Wednesday, December 21, 2005

On the job training at the Fulton County Morgue

He pulled at the crotch of his trousers with his one good hand and shuffled, past the fire place, between brown leather chairs and slumped into his seat. Avery sat with the heels of his feet against the chair, leaning forward, listening to the fire crackle. On either side of him were friends, almost his age, whispering among themselves in small groups of two and three. The parlor bathed of leather from the thick comfortable chairs and an overstuffed sofa. Big game trophies mounted on the wall eyed the gathering with undying interest.

At seventy two, he started to decline. He missed his teeth and hair and only one appendage on his right hand still worked half well, but not without a slight twitch. His hand wavered slightly as he raised the glass to his lips, filling his mouth with brandy, and forcing the muscles in his throat to swallow.

The liquor cleared his throat of phlegm. A droplet rolled down his chin and onto his lap. He waited for everyone to settle back into their chairs before he would begin. Tonight he would tell his small gathering a story that had remained untold for almost forty years.

His voice was somber and full as though to set the tone for his story. "I've never told anyone this story. Not a one. I dared not tell what happened to me that night," he said.

He paused and took another sip from the glass. Shadows from the fire danced above the men while they waited for Avery to continue. The room filled with each others thoughts of what story their friend would tell. They gathered around in a semi-circle, as they had for the better part of twenty years, and listened as Avery took them wherever his mind wandered. Many a night, they gasped at tales of hideous creatures, some living close by, and other horrors that most people never heard of before. Nine men waited patiently to learn where he would take them on this moon-filled night.

Avery straightened himself in the chair and stared at each of them in turn. His eyes seemed to pry into each soul in search of a story until he settled on Ben, his friend of better than thirty years and the closest to a son he ever had, and bemoaned a sigh of regret. As though, looking into their eyes, he found which tale would be told.

"There are times when I wonder where they came from," his voice barely carried above the crackle of the fire.

Avery settled back in the chair, the glass of brandy resting neatly on his knee, and he began to speak again. This time he wouldn’t stop until the story was finished.

To this very day I wonder if I haven’t dreamt it all. If not but for those few minutes, startled as I was, I’m almost sure it was all a very real dream. On nights such as this, when there is a restless moon and demons play with lost souls, I can recall a visit by two travelers.

These two weren't your ordinary bump in the night strangers. No, they were something to keep you awake all night if you happened to meet upon them the way I did. I can't recall when it started, but I suspect it had to do with all those bodies. They were a pitiful lot, they were. Most of them were burned to the bone. Oh, it was a sad day alright.

My first day on the job and here I was up to my elbows in work and frightened. Oh was I frightened to be sure, but I was mostly scared I'd make a mistake. In some ways I was also scared to be alone with them. Don't ask me why, I can't quite remember why, but I felt so alone and so helpless. I couldn't do anything but watch as their twisted remains were stacked along side the wall. I wanted to do something for them, those poor souls, the lot of them, but it was beyond my power to help.

My, was I something back then; full of lofty ambitions and false pride. I never lost my pride, even after they visited me that night, though I'm sure there were times when I had to swallow it.

Now only a few tidbits remain, and even if I could remember, I think my first day on the job really didn't happen. At least not the way I would like to remember. I was young, ambitious, and had foolishly thought I would be the best pathologist in the county or even the state someday.

Oh, I know, there are all those expectations of starting a new job, especially on the first day, but now I can't remember how I felt. I can only guess what it was like at that particular moment in time. That dreadful night had a hold of my memories and wouldn't let me forget for many years.

As I remember, it all started around four that afternoon when I was told about the plane crash. Nearly a hundred and ten bodies, young and old alike, were scattered over the old ballpark.

Volunteers from all over came to help. We had to try and identify what remained of as many people as possible from the wreckage. It was a sad, grim, task that we were asked to perform that day. There was little time to question why it happened. We were all very busy trying to piece together enough so they could be identified by their relatives. We didn’t have time to even think about why it happened. There would be time for that later.

The last arrivals of the evening were little more than charred mannequins, their arms wrapped around each other. I can't tell how it came about that I was left alone with those two. They probably never expected to share death when it happened. Heck, tell you the truth, I don't even remember if I ever found out who those two were or where they came from.

Two hours later I finished separating the couple from the death grip which held them together. I guess they were probably in their early thirties, but I'm not sure about that. They must have embraced each other as a last desperate act of love to face death. I can tell you this much, I was deeply moved by the sight. Their deaths brought a deep sorrow where earlier I had felt horror.

I had done as much for them as I could and placed them in the vault while I went to my desk to fill out their death certificates.

It wasn’t long before my stamina mistook the momentary tranquillity for a chance to put my head down on the desk and get a few minutes of sleep. The hour was late and by two-thirty I was drained of emotion and strength. The night crept away slowly. While the morning began waking all manner of creatures, I drifted aimlessly in slumber. My head was tucked into the corner of my arm.

Suddenly, I was awakened by a coldness touching my face. I had a scare coming to me, sure enough. Still I wasn't ready for it. My eyes snapped open and I confronted a child, blankly staring at me while he held onto a woman's hand.

