Carol O'Connell

Bone by Bone

Copyright © 2008 by Carol O'Connell

This book is dedicated to men and women who stood in harm's way, to those who came home with the damage that shows and also the damage that no one sees and no one else can know.


Many thanks to those who helped me with my research, among them an entire army that operates from a five-sided building and prefers to go nameless on this page (something to do with not going through proper channels for an interview). And thank you, Mr. Hanlon of Hanlon's Razor.

bONe bY bONe


A batty old man of the cloth had once described the Hobbs boy as a joke of God's: an archangel of the warrior cast and a beacon for women with carnal intentions.

An angel.

Would that he had wings.

Oren Hobbs, now a man full grown, opened his eyes in the dark and took deep breaths to quell the panic. Every time he dreamed, he died. Neither awake nor asleep, he was caught, for a second or two, between the nightmare of going home again and the solid world, where he had arrived-where a dog was barking in the yard.

He lay sprawled upon the old horsehair sofa. The upholstery smelled of tobacco and spilt whiskey, the best-loved vices of his father and the housekeeper. These stale odors were cut with a slice of a cool, sweet air from the open porch window. He had forgotten to lower the sash after climbing inside, and now Oren recalled that the door to the house had been locked against him for the first time in memory. Still drowsing, his eyes were slow to pick out the surrounding shadows of furniture that took on familiar form but no detail.

What the hell?

One of the shadows scuttled across the carpet, agitated and flapping its wings like a gray moth-a moth that could skin its shin on the coffee table and whisper curse words.

Memory guided Oren's hand to a lamp, and he switched it on the better to see a woman wrapped in a purple robe with great floppy sleeves. 'Hannah?'

Nearing sixty, the housekeeper was a small, slight figure beneath that oversized garment-the same old bathrobe. She might be as tall as a ten-year-old, but only if she stood on her toes. The long braid of black hair had gone to iron gray, and her smile lines had deepened, but she seemed otherwise unaltered by the past twenty years. Her heart-shaped face had no sag to it.

Pixies aged so well.

'Oh, damn it.' Her wide-set hazel eyes blinked in the lamplight as she leaned down to rub her wounded shinbone.

He followed her lead of a whisper that would not wake the old man, who was near death. 'Hannah, it's me-Oren. Sorry if I scared you.' Rising from the couch, he stood barefoot in his sweatshirt and blue jeans. At thirty-seven years of age, he might be the one more changed by time. She looked him up and down, and shook her head, as if she could not reconcile him with the longhaired boy who had left this house when he was seventeen. His dark brown hair was shorter now, and a strand of it covered one blue eye.

He nodded toward the open window, the evidence of his housebreaking. 'I got in late, and I didn't want to-'

'Hush.' Hannah held a veined hand in the air, frozen there, and he fancied that her ears were attenuating, straining to hear something. Her attention was rewarded with the bark of a dog very close to the house-and then the sound of something dropped, an object clattering to the floorboards of the front porch.

The housekeeper jumped as if a cannon had sounded.

Oren walked toward the foyer, one hand outstretched to grab the doorknob.

'Don't go out there!' Hannah switched off the lamp in the front room. He had a feeling that she had played out this little drama before. 'What's going on?'

More barking came from the yard.

The front door would not open. In the dark of the foyer, he found a bolt by touch, but he could not undo the lock. Oren returned to the predawn gloom of the parlor. He found his duffel bag and pulled out a gun. This was reflex, and he thought better of it. Best not to shoot somebody's pet on his first day back in town. He put the weapon away and closed up the bag. Zip-gone. 'It's okay, Hannah. Go back to bed. It's just a dog.'

'That's not our dog,' she whispered, creeping closer. 'Horatio died ages ago.'

As he moved toward the open porch window, Hannah reached out with both hands to catch him and snatch him back. Too late.

Oren climbed outside. The sky was early-morning gray, and the tall trees had no colors yet. Smooth, worn boards were cool beneath his bare feet as he hunkered down before the gift that had been left at the edge of the porch-a lower jawbone, bare of flesh and laced with teeth.

Even without the evidence of a silver filling in one molar, he would have known that this bone belonged to the skeleton of a human being. He was well acquainted with human remains in every stage of decay.


As the sky brightened in the east, Oren could see that this was no innocent find of the barking dog. An animal would have left wet traces of saliva, but the jawbone was dry. It had been dropped on the porch by someone who walked on two legs.

He peered into the woods, looking for signs of trespass, trails in the air, left there by waving ferns and low branches. After delivering a present like this one, a pervert might linger awhile to watch the reaction-and the dog might betray its master with one more bark. Oren sat down on the porch steps to wait-and listen.

The smell of moist earth wafted up from a garden that ran the length of the porch. Nothing had blossomed yet, but it was certain that the old man had planted the bulbs of lilies, dahlias and gladiolas. Come a fine warm day in high summer, all of them would rise up in a riot of bright yellow blooms. On this early June morning, the bulbs were still hiding and biding their time. Oren's mother had been partial to yellow flowers, or so he had been told. There were no memories of her-only of this enduring ritual of gardening, the only sign that his father was a fool for love.

How much time had passed, he could not say. Behind him, he heard the door unlatch, then the creak of a floorboard, and now he caught the aroma of coffee. He looked up to see his tall, lanky father standing over him, holding two steaming mugs. Not dead yet, old man?

Far from it. The retired judge appeared to be enjoying robust good health, though he was no longer impervious to cool mornings. Henry Hobbs wore a flannel shirt over his faded jeans. His feet were shod in replicas of the old sandals with crepe soles that had allowed him to sneak up on boys who were up to no good. For this reason alone, Oren and his little brother, Josh, had often wished that the judge would wear shoes and socks like other fathers. A long ponytail had also been the old man's trademark. Now his head was bald. As compensation, he had allowed his beard to grow long. The wispy white ends of it moved with a gentle current of air.

Bowing, almost courtly, Judge Hobbs handed one of the coffee mugs down to Oren, and then joined his son on the steps. The two men sat, side by side, in companionable silence, as if twenty years had been but an hour's separation-as if a human jawbone had not been left out in plain sight on the porch, resting there between them.

The sun was up, and the color of their surroundings had ripened into lush forest green. Yellow wildflowers peppered the meadow.

And the jawbone had a reddish cast.

A flock of crows rose up from a nearby tree, screeching. Khaa! Khaa! Cowp-cowp-cowp! His father watched their flight. 'Damn birds. I never did need an alarm clock.' With the same nonchalance, the old man said, 'So you've come home.'

'Well, yeah.' Oren sipped his coffee. 'I thought you were dying.'

'What?' The judge turned to face his son. 'Hannah told you that?'

'No, sir. She never spelled it out in her letters.' Yet she had left him with the impression that a funeral was pending-just a crazy inference drawn from her line about shopping for coffins.

The judge waved one hand, dismissing this notion. 'I'll outlive her. She drinks more than I do.' He flicked a ladybug off the rim of his coffee mug, proof that he was not blind-except to the skeletal remains of a human being only inches from his elbow.

The door opened, and Hannah rushed out onto the porch in a racket of wooden clogs. Bending low, she covered her employer's shoulders with a woolen afghan.

'Stop fussing over me,' said the judge, though he snuggled into the wool, grateful for the warmth. When his housekeeper had gone back inside and the door had banged shut behind her, he turned to his son. 'Damn, she's in a state this morning.'

Oren lightly tapped the fleshless body part that perched between them on the edge of the porch-just a hint that this might be the cause of Hannah's distress.

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