Haunted or Traumatized: Why Not Both?

You can get through a lot in life with the right soundtrack.

I’m always acutely aware of this when I’m on shift. Heading off to a death scene is kind of a downer, but heading off to a death scene with a well-chosen song blasting out your speakers is kind of awesome.

That night:

I had been on a conference call with a bunch of friends when the pager went off. This virtual meet-up was a weekly occurrence and had become a beacon of connection in my otherwise isolated, weird-kid life. To be brief, on Instagram I had made friends with a nation-wide collection of police officers, death investigators, nurses and morticians and a group of us would jump on an audio app called “Clubhouse” and commiserate on Thursdays at 6pm. (We still do if you want to join- we call ourselves “The Why Incision.” Look us up.)

It’s great to have a community of people with whom to talk shop. Sure, my friends and “readers” always enjoy hearing about my work shenanigans. Until they don’t. Everyone loves true crime until it gets… like… super dark and you start talking about the really fucked up shit. Then you start crying and people get all bent out of shape because you didn’t issue a trigger warning. With “The Why Incision,” there’s no need to edit yourself or warn anyone that you’re about to say something incredibly disturbing. Everyone has seen it all, done it all, smelled it all and thrown up on their own boots. Nothing is taboo.

We’re fine… we’re all just FINE

Back to the night at hand, I was being dispatched to a decomposing body in a creek bed. Naturally, I was disappointed to leave my group chat with my buddies, but they had all agreed I should absolutely keep them on speaker and continue our dialogue while I was driving to the scene. Furthermore, one of them dared me to roll up to the scene playing “Panama” by Van Halen as loud as possible. Never one to disappoint an audience, I did just that… even stopping a block away from the scene to cue up the tune so the chorus would be hitting right when I arrived and jumped out of the truck.

I pulled up to the suburban trailhead and erupted into the night like an 80s vixen in a music video. I can’t be sure, but I think my arrival was accented by a waft of smoke and a fire display as David Lee Roth screamed “PANAMA” into the night. The wooded area where my decedent lay was a few hundred feet off of a sidewalk that hugged a tidy, sterile series of condos on one side. The young, upwardly mobile with their designer dogs and toddler’s on tricycles stared in horror as my boots punched the ground and I heaved my scene bag out of the truck. My compatriots in the chat room across the country cheered through the phone as I excused myself from the conversation and strutted to the small clump of emergency workers. They were gathered in the quaint circle of benches next to the gate leading to the designated green-space. This “Green-Space” was actually a wide, savage swath of wilderness that tore a jagged rift through an otherwise “nice” neighborhood. Austere statutes of city founders stared their disapproval down copper noses as I approached the officers with a grin. Call it childish, if you will, but one of the things I love about this job is its unapologetic interruption of sanitized life. It’s an appropriate metaphor, I suppose: the straight pathways of a quaint walkway with order on one side and raw, untamed foliage on the other. It’s a reminder that utter and complete chaos is only a few steps away from your tastefully decorated apartment. Death is the ultimate badass- it doesn’t care how much you pay for your 2-bedroom, 2-bath with a community room and an HOA. Death is wildly barreling through the world with reckless abandon and won’t be deterred by a fence, or a groundskeeper with a set of hedge trimmers. PANAMA!!!!!

“He’s that way,” said one of the detectives as he gestured down the paved trail. “Maybe a quarter mile.”

I glanced down the pathway, and turned back to the officers. A detective being there was unusual. Normally detectives didn’t leave their homes at night unless there was something undeniably suspicious about a death. I mulled this over as I returned to the truck and pulled the stretcher out of the back. On the one hand, this was a smaller town in our county and it didn’t take much to rile the locals. But still, a decomposing body in the creek usually meant a transient individual died where some poor cross-fit jogger would find them… not really something that constituted a forensic mystery. Someone must be hunting for overtime, I concluded. Honestly, how weird could this death be?

I slammed the door, hit the lock button on my key-fob, slapped my bag on the stretcher and turned to the officers. “Okay, let’s go.”