Never before or since had I seen such a child as him. The lad, not more than seven or eight at best, was neatly dressed in a black suit with wide lapels. His shirt was the whitest I have ever seen, crisp and wrinkle free, as though he had only dressed moments earlier. I followed the boy's hand up to the woman, but my neck stiffened in that awkward position and made it difficult to look above the desk lamp. The soft lighting from the hallway filtered into the room and her outline emerged to fill the doorway.

She was hidden by shadows that floated in front of my face. She too was dressed in black, tall and slender; her hands were covered with pressed white gloves. I uttered what I thought was surprise, but only a faint whisper escaped me as trapped air leaked between teeth clenched in fear. I must admit my feeble attempt at courage was something quite incoherent to the human ear. I tried to push myself away from the desk so I could get a better look. I don't remember if fear ever knew a better person to pick on that evening, but I was a good choice. My heart pressed itself against the walls of my chest, insisting I flee the room.

"Shhh, it's only a dream," the boy whispered.

Nervously, I went around the desk, my confidence returning. My thoughts were more directed and cleared of the momentary fright I experienced by their sudden appearance.

"Can I help you with something?"

I realized that what I said sounded awful and tried another approach. "I'm sorry, but we don't allow visitors in here."

That sounded more official and manly like I was expected to say something important. Yet, they remained silent as though they were expecting me to show them a body like we do for members of the family.

The woman stepped closer and grabbed my shoulders. I struggled vainly to escape her grasp, but she held me by the strength of her weight on my shoulders. The more I tried, the harder she held me until I was resigned to stop and try a different approach. I tried not to look into her eyes for fear something waited for my soul behind those hollow sockets. In the dark recesses, I could see nothing but emptiness and sorrow. There was no pain or remorse in those eyes. Nothing. But a deep sadness crept into my soul nevertheless. I knew of her sorrow as though it was part of me.

“Who are you?” I demanded bravely. “What are you doing here at this hour of night?"

A murmur escaped her lips as she pushed me backwards on to the desk. I tried to protest, but her gaze entranced my spirit and I had no hope of escaping. My God, I begged her to release me from her grasp, but she held me firmly and nearly touched her lips upon mine.

The veil couldn't shield the fire swelling from her hollow eye-sockets. They blazed as though her soul spit forth through those portals. I tried to cast her spell from my heart, but she whispered into my ear and I couldn't stop her words. Her cold breath on the back of my neck chilled my soul.

“Help us.”

That’s all she said. But a power as I had never felt before or since swept over me. I squeezed my eyes shut. The weight on my shoulder was lifted and I fell to the floor, free of her. My head began to spin, clouded by haze and I returned to the sanctuary of dreams and fools.

I was awaken hours later by the hand lying on top of my head and jumped from the stool to escape. I stumbled away from the table that had supported my head and tipped the stool over.

The hollow ring of metal on the granite floor echoed throughout the room. Startled, I waited for her to reach out from behind and touch me. Instead, a faint memory of her plea, a waif misery; beckoned me to pursue a terrible thought.

What if?

No, it was impossible. How could anyone survive such a terrible crash? We had all the bodies. Everyone was counted. There couldn’t possibly be anyone left?

But how could I be sure?

I had to know for myself. I gathered my jacket and ran for the door. It was a short distance to the field where all those bodies laid just hours earlier. I didn’t have any problem finding a few remaining personal affects scattered around the infield. I covered my eyes for a moment and tried to visualize how those people must have felt as their plane screamed toward the earth. It broke me and I knelt down to the ground in despair. I had not experience such grief before. Their voices seemed to ring true as I swiped a tear away. Then I imagined a faint whisper and the thought stuck me.

What if someone had really survived?

I knew it wasn’t likely. But I scanned the field anyway, hoping someone would come out of the shadows. I searched the edge until my sight focused on the field across from the ballpark. At first, I hadn’t thought of the cemetery but it made so much sense.

The woman and child I saw in my dream were dressed in all black as if to attend a funeral. But who’s? I hadn’t heard of a recent death since the previous week and I knew they had already buried Martha two days ago.

I rose from the ground and made my way to the cemetery. The dew made it slippery and each step was an effort. But I found the entrance and turned toward the ballpark where it all began. I used what light remained from the failing, silver moon to search between each row for a sign of life. It must have seemed ironic to look for a living soul among the deceased. But I kept at it for awhile until I approached the last row.

Scattered on the ground was a small bushel of carnations. I stepped to the side and glanced at the marker of a man roughly my age when he died. When I returned my attention to the path, I noticed a shoe sticking out from a row or bushes.

Hidden in the underbrush was a body I dreaded finding. I pushed away the foliage and saw her for the second time that night. A three-inch piece of metal protruded from her breastplate.

She clung to a boy. A sliver of moonlight illuminated her face. A single tear was stuck in the corner of her eye as though she were both sad and happy of my discovery. I reached down to touch her and the boy sprang up on one knee.

Startled, I fell back a step. I reached for a branch and steadied myself.

He whispered: “Are you my daddy? Momma always told me you’d come back for us.”

I took a deep breath and shuddered. The boy glanced back at his mother. He touched her cheek and then turned to smile at me for some reason. I beckoned him with the only comfort I knew at the moment.

"Yes, son. It’s ok. There’s nothing to worry about, I’m here now."

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