The package bears no identifying information apart from the company name: "Precious Packages." Ishwari doesn't remember ordering anything from them, but she and Ravi have made so many Amazon purchases for their new home she can't keep track.
Ishwari slices through the tape with a satisfying shick. Relieved the chore is nearly done, she sets the knife aside. She's opened the shoe rack and the ironing board and the salad spinner, and she can stand only so many practical items arriving like presents. The space between the bottom flaps reveals a layer of bubble wrap. Fighting the urge to tear it aside—Ravi values precision and she is cultivating that quality—Ishwari tugs the bubble wrap open.
There must be some mistake.
Nestled in the box is a set of bleached white bones.
Containers, and the cross-section between utility and aesthetic purpose, fascinated Ishwari. Amazon boxes were efficient, the wide stripe with the repeated logo both sealing the flaps and promoting the brand. Piñatas' outsides were colorful as their insides; shoeboxes held footwear nestled opposite each other like puzzle pieces; engagement rings emerged sparkling from turquoise pouches in Tiffany boxes. Round tins meant to hold buttery cookies repurposed as sewing kits evoked a particular kind of disappointment.
Six years ago, on her first day in the university dining hall, she noticed the containers. In "Japan," bento boxes compartmentalized sushi rolls, while white-and-red takeout containers with wire handles adorned the Chinese food counter. Stainless steel katoris glinted in "India," and Ishwari wondered if the tiffin meal would taste as it was supposed to. How close to the "real thing" were any of the foods here?
Jostling students forced her toward a sign: "California roll: crab and avocado topped with masago." Ishwari eyed the sushi slices covered in bright orange.
"You taking any of those?" The guy behind her lifted his chin at the sushi. A roast beef sandwich, a cheeseburger, and a bowl of Fruit Loops mixed with Lucky Charms already weighed down his tray.
"Go ahead of me if you want," she said. And, under her breath, "You're welcome. Apparently some people like 'masago.'"
He heard her. "Please, it's a California roll. Probably imitation crab, anyway." He inspected her face. "Haven't you ever had sushi?" She was glad she wasn't wearing a sari, though she doubted it'd make much difference to this idiot.
"Inari, kappa maki, avocado nigiri—sure. I just can't remember if I've eaten that orange stuff."
"I'm not sure those count as sushi. Anyway, it's good." He popped a roll in his mouth. "And it's got protein."
At which point Ishwari noticed his muscles—or lack thereof. He gulped down the roll. "Fish eggs. Yum."
"Pass." Ishwari slipped out of line.
"Your loss." He grabbed more rolls, and Ishwari also passed on arguing about what "counted" as sushi and whether vegetarianism meant she was missing out. She headed for the safety of the pasta counter, where familiar fusilli corkscrews filled bowls flaunting Italian pottery patterns.
Ishwari likes Italian dishware: strong colors, floral whorls, repeated geometrics. She almost convinced Ravi to include Anthropologie's Tuscan-inspired set on their registry, but they went with Pottery Barn's classic white instead. Her aunties have already gifted her a set of copper-bottomed karahi for the meals they expect her to cook for him. Ishwari admits they are pretty but suppresses a shudder when she opens the kitchen cabinets, the stacked pots gleaming at her.
Home décor is a matter of particular taste.
Bones, for example, are not Ishwari's style, though plenty of people decorate with them. A Southwestern spread in the House Beautiful on her entrance table displays a giant bull's skull protruding from a wall, its horns the home's most prominent feature. Her friend Akshita collects bones from the beach and arranges them amongst shells and dried-out shark purses.
"Nothing so kitschy as anchors or blue and white stripes," she says. "I prefer an understated nautical feel." Is it ironic that seal bones end up on the top edge of Akshita's bathroom counter next to the empty shark purses whose former residents likely grew up and ate the bones' former owners?
The bones in the box before her look nothing like Akshita's.