Our company was somber as we rolled down the pavement. “Nice couples” came out on to their green-space-facing patios to watch as we marched by. I resisted the urge to smile and wave as our parade passed. In a few minutes, we arrived at the side of the officer who was guarding the access point to the decedent. “The stretcher won’t make it,” he observed as we drew closer. He pointed at the tangle of trees and bushes where something of a “path” was visible… and I use the term “path” loosely. The sidewalk cut off and a narrow dirt trench wandered off into the woods. The trees hung low and brambles crowded the ground. Beyond the glow of the lamp-posts lining the sidewalk, the woods were swallowed in darkness. The black sky hung behind the trees and bushes like a thick velvet backdrop. And we were going in.

He’s back there… good luck!

I pulled out my notebook and asked for the details, figuring this would be the last time my hands would be free to write anything down for a while. The officer guarding the path listed off the call times and few facts he had at this point. Some dude with a new metal-detector had decided to take his new hobby into the unknown. He had hiked into the woods behind his home, only to be met with a rank smell and a horrifying sight. There was dead body laying in the creek bed. The sun had still been up when the witness made this discovery and he had stumbled out of the woods and called the police, likely throwing his new metal detector in a dumpster on his way home.

“It’s BAD, Grace,” said the officer as we picked our way through the woods. “I mean… REALLY BAD. It’s covered in maggots. You can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman, you can’t tell if he’s black or white… and… and… ” the officer gulped. “The ducks were eating him.”

“What?” I stopped dead in my tracks.

“The DUCKS, Grace. The ducks were all over him. THEY WERE EATING HIM.” The officer shook his head as though he was trying to dislodge to vision from his mind… one of the most benign, serene creatures on the planet, voraciously consuming human flesh.

I thought about it for a moment. On the one hand, most wild animals show little restraint when it comes to eating rotting flesh. Mother nature is terrifyingly efficient in that way. On the other hand, ducks aren’t really known for being stone-cold carrion scavengers- not like crows or rats. And a second later, when the truth dawned on me, I opted to keep it to myself. While the ducks may have inadvertently swallowed a mouthful of decomp… my guess was the ducks were eating the maggots as opposed to the dead guy himself. The ducks were probably in hog-heaven with all the wiggly little morsels that were suddenly available for consumption. And I could have said as much to the officers. But I loved the notion that the police would now be convinced that their town was overrun with zombie-ducks: demonic water-foul with a craving for human flesh.

It took a while to pick through the brambles and bushes. Even though our decedent wasn’t too far off the sidewalk, an epic battle stood between us and his body. I was raised in Arizona, where the high-desert climate and lack of rain prevents anything from overgrowth. But there are no such limiting factors here. The unbridled lushness of the greenery is both beautiful and terrible to behold. Things grow and keep growing and there’s nothing to stop them.

As a child, I remember reading the story of Sleeping Beauty and the hundreds of knights who perished trying to battle their way through the thorny foliage surrounding her tower. The image meant nothing to me as I had never encountered a plant more ornery than a raspberry bush with it’s modest pricks and pokes. But after moving here, I was called to a suicidal hanging in which the decedent had wandered out to his favorite tree by a river in order to do the deed. I’d had to stumble and crawl through a half mile of overgrown blackberry brambles in order to reach the body. The brambles were well over my head and decorated with half-inch-long, skewering needles that would break off in your clothing and skin. The tangles would catch hold of your pant-leg and grip you in a spiked noose. It took hours to get to him. And we could only carry him out after a deputy showed up who had a machete in his car for just such an occasion.

This scene wasn’t as bad as that one, but it was close. My pant legs and hair were full of snagged leaves and thorns by the time we arrived at the side of our decedent…. or rather… above him. As the branches cleared to make way for the creek. I discovered our decedent was at the bottom of an almost 12 foot drop off. The ground and trees gave way to a cliff-like overhang, with our dead guy laying in the partially empty creek-bed below. In the darkness, the terrain and the body were practically invisible. But the police officers illuminated his body with flashlights… scattering a small collection of zombie ducks as they did.

“Shit.” I muttered as I stared down at him.

“Yep,” said the detective at my side. “We also have a big pile of belongings up here in the woods. No idea if it’s his or not.”

The “pile” consisted of several shopping bags from a nearby Target, along with items scattered through a small clearing just above where the dead body lay. And it was… a bit weird. First I saw the wig: cheap, shoulder-length, brown hair. Then I saw the make-up. Then the barbie dolls… then the barbie-doll clothes… LOTS of barbie doll clothes. On the upside, there was a bottle of prescription medication and a cell-phone that wasn’t password protected. But even these items presented a problem.

