R.H.D. Memorial, Morgue . . .
Of all the crazy things that I’ve ever done—at least, that I can remember from the last nearly five months—I can’t recall doing anything as dark and morose as this.
Ricky walked us in, smiling at this thin blond girl at the reception desk. She smiled back in such a way that I knew there was more going on there. He whispered something to her, and then we walked on by. We headed toward the Emergency Room where, thankfully, there was not a lot of activity.
“It’s a good design, keeping the morgue close to the ER,” Ricky said under his breath. “Less work for the orderlies and interns.”
We walked down several glossy-floored hallways that smelled like they had a fresh coat of bleach on them. It was stinging my eyes it was so prominent.
Ricky seemed to notice me squinting, “Bleach kills everything.”
“Even walking shadows?” I miffed.
He shrugged, “Maybe.”
We continued on down the long, hallway, our bodies reflected in the shiny white linoleum tiles. I could see our green scrubs rolling in front of us. Ricky had gotten the scrubs from the back of his black SUV. He had all sorts of expensive-looking stuff back there. Stuff they probably didn’t give him.
A couple of doctors walked past, not even noticing us. Like we didn’t exist. We were as inconsequential to them as lonely molecules floating through the cold dark universe. The caste system is still very much alive and well in America’s hospitals.
Ricky played it cool, as always. And soon we were turning left and heading down a shorter, darker hallway. “The morgue is like a big refrigerator,” he said. “To keep the bodies in a sterile environment. All sorts of concerns in a place like this.”
“Like what?” I asked as we approached a large set of double doors.
He slid his card into the magnetic strip reader and a small green light flickered a few times. The double doors opened slowly as if by magic.
“. . . disease and pathogens getting accidentally spread. Decay of the bodies—before and after autopsy. Contamination of the testing machinery. The whole thing is clean. Actually,” Ricky said as we approached a large, baby-blue door, “it’s cleaner than the average kitchen table. You could eat off of the floor of a morgue.”
“Not that you’d want to.”
Ricky nodded, “Right,” as he slid his card into another strip-reader. There was an audible click and the door opened.
As we walked in I felt a cold chill swallow up my body. The only part of me that was warm was my stomach, where the book was hidden underneath my t-shirt.
“So, how should we do this?” I asked as I got out the book.
Ricky held up a warning finger as he walked around the room looking in the different offices and small hallways. On the floor, there were checker-boarded black and white tiles. All of the machines were different shades of polished metal, some brighter and more reflective than others. The room had a sharp, pointy feel to it. Like, at any second some guy wearing a leather mask was going to come in with a huge knife in his hand and start hacking at the dead.
This whole place felt surreal. In the large room beyond this one, there were several square doors on the wall. Each one of them had an index card with some printed text on it.
Ricky walked out from that room, thumbing me to follow him. “This is the Body Farm, in here.”
I reluctantly walk forward, entering the room with all of the cadavers. My nose was getting desensitized to the bleach sting, so the smell wasn’t as bad. But it was colder in this room. Ricky pulled up a couple of heavy black vinyl chairs and dragged them to the center of the room, near a large stainless-steel table that had little troughs cut along the edges.
“That’s where the magic happens,” Ricky said. “Maybe we should put the book on there and try reading it?”
I shrugged. Why not? I lifted the heavy thing up and placed it in the center of the examination/autopsy table. I got this feeling that I was violating something sacred. I felt like someone was going to burst in on us at any moment. I needed to get my mind collected and calm.
“So tell me, what happens here?” I asked. I’d read about places like this. Seen a few on television, but I’d never been anywhere near one. Something told me that I could definitively scratch doctor off of my list of possible jobs in my erased past-life.
“Well, this is where we perform the autopsy. Also referred to as necropsy, postmortem, or postmortem examination. It is basically a dissection and examination of a dead body and its organs and structures to determine cause-of-death. In addition, we also observe the effects of disease, and establish the sequences of changes and thus confirm the evolution mechanisms of disease progression and processes.”
“You have to remember all of that to be a nurse?”
“No,” Ricky laughed, “. . . you have to learn that shit to become a doctor.”
“You went to med school? I didn’t know that,” I said, wondering what happened. Wondering if it was drugs, or girls, or video games about drugs and girls that stifled his education.
He nodded, his eyes looking off into the past, “Yeah . . . lots of money. Lots of time. Very little fun. I burnt out. I started med school when I was nineteen.”
That’s young, I said.
He explained that he used to be something of a prodigy, but somewhere along the way, whether it was his parents pressuring him, or his friends needling him, he just quit. Said, no more. And went to nursing school.
“The first real dissections, to study disease, happened around three hundred, B.C. This Alexandrian physician Herophilus and his partner Erasistratus were the first. But it wasn’t until Galen—a Greek physician—in the late second century, A.D., who was the first to correlate the patient’s symptoms and signs—you know, complaints—with what was found upon examining the affected part of the deceased.”
He tapped his fingers delicately on the shiny, metal examination table. “And that, my memory-challenged friend, is what eventually led to the autopsy. It signifies a great progression in modern medicine.”
“You’re actually smart,” I said, not trying to sound surprised.
“Oh, I’m a stoner, now. But I used to be a real Doogie Howser.”
“What’s a Doogie Howser?” I asked, not sure if this was another one of his trendy terms.
“Never mind,” Ricky said as he shook his head. “Open the book and see if it makes sense, now.”
And for the next 30 minutes we looked from all manner of angles, with all kinds of squints from every direction. Nothing. It still looked like a bunch of nonsense. We found ourselves sitting in those vinyl chairs, leaning back, yawning. The room had its own sound. A kind of low buzzing.