Ravi is en route to his MD, in his second year of pre-clinical study, but Ishwari doesn't need her fiancé to tell her what they are. They look like the bones of the skeleton model in the figure drawing basics class she took freshman year of college.
An array of mannequins, some headless, some missing arms or legs or both, contorted at the room's center, their body parts dangling from the ceiling. Ishwari selected an easel near a figure with its head still on and perched on her stool to await instruction.
A lanky form dropped onto the seat beside her: Masago-guy. He began dashing charcoal onto his paper without waiting for the professor to speak.
The drawing was good. Ishwari's results were poor, despite the care with which she'd listened to the professor's suggestions.
"That's terrible," a voice said from over her shoulder. Ishwari flinched, her charcoal-covered fingers smearing across her paper. "Hm. An improvement."
Ishwari turned. The fish-egg lover, of course. She reached out and wiped her fingers on his shirt. "Works on you, too."
His momentary silence drew butterflies to her stomach, but then he laughed. Before she could stop him he reached for her face.
She caught her reflection in the window behind him. A line of charcoal graced her cheek.
He considered her. "Didn't work. Not a cure-all, then."
Ishwari tried not to be taken by the line.
The clicking begins while Ishwari is making soup. Perhaps the cutting board is defective. She sighs. She'll add "cutting board" to their Amazon list. But when she finishes chopping and the clicking continues, Ishwari walks toward the sound.
In the foyer, skeletal feet stand on the hardwood floor.
Bones click as they crawl from the box and assemble.
Tibia jut toward the ceiling. Kneecaps clatter into place. One large femur rolls out of the box and turns end over end to meet them.
The bones continue to animate.
What can she do? Call 9-1-1. And say what? A skeleton is rebuilding itself in my foyer. Please help?
Ishwari fumbles for her cell. A chipper voice answers: "Amazon Customer Service. How may I help you?"
"A box of bones arrived—and now they're—the skeleton is reassembling!"
"Hm," the voice says, less chipper now. "May I have the order number, please?"
"The order num—are you kidding?"
"No, ma'am. I can't tell you anything without the order number."
The number is on the receipt inside the box, from which the second femur is now emerging. Ishwari darts forward to yank out the paper. She reads off the absurdly long sequence and gives her name and address. The Amazon rep says, "Well, ma'am, I do have on file that this was a gift order—"
"A gift!" Ishwari yells. The second femur rights itself to parallel its partner. "This has to be a mistake. Please—how do I make it stop?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't have anything on file about that. Did you check the instruction manual?"
Ishwari throws her phone at the skeletal legs. It bounces off.
She envisions dumping the remaining bones down the trash chute before the skeleton can complete itself. No matter how she tugs, the box won't come. The bones are too strong for her.
These types of boxes are not supposed to hold these types of things.
Today's drawing class focused on skeletons. Ishwari focused on the shape of individual bones rather than the whole they made.
"We should go out." Beside her, Masago-guy had sketched a fine representation of a skull with the same lackadaisical strokes as always.
"You don't even know what sushi is. You need exposure to life. I'm good at life."
Her fingers itched to smear charcoal on him. Which might have been less annoyance at his arrogance and more a desire to touch him again. "Listen, Masago-lover—"
"James," he said. "We've been sitting here during roll call for weeks. Don't pretend you don't know my name." He reached over to her easel and drew two simple lines that made her work come alive. "One date. It can be something not sushi. Have you ever had boba?"
"Fine. One date." Ishwari let the corners of her lips quirk upward as she blended his lines into her drawing. "Masago-guy."
Ishwari grabs the nearest item, the key bowl from the foyer table, and throws it at the assembled bones. The bowl bounces. Keys clatter off the femurs. Next she tosses the House Beautiful, which a skeletal foot kicks back like a soccer ball, and Ishwari ducks the shimmery flapping pages. She grabs a lamp, gifted by one of Ravi's aunts, which forces the legs apart. The ugly marbleized base shatters on the floor, and painted porcelain shards surround inert bones—for a few seconds. Then the legs rebuild themselves.
