He was just a boy when his father first took him bone picking. Foraging, they searched for shed antlers.
It was a benign hunt, no bloodshed, simply the search for forest-floor treasure, the gnarled discards of disburdened beasts.
He was delighted upon finding his prize, its smooth protrusion from beneath a carpet of leaves. He had struggled to hold it. His father had taken his photograph. Outstretched arms cradled twisted offspring.
To the woods they returned many times. He imagined it as the beginning of an illustrious life as a bone-picker, interior design a plundered concern, a frozen herd rearing redundantly from his wall. Each trip he anticipated a sea of scuttling claws turned upwards from the undergrowth, or a haversack filled with ossified shrubs plucked from the ground.
But they never found another. His father blamed keen-eyed hunters, those who took their collecting too seriously, practically tracked animals waiting for their antlers to drop. His was not such keenness.
They had at least been lucky once, his father said.
It was not a mountable prize, could not compete with dual-antlered souvenirs, the flesh scrubbed clean from grim, grinning skulls.
It would look odd jutting from the wall, an unnatural hat stand, the spanned fingers of it, skeletal, beckoning.
In a box beneath his bed it throbbed, totemic.
During adolescence he wondered what it would be like if he and his friends grew antlers, their puberty signposted by conspicuous sproutings. He foresaw playground fights growing wild as rutting stags, his peers, lowered their heads and launched themselves at each other, their tines entwined.
Upon photographs he inked embellishments, scribbled antennae spiralling skywards.
He knew that such adornments siphoned resources, knew that their bodies would suffer as nutrients were diverted to their preposterous protuberances. But he believed they would all make the sacrifice.
He envisaged them struggling to stay upright, weighed down by their attachments. He pictured them ashen, top heavy, restless, circling prospective mates whilst dragging their appendages along the ground, drained of blood as disproportionate growths sucked the life out of them. At the end of the mating season: a playground littered with antlers, collectors lurking beyond the school gates waiting to seize their bounty.
Surely this would be preferable, he thought, awkwardness foregone in the face of obvious desires, their lusts upfront, undeniable.
But, like all adolescents, he had progressed without such ostentatious displays, had made the awkward advances expected of him, fumbled through his teenage years unaided.
Now, years later, it remained with him. He had unboxed it in multiple house shares, dismissed its origins to a mishmash of flatmates.
And still, on occasion, before potential dates, he touched it just for luck.
Stuart Snelson is a London based writer. His stories have appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Bare Fiction, HOAX, Lighthouse, Popshot, Structo and Synaesthesia, among others, and he has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Links to previous stories can be found at stuartsnelson.wordpress.com