The following day, Tyler gazes out at the rush of the highway out of Baltimore with a bandage over his head. Only one hand sticks to the steering wheel, something I haven’t seen him do since he learned how to drive, especially in the swamp of the city. No classic rock hums through the speakers of the car and we’re left to the occasional car horns outside of the windows as our driving soundtrack.
I’d only been wearing the ankle monitor for a few days but still I find myself bewildered staring at what feels like a missing layer of skin.
According to the law enforcements of Maryland State, I’m an innocent high schooler with one mistaken arrest on my record thanks to an overexcited detective. Samara’s story was ruled more tragic than ever--her violently alcoholic father lost his touch with reality and killed Darius Blecker because revenge was all he wanted out of the remainder of his life. I was no longer a suspect. Free for now.
My brother doesn’t take his eyes from the windshield. “I’m willing to help in whatever way I can, you know. I should’ve listened to you in the first place.”
My nose wrinkles at the sound of his voice. A scar streaks my ghost-white ankle where the monitor used to be. I’m not sure if there’s supposed to be soreness.
“Tell everybody,” I spit. “It’s not a secret anymore. Vince did nothing wrong and he killed himself with everyone thinking he did.”
“I’m not going to let you get locked up and rot away. When you turn eighteen, they’ll put you in prison. You can’t live in there. You’ll get yourself killed.”
“It’s not that easy,” I grunt, squinting at the sun that floats perfectly in the center of the clear sky. My hand folds into a fist against my head, snapping at him. “Why were you the one to bring me to the station to remove the ankle monitor, anyway? You know what happened. Don’t speak to me. No one should speak me. I’m going to tell the truth. I need to tell the truth. I’ll be happier in jail than I will be going back to school in two weeks and pretending I did nothing wrong.”
“Can I tell you something?”
I shrug, looking outward at the cars surrounding us.
“I don’t think you killed Darius for Samara or Violet and her little sister, either. I don’t think you did it because you thought he deserved to die at all. Inside you knew the truth. But the thought of suicide frightened you too much. When Violet so much as breathed a different story, you believed it.”
I wince. “Why would I be afraid of the truth? Suicide was a plausible story of her death. Even Violet said everybody knew that Samara was depressed. But if she was talking to Darius online and had opened up to him and he was accused of raping and killing Dana Farr, why wouldn’t he do the same thing to Samara? She was vulnerable. Thanks to our father, he didn’t learn his lesson the first time.”
“Regardless of whether or not he truly deserved death, you and Samara have something really important in common. You have no respect for your lives. The idea that Samara actually did something about it, though--that scared you, as it did every other kid in our school who watched this unfold and spent the last two weeks of school in the guidance office. But you, along with some others, were different. This scared you because it made you realize that she had the nerve to do what you didn’t. That’s what you’ve been ashamed of all this time.”
I slump further down in my seat, terrified at the possibility of him looking at me. “You...don’t know what you’re talking about. Before Samara died I was perfectly happy with my life. We have everything, Tyler. Why would I want to end it that way?”
“You already ended it.”
I gape at him. The tips of my fingers tremble.
“Look at yourself. You were right. It’s easier just to walk away. You don’t want me to drive you home right now. You don’t want to go back to school. You won’t go back with your friends from band. You were tired of everything and Samara is what made you realize that. You wanted to throw your life away, Violet dangled the opportunity in your face and you took it. If you fall off the face of the earth it’ll save you from the shame and embarrassment, won’t it?”
I shake my head at him, swallowing away nausea. “We’re not talking about this.”
“Look, you’re my sister. I realize that over the past few months I haven’t acted like I care about you, but I do. I don’t care about some perverted internet predator or some girl who’s been using me since prom. I want to help you.” The brakes of the car squeak in the midst of traffic.
“You can’t help me. And even if you could I wouldn’t want that from you. I want you to turn me in. That would help me.”
Tyler slaps his hand on the steering wheel, nearly veering off the lane. The sunlight glows in our path but he does not adjust his focus on the road. “Wasn’t I the one Violet threatened in order for you to sign you away to kill Darius? Isn’t it my business?”
I press my forehead to my palm, throat dry. “You don’t understand--”
“No Hayden. You used every excuse you could manage to get out of here. Samara, Dana, Violet, me. I’m sorry but you can’t use me like that. The others are either mysteriously dead or crazy. I don’t want you to die in prison. You need to live a life. I don’t care if you want to die being punished; if you get to save me I get to save you.”
