I stared at the tiny yellow glob of what I assumed was fat or cholesterol or whatever the heck it was that blocked blood vessels. “That? But, it’s so small!”
He nodded then set the heart down on the white plastic cutting board in front of him. “I know. A bit humbling to think that something that looks so minor could have dropped this guy like a stone. He never had a chance.”
I stepped back as Dr. Leblanc finished his examination of the heart. And if I’d died from that overdose they’d be doing all of this to me. For the first time today I could taste bile, though it had nothing to do with anything I was seeing or smelling. If I’d died it would be me naked on the cold metal table, sliced open from throat to crotch. . . .
I straightened, eyes narrowing. I knew what was going on. Highly recommended, my ass. This whole job had obviously been arranged so that I could get a little more appreciation for the life I’d managed to screw up so well. Work in a morgue instead of going through stupid rehab. Now that was a scenario that made sense. I found myself smiling smugly, stupidly pleased that I’d figured it out. That’s cool. I can play this game. Hell, so far this was still a thousand times less annoying than rehab. A month of this and then I’d be home free. And this was even a paying job.
I watched as Dr. Leblanc removed the organs to weigh and examine them. Is he in on it? I wondered idly. Did he know I was really a pill-head loser? He probably doesn’t, I decided. There’s no way he’d be so nice to me if he knew.
Dr. Leblanc dropped a fist-sized kidney-shaped thing into a large plastic bag between the dead guy’s legs then picked up a towel and wiped his gloved hands. “Almost done,” he said to me with a smile. He turned and gave a nod to Nick. “You can do the head now.”
Nick stepped up to the table. “At least this body has one. We cut two yesterday and neither had a head. First one was that murder that was all over the news.” He flicked a glance at me. “You heard about that one?”
I responded with only a nod. I wasn’t about to let him know that I’d been questioned about it.
“And then we had one come in who’d been in an MVA—motor vehicle accident. The victim was so mangled it took our guys half an hour to find the head, and when they did, it had apparently been squished by a passing car. They ended up bringing the pieces of skull back in a plastic bag.” He gave a snort of amusement, and I simply stared at him. How could he be so casual about describing something so awful?
“Now pay attention,” he ordered me. “You’ll be doing this pretty soon.”
Resisting the urge to flip him off, I watched in sickly fascinated horror as he took a scalpel and made a cut from ear to ear over the top of the corpse’s head. Once the cut was made he set the scalpel aside, then dug his fingers between scalp and skull to peel the scalp back on top and bottom, exposing the entire top of the skull.
And I still didn’t have even a whisper of nausea.
Next he pulled a mask and a face shield on. “You probably want to put a mask on,” he said as he plugged in what I suddenly realized was a bone saw. “This kicks up a lot of bone dust, and you don’t want to breathe it in.”
I hurriedly yanked a mask on as he started the saw, quickly realizing that Nick hadn’t been exaggerating. By the time he finished making a cut around the top of the head there was a fine film of pinkish-white dust covering the area around him. I tried not to think about the fact that I probably had bone dust in my hair. I planned on taking an epic shower after this day was done.
He set the saw aside and picked up a T-shaped tool with a chiseled bottom. “These are called skullcrackers,” he said with a grin that was almost genuine. “Swear to god, that’s their official name in the catalog.” He jammed the chiseled end into the cut made by the saw and gave the skullcracker a sharp twist to pry the cut wider. I cringed involuntarily at the sound of breaking bone as the tool lived up to its name.
Nick stuck his fingers in the widened gap and pulled. The top of the skull came off with a tearing, sucking sound, and suddenly there before me were the grey and pink convolutions of a brain.
“There ya go,” he said with a silly little flourish as he pulled his mask and face shield off. “Your first time seeing a real live brain.” Then he sniggered. “Real dead brain, that is.”
I followed his lead and pulled my mask off, then froze. All of a sudden it seemed as if I could smell the brain, and not in a oh-how-gross way, but as if someone had taken the lid off a pot of gumbo to let the aroma fill the room. And I knew it was the brain that smelled so utterly enticing—knew it with every single cell of my being.
What the hell was wrong with me?
To my shock and horror my mouth began to water and my stomach gave a loud growl—loud enough for the others to hear. Both of them turned to look at me and Dr. Leblanc gave a laugh. “Okay, you’re officially the toughest morgue tech who’s ever worked here if you can still be hungry during an autopsy!”
I gave a weak laugh in answer as I struggled to hide my confusion. Yeah, that’s all it was. I was just starving.
So why did I have the horrifying urge to grab a handful of that pink and grey mass and shove it into my mouth like movie popcorn?
