The 'RECORD' button on my old Panasonic resists; I have to put nearly all my weight on it in order to get it to click down. Finally the L.E.D. glows and the cassette tape starts to spin, permitting the examination to commence.
“Deceased is a thirty-year-old female,” I say, my voice echoing in a cube of cold cement.
Your body lies on a sterile metal table, bathing in ugly fluorescent light.
Sudden movement in the basement window, high up on the wall, catches my eye. Against the moonlit frosted glass appears the silhouette of a raven. I have heard that ravens are the harbingers of death, that their appearance signals impending doom. This particular bird has arrived too late. You are already dead.
I'm new to this, but I've been preparing for a long time. My duty is to determine the cold how, the cause of death, not to guess at the reason why. Still, I am a curious person, and it is difficult for me not to wonder. Gossip spreads easily in this small town of ours, and I’m just as much a member of the community as anyone. Furthermore, I know you. Knew you, rather. Complete detachment is out of the question in this case.
Did you think this would make things better?
“Noticeable facial petechiae,” I say, taking care to project toward the recorder.
The little burst vessels beneath your eyes remind me of the freckles that used to dust your cheeks every summer. You make appearances in some of my very first memories, among all the other neighborhood kids our age. We were like sisters, weren't we? When things got dark—for reasons ranging from lunchroom politics to trouble at home—we turned to each other to share a light.
“Rigor mortis has completely disappeared, but the epidermis shows no discoloration. That places the T.O.D. between 36 and 48 hours ago.”
We grew up together.
I remember when Courtney G ruined your sixth birthday. Your parents never had much, especially when you were young, but they managed to put together a pool party for the whole class at the Econo Lodge, complete with tiny hats and greasy pizza and 2-liters of Coke and Sprite. You wanted to get dinner and gifts over with quickly so that you could get back in the water, but a certain little bitch had other plans. When Courtney saw that you had ordered your pepperoni pizza with black olives, she didn’t politely pick the olives off of her slice; no, she had to dump the whole box. You wanted to push her through a wall, but your pa had already scolded you about running by the pool. All you could do was cry, and you were always so embarrassed to do that in front of anyone but me.
You came out of your shell in the fifth grade. The evaluator for the gifted and talented program asked you if you wanted to move up, and you told her no, because you didn’t want to be taken away from your best friend. While that may have factored in, I am quite sure you stayed because you had a seat behind Stevie Duncan. Stevie was awkwardly tall, and made a show of limping back to class after particularly intense wars waged on the playground blacktop. I never understood the attraction myself, but I suppose these things aren’t really quantifiable, especially at that age.
The day after fifth grade ended, you finally worked up the courage to tell Stevie how you felt. You bravely biked over to his house on Ridgewood, determined to bare your pubescent soul to him. But when you got there, you saw something that crushed you. Stevie was placing a grass ring on Courtney’s obnoxiously well-manicured finger. You wouldn’t let that get you down for long, though. You moved on… and on… and on... in quick succession. No need to name names.
Your full circle moment came on the night of freshman formal. You discovered that Stevie and Courtney had broken up while you were checking your coat, and by the time Bryan Adams was playing, you had kissed him in front of her. To your credit, you managed to resist the urge to immediately turn around and rub it in Courtney’s face; but at the afterparty, you could hardly stop smiling. Your ma had ordered two pizzas for you and your friends. Extra olives.
We grew apart.
“Significant stretch-marking across the lower abdomen; however, the subject exhibits little to no evidence of bloat.”
I suppose everything changed junior year, when Stevie knocked you up.
I did my best to be a good friend to you during the pregnancy. But when word got out, people got cruel, and for whatever reason, you made up your mind that you had to be cruel back. To me, to yourself, to everyone. Maybe I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. You were in an impossible position. Your parents were pressuring you to keep the baby, and Stevie was pressuring you to get rid of it. Very rarely was there any talk of what you wanted. Fitting, then, that you ended up disappointing both parties by deciding you were going to give the kid up for adoption.
It turned out not to matter: your child was stillborn, its umbilical cord having developed a knot sometime during the third trimester.
You were hard to contact after that. I heard you and Stevie tried getting back together, but it didn’t stick. He gifted you a heart-shaped locket with a picture of just him set inside, not one of the both of you. You probably should have seen that for the red flag that it was, but you were blinded by love. You wore that locket well past the end of your relationship, even though it sometimes gave you a rash on account of your nickel allergy.
You have a different red ring around your neck now.
“Oblique ligature marks about the neck… abrasions across the surrounding skin consistent with hanging by a noose of coarse rope. Theory also corroborated by Hangman’s break: bilateral fracture of the pars interarticularis at C2, suggesting lethal paralysis of the respiratory system.”
Home school was next for you, and I thought that was a good idea. You took advantage of the flexibility and managed to graduate a semester early. Unfortunately, the lack of routine alerted you to the presence of a void in your life: one which all manner of bad actors claimed to be able to fill. These people were a few years our senior, and pressured you into an extraordinarily unsavory lifestyle.
You used to like to take so much coke that you became numb to sex.
I know that because you caught me back up on things when we were twenty-five, under the most mortifying of circumstances. You had taken some reckless cocktail of drugs, and after a very public firework-induced meltdown at the town’s 4th of July celebration, were committed to a mental institution up the interstate. For years I fretted about whether I should write to you, and on the very day I decided I would, your first letter to me arrived. I replied, and we went back and forth like that for a while. I was proud; you were working so hard to get better. And finally, about a month ago, you got to come home.
It had been a long decade, hadn’t it?
Things took a turn when you found out Courtney G had become Courtney Duncan. You fell into your old habits the same way you had fallen in love: hard and fast. Reckless. I, meanwhile, was irate; you were destroying yourself, and you were making me watch. There was nothing I could do to keep us from falling apart.
Now, in a twisted way, we’re back together. You’re here, cold and dead on my table.
Could anyone have prevented this? Or was it always going to happen?
The raven is still around, flapping its wings in the window. I look at your stark-naked corpse, pale and scarred like the face of the moon, and the horrible reality of the situation bubbles to the surface. A nauseous feeling washes over me, eroding my thin veneer of professionalism. I do not want to cry in your samples, so I must excuse myself.
As I reach the door, it swings open. A man in a white coat walks in, his eyes glued to the chart in his hands. I try to avoid him, but he is upon me too fast. I close my eyes and brace myself for the impact… but it never comes.
I turn back to the table. The doctor looks down the bridge of his nose at you, nods, and grabs the voice recorder. He turns it over in his hand, confusion evident on his face. Then he hits the record button to stop the machine, and rewinds it to the beginning.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” I say. “Some of the buttons are sticking.”
The doctor is laser-focused on the old Panasonic. He waits for the click that tells him it is fully rewound, then presses play. I cringe, expecting to hear my own voice. Instead, the machine hisses with scratchy feedback. The doctor shrugs and presses record.
“Deceased is a thirty-year-old female,” he says. "Noticeable facial petechiae."
He took the words right out of my mouth. But then, were they ever mine? Where did I get them from? My memory of you becomes hazy, and my head starts to spin. Something's missing.
I struggle to perform a kind of mortal calculus.
You are dead.
What does that make me?
In the frosted glass of the high basement window, the silhouette raven opens its beak to sing. Its calls, shrill and bright, sound to me an awful lot like a baby boy crying out for its mother.
We go to him, you and I.