Our area has a massive homeless population. Even in a nice, suburban area like this.. the wooded areas are crowded with “unhoused campers” who leave colossal collections of debris in their wake: wrecked tents with bent poles and broken zippers, shredded sleeping bags, empty food containers, papers, clothing, etc etc. There’s no way of knowing who actually owned any of it. Anything with a name- such as a license, credit card of prescription bottle, might belong to the inhabitant of the abandoned “camp” or it might just be shit they stole out of someone’s car. It might be the remnants of a previous camp. The woods around any community was littered with piles of flotsam, left there by and indigent population that stayed for a few nights before being eradicated by law-enforcement when the locals complained.

“There’s another camp a few hundred yards that way,” the detective waved his flashlight toward the north. “We’ve got a few people there. We’re asking them if any of them know this guy. They’re all saying ‘no.’ They claim they had no idea he was here.”

I sighed. “Well, let’s go take a look at him.” I ambled down into the gully, swinging off exposed tree roots and rocks as I made my way down the side of the drop off into the creek bed with reluctant officers scrambling along behind me.

Our decedent was laying face up, with his head and upper body exposed and his legs partially submerged in the water. He was writhing with insect life and his face was gone. The body was swollen with bloat and the skin was black and festering. half-illuminated with flashlights, it was clear he had been here for at least a week or two. As I bent over him, I heard skittering and splashing in the water and brush around me. Our arrival had caused the scavengers to scatter and the night was full of sounds as the animals retreated.

Oh… you’re taking him? I guess… that’s fine…”

“Shit,” I said again. We were screwed. The body was unrecognizable. It might have been an average-shaped human at one point. But the decomposition had rendered any features unrecognizable. Even if we found some form of ID. We would never be able to confirm if the face matched the picture. What’s more, the body was partially bonded with the earth below it. Getting him out of here would be quite the production. It was dark. The decedent was impossibly placed and layers of skin would slide off him when we started moving him.

“We’re going to need the fire department,” I said to the detective who had bravely descended to the dead man’s side with me.

“Yeah, they’re almost here.”

“Ok.” I gave the body a cursory look. “I don’t see any obvious injuries, but I’ll never know until we can get him out of here and into better lighting.”

The detective nodded wth grim understanding. “We’ve sifted through the belongings. We have a name: Alexander Winthrope. 45 years old. It might be him. I don’t know.”

“Alexander Winthrope…” I tasted the name. It sounded like he should be playing tennis at the country club, not decomposing in a creek bed. I glanced above, a couple of officers were looking over the edge of the embankment. It was possible our guy had just been sitting on the cliff-like protrusion and simply fell. It wasn’t a fatal distance and he didn’t have any obvious breaks. So maybe he had some kind of natural event. Or he was high on something. Maybe someone stabbed him in the back and threw him off. It could be anything.

I clambered back up to the clearing above. The police were picking through the pile of miscellaneous items. I joined them as we examined each new object with our flashlights. An empty bottle of metformin with the Winthrope name on the side, the dolls, a massive collection of doll clothing. A few receipts from the Target down the street indicated all of these items had been purchased at the same time about 10 days ago. Then we found it- a small, pre-paid cell phone. I flipped it open and the tiny screen sprang to life. I flipped through the call log, flipped through the contacts (there weren’t many) and out of curiosity, went to the photos.

The first few weren’t anything interesting: a blurry picture of someone’s feet, a selfie of a handsome man with olive skin, shoulder length black hair, glasses… wearing a newsboy cap, smiling. But next was a series of photos of… Barbie dolls- The very Barbie dolls that were laying at our feet now. And what was weird about the photos was that they weren’t weird. Not to be vulgar, but I would have expected to see photos of Barbie dolls in compromising positions: Barbie, naked, lounging in the mud. Barbie and Ken going at it doggie style on the forest floor. These are the kinds of photos I’m accustomed to seeing on the phones of my decedents. I mean- not always with Barbie dolls. But you get the idea. I’m used to expecting the worst and having that expectation exceeded.

This phone was filled with pictures of the Barbie dolls, fully clothed and faces directed at the camera as though they were posing for a friend. They looked like a bunch of buddies, hiking in the woods together. Their stiff plastic arms were wrapped around each other in camaraderie. Some waved, all unblinking smiles and good times. It was… weirdly wholesome. Like someone had done a photo-shoot in the forest with a half-dozen of their closest plastic friends.

