After school, Damon reached into the pocket of his rain jacket and showed me a fragment of his mother’s bone, as smooth and white as a swan feather. I had never seen a human bone before, and somehow I was expecting it to look different, less animal-like. Damon let me hold it and said it was a gift from his father.
I felt a cold weight in the pit of my stomach at the thought of such a thing being presented as a gift, but Damon’s family was odd like that, and Damon’s father was always doing peculiar things—leaving Damon all alone, borrowing money around town, offering the girls in our class rides to school. I wrapped my fingers around the bone and asked Damon why his father had kept it, anyway.
“He didn’t have enough money for cremation,” Damon said.
“What’s that?” I handed the bone back to Damon and smelled my fingers, but they smelled normal; I was surprised because I thought a human bone would have a scent.
“They throw the dead person in a fire and the body turns into sand,” he said. “But Dad says it was too expensive, plus he says Mom wouldn’t have wanted to burn.”
At this, I envisioned Damon’s mother being shoved into a fire, kicking and clawing at the perimeter of the flames. I felt ashamed for such a thought because I knew that she would already be dead. But I couldn’t help it, and the image remained in my mind like a residue.
We walked around the puddles at the edge of the recess grounds, where the school was veiled by trees near the river. I wanted to ask Damon how his mother died, since he never talked about it. But it didn’t feel right after I had just held her delicate bone. Finally I said, “Do you have more bones at your house?”
“Dad says they’re in the ground,” Damon said. “It’s comfortable for Mom’s ghost, like being under bed sheets.”
Damon took a step onto the smooth rocks of the riverbank. As he hopped onto the next set of rocks, I saw his feet slip on the wet surface—his arms flailed in a motion so grandiose that I thought he was joking at first. His back hit the ground and I heard the wind rush from his lungs. He looked at me, his eyebrows curled into snakey arcs, and I knew instantly what was wrong—he had accidently let go of his mother’s bone in the fall.
We knelt to our knees and searched around the rocks, but didn’t find it. I expected Damon to be sad—maybe even cry—but he just sighed, and then said he had to go home. I stayed at the river for a long time, still thinking about Damon’s Mom screaming at the flames. I dug around in the grass too, tried to dig, but the ground was too rocky for anything to be buried beneath it.