When Ishwari had agreed to try non-vegetarian cuisine, James took her out for unusual options: escargot, jellyfish, pho. Korean barbecue, Chinese-Mexican fusion, Ethiopian.
"When are we eating Indian food?" she asked.
"Never had it. You'll have to introduce me." Ishwari punched him in the shoulder, and he laughed. "Don't worry. Today'll be the most cultural experience yet."
From the bus stop, they walked three blocks to a Johnny Rocket's. "All American," she said. "Impossibly cultural."
"And classic. It's no Mickey D's, but it'll have to do."
Their burgers had just arrived when the family across from them got up. Roughhousing with his kid brother, the pre-teen bumped a nearby table and sent a couple's milkshake slugging toward them.
"¡Dios mío!" The girl squealed and avoided the liquid, narrowly. The guy rounded on the teen.
"Crap," the kid said, yanking napkins from the metal container on the table. "Sorry. Lo siento. Dude, yo voy a comprar un otro."
The guy's face softened. "Don't worry about it. Está bien. You don't have to get us another. We were done anyway." He helped the kid finish wiping the table.
Rapt, Ishwari watched the exchange, while James bit back a laugh. "Hombre was this close to giving that kid a new face."
Ishwari stared after the family. "The Asian boy—he spoke Spanish so easily!"
"The obvious comment for me to make here would be that you speak English just fine. But I have a feeling that might offend you," he said as her eyebrows dipped. "He's probably learning it in school. Bet he doesn't speak a lick of Japanese."
People were not their packaging.
Ishwari said, "Let's split a milkshake."
The pelvis situates itself. Vertebrae roll across the floor and climb upward to form the spine. The sternum follows, and ribs ladder over each other one by one.
Behind the partial skeleton, their coat closet holds the few jackets they've unpacked—plenty of room for a set of bones.
Ishwari sidesteps the building bones and opens the closet door. She scoots back around to the bones' other side and, mimicking a football player's offensive form, bum-rushes the bones.
The skeletal feet stumble backward but regain their footing. The half-made skeleton resists her, its calcanei and metatarsals scratching the hardwood. Ravi'll love that.
Her bare feet slide against the floor. She couldn't move the box; she should have known she wouldn't be able to force the partial skeleton into the closet. Out of breath, Ishwari releases the bony torso and rubs her shoulder.
The clavicle settles, the scapula, and then the humeri, radii, and ulnae. When the wrist bones are ready for them, the tiny metacarpals and phalanges clickety-clack across the floor and up the leg bones to meet them.
The assembled skeletal hands flex and fist, flex and fist.
Ishwari's stomach flipped. It wasn't the food, though she'd stuffed herself.
"What did your mother say?" James's fingertips drumming the wheel betrayed his nervousness.
Ishwari shifted in the passenger seat, but the new position didn't ease her discomfort. "She said it was very nice to meet you."
"But what did she think?"
"She thinks you're very nice."
The drumming ceased as he clenched a fist. "Damn. She was so nice to my face."
"It was just the first meeting. It doesn't mean anything," she said. "Masago. Don't worry."
Her pet name cracked a smile out of him. James opened his fist. "Are you going to that programming thing tonight?"
She scrutinized him. "How did you know about that?"
"Mind. Reader." He tapped his temple with a forefinger. "C'mon. I notice stuff. The flyer in your trash can."
Where she had swept it after deciding the pursuit was foolish. "Where it belonged."
"Said who?" He glanced at her and it seemed as if he really were reading her mind, as if he knew that the answer to his question was sitting in the living room chair where they'd left her after dinner. "That's it. We're going."
The car swerved as James pulled a U-turn. "James!" Ishwari looked around for cops, but the roads were empty. Now her stomach flipped not with nerves, but excitement.
Humeri shift in the shoulder sockets as the skeletal arms lift. Finger bones reach toward her.
