I saw my teenaged daughter Madison standing on the sidewalk in front of our house as I pulled into the driveway.
“Mom, have you seen Byron?” she asked.
“Did he get out of the yard?” Madison made a face. “One of G-Dad’s grad students let him out the front door.”
“Seriously?” That meant another awkward conversation with Mom. Unfortunately, I couldn’t complain too strenuously about her letting people overrun the house, since it did belong to her and my father. Madison and I—and Byron—were taking advantage of their generosity even more than the grad students were. “How long has he been missing?”
“I don’t know! All I know is that Byron didn’t meet me at the door when I got home from school a few minutes ago, and when I asked the crew in the living room if they’d seen him, the guy who needs a haircut said he saw Byron sneaking out when somebody didn’t close the door all the way. Then he just shut the door without even telling anybody that Byron was loose. Do I have permission to cuss?”
Madison didn’t use profanity often, at least not around me, so that told me how furious she was, and I didn’t blame her. “Later. Did anybody see what direction Byron went in?”
She shook her head.
“Okay, you go right, and I’ll go left. Have you got your phone?”
She waved it at me and took off down the sidewalk, calling “Byron!” as she went. I went the other direction and did the same. I’d been hunting for ten minutes or so when my cell phone pinged.
Madison: Good news! Found him.
Madison: Also bad news. Meet you at home to explain.
I jogged back to the house, worried about what she meant. My first thought was that Byron had been injured, but if he’d been seriously hurt, Madison would have wanted me to come to her. My next thought was that Byron had hurt somebody—a child or a smaller dog—but though Akitas are known for aggressiveness to other dogs, Byron had always been even-tempered. Next up was wondering if he’d found a lady dog and they’d decided to make puppies together, which had me wondering if we’d be liable for the resulting vet bills, which could put a dent in my Christmas shopping budget.
That was as far as I’d taken my fretting when I got to the house and saw them on the front porch. Madison had Byron by the collar with one hand, and in the other, she held a bone.
A large bone.
A bone I was ninety-nine percent sure was a human femur.
Some people might think it odd that an English professor would be able to identify a human femur so quickly, but when your lifelong best friend is a walking, talking skeleton, you can’t help but pick up a basic knowledge of bone structure. I’d aced every test on the skeletal system in high school biology. Fortunately, those tests hadn’t included questions about ambulatory skeletons because I think the teacher would have had a hard time with my answers. Then again, Sid’s continued existence was more a matter of philosophy than science.
Madison said, “Sid is going to be so mad.”
“How could this have happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know! Maybe the attic door was left unlocked and one of the grad students opened it for some reason.”
“Did Byron hurt it?”
Madison looked more closely. “It’s dirty, but I don’t see teeth marks.”
That was a relief. Sid was going to be angry enough without having visible damage. “Do you want me to go talk to him?”
I could tell she was tempted, but she took a deep breath and said, “No, Byron is my responsibility. I’ll do it.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
For a minute I thought she was going to say no again, but she weakened. “Would you mind?”
“No, of course not.” Byron might be Madison’s dog, but I was her mother, which gave me a share of the responsibility. “We better go straight up.”
As soon as we got inside, Madison let go of her dog, who headed for the kitchen. We could hear voices from in there, and Byron likely realized that if people were in the kitchen, food might be available too. It was just as well. Under the circumstances, Sid was not going to want to see him.
We went upstairs and paused at the door to the attic to make sure no random grad students were around. My parents, both lifelong English professors with a taste for mentoring, had always made their house available to their grad students for working, meeting, eating, and occasionally sleeping. The students weren’t supposed to go upstairs, but I’d seen enough evidence in my bathroom to prove that they ignored that rule fairly often. Sid kept the attic door locked for just that reason.
Madison used her phone to text Sid that we wanted to come up, and a moment later, we heard a click as the door unlocked. My sister Deborah, who was transitioning from a locksmith to a security consultant, had installed a remote-control lock so Sid didn’t have to clatter down the stairs to let people in. She’d wanted the chance to troubleshoot a system, and he loves gad- gets, so it was a win-win. I had no idea how Byron or a grad student could have bypassed the system, but that was a worry for another time.
Madison went up the stairs, holding the femur tightly, and I made sure the door was locked behind me before following her.
“Hi, Georgia! Hi, Madison!” Sid said. His attic room was much nicer than it used to be. The whole family had pitched in to move the storage boxes to the basement to make room for a secondhand but still comfortable couch, several bookshelves, a worktable with chairs, and his desk. There were even pictures on the wall: a mixture of family photos and movie posters.
Sid was sitting at his desk, which was no surprise. After all, Madison was holding one of his femurs.
Sid can do many things, most of them highly unlikely. In all honesty, his whole existence was the pinnacle of unlikelihood, and the fact that I’ve known him for most of my life didn’t make it any less so. But while he can move his bones independently if the need arises, sheer geometry would have made it difficult for him to stand for very long without both of his femurs.
“What’s up?” Sid asked.
Madison started talking as fast as she could. “Sid, I’m really sorry. I don’t know how Byron got up here and got outside with your bone, but I don’t think he left any marks, and I’ll clean it up right away, and I’ll make sure he never does it again, and—” Unlike Sid, my daughter needs to breathe, which meant she had to stop to inhale.
Sid looked confused, an expression that should have been impossible for a bare skull, but no more so than the rest of what he did on a daily basis. “Madison, what are you talking about? And what’s that?”
