The Skeleton Takes a Bow
by Leigh Perry
I should have known better than to let Madison talk me into letting Sid appear in Hamlet. Of course, he was made to play the part she had in mind for him. Like Yorick, Sid was a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy, had borne me on his back a thousand times, and his flashes of merriment were indeed wont to set the table on a roar. More to the point, Sid and Yorick were both dead. But while Yorick is usually depicted as an inanimate skull, the Thackery family skeleton is a full set of bones and he is quite thoroughly animated.
It started on a Friday in late March, a few days after the Pennycross High School Drama Club held auditions for its production of Hamlet. My teenaged daughter Madison had spent most of the afternoon conferring with Sid in his attic room, and when they finally emerged, they cleaned up the kitchen, washed and folded two loads of laundry, and gath- ered the garbage and recycling to take out to the street—all without being nagged. So of course I’d known they were up to something.
Over our spaghetti dinner Madison said, “They announced the cast for the play today. Becca Regan is going to direct, and she’s great.”
“Excellent!” Madison had joined the drama club as soon as she started attending classes at PHS, but it had been too late for her to be in the fall show. This time she was ready. “What part did you get?”
“He’s one of Hamlet’s friends. Claudius brings him and Rosencrantz in to try to cheer up Hamlet and then uses them to—”
“Sweetie, I know who Guildenstern is. English degree, remember? It’s just that I thought you were going for Ger- trude or Ophelia.”
“I was, but so were all the other girls in the club. There are only two good female roles in the play, after all. Guil- denstern will be interesting.”
“Are you going to be the mature one this time? I want to know before I start complaining about club politics, playing favorites, and so on.”
“Tonight I will be playing the role of maturity incarnate.”
“Okay, then. They gave you such a small part because you’re a freshman, right? And a new kid?” Even though we’d moved so often that Madison was remarkably adept at fitting herself into a school’s society, some schools were more insu- lar than others.
“Maybe, but to be fair, Becca doesn’t know me well enough to know if she can rely on me to carry a big part. This is her first time directing a show, and you can’t blame her for wanting to go with a known quantity.”
“Yes, I can. Especially if you gave a better audition.”
“Oh, I nailed that audition!” Then she remembered that she was being mature. “Of course, we both know that plenty of people audition and get a role, then don’t even bother to show up for rehearsals.”
“Please. She could have checked your resume and real- ized that you were dependable enough for more than a small part.”
“There are no small parts, only small actors.”
“Which you are not, so you are going to rock that part!” “Agreed. Besides, there are a lot of even smaller parts. And Tristan, the guy playing Rosencrantz, is really cool and we get to hang out together at rehearsal. He’s a really good actor and would have been a great Hamlet, but the guy who got it is good, too, and he really looks the part. He’s got that whole dark-haired emo thing going on—Tristan is blond.”
I resisted asking the questions that sprang immediately to mind: Is Tristan cute? Is he cool for a boyfriend or just as a friend? Does he have a girlfriend? When can I meet him? In other words, all the questions that were guaranteed to make Madison’s hackles rise. If she was going to be mature, I should take a stab at it, too. “So are you going to be a female version of Guildenstern, or dress in male drag?”
“Drag!” she said happily. “We talked about setting the show during the twenties or something, but decided to go full-out Elizabethan. Tights, swords, doublets. Jo Sinta is doing costumes again, and she’s so excited!”
“Sounds great. I look forward to it. Just let me know the rehearsal schedule so I can put it in my book.” As an adjunct English professor, my classes tend to be at those odd times that full-time profs don’t want, and I also have to keep office hours. Keeping up with that while monitoring the activities of a busy teenager was a constant challenge.
“There is one thing I wanted to ask about, schedulewise.” Madison looked at Sid, and I knew the moment had come for them to ask whatever it was they’d cooked up earlier. “You know high schools have to work with tight budgets.”
Sid spoke for the first time since we’d sat down to dinner. He doesn’t eat, of course, but he likes keeping us company during our meals. He also likes sneaking tidbits to Madison’s Akita, Byron, under the table, not because he likes the dog but because he was hoping to convince him that there were much better treats available than Sid’s own bare bones. He said, “I think it’s shameful that the arts are so poorly supported in public schools. I’d like to do more to help.”
There was a thump under the table that I interpreted as Madison kicking Sid in the shinbone. Had she known him as long as I had, she’d have known that, unlike her, he never could stick to a script. But I’d known him most of my life, while she’d only been formally introduced to him a few months before.
Madison said, “Becca said we’re going to spend most of our budget on the costumes. That’s the way they did it back in Shakespeare’s time.”
“I know. English professor, remember? Even adjunct faculty members are familiar with the way Shakespeare’s work was originally produced.”
“Right. So we’ll have some props and scenery, but they’ll be minimal, whatever we can scrounge up. And today Becca 1S pulled out this really awful papier-mâché skull and said we’d be using it for the grave-digging scene.”
Sid assumed a dramatic pose. “‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy—’ ”
There was another thump under the table.
