by Alvin G. Burstein
Scuffling through the leaves after an early morning run through the woods, a young runner notices a curious white patch. He bent to look more closely.
Some kind of bone.
Curious, Mark stooped to scrape away at the fragment and uncovered a human skull. He straightened and brushed away the clinging mould, struck by the fact that the skull seemed intact, the empty eye sockets expressionless, but the teeth grinning—or maybe bared in anger.
I’ll be darned. Wonder where this came from?
He was pretty sure his parents would not approve, but he decided he wanted to take it home. They were probably busy fixing breakfast. He thought that if he wrapped it in his sweater, he could probably sneak it past his folks into his room. He headed home with his prize swaddled in wool.
“That you Mark? Breakfast is on the table,” came his mother’s voice from the kitchen.
“Right, Mom, I’m going to wash up. I’ll be right down,” he hollered back taking the stairs two at a time.
Once in his room, with its predictable teen-age chaotic shambles of stuff, he tucked the skull into a nest where it would be safe from parental scrutiny. Rumpling some shirts over his prize, he washed his hands, and joined the family for breakfast.
After eating, school was next on the agenda. He returned to his room to collect his book bag, took a second to check the security of the skull nest, and left for his classes. He was sure it was wise to keep the exciting discovery to himself.
No telling what parents might sniff out, or sniff at.
On his return home, eager to take a closer look at his new treasure, he told his mom he had some urgent homework to tackle immediately. Ignoring her raised eyebrow, he charged up the stairs to his room. He closed the door behind him and stopping short, forgot to breathe for an instant.
Where’s the tee shirt I covered it with?
He raked crumpled clothing away from the nest and started to breathe again. The skull stared up at him.
There it is…stuff must have fallen over on it.
Mark rotated the skull, inspecting it closely. It seemed flawless, the thirty-two teeth bared in their ambiguous grin. He brushed away a few bits of remaining earth and sat, holding the boney relic in his lap.
“Where the hell could you have come from?” he asked, partly to himself.
Five o’clock! I better get down for dinner, before a search party busts in here.
He stuffed the skull back into its crypt, and restored its cover. At the table he parried questions about the new homework while he absorbed mounds of meatloaf and mashed potato and gravy, topped off with one of his favorites—banana pudding with ‘Nilla crust. With a parting allusion to the new assignment, he returned to his room.
Once again, the skull’s cover seemed to have been disturbed.
I guess I better sort some of these piles. They’re getting out of control.
He resumed the inspection of his prize, but after half an hour, turned to the bona fide homework that had been assigned, designating empty eye sockets as official witness. Then, burying the skull again, he called downstairs, “Hey, I’m turning in early. Big test tomorrow. And I want to get my morning run in.”
He brushed his teeth and donned his pajamas, but sleep was slow coming. Visions of decapitations swirled in his awareness, but finally flickered out into unconsciousness.
He woke before dawn, finding it hard to breathe, a weight on his chest. His eyes flew open. The skull was an incubus, its grin empty of humor. Mark opened his mouth to scream, but couldn’t draw breath or give voice.
“You need to take me back,” stridently rang in his ears.
This has to be a dream!
Mark struggled to sit up, but felt the paralysis that characterizes many nightmares.
“You need to take me back. Now. Before they wake!” grated the voice.
Mark’s breath was coming fast now, a ragged pant. He could move, but still couldn’t find voice. He struggled to his feet, the skull clinging impossibly to his chest. He scuffed into his shoes.
“Don’t wake them!” rasped in his ears.
Mark crept soundlessly down the stairs, eased open the door, and closed it behind him. He began to run. The skull’s weight pulled him forward, forward into the woods, still shrouded in pre-dawn dark.
A runner discovers a body of a young boy in the woods. A body, but not the head.
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Alvin Burstein is a retired psychology professor and psychoanalyst with numerous scholarly works to his credit. He continues on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center, where he also serves as librarian,. He is a member of Inklings, a critique group that meets weekly at the local public library to read its members’ imaginative writings. Burstein has published flash fiction and autobiographical fragments in e-zines; The Owl, his first novelette is available at Amazon. He is a committed Francophile, unsurprisingly a lover of fine cheese and wine, and an unrepentant cruciverbalist.