“What the hell?” I mumbled to myself. I showed the photos to the cops and detective who looked equally uncomfortable. Matched with the bags and receipts, the answers we came up with only produced more questions. Why the hell would someone (most likely this Winthrope guy) spend almost $200 on Barbie dolls, doll clothes and make-up, only to bring it all out here to take posed photos.

There was a wallet with an ID, Alexander Winthrope again. It looked like the selfie in the phone, but that didn’t mean anything. Both items could be stolen.

“Have we called the fire department yet?” I asked the officers. As though on cue, we heard talking and rustling from the woods behind the clearing and 3 rubber-clad firemen erupted from the woods.

I hate firemen. Everyone knows it, including them. They’re the frat boys of the emergency services world and they think they know everything. I, on the other hand, know that I don’t know everything… but I DO know more about death than they do.  I also know that I’m in charge on death scenes… a matter they seem to take some issue with. In my experience firemen are generally uncomfortable with the thought that they might not be the most important people in any given situation. They hate not being in charge. And they really hate a woman being charge; especially a woman who isn’t impressed by them.

Ugh… you guys again…

Funny thing is, I’m so acutely aware of my disdain for America’s Heroes, that I am sickeningly nice to them. I really do my best to be cooperative while maintaining a death-grip on my authority. So, when they arrived at our scene, I smiled and greeted them as though I was hosting a tea-party in their honor… a smelly, maggot-ridden tea party. I graciously escorted them down the drop-off into the creek bed where they stood around discussing the extrication process. It was bad. They would have to rig up a whole pulley system with a basket. Everything was slippery: the cliff-side, the creek-bed, the decedent. We were looking at quite a production, one that was almost impossible in the dark.

The Fire Lieutenant pulled me and the detective aside and told us just that.

 “I mean, if it were a matter of life and death, we could do it, no question. But we don’t have a full house tonight. The next closest truck is in the middle of a structure fire and to be completely honest, doing this right now is dangerous. The drop off is only maybe a dozen feet, but trying to rig up a wide-angle rescue for a dead guy at night really isn’t worth the risk to my crew.”

(For anyone paying attention, this is why I actually hate firemen: Pure jealousy. They’re way better than I am at advocating for their own well-being. They’re comfortable saying: “No, it’s too dangerous.” -thereby avoiding injury and burnout. Meanwhile, I’m wearing a pair of grey slacks and sensible flats while I slide down a 12-foot embankment into a creek bed in the dark. YOLO!)

The detective and I exchanged a look. This wasn’t a HUGE problem, but it was a problem. One of the officers took initiative to check and see staffing levels and returned to let us know the area was “below minimums”- which is to say, there weren’t enough officers on duty to adequately protect the city. And there definitely weren’t enough officers to leave one standing there in the woods to guard a dead body all night until the fire department felt more comfortable.

“Well…?’ I said to the detective.

“Well, I don’t like it, but we don’t really have a choice. I mean he’s been unguarded down there for how long?”

“I don’t know, a week or more.”

“Right, so he’s been down there at least a week. He can lay down there one more night. It won’t make a difference.”

I shrugged. “I guess not.” It felt grossly negligent to just leave an unguarded dead body overnight. But I certainly couldn’t stay there by myself. And while I could’ve made a fuss and demanded law enforcement post a uniformed officer at the scene, or demand that fire suck it up and get to work, such behavior certainly wouldn’t have won me any friends. Not that friend-making is my guiding star…

“Okay, well… we’re out! Good luck tomorrow!” The fire department rolled away in their big, fat, stupid man-mobile with all the ladders and lights. They tittered like children at a fart joke, giddy with the feat they had just pulled. They had just passed the grossest buck ever to tomorrow’s crew and now they were going back to the station to play video games and eat chili.

I watched them go. No such luck for me. I was on a 48 hour shift and would still be on duty tomorrow morning when this debt became due.  

The officers and I agreed to meet back here at 9 am. We packed up our gear and silently walked back to our cars. The detective loaded the dead guy’s stuff into a plastic bag and put it in his trunk until tomorrow. Our mood was somber and ashamed. No one liked what we were doing, leaving him there. But what choice did we have now? 

Oh… Wait… You’re LEAVING him!?! Well that’s just GREAT!!!