She could get help. Ishwari imagines running down the hallway, pounding on fellow residents' doors, explaining her situation. Just the kind of new neighbor she hopes to be.
Besides: it is her apartment.
Ishwari inches toward the bones and then darts past. Phalanges click as the hand bones claw air.
She yanks a spare sheet from the linen closet. These, gifted by Ravi's second cousin once removed, feature paisleys and are perhaps uglier than the lamp.
She throws a sheet over the clavicle, wraps it around the bones, and swiftly knots two corners. Tightening fabric forces the legs together and the unsteady bone burrito thumps to the floor.
The bones struggle. The sack writhes on the ground like an impaired caterpillar.
Distal phalanges press the taut sheet until their pointed edges rip the fabric.
The bones claw long holes.
Ravi's cousin would want Ishwari to feel sorry about the sheets. As excuses for getting rid of those sheets go, a set of reanimated bones isn't bad.
Her thrill dissipates as skeletal hands grasp the edges of a hole and rend it open, and the bones rise, strips of shredded paisleys fluttering to the floor.
Browned leaves twisted in the wind outside the car. After two years dating James, she still wasn't used to awkward dinners with her parents followed by uncomfortable car rides with him.
"Masago, come on. It wasn't that bad." These days, even the pet name didn't help.
"It's because I'm not Indian, isn't it? Jesus, what century are we living in?"
"It's not—only that." She coughed. "Your major."
"They think I won't be able to provide for you." He slammed a hand against the wheel. "Again with the century!"
"I can take care of myself, thank you. I think they're concerned that I'll end up taking care of you, too. Drawing isn't known for being lucrative, or stable. And—they think you're a bad influence."
"For fuck's sake." He shifted his jaw back and forth. "Because it would be so terrible for you to live your own life."
They spent the next twenty minutes in silence. They were going too fast now for Ishwari to make out falling foliage.
As he pulled to the curb at her apartment, he asked, "What do you think?"
"I think you should come upstairs."
"Then it doesn't matter what they think."
The skull is last to roll out.
Fully assembled, the skeleton bends and wraps bony fingers around the handle of the knife Ishwari carelessly left on the floor.
Any further plans to trap or deconstruct the skeleton disappear as she flees the foyer. She races into the kitchen and slams the door behind her.
Ishwari wedges a chair underneath the doorknob just as it begins to turn.
The door jangles in its frame as the skeleton batters against it. She should have left the apartment. Ishwari grabs a knife from the stand on the counter. How do you kill something that is already dead?
The door splinters. The knob pops off and the chair skids across the floor. The door opens. The skeleton steps through.
Some couples bickered. Some had a good, healthy fight every once in a while. Ishwari couldn't remember what it was like not to fight.
"Why do we bother with these dinners? They're never going to like me!" James paced her apartment. The four years they'd dated didn't matter to her parents.
"Maybe they would, if you didn't make idiot moves like ordering chicken tikka!"
"You eat that shit like it's your first meal after the apocalypse!"
"You know my family is vegetarian and I don't eat that in front of them."
"Fine. I wanted it for me. Your parents are crazy, and it's delicious."
"Liking cultural foods does not make you a cultural expert!"
He grew suddenly quiet. "Non-sequitur, Ishwari. Is that what this is really about?"
Ishwari stared at the back of her hand. She'd often wondered what henna tattoos—the marriage kind—would look like there. "I think we should take a break."
"Is that what you want?" James leaned toward the coffee table and set his fingertip against the book she'd bought last week: Accelerated C++: Principles & Practice. "You going to drop this, too?"
He shoved the book off the coffee table.
She rubbed her fingers across the back of her hand.
Ishwari leaps forward and plunges her knife through the skeleton's ribs, where the heart would be. The skeleton doesn't acknowledge the knife in its chest. It raises its bony arm, its own knife high.