“Anyway,” Madison said emphatically, “I thought that the scene would play so much better with a more convincing skull.”
“Like Sid’s?” I asked.
“What a great idea, Georgia!” Sid said, and I think he was trying for enthused surprise. He’d have never made it through an audition if that was the best he could do.
“Nice try,” I said, “but we all know it wasn’t my idea—it was yours and Madison’s.”
“Was doing the laundry too much of a giveaway?” she asked.
“Just a bit.” Not that I was complaining—it meant fewer shirts for me to fold. I took a healthy bite of spaghetti so I could chew on it and the idea simultaneously. “Do you have any idea how you would work this out?”
“It’ll be easy,” Madison said. “I’ll take Sid to school with me and keep him in my locker until rehearsal.”
“You’re going to take all of Sid?”
“No, just the skull.”
“I’m fine with that,” Sid added.
He really was eager. Usually he hated to be separated from the rest of his bones because it made him feel so help- less. The essential part of Sid—I never know if I should call it his soul, his consciousness, his ghost, or his memory chip—travels with the skull, which means that when the skull is elsewhere, the rest of his bones are just that, a pile of bones. He could move the rest of his skeleton from a few feet away, but not from as far away as the high school. On the plus side, I wouldn’t have to worry about a skull-less skeleton wandering around the house getting into trouble.
“Won’t you get bored cooped up in a locker all day?” I asked.
“I’ll put him on the shelf in front of the vents,” Madison said, “so he’ll be able to watch people.”
Since Sid was an enthusiastic eavesdropper and peeper, I could see how that would appeal to him.
She went on. “I’ll take him with me to rehearsals, then bring him home every night. All we need is some sort of padded bag to carry him in, and Aunt Deborah has an old bowling bag she’s not using anymore that would be perfect.”
“You told Deborah your plan?”
“No, no. I just noticed the bag the last time I was over at her place.”
That was a relief. My older sister had grudgingly accepted that Sid was a part of the family, but I was pretty sure what her reaction to this plan would be. My initial feeling was the same, but after all the cleaning they’d done, I owed Sid and Madison a chance to convince me.
So I listened to the rest of their pitch as I finished my plate of pasta. Madison’s argument that it would add a vital element to the play’s success didn’t sway me much. Yorick’s skull appears onstage for exactly one scene—as long as the skull they used onstage was approximately the right shape and color, it would be fine. It was Sid’s plea that really got me. Once he abandoned his “support the arts” platform, I could see how much he really wanted the chance to leave the house and spend more time with Madison.
Sid had moved in with us when I was six, but for obvious reasons, he only rarely left the house. As long as I’d been living at home, he’d had me for company, but once I moved out, he’d spent most of his time alone in the attic. Since I’d come back to Pennycross for a job at McQuaid University, and was house-sitting for my parents while they were on sabbatical, his life had been far more interesting. He had me and Madison to hang with, Byron the dog to fuss about, and when he discovered the Internet, a whole new world to play in.
But still, he hadn’t had an opportunity to actually leave the house for months, and this sounded like it might be a safe way to allow him a little more freedom. After obtaining pinkie swears from them both—Sid’s that he wouldn’t play any tricks and Madison’s that she’d be exceedingly careful with him—I agreed.
But late that night, after I went to bed, I started counting up the ways it could go wrong. The problem was, I couldn’t go back on my word to my daughter and my best friend, no matter how much I wished I’d never let them talk me into it.
My misgivings were proven all too correct just three weeks later. Madison had just started down the street to take Byron for a walk when I got home from work, even though it was after five. Knowing that she usually takes him out first thing after she gets back from school, I deduced that she’d had a long day. So while she tended to his needs, I went inside to tend to hers. In other words, I thawed out some of the chili we’d made and frozen the weekend before and baked a can of crescent rolls. Since it was Thursday, we’d just about run out of fresh supplies from the previous weekend’s shopping trip, but there was enough produce left to toss together a salad.
I had everything ready by the time Byron dragged Madison back in, and while she washed up, I made sure all the curtains were closed tightly for privacy before I went to the bottom of the stairs and yelled, “Sid! Dinnertime!”
Sid doesn’t eat, of course, or even drink, but he usually likes sitting with us during meals. But this time, there was no answering clatter of bony feet.
“Sid? Are you coming down?”
Madison came out of the bathroom with an expression of guilt it didn’t take a mother to interpret.
“What?” I asked.
“I left him at school.”
“You did what?”
“I left Sid at school!”
“Madison! How could you—?”
“It’s not my fault. I had to take that makeup Spanish test after school, and Senora Harper made me wait until after she finished tutoring some kids, and then the test took for- ever so I barely made it to choral ensemble. Then Samantha’s wheelchair was acting wonky so she needed help pushing it outside, and I couldn’t just leave her outside alone with her chair messing up, especially since her mother was late. Then when she finally showed up, they offered me a ride home, and it was so late and I was so tired—”
I held up my hand to stop the flood of excuses and asked, “Where is Sid?”
