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An ATTENDED DEATH and Other Short Stories




Mrs. Kiernan’s body was in the bedroom, and Officer Joe Platt was relieved. Old people often died on the toilet, victims of the mighty Number Two, expiring upside down with their bare asses high and their blood-pooled faces stuck to the floor. Mrs. Kiernan, however, had the good grace to die in bed. Joe thought she looked peaceful, lying with the covers pulled up to her neck and a pillow tucked comfortably beneath her silver-haired head.

            Her wrinkled hands still gripped the top of the comforter, as if she just finished adjusting it moments before, and her position was so lifelike, that Joe stood by the bed for several minutes, staring down at her, half expecting to see her chest rise with a sudden intake of breath. But the old woman lay still, leaving Joe, a rookie patrolman, alone, in a darkening apartment.

            The sun was setting outside the bedroom window, casting its orange glow through the wooden shutters. A bar of light stretched across the room, illuminating Mrs. Kiernan’s face, emphasizing the lines on her skin and the blank stare of her eyes, transforming her peaceful look into one of shock or even terror. Had she woken before the end? Gasping for air? Clutching her chest and wincing in pain?

            Even in his brief career, Joe had seen his share of death and he often wondered what people thought about those last moments, as death’s train came roaring down its black tracks toward them.

            The rookie cops got the shit calls: car lockouts, barking dogs, fender benders. These were expected, unavoidable and usually boring and Joe was used to them, but rookies also got the unattended deaths, and each one unsettled him. He hated the entire experience: knocking on the door, waiting for a response that would never come, searching through the house looking for the body (unless, of course, the smell was ripe enough to guide him), the paperwork, and the inevitable and unpleasant family notifications. The worst part of all was waiting inside with the bodies. The corpses lay there, so still, so silent and yet, what seemed to him, so intact—as if they might sit up, scratch their heads, and ask him what time it was. To Joe, it was terrifying. How could a vacating soul leave so much behind? Maybe it’s not gone, something inside him often whispered. Maybe the spirit is trapped deep inside and no one knows but you, Joe. No one but you. Joe had no explanation for this voice and no protection from it. The gun and the badge meant nothing inside the houses of the dead.

            He never told anyone. Who would really understand? The senior cops were immune. They stood around accident scenes, talking, smoking cigarettes, and sucking down coffee, often just feet from the torn bodies. At Joe’s first fatal accident, the unfortunate driver had been thrown through his windshield and decapitated. Joe was filling out the report when his sergeant arrived.

            “How’s it going, Rookie? Any questions?”

            “Just a silly one, Sarge,” Joe said.

            “What’s that?”

            “How do you spell boulevard?” Joe asked.


            “I’m listing the location of the body parts. The driver’s head is… well it’s on the boulevard.”

            “Let me make it easy for ya,” the sergeant said, and kicked the head off the road. It bounced off the pavement, rolled over several times and came to rest in a ditch. The sergeant snickered.

            “There you go, rookie. You can spell ditch, can’t ya?”

            Everyone at the scene laughed but Joe’s voice dried up in his throat, his eyes never leaving the severed head.

            Joe looked down at Mrs. Kiernan’s face. Her mouth was slightly open and he could see the swollen ribbon of her tongue inside, its edges as lined as a peach pit. It looked foreign against her slack face. Not human at all. More like an animal’s tongue, a cow, perhaps, or a pig. The voice of his sophomore biology teacher, Mr. Daphney, stretched across the years to find him.

            “All of you pick a surgeon from your team to perform the dissection listed in your workbook. C’mon, we don’t have all day. Never mind. I’ll pick. Mary, Richard and… Joe! Let’s move, people.”

            Inside its plastic bag, the piglet swam in a tiny pool of formaldehyde. Joe held the scalpel in shaking fingers and looked down at the washed out fetus. The piglet’s eyes stared sightlessly back at him. What are you going to do with that? they seemed to say. I’m not dead. You can’t cut me! There’s nothing wrong with me! Look! Joe looked.

            The piglet was complete: pink skin, tiny hooves, perfect snout, and its miniature tongue protruding from its closed mouth.

            “Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!” one kid said, quoting the book they were all reading in English lit, The Lord of the Flies. Joe looked at him stupidly but said nothing.

            “Come on!” his other teammates urged,

            “What are you waiting for?”

            “Cutit! Cutit!”

            Joe sliced open the bag, and coughed into the reek of formaldehyde that flooded his nostrils. The others laughed and crowded around the pig, and to Joe, it seemed that their faces had turned wolfish: their eyes, narrow, their lips ravenous. Laughter erupted from another group and Joe saw one of the kids lift something small and pink high into the air.

            “Look, his nose is running!” the boy cackled and bobbed the severed snout. Joe’s stomach heaved and he fled the room.

            “Where’s Joey goin'?” someone yelled.

            “He’s scared!” another answered.

            “Fraidy cat! Fraidy cat! Wonder where you momma’s at!”

            More of the kids joined in, their chanting filling the room like a mocking choir. “Fraidy cat… FRAIDY CAT… FRAIDY CAT!!!”

            Mr. Daphney’s voice rose above the rest. “Quiet, everyone! Its okay, Joe, they’re dead. We can’t hurt them and they can’t hurt us. Okay? There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

            Officer Platt turned away from the body and shivered. It was cold in the apartment and that was different. Seniors usually kept their places hot, typical response to poor circulation, but it seemed Mrs. Kiernan had been the exception and Joe supposed he should be grateful. He couldn’t smell the dead woman at all. He tried headquarters from his cell phone, then realized he had no signal. He found an old rotary phone in the kitchen and dialed the station. A nasally tenor answered and Joe groaned. Reynolds. The old dispatcher loved harassing the rookies.

            Joe in particular. “Welllll?” Reynolds asked.

            “She’s here and she’s dead,” Joe said.

            “Is she sexxxy?” Reynolds taunted.

            “Shut the fuck up, Reynolds. Who’s the M. E. on call today?” Joe said.

            “Doug Broadwell, Mr. Sensitive. But there’s a big golf tourney up in Shenton today and you know he won’t be reachable.”

            “Christ,” said Joe. “I’ll be waiting here all day.”

            “Look on the bright side, Casanova, that gives you and the lady some quality time.”

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