Ishwari avoids the knife, ducks behind the skeleton, and kicks at the back of its kneecaps. The skeleton teeters. She manages to drag the off-balance frame to her oven by its acromial bones.
What is broil? Five hundred degrees Fahrenheit? Ishwari isn't sure if that's enough.
What Ravi would know is that even the 1,400-1,800 degrees of cremation leave bone fragments behind. Kitchen ovens are meant to contain pies, and roasts, and pizzas.
The oven door creaks.
Bones rattle as the skeleton reassembles itself. Ishwari casts about for another weapon. The skeleton reaches back into the oven for the knives—just blades now, the wood burned away—and stalks toward her, one in each hand.
Ishwari throws open the cabinet doors. The karahi gleam. She grabs the largest—sixteen-inch diameter—and raises the pot just in time for one of the skeleton's knives to glance off the copper bottom.
She hefts the pot and swings it. Force cracks and disperses the bones of one skeletal hand. The blade clatters to the floor along with the damaged phalanges, metacarpals, and carpals.
The broken bones remain where they land.
Karahi are good for something, after all. Ishwari bashes the pot into the skeleton and bone fragments chip off.
The skeleton drops the other knife, grabs one of the karahi's looped handles with its remaining hand, and yanks. Ishwari grips the other handle and pulls back. The pot shifts back and forth in their stalemated tug-of-war. Her arms ache. The muscle-less skeleton shows no signs of fatigue.
Ishwari pulls with every inch of remaining strength—and lets go.
Pot and skeleton fly backward. An ulna smashes into the granite counter and cracks. Bones clatter to the floor. The broken ones lie stationary. The unbroken rebuild.
The skeleton, missing one hand, part of an arm, and a few ribs, advances.
Ishwari leaps for the window and wrenches it open. The partial skeleton is upon her, bones looming—she darts aside and helps the leaning bones the rest of the way.
Cracking sounds echo. Ishwari leans out the window and peers the ten stories down to be sure.
Shattered bones scatter the sidewalk.
White shards litter the spaces between larger pieces. The now-jagged edge of half a femur sits beside a piece of clavicle. Ribs jut out from the side of a well-manicured hedge. The rounded edge of a partial pelvic girdle rests against a cracked patella. Split vertebrae circle the fractured sacrum. The damaged mandible hangs off a fire hydrant.
The skeleton does not rebuild.
Ishwari leans back in the window. The karahi gleams from the floor—she dislikes it less now.
She considers sweeping the broken bones, so the apartment will be pristine by the time Ravi gets home. Instead, she pours herself a glass of wine.
On the couch, Ishwari sips her wine and gazes at the Amazon box under the foyer table.
Only one person would dare.
It happened so fast with Ravi. Her father's careful mention of his business associate's son. The first date, where she and Ravi joked about their fathers conniving over gulab jamun. The subsequent dates, her mother's approving prattle, the apartment and the ring and the engagement announcement they'd released on Facebook last week, with the image of them in traditional Indian clothing their parents had selected.
Ishwari retrieves her phone from where it landed after bouncing off the skeleton's legs. She almost managed to delete his number on several occasions.
James answers on the first ring. "Are you even in love with him?"
"Your housewarming gift tried to kill me." She sets her glass on the coffee table.
"And yet, here we are."
Her fingers itch, though she can't swipe charcoal on him through the phone. Can't feel his chest through the fabric. The muscles he eventually developed under her fingertips.
She opens the coffee table drawer and pulls out one of the first things she'd moved into the apartment, in a place she knew Ravi would never look.
"You owe me," she says, running a finger over the embossed lettering on the book's cover: Advanced Programming Languages. "There's a sushi place on seventh."
Taylor Lauren Wou Ross is a writer and editor based in Denver. She was an AWP Writer to Writer mentee, and her stories have appeared in Westwind, Glass Mountain, (parenthetical) and others. Since earning a BA in English from UCLA, she has published articles in Santa Barbara Magazine and others.