A shiver crawled down my back. I was being stupid. I’d skipped breakfast, that’s all, and was probably still recovering from my dumb overdose. There was no possible way that I really wanted to eat the brain. It had to be some sort of flashback to that whole crazy hallucination.
Fortunately, Nick seemed to be oblivious to my anxiety. He picked up a scalpel. “The rest is easy. Slice the spinal cord where it connects to the base of the brain—” he said, somehow shoving the brain aside and sticking the scalpel in and around. “—and you’re good to go.” He set the scalpel aside and tipped the brain out into his hands, cradling it carefully.
He turned to me with naked challenge in his eyes. “Want to hold it?”
I froze for several seconds. I did not want to hold it, but there was no way I could admit it was because I was afraid I’d start hallucinating and crave it again.
I saw the smirk begin to form on his face. Oh, hell no. I was not going to let him win this one. Even Dr. Leblanc was watching to see what I was going to do. It’s a stupid little initiation, that’s all. I can do this.
I stepped forward and stuck my hands out, meeting the challenge in Nick’s eyes with my own. He grinned, placed the thing in my hands. It was slippery and a little mushy—a bit heavier than I expected it to be. I’m holding a brain in my hands. Holy shit. An unfamiliar sense of pride began to trickle through me. I’d risen to the challenge. It was a stupid and gross challenge, but I’d done it.
“You can go ahead and put it in the scale,” he said.
I set it carefully in the scale and stepped back. Dr. Leblanc gave me another sly wink, then peered at the numbers on the scale and wrote them on his clipboard. I smiled, absurdly pleased with myself.
Then I quickly grabbed a towel and wiped my hands off before I could give in to the insane urge to lick my fingers.
It was after five P.M. by the time I finally left the morgue and climbed into my Honda. I turned up the volume on my cheap-ass car stereo, slapping the steering wheel in time to the beat as I drove, my mood a lot brighter than I’d expected it would be after my first day on the job.
Okay, so the job was weird, gross, and nothing I’d have ever signed up for on my own. But it was also kinda cool, in a freaky way.
Plus, I hadn’t screwed up. In fact, I’d done all right. I wasn’t used to feeling proud of myself. It was definitely something I could get used to.
After Dr. Leblanc had finished the autopsy I got a crash course in how to sew a body back up—nasty! And, even nastier, I learned that the organs taken out during autopsy didn’t get put back in before the body was sewn up. Instead they went into a big plastic bag and were sent to the funeral home in the body bag, where they’d then be put into the casket between the legs of the dead guy, all covered up with a pretty blanket so that no one at the funeral would know the bag was there. At least that’s what Nick told me. I wasn’t completely sure if he was fucking with me or not.
Once that was all done and we finished cleaning the morgue—which was more scrubbing and mopping than I’d ever done in my life—Nick took me to meet the coroner, Dr. Duplessis, and the Chief Investigator, Allen Prejean. The coroner seemed pleasant enough as we went through the “Glad to have you on board” crap that bosses always say, but there was a weird tightness to his smile that made the neurotic part of me wonder if he’d been pressured into hiring me and resented it. Then again, maybe he was always like that.
Allen was a different story, though. I had no doubt he knew about me and my history. That wasn’t me being neurotic either. It was stamped all over his face when we were introduced. He didn’t say anything about being glad to have me on board. Instead it was, “Your background makes you an interesting choice for this position,” delivered in a scowly, gruff voice, and which made Nick give me a funny look. I could only hope that Nick would take that to mean I used to be a secret agent or some shit like that.
But other than the awkwardness of meeting my bosses, pretty much the only ding against me the whole day was the fact that I didn’t have my driver’s license and the human resources lady needed a copy of it, since I was supposed to be a van driver and all.
I made a face as I took the turn onto the highway that led toward my house. I still had no idea what had happened to my purse, which meant I was probably destined to spend my morning at the DMV in Tucker Point. Joy.
I’d lived in this area my entire life. The farthest away I’d ever been was Talladega, Alabama, when I was ten. I lived in Nice, Louisiana, which was probably supposed to sound like the town in France—pronounced “neese”—but everyone around here called it Nice, as in, “Ain’t that nice.” There really wasn’t much about the town that was all that nice. It was a teensy little town in the southeast corner of St. Edwards Parish, which wasn’t much more than a big stretch of swamp and marsh in the southeast corner of Louisiana. Nice had a couple of groceries and some hardware stores, a few strip malls with consignment clothing shops and hairdressers, and a scattering of diners, bars, and gas stations. Most people drove the twenty minutes to Tucker Point if they wanted to do any kind of real shopping. We didn’t even have our own police force—the St. Edwards Parish Sheriff’s Office patrolled and answered 911 calls.