The next morning arrived and even though I arrived at the scene at 9 am sharp, I was clearly late. I pulled up to find the Fire Department had already chopped down a bunch of the trees and rigged up a body-basket. Furthermore, they were all dressed in full Tyvekk gear and wearing their SCBA tanks as though they were in a zombie movie or something.  I followed the path from last night and once again descended the wall of the creek bed to view my decedent. He was putrefying and the bloating and rot completely obliterated any identifying features. Shoulder-length black hair fell from his scalp in clumps when I rolled him on to his side to check for trauma. The body was water-logged, stiff and covered with mud. A visual exam was all but impossible. When the detective asked if I could name a cause of death any more than last night, I shrugged.

“Well, I don’t see any obvious injuries. We’ll have to put him through the Lodox and see what we’ve got.”

“lodox” Latin for “fancy x-ray machine”

Overnight, the detective had done some research. He had gone by the Target store where all of the items came from and asked to see their surveillance footage from the date and time on our decedent’s receipts. He had recorded some of the footage on his phone and showed me while the fire department did their thing.

There was our guy… Shoulder-length black hair below a newsboy cap, wearing the same clothes he had on now. He was pushing a cart-full of newly-purchased items past the registers and out the door.

“Okay, I guess that answers that question.”

“Yeah,” The detective agreed. “I also ran him through the system and found some info.  He’s living in transitional housing- trying to get out of being homeless. I guess he’s Native American… like grew up on a reservation in South Dakota. He worked at a gas station nearby. Everyone said he was a super nice dude. Nicest dude you’ll ever meet. No one’s seen him for about a week and a half. They all figured he went back home. No criminal history. Police have had a bunch of contacts with him but all because he was a witness or a reporting party.” The detective shrugged. “He was also gay…”

I absorbed this description and felt a twinge of sadness. His sexual orientation didn’t matter but it also did. The LGBTQ+ population is at a higher risk for assault as well as suicide. You combine that with being Native American & homeless and in my mind that made this death more tragic by a thousand-fold. He was special.  I mean, every person we deal with is special in some way. But Alexander’s death hit me with a profound sense of loss. I thought about the pictures of the dolls. The large quantities of make-up. He came out to the woods to perform a photo shoot with his little plastic friends in a way that most people would consider “weird”. I considered the description- that he would do anything for anybody, nicest guy you’ll ever meet. He was homeless but trying. I even considered his name… “Alexander Winthrop.” I couldn’t be sure, but my guess was it wasn’t the name he was born with. Likely it was some “re-branding” attempt to Anglicize him and make his existence more palatable for the white, hetero-normative masses.  

He should be alive.

I felt like I was standing over the body of every “weird kid” I’d ever known… including myself: People who wanted nothing more than to simply exist in a world that was constantly trying to churn out straight, obedient, breeder drones. It broke my heart to think of him out here, alone… dying. We needed him. The world needed him. People like him are in short supply and now he was gone.

I’ve got 99 problems and white, hetero-normative, patriarchy is basically all of them.”

“So, have you called the pathologist?” The detective shook me out of my musings. The fire department had him out of the creek-bed and were trucking him through the trees and brush toward the trail were my stretcher was waiting. I hadn’t made contact with the doctor who would make the call: autopsy or no. I had an unfortunate suspicion I knew how it was going to go when I did. The on-call pathologist for today, Dr. Newton, was a brilliant, sardonic, impatient curmudgeon. Normally I loved his filter-less sarcasm, but this didn’t bode well for Alexander. Dr. Newton was retiring at the end of the year. He cared less and less about cases like this one. He would hear the words: “Homeless” and “Decomposed” and immediately shut off.

“Not yet, I’ll do it now.”

As expected, when I called Dr. Newton he sighed with exasperation. “There’s no obvious cause of death,” I said, trying to sell the post-mortem exam. “We don’t know if he fell, we don’t know if he was assaulted or had some kind of natural event. The medications at the scene indicate a history of high-blood pressure and diabetes. I guess it could also be an overdose. I’m really not sure.”

“He’s HOOOMELESSSSS!” Dr. Newton said with exaggerated deliberateness. “It’s an overdose. Get some blood samples if you can and then release him to a funeral home. I’m not doing an autopsy on a decomposed transient.”

I cringed and glanced at the detective. As much as I liked Dr. Newton I also found him intimidating as hell and I was unnaturally invested in his opinion of me. My resolve withered.

