But My Heart Keeps Watching
~ Elad Haber
I built my father out of bones.
There are photos of him all over our house. I know what he looked like on his wedding day, on the beach with his shirt off, on a boat with my mother with wind in their hair, and holding a baby version of me, his smile as big as my tiny head.
On Sundays, we went to the cemetery to pay our respects. His grave was alone at the top of a hill. Most days my mother is fine, sad but functioning, but on Sundays she’s a mess. She cries and cries. She doesn’t remember to make me lunch or dinner.
I asked her once, years after my father had passed, “Mom, why are so sad?” And she said, “Because my heart is broken.”
The next day at school, I built her a paper-maché heart, painted it red and purple, her favorite colors, and gave it to her at night. I removed the gears from a clock and inserted it into the heart so that it looked like it was beating. I said to my mother, “I made you a new heart.”
She laughed and patted my head and said, “You’re sweet, Rose.”
But I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was being serious. I don’t know what I wanted her to do, but it definitely wasn’t laugh. I started crying and rushed to my room. I slammed the door so hard, it cracked a little.
My only memory of my father is when he used to take me to the city to visit the Museum of Natural History. He loved the history and we both loved the taxidermy.
The dinosaurs were my father’s favorite. We stood in front of the massive skeleton of the Tyrannosaur for what felt like hours. I could see he wanted to reach out to touch the elegant bones.
I asked him, after a while, “How do they know how it all fits?”
My father looked at me with a strange expression.
“Like,” I said, “No one has ever seen a T-Rex, right? So how do they know what it looks like?”
He smiled and pinched my cheek. “Bones are magic, Rosie,” he said. He was the only person who called me Rosie. Then we went back to staring at the bones and I wondered what life was like millions of years ago when the world was young.
One day I went to the cemetery on my own. I snuck out of school during lunch and made sure no one was following me. I thought I heard someone call out to me as I was getting on my bike, but the sound of the wind drowned it out.
I rode through the deserted daytime streets towards the rolling hills of the cemetery. I stood over my father’s grave for awhile. Then, as if he said something to set me off, I started cursing and punching at the ground. I shouted, “Why did you leave? Why did you make her sad?”
I started digging with my hands and crying. I didn’t know what had come over me.
I made a decent size hole in the earth by the time the sirens approached the hill. Truant officers rushed out of the car and ran towards me. They were angry.
Later, my mom came to get me from school. I saw her in the principal’s office crying. I was confused, because it wasn’t Sunday. Every once in a while the door would open and I would hear her say something like, “She’s acting out . . .”
After that day, everyone at school started treating me different. The other kids whispered as I passed them in the halls and the teachers talked slowly to me like I was dumb. The school suggested counseling and though it was expensive, my mom agreed. She took an extra shift at the hospital to pay for it and was home even less.
I spent more and more time alone. My mother asked other parents to drive me and pick me up from school. I’d come home and there would be dinner on the kitchen table, usually some drive-thru, and I would hear the TV on in her bedroom. I was never sure if she was asleep or at work. The red and purple heart was in the middle of a stack of forgotten mail in the corner of our kitchen. I listened to the tired ticks of the gears as I ate cold hamburgers.
For my plan to work, I needed help. I stalked a group of boys who hung out under a Banyan tree across from the soccer field. They played games out of their parent’s old D&D books. I guess the new editions were too expensive. I coaxed a couple of them to the nearby bleachers and traded phone numbers.
I needed to get my hands on my father’s remains. I wasn’t sure why. I felt the pull of it when I was at his grave. It was like a vision. I had to see it through.
I spent the rest of the night texting.
The boys told me over Messenger how it went down.
Three boys met up near the cemetery. They had stolen shovels and pick axes from their high school maintenance sheds. There was night-time security in the area so one of them was lookout on an adjoining hill while the other two crept towards my father’s grave. They had their cellphones on continuous three way conference call like some kind of away team mission in Star Trek.
Digging did not go well. The guys were weak and afraid. They told me they psyched themselves up thinking this was a morbid video game. They counted each shovel full as a point and kept a tally in their heads. They didn’t even consider the crime they were committing.
After a few tense hours, where once a security guard in a golf cart rolled by but didn’t see them, they had the casket uncovered. The two boys tied rags around their noses and mouths like they’d seen in the movies and opened the casket. They wouldn’t tell me what it looked like inside except it was “gross.”
I only needed a few bones for my project. They packed those in a duffel bag and left it at the lip of the hole. Then they went about refilling it. One of the boys almost collapsed and so he switched places with the lookout. They made it home before their parent’s phone alarms went off.
One of them sent me a message: “It’s done. Now, you’re turn. Send us pics!”
I googled some leaked nudes of movie stars and sent them the images with the heads cropped off.
Boys are so dumb.
The next morning, I picked up the duffel bag from behind a pile of garbage in the grassy field between the middle and high schools. I slung it over my shoulder and went straight home. I kept checking behind me as if I was being followed, but no one was there.