“You don’t know how to get away with murder.”
My head. It’s pounding. Thudding, heavy, waiting for me to blow up and shriek something at him that will haunt me later. I should just get it over with: throw myself out of this car with traffic flying past us on the highway while we’re going seventy.
No. Tyler’s wrong. He speaks with a strange but comforting dominance in his voice that I’ve only heard twice: the day of our grandfather’s funeral and the day I came home after finding out about Samara’s death. He speaks as though he’s officially decided that I’m dead to him. My pleading guilty is what he considers an alternative to killing myself. Mourning my own death.
I never wanted that.
The sour taste of bile swims in the back of my throat.
Tyler’s Volvo sweeps past the exit for King and he sighs reassuringly. “I’m not helping you get away with it. If the cops knew Violet used extortion to make you kill him, that’s a criminal offense. It’s called duress. It can cut your jail time if there is any as well as lock her away long enough for you to get out of this town. Dad doesn’t know the truth about Violet so he told you to lie. Telling the truth in this case, however, gets you a better deal than lying does when it comes down to it.”
I ignore him. It’s not that I’ve never heard of duress; it’s that I’ve never considered the fact that I stole someone’s right to live in a fraction of a second excusable. “Where are we going?” I mutter as we continue to link in the crowds of the city.
“No one will believe you if suddenly blame this all on Violet. We’re going back to Baltimore. To the hospital Coroner’s office and seeing exactly what the cops have against you and if they have anything at all against Vince Galen. The investigation is ongoing. Violet might’ve told you that she left evidence of you at the crime scene but there’s still a possibility that she didn’t outsmart the cops. There might be something they’ve linked to her but haven’t gone public with yet.”
* * *
When Tyler and I pull into the parking lot of the Baltimore medical examiner across from the hospital, the time on the dashboard reads 4:38. He yanks the key from the ignition and the car’s lights blink dully. I open the door and head out to the parking lot, adjusting my shirt further down my waist while I wait for him to come back around the driver’s side.
“You know that I can’t do anything crazy, right? I’m only out on a coincidence.” I cringe when I almost use the term “lucky” to describe Vince’s death. The edges of my eyes are wet, but I force myself to relax. “They’re still watching me. I wouldn’t be surprised if they inserted a chip while I had that ankle monitor on. Besides, we only have like, twenty minutes till this place closes.”
“Twenty-two, actually.” He grins at me crookedly and I frown, but I think we’re both secretly relieved that after all that’s happened he still sounds like himself. “Of course we’re not doing anything crazy. I’m not sacrificing my Harvard acceptance. We’re just seeing what we can find.” Tyler takes his wallet out from his back pocket and his grin widens as he flips it open, nudging me while sliding out his student ID. “I guess it’s a good thing Dad got me that internship at the Medical Center last summer. Got me into Harvard Med and it’ll get us into this place. And when I cure cancer you’ll be the first to know. Deal?”
I glance out to the street before smiling at him, my skin tickling with discomfort. He’s never tried to help me. Ever. If I ever tried to pull a fast one on our parents, sneak out or not do my chores or even start my homework later than four PM, he’d lecture me as if it was his future at risk. Now he wants to check out Darius Blecker’s autopsy report. Acting more like I would’ve three months ago. Like he’s reminding me of who I was.
Before I can think to protest he’s marching toward the door and whispers over his shoulder, “Hide your face.”
Yes, because the country is currently very intrigued with the fifteen-year-old person of interest in the murder of a forty-something-year-old man whose face is often splattered all over the news.
I pedal behind him brushing strands from my bun into my eyes, walking in a rush of air conditioning.
“Hello, we’re summer interns,” he says, flashing his ID to the middle-aged receptionist behind a desk. “My friend here and I were working in forensics today and I can’t find my car keys. Do you mind if we check the lab for a few minutes?”
The woman behind the counter glares at my brother through black-rimmed glasses. “You left your car keys where you were supposed to be doing an investigation?”
I stare at the ground when her gaze flickers to me.
Tyler shakes his head, stepping in front of me so that I’m only visible up to his chest. “I’m sorry. I had a shortened shift this week. I guess I was just a little too excited to start the weekend.”