“What do they do next?” I asked, breaking the frustrated monotony. My head was hurting again, and I was tired. This was all a waste of time, so I figured I’d try to enjoy the moment. In a morgue.
“. . . During the autopsy?” I reminded him.
He kicked his legs up on the examination table, his arms folded behind his head as he leaned back in his chair. “First thing is an examination of the exterior for any abnormality or trauma. You have to make a careful description of the interior of the body and its organs. Then, depending on how much time you have, you do an examination of the cells and tissue under a microscope.
“The next thing is the main incision. For the torso, a Y-shaped incision is made. Each upper limb of the ‘Y’ extends from either the armpit or the outer shoulder and is carried beneath the breast to the bottom of the sternum. You cut to the breastbone, in the midline. And there’s really not that much blood like you’d think. None left. They’ve sucked it all out.”
He stood slowly, leaning forward over the table, as if there was a body in front of him. “From that point, at the bottom of the sternum, the incision is continued down to the lower abdomen where the groins meet in the genital area. Sometimes you get a model that overdosed. If you know what I mean?” he said, raising his eyebrows up and down several times.
“That’s nature, pal. Even dead chicks have nice bodies. Well, until you start cutting on them. Some morticians actually got charges pressed on them for, um,” he tip-toed around the words, “. . . inappropriately manipulating the bodies.”
I sat up, “What kind of person does that?”
“A lonely person,” he sighed. “Anyway, listen. Depending on where you went to school, the procedure changes a bit. In one method, each organ is removed separately for incision and study.
“But . . . in the en masse methods, the chest organs are all removed in a single group and all of the abdominal organs in another, for later examination. The great vessels to the neck, head, and arms are ligated—which is, um, tied-off, basically. The organs are removed as a unit for dissection. The neck organs are explored in situ only, or removed from below.”
“In situ?” I asked.
“Where they stand. Then the dissection proceeds. They usually go from the back, except where certain case specific findings may warrant a variation. Every death is a little different, especially when there is a lot of trauma involved. So if the body is mangled, you have to adjust. Go with the flow.”
“Doesn’t that make you sick to your stomach? I’m getting nauseated just imagining it.”
Ricky laughed, “No, man. I mean, maybe at first. But then it’s like your not even cutting on a person. It’s just a thing. An object. A piece of meat.”
A piece . . . of meat.
That’s what we all are once we die. Kind of a depressing reality. Even as our body is cooling, we are nothing more than a mound of flesh, numbered and catalogued by some lonely morticians who might or might not touch you inappropriately. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
“Anyway, all of those organs are removed, in groups, so that they can study the functional relationships. The human body is fascinating. But it’s not really that complex, once you take apart a few of them. So then we study the brain, in position. Once the notes are made, and all of this is being videoed, of course—”
“Of course.” My stomach was crawling around near my neck, tickling me with bile.
“. . . then we free the brain attachments and remove the whole thing. You can, depending on the cause of death, remove the spinal cord, too. Just depends.”
“And that’s that,” I added, standing from the chair, feeling something strange.
Ricky looked up at me, “No, Jack. Then we study the external and cut surface of each and every organ. We look at its vascular structures, including arteries . . .”
And as he’s talking, I see something in the back corner of the room start to grow from the shadow of a small metal table. It’s actually darker than the shadow of the table, cast by the florescent overhead lights. It’s about four feet tall, slightly bent at the waist, with stubby little arms and long curled fingers.
“. . . lymphatics, fascial or fibrous tissue, and nerves . . .”
This thing starts to creep towards the wall where all of the cadavers are resting. Where each body has its own metal bed. This dark thing . . . it’s searching for something specific. It wants for something. And this shadow, it definitely has form. It’s three-dimensional.
“. . . Specimens are taken for culture, chemical analysis, and other—” and Ricky’s words trail off as he looks at me looking at something behind him. “What are you looking at, Jack?”
My eyes glance over at Ricky briefly, and then back to the shadow that has now made his way to the far side of the body farm. I whisper, “No . . . nothing . . . I think I’m just tired, and . . .” And even as I’m speaking I realize that my words don’t make sense. My mumbling has only made Ricky that much more apprehensive.
“If I turn around, will I see anything?” he asks with a whisper.
I half shrugged, my eyes still watching the shadow do its inspection. It was crawling in and out of the different body drawers, I suppose to give the cadavers a firsthand inspection.
Ricky turned slowly, as if he might spook whatever it is I was looking at. And as he turned, I noticed another one stalk past us, paying us no mind. It headed toward the body that the first one was taking interest in.
Ricky squinted, looking in the general direction I had been. “Where is it?”
“They,” I whispered as silently as I could. “There’s a couple of them, now. They are taking a keen interest in one of the bodies on the right. Second column, third body up.”
“I don’t see anything,” Ricky said.
“That’s because you’re sane. And I’m turning into a lunatic.”
“You’re lucky,” he said reverently, as if he would have traded anything in the world to have my eyes at that moment.
I can’t imagine anything less lucky than this. This is something that will ruin whatever life I have to live. Hell, it might be the reason I’m messed-up to begin with. How do I know I wasn’t some ghost hunter? Some paranormal investigator? A misguided priest performing exorcisms?
And even though he couldn’t see them—three of them, now—he felt something. Maybe he just felt my terror radiating outward. There was no doubt in his mind that there were things going on around us that science and med school couldn’t explain. And so the two of us, Ricky and I, just stood there watching. I realized that I was shaking, too. Not a Todd Steele reaction, I know.
And we stood there, as if time had stopped.
Just him and me . . . and these little spooks.
Two pieces of warm meat.
And in as calm a voice as I could muster, I said, “I’m not lucky, Ricky . . . I’m cursed.”