“Well, I didn’t remember the test until after I’d gone to rehearsal, and we weren’t working on any of my scenes today anyway. Only Becca wanted to keep Sid because she wanted to work on the graveyard scene, which I said was fine, so she said I could come pick him up later. But I had that Spanish test and—”
“Madison! Where is he?”
“He must still be backstage in the auditorium.”
“Fine. We’re going to go get him.” I grabbed my purse and car keys, and she followed me out to our somewhat battered green minivan.
Rush hour was in full swing, something I usually manage to avoid by virtue of working in university settings that don’t keep standard business hours, and even in a town as small as Pennycross, the delays were annoying. Madison, realizing that I hadn’t bought her explanations for why it wasn’t her fault, was sunk in silence and I was too mad to say anything to make her feel better.
Had I been totally honest with her, I might have admitted that I was blaming myself nearly as much as I was her. I should have noticed sooner that Sid wasn’t clattering around in the attic. When a person has no skin to mask the sound, and no reason to keep himself hidden, it can get pretty noisy. I’d figured he was on the computer, catching up with his myriad Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
Though the parking lot was nearly deserted when we got to Pennycross High, the two cars parked near the front door gave me hope that somebody would be available to let us in. No such luck. I pounded on the door repeatedly and Madison trotted all the way around the building to see if she could find a door that had been left unlocked, but there was no sound from inside the building. After fifteen minutes of raising as much of a ruckus as we dared, we admitted defeat and got back into the car.
We were halfway back home when Madison said, “I’m sorry, Mom. It was my fault.”
“No, it was mine. I should never have let you talk me into letting Sid be in the play.”
“But he’s been having so much fun!”
“And now he’s stuck at the school all night. Alone.” “At least it’s not Friday—one night is a lot better than the whole weekend.”
She wasn’t even convincing herself, and I was not appeased.
I warmed up the chili and rolls in the microwave when we got back to the house, but neither of us had much appe- tite. Afterward, Madison dove into her homework while I graded student papers. I’m afraid my students paid the price for my bad mood—I wasn’t as patient as I usually was with grammar mistakes and confusion over syntax.
The night seemed long and empty without Sid, and once Madison went to bed, I snuck up to his attic room. With his skull gone, inhabited by whatever it was that kept Sid mov- ing and talking, the rest of his bones were abandoned on the couch. Normal skeletons, meaning the kinds of specimens I see fairly often in the halls of academe, are held together with wires and bolts. Sid holds himself together, so the pieces he’d left had no reason to stick together. It was vaguely creepy seeing him like that, but I suppose it would have been creepier still if his body had been wandering around blindly, searching for his skull.
Byron was standing at attention outside the attic door when I got back downstairs, so I carefully closed it behind me. It was bad enough that we’d left Sid at school. I didn’t want to think about what his reaction would be if we let the dog gnaw on his bones while he was gone.
Usually Madison rode her bicycle to and from school, but the next day I drove her and her bike, hoping she’d be able to get to the auditorium and grab Sid so I could take him home right away. Unfortunately the cheerleaders picked that morning to rehearse for a pep rally, so we had to postpone our apologies until later.
I blew off my office hours that afternoon and was back at PHS when the bell rang. Madison ran out to where I was waiting, gave me the battered black and purple bowling bag Sid been riding to and from school in, and jumped on her bicycle to take care of an urgent errand.
“Sid, I am so sorry,” I said as soon as I started driving. I’d unzipped the bag so he could hear me better, knowing that if anybody saw me talking, they’d assume I was on a cell phone.
“Georgia, we need to talk,” Sid said, his voice a little muffled from still being in the bag.
“I know, I know, this was unforgivable. We went to the school as soon as we realized you’d been left behind yesterday, but the doors were locked and nobody would let us in. Madison beat herself up over it all night long, and she really wants to make it up to you, so she’s at Wray’s Comics right now looking for something special to get you as an apology present.”
“Forget the manga,” he said. “This is important.”
“Of course it is, but you know we’d never have left you there all night on purpose. It’s just that Madison had to make up that Spanish test she missed when she was out sick last week, and it took longer than she expected, and she had choral ensemble practice after that, then went to help Samantha, and she just forgot to come back by the auditorium to get you.”
“It’s okay, but—”
“It’s not okay!” By then I’d arrived at the house. “Hang on until we get inside.” Normally I’d have zipped up the bag, even for the short walk from the driveway into the house, but under the circumstances, I just couldn’t do it.
As soon as I was in the front hall with the door firmly shut, I pulled Sid out of the bag to continue apologizing face-to-face. Or at least face-to-skull.
“Okay,” he said, “it’s not okay and I will be happy to let you and Madison grovel for the next month. Maybe two. But right now I have to tell you something.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“I witnessed a murder.”
“Last night, somebody killed a man in the high school
For the rest of the Family Skeleton’s latest adventure, read The Skeleton Takes a Bow from Berkley Prime Crime, available as a paperback, ebook, and Audible download.