“Ummm… ok. I’ll talk you later…” I hung up and faced the detective. I felt very much like a straight, obedient, breeder drone as I spoke. “Dr. Newton says, ‘no dice.’ He doesn’t want to autopsy him.”

The detective stared at me. “Are you serious? We have no idea why this guy is dead. It could, literally, be a hate crime and he doesn’t give a shit?”

“Uh, no.”

And this is one of the unfortunate truths of the medical examiner’s office. Who gets an autopsy is so often reliant on the mood, workload and career-path of whatever pathologist is in charge that day. Some are more contentious than others. Some are burned out and over-worked. And all too often, those factors determine who gets an autopsy and who doesn’t.

“What the fuck?” said the detective, who was clearly a better person than I was at that moment. “Can you call him back and tell him that I would really like him to reconsider.”

I nodded and shame-facedly dialed Dr. Newton’s number again. He was no happier to talk to me a second time, but I made the case. “We’re not even absolutely sure of his ID. He’s only 45 and without some kind of exam, I have no idea what his cause of death is…” I held my breath, waiting for the tirade to start… the kind of tirade Dr. Newton was famous for.

But Dr. Newton didn’t tear into me like a bear in a campsite. “Well, If that’s how you guys feel, why didn’t you say so the first time? Bring him in, we’ll take a look. We’ll at least put him through the Lodox and see if he’s got any bullets in him. Sheesh. Have a backbone.” And he hung up.

I nodded at the detective who nodded back. Not to put too fine a point on it, I felt like an idiot. First I had been bulldozed by Dr. Newton. After which I got bulldozed by the detective. Then I was shamed by Dr. Newton for being bulldozed in the first place when he was one that did the dozing. And on top of it all, Alexander was dead and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the human race had seriously lost out on an uncommon soul and no one knew it but me.

It was weird.

I took Alexander’s body to the morgue and dropped him off, the same as any other. But as I was leaving, I placed my hand on the body bag, feeling Alexander’s chest beneath the thick plastic. “I’m sorry, man. Better luck next time. I’ll talk to you later.”

I didn’t expect it to be true.

Let me explain.

I was raised by Charismatic, Evangelical Christians who were really into the whole concept of angels, demons, God and the devil. There was some disagreement regarding “ghosts” and other entities.  But the message was clear: Things that we couldn’t see were exerting influence over our lives and circumstances.

I didn’t question it and believed my crazy-ass mother when she would claim that any number of everyday annoyances were actually “spiritual attacks from ‘The Evil One.’” I mean, it seemed a little egotistical to believe Satan himself would take time out of his day to flood our toilet or give the dog ticks. If there is a malicious, universal enemy to the human soul, you’d think that villain’s time would be spent on big-ticket items like genocide and getting the Kardashian renewed for another season. But whatever. Believing in the supernatural seemed to offer her some sense of order- if good or bad things happened, it’s because something or someone was making them happen and the world wasn’t just random chaos.

The evil one has come for you…

My worldview has changed… since random chaos is pretty much all I see. I believe in cause and effect. I believe in a logical chain of events. But I also believe some shit just happens for no fucking reason. I’ve had to stand quietly by while grieving families and heartbroken friends ask me all kinds of existential questions about their loved one’s death. They want a reason… a good one.

I don’t try to answer such questions any more than I would try to drain the ocean with a tablespoon. But my general opinion is that there is no reason. People get wiped out just as easily as a squirrel can get hit by a car or a bee-colony can collapse. Every living thing on this planet is subject to forces bigger than itself.  And for the most part, those forces- disease, physics, entropy, death- don’t care if we live or die.  They’re busy barreling through the universe, dancing to their own tune and we may or may not be the unfortunate bug in their path. It’s nothing personal.

So, I guess I’m not sure if I believe in God or the devil anymore. I’m not sure if I believe in the metaphysical or a “spirit realm.” I’ve never seen a ghost, nor have I ever had an irrefutable “paranormal” experience. And I can’t help but think that if dead people DO hang around after they buy the farm, they wouldn’t bother trying to talk to living people. I mean… have you met living people? They’re total dicks.

That said….

