Maggots had already gotten to it when he found the body. Soon after the first thaw of spring, Teddy, twelve years old for all of three days, ventured into the woods behind his house with the nature kit—“Perfect for the Budding Ecologist in Every Family”—his mother had given him for his birthday. He used the magnifying glass with a built-in compass to study lichen shrouding the north side of an oak. He used the rubber-grip tweezers to drop a caterpillar on a pine needle into its new home of a test tube. Less than half an hour till noon, Teddy was so busy identifying a hoof print, flipping the pictures in his guidebook so they seemed the movie of a ghost walking, he almost didn’t notice the dead man two yards away.
The corpse lay face-up on the ground. It wore a down parka and corduroy pants, patches at the elbows and the kneecaps. Had the man frozen to death? Teddy couldn’t tell. He had never seen a dead body before that day. His mother hadn’t even let him go to his dad’s funeral.
Mayflies circled the air above the man’s head as mealworms churned the earth beneath his back. Teddy could hardly move, he was so fascinated by it. The man must have been in his sixties until the day came he was not. His hair was gray and his lips were purple as cheap wine and his scruff was brown. Not only was the skin on his face complexioned like that of an apple begun to turn, but it also had the drawn look of said fruit as its pulp was slowly sapped of moisture. Teddy took a knee, inching a bit closer. The fingernails! So it was true. At the school library during study hall, Teddy had read a book of trivia that claimed, in its “Macabre Minutia” section, certain parts of people continue to grow after death. The nails on the man could whittle a bar of soap.
All throughout the summer, Teddy visited the body just about every day, following the scent of rot through the woods. He had long since placed a log near it so he had a place to sit. Bones were starting to show. Despite Teddy’s best attempts to keep them away, scavengers had found the body, blackbirds during the day and raccoons during the night, voiding the eye sockets, paring at ligaments in the hand, removing the nose piecemeal, plucking veins from the arm. Ants took care of the rest. Over just a matter of months, slowly at first but quickly soon enough, a skeleton replaced what had once been flesh, each bone waiting for sunlight to bleach it clean.
He did not touch the body till the start of fall. On a crisp, gray morning, Teddy placed his finger to that of the man, a mirror image of body parts. He tried the face next. Its cheekbone was so cold it made his underpants constrictive. Teddy had to situate himself behind his waistband. Over the fibula he ran his palm as one would the impossibly soft skin of a lover, and along the clavicle he traced his fingertips as one would the tickle spots of a house pet. Each piece of the body he caressed made him ravenous for more. That was why Teddy tried on the clothes.
Despite the cold air of December, Teddy’s fingers worked at the parka’s buttons with calm precision, unlocking the former residence of a heart. The only thing left of that organ was a ragged bundle of daddy long-legs. They unraveled from their slumber and wandered throughout the rib cage. Teddy wiped frosty sweat from his brow, planning how best to remove the corduroy pants. With the care of a careless surgeon, Teddy slid the pants footward, simultaneously keeping the bones in place. He put on the parka and pants over his shirt and jeans, looked down at the perfect skeleton, and strutted in zigs and zags through the trees.
Bones had been disappearing for over a week when Teddy decided to use the knife his father had left him. He could still remember exactly what his dad had told him about the knife. “Once it’s been issued to you, they can’t never take it back.”
On a night when his mother was supposed to stay out late, Teddy waited for hours in the woods, his clothes safety-pinned with leaves and twigs, his face painted black with shoe polish. Teddy would be damned if some intruder thought it could just wander around here every night. This was his place. Each bone in the skeleton over there was his to protect from harm. Roughly two hours before sunrise, Teddy was imagining how to keep the bones together via twine—‘the foot bone connected to the leg bone,’ he sang in his head, ‘the neck bone connected to the back bone’—when the opossum came shuffling through the brush.
The knife slid through the animal’s armature just below the neck, cutting short a squeal that, nonetheless, found life in echo against the trees. Even before he disarticulated the opossum, leaving its head in plain view as a plain warning to others, Teddy knew what he had to do in order to prove his mettle for good.
The next morning, nobody gave him more than a passing glance as he got on the bus, even despite the odor. The clothes fit so much better without anything underneath. Throughout all twenty minutes of the bus ride he focused only on tasting the back of his teeth. Teddy had something to show. Teddy had something to tell. He walked into school carrying the coccyx braided through his fingers. The skull dragged next to his sneakers, bobbling along the linoleum, echoing against the lockers. Twenty seconds had passed by the time the screams began.