The receptionist raises her thin pointy brows and nods her head. “Aren’t we all?” she rolls her eyes and fixes the flow of her shirt. “You explain it to your instructor if anyone comes into the lab. And don’t touch anything if you’re not washed up and suited. I’m not losing my job for the sake of your parent’s ride from a decade ago.”
I wish that was the case.
Tyler’s face is wounded white from the woman’s jab at his impressive car. He bullies a smile on his face and nods. “Thank you.” He strides past the desk and down a long, dingy hallway that has doors on each side of the wall. I trip behind him on my toes, feeling security cameras pointed at me from every corner of the ceiling. But again, we have twenty minutes before anything will look suspicious enough to play back the security cameras. This is Baltimore after all. Worse has come through than some high school student looking for his car keys in the medical examining office. Tyler is a saint in King’s eyes and to anyone here who knew him when he was an incoming senior working here. Like anyone really cares who we are while they’ve got some brutal south-city shootings and mysterious freak accident deaths on their hands.
So I inhale as the presence of death coats my skin, making me shiver. The further we travel down the hallway of the Coroner, the quieter it becomes. The more the building belongs to the dead.
I remember the way Darius Blecker’s dead skin felt like stone. Like he just existed, no blood flow, no heartbeat, just...there. And this place contained hundreds of the same disturbing existence.
Tyler leads me into the tall open door that stands at the end of the hallway. “If my memory serves correctly, this is where they keep the records of the deceased. Also kind of serves as the morgue wing of the hospital. Shouldn’t be occupied right before they close unless a patient decides to go into the light within the next fifteen minutes or so.”
There he goes, cracking jokes he would normally give me the evil eye for if I sighed aloud.
I close my eyes, slipping through the door and shutting it behind me, helplessly gravitated to the sight of dead bodies wrapped in sheets lying in front of me on gurneys. The lab is windowless and the only lights linger over copies of the same lifeless stone.
The thought of a body dead by my gunshot wound lying among these tenses every muscle inside of me. “Please shut up and show me where his records are.”
He knits his eyebrows and shakes his head at my inability to snap out of the guilt. “Er, yeah. Don’t worry. We can do this,” he assures me.
He passes a row of bagged bodies, his hands clenched together defensively. I cross my arms over my chest behind the door, half expecting a body to shock back to life and snatch him down into hell.
And then me.
While Tyler combs through a drawer of names in the file cabinet on the opposite wall, I stare at the wrapped body in front of me, oddly trying to guess facts about the person’s life to distract myself from what we’re truly doing, the way my shoulders rise every time I hear footsteps out in the hallway.
The body lays about six feet long, broad shoulders. I know it’s not Vince only because this man is too thin. I flinch at the thought of them all being in here at one time or another: Dana Farr, Taylor Galen, Samara, Darius, Vince.
He could be in here right now while the county decides what to do with his body…
“Hayden?” Tyler asks from the other side of the room, breaths thick and hurried.
His shoulder jolts back when I respond. He keeps his eyes on the file he studies. “Um, never mind.”
I narrow my eyes, moving across the sea of bagged bodies beside him. “What is it?” I attempt to peek over his shoulder, but he stands almost a foot taller than me. He’s returning to his overprotective big-brother, timid self. I slide next to him, peering at the file he holds in his hands and seize it from him.
“GALEN, SAMARA L.”
I know what it is.
Tyler found her autopsy report from June.
“No gun was ever reported in her death,” he whispers.
Gripping the papers in my hand, I force myself to race through the contents. Name. Age. Sex. Address. City. State. Zip Code. Blood type. Words I don’t understand about her the condition of her blood when she died. Date of death. Location of death. Probable cause of death.
Probable cause of death.
My vision blurs at the single word scribbled in heavy ink to answer that question.
Suddenly all I can hear is the aching thud of my heart.
I can’t breathe.
I flip to the back of the file, forgetting why I came here in the first place.
The deceased was a 16-year-old Caucasian female with a history of chronic depression that was diagnosed in 2015. She committed suicide on the evening of June the 2nd 2016, body shows loss of consciousness and struggles for air in final moments, bloodstream contents indicate drug overdose and drowning. Paramedics were called by Mr. Vincent N. Galen (FATHER), arrived at the home approximately fifteen minutes after legal death, 21:30 (MILITARY), body found in the bathtub. Pronounced dead by MR. JAMES WRIGHT, MD.
Autopsy completed by Dr. Madeline Baker on 6/05/2016.