Nicholas A. White
There were obvious differences between dog bones and human bones, but Carrie didn’t spend much time in the woods, and I didn’t want to ruin the moment for her. She leaned on the railing of the tree house, nibbling her bottom lip—an excited habit from her mother’s side—and asked me, quietly, so the hikers below wouldn’t hear, if I’d ever seen a dead body before.
“Never in person, but I painted some in high school,” I said.
“Did they look like this one?”
I glanced through the trees at the white dog bones, washed clean from the river, and thought about my morbid paintings from years ago, the first of many pieces of artwork for which my art teacher had offered much praise.
“They were a little more—real,” I said.
Carrie frowned, nibbled her lip again, and observed the group of hikers that gathered around the skeleton. Some leaned against orange trees, others sat on moss-topped rocks. The tallest among them found a stick and poked, as if a pile of bones would come to life with a little movement. The woman next to him—his wife, maybe—paused from taking pictures of the waterfall to slap the stick from his hands.
“Do you know what it feels like to die?” Carrie asked. “It’s too bad animals can’t talk. Then we could ask them how they’re feeling while it’s happening.”
“That’s an odd thing to say, Carrie.”
“Here’s what I think happened. What if someone was hiding in the mountains, running away after killing an entire church, and he got shot and fell in the river and got picked at by crawdads until only his bones were showing. That’d be something, wouldn’t it?”
I stared at my daughter, trying to convince myself it was normal for an eleven-year-old to say such things.
“Why a church?” I asked.
“It happened a lot, didn’t it? People getting killed in churches?”
“Sure, I guess.”
It didn’t take long for the hikers to lose interest in the dog skeleton. They broke apart like a ripple, investigating a growing radius of things, touching leaves, dipping fingers in the water and shivering.
Soon after moving to the mountains, I built the tree house in the forest hoping Carrie would spend her childhood like mine, chasing birds and squirrels in the outdoors. But to her, the outdoors held no magic. It was all just trees, leaves, and flowers—stuff seen in the background of pretty pictures on the internet. And it became harder for me to reconcile my own dreams of living here with my daughter’s increasing boredom. I loved the mornings on the porch, the evenings when none of the world’s problems seemed unsolvable. But what I didn’t know was if a child could learn to appreciate such solitude.
Before dinner, while Carrie washed her hands, I told Jessica about the skeleton.
“Damn, Paul,” she whispered, quickly glancing at the bathroom door. “Why would you say that?” She grabbed something from the bookshelf in the living room: a jar of deer vertebrae I’d found a few months ago behind the house. “What are you going to do next? Tell her these belonged to a person, too? You’re not supposed to teach our kid to get excited about morbid stuff.”
“I was just trying to give her—”
The bathroom door opened, and Carrie came out smiling, wiping her hands on her jeans, after ignoring the clean hand towel hanging on the rack.
“Are you guys talking about the dead man?” she asked.
“Well about that,” Jessica said. “Your daddy was just telling me what you saw. The bones were probably too small to be people bones, don’t you think?”
“Maybe too small for a full-grown person, sure,” Carrie said. “But I bet they’re small enough to belong to a midget or a baby or someone like Anna Belle at school. Those bones were about the right size for her.”
“Why Anna Belle?” I asked.
Carrie shrugged. “Something about the way she walks isn’t right. You know what I mean? She tripped on her own feet the other day on the way to recess.”
“And you helped her up?” my wife asked, leaning forward.
“Of course not. I stood over her body and spit on her face and then bit her like a vampire.”
My wife dropped the jar of deer vertebrae, and it shattered on the floor, scattering in broken pieces under the couch and into the kitchen.
Carrie laughed. “Come on, guys. You’re always so serious.” She shook her head, walked to her bedroom, and shut the door.
Jessica sat on the couch, still in shock, while I collected the deer vertebrae and broken glass.
“Did she really just say that to us?” Jessica asked. “She’s eleven.”
“Almost twelve,” I said.
“Shut up, Paul. You’re not helping.”
I almost reminded her that I was helping—I was cleaning the mess from the jar she’d broken. But I stayed silent, hoping she wasn’t right.
Nicholas A. White earned an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (2020) and a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from Clemson University (2014). His stories and essays have appeared in places such as Atticus Review, Pembroke Magazine, Permafrost Magazine, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. For more information, please visit www.nicholasawhite.com.