Alexander followed me around for a while. I suppose I could say that I was haunted. When I spoke to his family about the death, they told me he was more or less an orphan who was raised by his aunt & uncle in pretty severe poverty. He never fit in on the Sioux reservation because he was gay and he cast himself into the big, wide world about a decade ago and they hadn’t heard much from him since. Hearing his story only tightened the hold his death had on my heart. I thought about him at the most inopportune moments. I held the image of his smiling phone-selfie in my brain.

How do you miss someone you never met? What the hell is up with that? I am the picture of dry stoicism on SIDS deaths. I have handled death scenes with multiple child fatalities with out blinking. But Alexander got to me. He stuck with me. Maybe he’s still sticking with me. I don’t know.

I have a lot of friends who are “Woo-Woo.” They’re all about the spirit guides and ancestors. A couple buddies claim to be mediums, another is a crack-shot with tarot cards. ALL OF THEM have something to say about my constant contact with the dead. One in particular says that the dead get distracted by me and attach to me rather than move on to their appointed afterlife. I dismissed the thought like the possessed toilet in my childhood home… until Alexander came along.

I finally had to ask someone… my friend Leesha. I suppose if anyone has otherworldly powers, it would be her. And I find her believable because she’s never tried to make money off of it and has no problem telling people things they don’t want to hear. That and she has an adorable southern accent. I approached the subject as delicately as I could as we were working out in the gym (yes… the gym).

“So… I’m in the throes of a mind-bending existential melt-down! Let’s do some cardio!”

“So… uh… So, I think I might have a passenger…”

Her eyes widened. “Oh my god… are you pregnant?”

“Jesus… NO. Not that kind of passenger. I mean like … a spirit or a ghost or something… I don’t know.” I was a little disappointed she didn’t immediately notice. I half expected her to greet me as I walked in the door and then say something like who’s your friend, here? As she gestured to the empty space beside me.

“Ooooohhh. Ok. Tell me all about it.”

The whole story came pouring out. Followed by a haphazard description of the completely unreasonable connection I felt with this guy… like I was supposed to know him, or we should have been BFFs but something went haywire and we ran into each other too late. And now I was weirdly mourning the loss of someone I would never have the privilege to know… and it made no sense. For all I knew, he might have been a raging asshole… or maybe I was the raging asshole and he would have hated me. Who knows?

Leesha listened intently. “I don’t think it’s anything bad,” she finally said. “I don’t think he’s feeding off of you or anything. I think maybe he just likes you. That can happen. He might just be hanging around for a bit to see what you’re up to and he’ll move on when he’s ready. If you want, you can perform some kind of ritual for him- to let him go or let him know it’s time to leave… I mean if he’s bothering you. I could do it with you…”

I went home and thought about it. I even researched burial and funerary rites for his Sioux heritage. But I wasn’t really in any position to kidnap his remains and then build an 8-foot scaffold in my yard to place him closer to the sky as animals consumed him, returning him to the cycle of life.

I mean, my neighborhood doesn’t have an HOA or anything but still.

“Get rid of that eyesore! It clashes with my topiaries!”

More than anything, it seemed like the most audacious act of cultural-appropriation EVER: Two middle-aged, blonde-haired, white women engaging in some ridiculous, craft-store, ceremony in an ignorant attempt to honor a Sioux guy that they never actually met.

“Ok… maybe not THAT BAD, but close…”

Ultimately, I figured… to hell with it. First of all, Alexander technically had been returned to the cycle of life. The maggots ate him… who were in turn eaten by ducks… who then scared the shit out of the police. So that felt as full-circle as one can get in this time and place.

Also, if Alexander wanted to hang around for a bit… if he wanted to ride the ferris-wheel a couple more rotations before he called it quits on this plane of existence… than I guess he could do it on my dime. If he was there he wasn’t hurting anything, just freaking me out a little bit.

That was a while ago now. I’m not overcome with thinking about him, which I suppose means that nasty little trauma-center of my brain finally released its stranglehold on that memory. But it could also mean Alexander moved on at some point while I wasn’t looking. Or maybe I was doing something really stupid and he was like, “Ugh… I’m done with this bitch.” But I do still think about him. And that makes me wonder if, in some bizarre, metaphysical way, he’s cruising through to check in.

But then I remember all of the Woo-Woo was squeezed out of my world long ago. I’m a nihilist. I’m a spiritually-bereft, white, American, government worker. I don’t actually believe any of this…

But if you believe it…

… tell Alexander I said “hi.”

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