November 8

1895 — Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen discovers X-rays

 

The skeletons have become less desperate.

They’ve settled into their daily lives.

For Reuben, that meant it was a little less frightening to wander the neighborhood.  Things had progressed a long way from that terrible afternoon when he was getting a diagnostic X-ray and a series of radioactive explosions landed outside the hospital.  A mob of survivors rushed the building, their skin and muscle and hair and clothing apparently whisked off their bodies in the respective blasts.

Now, skeleton children played stick ball in the street.   A taller group of bones window-shopped outside the ruins of an antique store, and a skeleton with a curved spine slumped in a park bench and stared with empty eye sockets at ashen ground.

In an alley, two standing skeletons pressed against each other in a familiar display of furtive intimacy.  Reuben couldn’t identify the genders of either party, but one had pressed the other against the wall, his bony hands moving across a tibula or ribcage as if playing a musical instrument.  Their skulls pressed close together at the jaw,  teeth almost touching, and Reuben imagined he could hear a scraping of enamel… and, lower, a grind of hip bone against hip bone.

He knew it wasn’t proper to stare, but told himself he wanted to ensure the contact was consensual — that the female or male form against the wall permitted these roaming bones.  The other set of hands:  were they guiding, or attempting to push away?

A louder series of clacks and rattles caught his attention.  The elderly skeleton had risen from the park bench, and grabbed at Reuben’s lapel.  Something about the posture, and the aggressive gesture, suggested an elderly man.  If Reuben reached up to the skull, he would likely feel bristles of beard around the clacking jaw-line.

But it wasn’t polite to touch strangers.  And Reuben didn’t want to get bitten.

The stooped skeleton blocked his path, jawbone moving up and down in a vain attempt to form words.  They’d be angry words, Reuben thought.  The jaw was practically snapping, like a rabid dog.

Then the bony hand, slightly gnarled from rheumatoid arthritis, released Reuben’s lapel and joined its partner to mime repetitive lifting motions toward the snapping teeth.

Food, Reuben finally realized.  He’s asking for food.

Reuben did some miming of his own, arms out to suggest empty pockets, nothing to offer.  Which was true.  Food was scarce, and he was as hungry as the rest of them.

As the skeleton lost interest and turned away, Reuben noticed remnants of undigested sandwich suspended beneath the man’s ribcage, and a trail of chewed food still sliding down the esophagus tract beside the curved spinal column.

Some nerve, Reuben thought.  He’s eaten more recently than I have.

He checked back in the alley.  The amorous couple was gone.

Perhaps they found a room.

Reuben turned back to the broken sidewalk, prepared to walk further in the blocks of his ruined city, and he almost collided with another skeleton.

This one stood straight, almost matching Reuben’s own height.  The skeleton might even be one of the lovers he’d spied on earlier, but he couldn’t be certain.

As was often the case these days, he wished he’d been a better student of anatomy.

Clacks and rattles, and the bones moved in front of him.  The jaw attempted speech, and the skull tilted to one side as if waiting for an answer.

Reuben didn’t know what to say.  Didn’t know if the holes in the side of the skull led to a functioning set of eardrums, or even if bone conduction would be sufficient to detect his speech.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  He’d never understand the rules of this world — what he could see, versus what might actually be there if he touched it.

The bones readjusted, almost in a dance.  Skeletal hands went to exposed hips, and the hips moved.  Teeth clacked together, then stopped.  The skull tilted to the side again, waiting.

Again, Reuben wasn’t sure of the skeleton’s gender, its age, what its appearance would have been been in former days.  He simply wasn’t getting enough visual signals to judge.

But the other signal was finally coming through, loud and clear.  Those movements were an invitation of sorts.  The skeleton was flirting with him.

Reuben didn’t know what he was getting into.  He leaned closer to the stranger, wishing he could squint and bring facial features into focus, wishing he was brave enough to touch the other person, learn more information before committing to further intimacy.

He took a deep breath, hoping to distinguish perfume or aftershave, and noticed only the burnt ash smell that now permeated their city.

Reuben moved even closer, waiting to feel the brush of a beard or a soft cheek against his hopeful lips.