My father had used our garage as a work room. I remember it being so tidy and organized. He used to tinker with model airplanes and computers. After he passed, my mother never liked going in there. She had me bring boxes of junk in there every few months. There were so many now, they reached the low ceiling and blocked the lightbulbs. It was dark as a grave in there.
Over the last week, I had made some space between the boxes and uncovered my father’s old steel table and tool bench. I laid the duffel bag on the table and turned on a desk lamp.
The boys had done well and brought me the handful of bones I needed. I connected them with pieces of copper and hard silver wiring. It looked like a stick figure of a person.
From below the table, I pulled out two shoe boxes covered in dirt. These I had unearthed myself from our backyard. They were the bones of dead pets from my early childhood, a bird, a cat. I don’t know why my pets kept dying. Maybe that’s just what pets do. Each of the shoe boxes had the name of the pet drawn on the top with crayons and markers but the letters were faded and I didn’t remember their names.
I removed the lids from the boxes and carefully picked up a few of the skeleton remains and placed them on the table.
I worked slow and steady to get the pieces fused together. When I was done, the shape reminded me of a monkey, a kind of miniature human cousin. I used the skull of a cat as the head and the tiny stick bones of the bird to create fingers and toes. I threaded fishing wire between the larger human bones and the smaller animal bones to keep them together.
When I was done, I stepped away from the table and looked proudly on my creation. I had a fleeting thought that someone, like my mother, might see this and think it’s a grisly scene of violence and murder. They would ship me off to an insane asylum with a name like Shady Branches. But to me, it was beautiful. It was pieces of my past all put together.
I reached into one of the drawers of the work table where I had hidden a folder of photographs. I didn’t remove any of the pictures from the house. I snapped photos of them with my phone and then printed those out. The photos, once small enough to fit in a frame, looked grainy and weird when printed to fit on a page, but it was good enough. I placed the pictures of my father all around the bones.
Now, for the final touch.
I wasn’t sure what technique was going to work, so I decided to employ them all. I researched countless rites and rituals on YouTube and sent links to my phone. I bought incense from a rank smelling shop downtown and chicken guts from a butcher a few doors away. I brought them all back to the garage. Each night, I worked myself into a sweaty mess as I tried to coax my father’s soul back from the dead. I did rain dances and spun dreidels and even tried rake.
After a while, I gave up. I laid down amongst the beads and the sand and painted feathers and tried to sleep. I closed my eyes and after a moment, I heard a stirring like wind. I looked around to see if there were any open windows or doors. I heard it again, a rustle.
I leaped to my feet and looked at the skeleton on the table. When it didn’t move, my heart sank. And then one of the arms lifted. Then another. It pulled itself off the table like an awakening zombie. It stood on the table, barely two feet, with its stick figure body and tiny cat skull. It looked at me and, amazingly, a voice came out of the bones.
“Rosie?” it said.
I couldn’t speak.
The tiny skull took in the room and then looked down at its strange body. When it spoke again, I recognized the voice, the deep tones of my father.
“What am I doing here?” it asked me. “I don’t remember.” There was sadness in his voice, a profound confusion.
I took a step towards it and extended an open palm like I might greet an alien visitor.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I’m here. You’re back.”
We went everywhere together.
He spent most of the day in my backpack, which I kept perched on one shoulder. He would whisper jokes or words of encouragement to me during the school day. Sometimes I’d laugh in the middle of a quiet moment in class and the teacher and the other kids would just look at me and shake their heads.
A couple of weeks later, one of the boys who dug up his bones tried to talk to me during lunch. His name was Travis and he wore skinny jeans and had a flop of unwashed brown hair that covered his eyes. He asked me some questions but I couldn’t pay attention because my father became agitated as soon as Travis came close to me. He started banging on my shoulder through the backpack.
“I, uh”—ouch!—”I have to go,” I said and rushed out of the lunch room. I was hungry the rest of the day.
Later, I went under the bleachers by the football field and moved my backpack to the floor and unzipped the top. My father’s cat skull head peered up at me.
“Why did you do that?” I asked him.
“I don’t trust that boy,” said my father’s bones.
“He’s nice,” I said but I dropped it. I didn’t want to argue with my best friend.
That night, we watched TV together in the living room. My mom was at the hospital so my father laid on top of me on the couch. He liked to put his head to my chest and listen to my heartbeat. He said it made him feel human.
My phone let out an R2-D2 series of bleeps. It was Travis, texting me. He was asking me out on a date!
“Whoa,” I said.
My father looked up. “What is it?”
“Uh, nothing. No one.” I put the phone away and covered my mouth so he wouldn’t see my smile.
The next weekend, my mom was working a triple shift and would be out of the house from Friday morning to Sunday night. She left me some cash and made me promise to eat at least two meals a day and both of them cannot be pizza.
I texted Travis and told him the coast was clear for him to drop by that evening. I just needed to figure out something to do with my dad.
