The Bone Man

“I’m going to die.”

I looked up. The stranger opposite was staring at me. The remark had obviously been addressed my way.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“I’m going to die.”

He was in his forties, suited and booted for a day in the office. He didn’t look any different from any other commuter. I looked around the carriage, but everyone else had those ubiquitous MP3 players screwed into their ears.

“I’m sorry,” I said, because what else was there to say? Sure, we’re all going to die, but when you say it out loud, it means you’re going to die imminently. But you don’t say it out loud, not on the seven-twenty-four to a complete stranger. You talk it over with your doctor. You tell your wife or close friend. You pour your heart out to a priest. You post it on Facebook if none of the above applies, but you don’t lay it on a complete stranger on a train where he has no chance of escape. What sort of selfish SOB does that?

He looked at his watch.

“Not long now,” he said.

I caught myself trying to breathe gently through my nose. People do that, when faced with someone else’s mortality. Even if it’s something non-infectious, like cancer or multiple internal injuries after a crash, healthy people are afraid they’ll somehow catch it. And if this stranger were a risk to public health, he wouldn’t be allowed out, surely. Even so, I sat back a little in my seat.

“Sorry,” I said again, and because it sounded so inadequate, I asked, “Cancer?”

The word sounded obscene, spoken out loud. In Europe all the worst swear words are religious, but with the decline of religion they are becoming less shocking. In the English-speaking world it’s sexual, but in today’s liberal society they’re losing their effect. But we only whisper the C word, or refer to it by euphemisms: the big C or malignant tumour.

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

I should have left it there. I shouldn’t have carried on the conversation, but I never know when to keep it shut. “You’ve not been to the doctor?”

“Oh, sure, but they can’t find anything wrong.”

I relaxed and started to breathe a little more normally. He wasn’t rotting from the inside after all. He was just a nut job. I nodded as if to say, ‘Doctors, what do they know?’ and stared out of the window at suburbia rushing by.

“I don’t even know if it is medical. They didn’t say.”

“Who?”

“The bones.”

“The bones?”

“The bones,” he repeated, as if that explained everything. Of course, the bones. Well, if the bones said so, how could you argue?

He stared at me in silence. Well, good, that was what I wanted, wasn’t it? To be left alone? But that damned inquisitiveness got the better of me.

“Whose bones?”

He shrugged. “Any bones. It doesn’t matter. They all say the same thing. I normally use chicken bones. Easy to get, see?”

“What? You read bones, like, um, like a witch doctor?”

“Yes.”

Okay, fine, good. He didn’t look like a shaman from some hitherto undiscovered Borneo tribe. He looked more like an accountant, but it took all sorts. So, I was sharing a carriage with a man who had predicted his own death by divining chicken bones. No problem. I tried to bite my tongue, but the pressure to get the questions out was just too strong.

“How do you learn something like that? Do they do courses in that sort of thing?”

He gave me a look that implied my question was on a par with, ‘Do televisions have little actors living inside them?’

“What, a degree in foretelling the future? Night classes in divination? You can’t learn it. It’s not written down in any books, and even if it was, wouldn’t do you any good. It’s a natural talent, bone reading. You either can or you can’t.”

“And you can?”

“Yep.”

“How do you discover something like that?”

I mean, who would wake up one morning and ask himself, ‘I wonder if I can tell the future by staring at bones?’ It’s not a natural question, not at the top of the lists of subjects to ponder on a wet Sunday afternoon.

He shrugged. “It just happened. One afternoon I was clearing the table. I went to throw the remains of the chicken away, and it just jumped out at me. I could tell, just from the carcass, something bad was going to happen. Sure enough, the next day Dad drove his car into a lamppost. Nothing serious, thank God, but that was the start.”

“Yes, but bad things happen all the time. It’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it? Connecting something vague like ‘something bad’s going to happen’ with a car crash?”

A bit of a leap, like a suicide’s fall from the Empire State Building.

“If that was all it was, but I sort of practiced. I experimented with different bones, throwing them down and looking at the patterns. It just seemed to fall in place. The more I practiced, the better I got. Most of it is in the leg and wing bones, but the details are in the ribs and the little bits in the claws. I don’t know how it works, exactly, but it does. The things I’ve seen in the bones, and then seen them come true. You’d be surprised.”

“I’m sure I would,” I said, sincerely. “And you saw your own death?”

He nodded.

“How long have you got?”

He looked at his watch again.

“An hour and five minutes, give or take.”

“An hour and … It’s that accurate?”

“It depends. I mean, your own death, that sort of concentrates the mind, you know? And I’ve thrown the bones so many times since the first time I saw it. Yeah, just over an hour left.”

“You’re taking it very well.”

“How many people get a chance to prepare themselves? I’ve seen it coming for a few months now. I’ve made preparations. Said goodbye to those who care. That’s where I’m off to now. Seems a shame to call the undertaker out, when I can still make my own way to the funeral parlour.”

I took at the suit, the freshly cropped hair, the manicured hands. Well, if you have to go, you might as well look your best.

“Is there a chance you’re mistaken?”

“Ha! You think I haven’t asked myself that? No, it’s very clear, very precise. You can’t argue with such unmistakable evidence.”

Well, a court might, I thought. It’s hardly recognized as expert testimony.

“But they didn’t tell you how?”

“No. That’s the odd thing. No clue whatsoever how. I suppose if they told me that I might be able to take precautions against it, and then what sort of universe would we live in, eh? No, it’s fated, preordained.”

I was talking to a man who had calmly accepted his death as foretold by a dead chicken, and he thought the odd thing was they hadn’t told him how. Oh well, some people’s odd is someone else’s normal.

He looked out of the window and squinted into the spring sunshine.

“Nice day for it, anyway. I always liked springtime. Well, this is my stop. Goodbye.”

He rose, then gasped. His face contorted in pain and he clutched at his shoulder. Then he hit the deck as though he’d been struck from behind. Even seasoned commuters pulled their earphones clear and looked concerned. I dropped to my knees besides him.

“What’s happened?” I asked, as though it weren’t obvious. “Are you all right?”

Through the pain he looked confused, puzzled.

“Too early,” he said. “Got an hour yet. Don’t understand. Oh, wait.” An odd expression surfaced on his face, a mixture of relief and embarrassment. “Daylight Saving Time.” Then he closed his eyes.

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

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