Now Madison looked confused too. “Your femur. Or is it a tibia? I get them mixed up.”
“That’s not all you’ve got mixed up.” Sid came out from behind his desk, walking on two boney legs that were equipped with the usual number of femurs and tibias. “That’s not mine.”
“Let me get this straight,” said Sergeant Louis Raymond of the Pennycross police. “You found your dog carrying a human bone, and you brought it inside the house?”
We were in the living room, talking quietly because of the grad students in the kitchen. I’d told my mother what was going on, and she’d distracted the students with freshly baked pizza bagels.
“We couldn’t be sure it was a real bone,” Madison said.
“And when we decided it was, I thought it was from the skeleton in the attic,” I said. Between one thing and another, it was known to quite a few people in town that we had a human skeleton, though not how active it could be. Louis, one of my sister’s boyfriends, had seen Sid playing the part of a typical, nonambulatory skeleton on Halloween. We’d dialed him directly instead of 911 because we thought it would be moderately less awkward to explain the situation to somebody we knew. I added, “We called as soon as we realized that it wasn’t from ours.”
Technically, Madison had washed her hands three or four times first, then applied most of a bottle of hand sanitizer. Even I’d washed mine, though I hadn’t actually handled the nasty thing. We were used to touching Sid, but that wasn’t the same as some random stranger’s bone, which Louis was holding with the stained oven mitt we’d used to keep from having to touch it again. Needless to say, we intended to throw away the mitt afterward.
“And you don’t know where Byron got the bone?” Louis asked.
“I found him near the intersection of Thatcher and Broadway,” Madison said.
“How long was he gone? That might help us figure out how far he went.”
Madison started to explain why we didn’t know, but I thought of something. “The porch cam!” I said. As another part of her endeavor to master the latest tech, Deborah had installed a camera above the front door that showed the porch and down the walk to the street, in case of package thieves. It was still new enough that I hadn’t thought of it when we were searching for Byron. “I can access it from my phone and see when he left.”
“Let’s see what you got.”
I pulled my phone from my pocket and opened the app, then backtracked on the feed until I saw the front door left open for ten solid minutes before Byron hesitantly ventured outside and started down the sidewalk. Only then did a grad student come to shut it. “Two-forty-five.” I was going to have a stern talk with my parents’ students. Heating a house as big as ours wasn’t cheap. I kept watching until the video showed Madison arriving after school and then going back outside to look for Byron. Adding the ten or fifteen minutes it took Madison to find him, I said, “He was gone about half an hour.”
“That’s something to go on.” Louis put his notepad into his pocket and pulled on his coat. “I’ll head toward Broadway and see what I find.”
Madison said, “Do you want us to come and bring Byron along? If we take him back there, maybe he could lead us back to where he found it.”
“Is he trained to follow a trail?”
“Not really,” she admitted.
He didn’t look enthusiastic, but said, “I guess it’s worth a try. Let’s get going. It’ll be dark soon.” While he called for more cops to assist in the search, Madison got Byron on his leash, and I picked up the bag I used for special occasions. It wasn’t technically a pocketbook, though I used part of the space for my wallet and other necessities. It had started out life as a purple bowling bag, and then my crafter mother had decorated it with a Día de los Muertos style sugar skull. Though it was striking, I didn’t carry it for fashion. I used it to bring along Sid’s skull. His consciousness resided in it, even when separated from the rest of his bones, and Mom had installed eye holes so he could see what was happening. Naturally Sid had wanted to listen in on our conversation with Louis, and also to be ready to accompany us in case we went skeleton hunting.
Madison and I bundled into our coats, scarves, and gloves before going outside. The temperature had dropped like a rock since we’d gotten home, which was only to be expected in December in Massachusetts. At least it wasn’t snowing, but when I said as much to Louis, he pointed out that it might have been easier to track Byron if it had been.
We kept a brisk pace until we got to the intersection where Madison had spotted Byron. A quick glance around didn’t show us open graves or other obvious skeletal parts strewn across the grass, so Madison let Byron lead the way. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry.
A Pennycross squad car pulled up as we made our way down the sidewalk, and Louis told the officers inside to drive down the nearest side streets to see if they could spot anything important while we kept hoping Byron wasn’t just enjoying the walk. Akitas are a lot fonder of cold weather than I am.
Finally, when I could tell from Louis’s expression that he was about to give it up, Byron led us away from the street and diagonally across somebody’s lawn.
“Good boy, Byron,” Madison said. “Show us where the bone came from.”
We kept going past the house, across the backyard, and to a border of trees dividing the lot and the one behind it. I wondered what the homeowner would have thought if she’d spotted us following the dog across her nicely tended lawn.
Beyond the tree line was a messy, overgrown lot, and Louis pulled a flashlight from his belt to help us avoid the worst of the clumps of weeds and rocks as we continued to follow Byron. He sniffed around for a while, then stopped just past an elderly oak tree with deep hollows between the exposed roots gripping the ground. There was a depression there, and Byron started pushing leaves around with his snout.
“Pull him back,” Louis said, and as Madison obeyed, there was a flash of white in the fading daylight as a display of Christmas lights came on from the house behind us. They’d used so many bulbs that it was nearly bright enough to read by, and there was more than enough light to see the tangle of faded red cloth that Byron had uncovered. The bones were even easier to spot.
Unlike Sid, this skeleton didn’t move.