you young bucks. What you just asked shouldn’t even be on—”
“Doc.” Mom had straightened herself up. “Please give us a minute alone.”
That tone. Joseph wondered if he was in trouble. Doctor Marley must have picked up on it as well, giving them both a nod and closing the door behind him.
“Why did you ask that, Joey?”
He stumbled to provide an answer at first. Words did come, mixed with a whimper. “This is only getting worse. Mom, I’m not strong enough.”
Tears came to Joseph’s eyes, and he started weeping. She scooped him up, holding his boney frame close. “You’re strong,” she said. “Tougher than this sickness.”
Joseph felt her freeze.
“Wait,” she said. “What do you mean by that?”
“No, nothing! I, I… I’m not sure what I’m saying anymore.”
Mom pressed on, talking into his ear while not letting go. “What have you put together about him?”
“Yeah, you said he wasn’t. Wasn’t what?”
“I think… no. I know he’s dead.”
She sat up straight, looking at him with her mouth agape. “You know!”
“Yes, Mom. Last Easter, you and Auntie Sue and Uncle John said it.”
She sat down in her chair. “You’re so smart, it’s what I’ve told everyone since you put that farmhouse puzzle back together at one years old. Yet even I underestimate you still. Not much of a child anymore, eh?”
“No, I am! Promise.”
Her eyes cast over him, scanning. “Do you miss him?”
Joseph let out a sigh. “I don’t know.”
“Joey. Dad… he was sick, but he also just gave up the fight one day.”
“I hid what happened from you out of spite towards that man. But I believe you’re so much stronger than he ever was. You have as much of me in you as him, and I don’t give up. Ever. Choose to live, Joey. Beat this thing.”
“I want to beat this. I do. But…”
“I think I’m really very sick.”
Mom stood up and turned her back to Joseph for just a second. The air held something other than sanitizer in it. Thoughts. He could sense her cooking them up.
She turned back. “Can you tell when I’m fibbing, Joey?”
He hesitated before replying, “Like, lying? I think so.”
“You know, your father was much more manipulative than I could ever hope to be. Still, for this time only, ignore the fact that I’m fibbing. Believe me as much as you believed Dad. Okay? As much as when he told you about this Whirling Bone Machine.”
“Well, because I’ve come to learn something about that infernal contraption. Something that will really surprise you.” She held his gaze, waiting for some type of signal from him.
Had the fib begun already? Joseph bit his lower lip and twiddled his thumbs, then pressed ahead. “What did you find out?”
“It only likes rotten bones. Sick bones. Don’t you see, Joey… it comes along to help. Like that knife-sharpening truck. You know, the one that fools all kids into thinking the ice cream man is on their street? It comes by to sharpen you up. Make you better.”
He liked this game, even if she was fibbing. It always made Joseph laugh when she did uncomfortable things just for him, and this time was no different.
“You’re forgetting about the spirits, Mom. The ones in robes that help run the machine.”
“No, no, definitely didn’t! They’re the ones that come… what, put you in it, right?” She made a stuffing motion with her arms.
He animated himself too, reaching into his shirt. “More like, pull my bones out to strap on the machine.”
“Right!” She smirked. “That’s what I meant. They can smell the rotten bones!”
The two of them kept their discussion going. It had become something like a competition, one attempting to up the other with details of the Whirling Bone Machine.
They continued their conversation into the reception area, others looking at them with what Joseph assumed was a mix of annoyance and amusement. Though, he hardly minded while blabbering on about the machine to Mom, and she continued to reciprocate. Words just kept spilling out. The receptionist saw them off with a list of appointment dates, all while looking at them with an eyebrow raised.
Before exiting the building, the two giggling family members stopped in at the pharmacy and bought two ice cream sandwiches. Mom helped Joseph out the front lobby doors so he could continue eating while using just one crutch.
Joseph’s laughter made it difficult to steady himself. “Yes! That’s what I said! Really thick yarn holds it all together!” It was difficult to get the words out between gasps for air.
“I would’ve never guessed!” Ice cream spilled from her mouth while talking. Some ran down her chin, which she attempted to catch it with her sleeve.
He laughed and fell against a garbage can. She caught him before he slid to the ground.
Once hoisted upright, he said, “I’m sorry for crying in the doctor’s office, Mom.”
She ran a hand through his hair. “Oh, giving tears is okay, even giving bones is okay. If they’re rotten bones, Joey. Let’s give this bone machine of yours what it came for. Nothing more.”
“Okay, but, even if it isn’t real?”
“So, what if it isn’t real! Your dad made up the name, you created the image of this thing, and I’m saying how it can help to beat your cancer. Hell, that’s about the most cooperation this family has ever had.”
“You’re right, Mom.” He adjusted his jacket and continued to lean on her, feeling comfort in knowing she wouldn’t let him fall. “I’ll feed it some bones. Only the rotten ones.”
As they got to the car and took off back home, Joseph caught his reflection in the door window. A big smile. He also felt something that hadn’t been felt in a very long time. The desire for a sound sleep, and to dream again.
That night, Joseph found himself back in the chemotherapy room. He seemed to be only inches tall, and the towering white recliner chairs all around were empty. Lights dimmed. The sound of chains dragging along laminate rang out from ahead. The Whirling Bone Machine slid under what little light remained above Joseph, casting a shadow on him. Its spin slowed and the riding figures glared.
One growled, “you’re different today, Joey. You aren’t afraid.”
“Correct,” he replied.
“Because, I have something for you.”
Two figures dropped down to the ground and approached. They reached out so Joseph could lean on them, allowing him to hobble toward their contraption. Their cloaks smelled of dust, making him want to sneeze.
With their boney hands, the two figures helped Joseph up onto the machine’s platform as it continued a slow rotation. “Welcome aboard,” one of them said as Joseph found himself a seat made of someone’s ribcage.
The machine spooled up, gaining speed. Once moving at a fast pace, Joseph felt it shifting under him, moving away from the light. Casting him in darkness. Giving him comfort.
Chris Preston is a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction from Ontario, Canada. Formal studies include University of Toronto’s Creative Writing program, as well as various workshops. You can currently see work by Chris within Mystery Weekly, Schlock! Webzine, JOURN-E and Hellbound Books. To find out more, feel free to visit www.seeprestonwrite.com. You may also follow Chris with the following twitter handle – @write_preston.
Originally published July 5, 2022.
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Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.