My father was one of those old guys who could spend all day watching war documentaries on the history channel. I placated him at first after his reincarnation in bone form. I would watch endless hours of commentary and grainy footage about World War 2 and reenactments of civil war battles.
On the Friday afternoon after school, mid-way through a documentary on Hitler’s breakfast habits, I got up and said, “I can’t watch any more of this!”
His tiny bone fingers pressed pause on the TV. “What do you mean?” he said.
“I just can’t!” I said, exasperated. “You watch whatever you want, I’m going upstairs to read.”
I left before he even had a chance to respond.
Once in my room, I went straight to my window where Travis waited, crouched in the shadows of my curved roof. I had never had a boy sneak up to my room before. It made my limbs tingle with excitement.
“Hey,” he said when I opened the window.
“Shhh!” I said and gestured for him to come in.
His expression was confused. “I thought you said your mom wasn’t home.”
I shrugged and thought quickly. “She still hired a babysitter!” I said with a sigh. “She’s watching TV downstairs. We have to be quiet.”
“Okay,” said Travis with a smile.
He sat on my bed and looked around at all my posters and dolls, remnants from my not so long ago childhood.
“Cool room,” he said and then patted the bed next to him.
I sat down, close but not too close, and said, “So, are you—”
He reached over and kissed me. It was short, dry, with a question mark at the end.
I nodded for him to continue and then he put one warm hand around the curve of my jaw and laid another long kiss on my lips. It was my first real kiss so I wasn’t sure what to do, but he went slowly and we took a few breaks to breathe.
After a few wonderful minutes, his hands went wandering on my back and down to the hem of my blouse. He tried a few times to lift my shirt up to my chin, but I quickly clasped his hand in mine and stopped him.
He released his lips from mine and said, in a whisper, “Come on, Rose. Let me see them.”
He tried again to lift up my shirt and I pushed back away from him. He looked surprised.
“Come on!” he said. “I knew the pic you sent was fake! If it wasn’t, you’d show them to me.”
He reached out again and I slapped away his hands. “No!” I shouted.
Just then, the door to my room burst open and my father, a diminutive skeleton of contrasting bone sizes, stood like a protective dog at my door.
My father’s tone was all daggers. “You leave her alone!”
Travis’ face was scrunched in disgust. “What the hell is that?” he said.
My father leaped like a long jumper from the doorway right onto the bed. He tackled Travis and both fell to the ground in a mess of limbs. They looked like they were wrestling, throwing each other on the ground and then back on top of the other.
“Get off me!” said Travis and he used two palms to shove my father back across the room.
Travis scrambled to his feet and rushed out of my bedroom. My father looked proud. He nodded at me and said, “You’re welcome.” I wasn’t sure what to say.
Word of the incident spread quickly through the town, as one might expect. Travis did not stay quiet. His report to his friends via text ended up on Facebook. From Facebook it went to Twitter, Twitter to Instagram, Instagram to Snapchat. After that, it left the ether of cyberspace and ended up in the real world in the form of phone calls to my mother.
My phone rang while I was eating cereal. It was my mom. She never called me while on shift. Occasionally she would text a “Doing OK?” but that was the usual limit of her communication. I swallowed a spoonful of Cheerios and picked up the phone.
“Yeah?” I said.
Her voice was already agitated, excessively punctuated. “Rose! I just got The. Strangest. Call. Do you have some kind of pet? It attacked a boy? Why was there a boy in the house? What is going on with you!”
I put the phone down without saying a word. As I put on my coat and shoes, I could hear my mom continuing to have a one way conversation with herself.
“Well? Well?” she said. “I swear, if you…”
I stopped listening.
My father was sleeping in the living room. I picked him up and put him in my backpack and left the house.
Outside, the morning was thick with fog. It was like it had been raining all night and suddenly someone pressed PAUSE and the rain just stopped and waited for input. The streets were slick wet and empty. I rode my bike, my hands gripped hard on the bars, back to where all this started, the cemetery and the gravestone atop a lonely hill.
My father was silent during the trip, a rarity. Usually he rattled off facts and advice as if it was nothing. He knew.
At the base of the hill, I stepped off my bike and let it fall to the ground. I crouched and swung my backpack in front of me. My father, all two and half feet of him, crawled out of the bag and climbed on top of me. He clutched my chest like a baby.
I walked him up the hill to his grave. I leaned down and he released his grip on me. He laid down on the grass and looked at me with hollow eye sockets that still somehow looked sad.
“Rosie?” he said.
“Can I hear it one more time?”
I got down on my knees and leaned my chest towards him. He put one side of his tiny skull against my chest. I could feel my heartbeat reverberate his bone body.
He leaned back, satisfied. “It’s strong.”
“No,” I said. “It’s broken.”
Elad Haber is a husband, father to an adorable little girl, and IT guy by day, fiction writer by night. He has forthcoming publications from Lightspeed and in thePlanetside anthology from Shacklebound Books and the No Ordinary Mortals anthology from Rogue Blade Entertainment.