Thank You For Being a Friend

It’s important to rest… that’s the rumor.

My training coaches swear that your gains come from resting after you work out. The bible says that even God rested after creating the world. I know people who go lay in salt-water isolation tanks when they need to rest. My husband meditates. People swear by “resting” and it sounds like a great idea… in theory.

(How do I get this guy’s job?)

I wouldn’t know from personal experience. “Rest” means almost nothing to me. When I say I’m “resting,” what I mean is I’m frantically scrambling to find something to do that feels rewarding and significant. In my world, “rest” means rattling a tin-cup against the bars of my own brain, pleading for a sense of fulfillment and completion that only comes from working myself to exhaustion. I don’t rest, I ruminate. Furthermore, it appears, “rest” is intrinsically tied to other concepts like “asking for help,” “leaning on trusted friends,” “slowing down” and “relinquishing control.”

Yeah… I’m no good at those either.

I guess there’s a whole mental-health revolution going on that calls this inability to chill-the-fuck-out, “anxiety.” But I grew up in the 80’s and mental health wasn’t a thing. Personal reflection and “self-care” were considered “touchy-feely” and were regarded with the same dubious disapproval as masturbation or eating more than 2 cookies after dinner. I remember my mother sneering that phrase: “touchy-feely” with an exaggerated eye-roll when I brought home a 4th-grade assignment called, “My Book About Me!” As the title suggests, it was a year-long project in which we wrote about ourselves- what we liked, what we hated, what we thought, how we felt. My parents thought it was the dumbest idea ever. They might deny it, but the lesson was clear: Nobody gave a fuck what I liked or hated. And asking a child what they thought or how they felt was tantamount to spoiling them with lavish indulgence. I wasn’t a person. I was a prop.

It really prepared me for government work.

As I’ve mentioned before, our shifts are 48 hours. We can sleep if there’s time. We can eat, we can go home, we can go to the gym. We work on call, but it’s rare we actually get to relax. When you’re not working an active death scene, you’re answering the phone, writing case files, drawing toxicology samples, etc. etc. It’s not uncommon to bust your ass for an entire day, and then bust your ass for an entire night… only to continue to bust your ass for ANOTHER whole day… and then bust your ass for another entire night. For really-reals, sometimes you work the WHOLE 48 hours.

When I tell people about 48 hour shifts, the response if often, “How is that legal.” And the answer is… I don’t know. Maybe because we never complain and we almost never “tap out.” I’ve only waved the white flag 2 or 3 times in the last 12 years. The last time I was too exhausted to continue a shift, I called my boss only to have him tell me that there wasn’t anyone to take over and I’d have to work another 5 hours before relief was available. Never mind the fact that he was sitting in the office surfing Amazon and eating Cheetos. Whatever. He was too busy “bossing” to consider the possibility that I might fall asleep at the wheel and crash our truck into a school bus.

(It’s fine… I can keep going…)

We carry on. I’m not sure how. Maybe because we generation x-ers are still tethered to the idea that you grind until you die because that makes you a good person. Maybe because after a certain point, exhaustion becomes non-sensical to the point of being downright entertaining. That was certainly the case on THIS particular day-

To be fair, this day was actually a continuation of a night that didn’t end so well. If you want to get caught up, feel free to go back and read this post:

https://deadmensdonuts.com/2021/10/07/a-terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-job/

(For anyone who isn’t prepared to commit to 2 posts in one sitting, here’s a recap: I had just spent the entire night on an uncommonly distressing suicide. I hadn’t slept in almost 24 hours and had just experienced a super metaphysical run-in with a hummingbird.) Everyone on the same page now? Good. Moving on…

I was just leaving that suicide scene when the pager went off. I was being called to an overdose on the other side of town. The news hit me like bird-shit falling on a dirty car: not ideal but everything was already such a mess that there’s no point in getting upset about it. My nerves were wrapped in a numbing blanket of static as I drove. I turned down the designated cul-de-sac to find myself in a decrepit little alley in a forgotten corner of our county. The houses were crumbling, the grass was dead, long-deceased cars lined the sidewalk. The uneven pavement was cracked and sprouting weeds from every fissure. Searching for house numbers, I almost bottomed out the truck in a pot-hole that was at least 8 inches deep and as wide as a bathtub. At the terminal end of the roadway, I joined my compatriots who were gathered in the driveway of a small duplex. There were two patrol officers, Detective Hirsch and a crowd of sniffling onlookers whom I correctly assumed were family members of the deceased.

“Hey Grace,” they all greeted me as I oozed out of the truck and stumbled toward them. I think I drooled out a semi-conscious hello. Without waiting for more, the primary patrol officer launched into the story. He figured it was probably an overdose. Our decedent was a 20-something girl who’s gotten tangled up with the wrong dude. The family received a rambling, disjointed phone call from this boyfriend earlier in the morning, something about how he was sorry. Fearful and confused, the girl’s brother raced over to her home and crawled through a ground-level window to find her, cold, stiff and partially nude… laying on her bed. Patrol already rounded up the neighbors and they had all testified that they’d heard the couple fighting last night. There was some banging, maybe a glass breaking. But this was normal. Not only for these two, but for every family on the block. The houses were wedged into adjacent lots and everyone was accustomed to hearing everything. So, when the ruckus had erupted, everyone followed the unspoken rule: unless you hear gunshots, you don’t get involved.

I considered this information, glanced around, then absently asked the officer why he thought it was an overdose. He shrugged and said something about seeing little baggies on the bed and floor next to her. I listened with half an ear. I was watching the family, clustered together protectively around a small, Hispanic woman.

Detective Hirsch noted my gaze and whispered in my ear, “That’s the mother,”

I turned to face him. I love Hirsch. We’ve really been in the shit together. My favorite memory of him is this one time when we were investigating a homicide at the local hospital. Some creep had decided to tangle with the wrong woman and had paid dearly for it. The two of them had been hanging out getting high with a mutual friend and in the early morning hours, the dead guy had decided to sexually assault this woman who was having none of it. Rather than submit to the rape, the woman had really owned her “no” and stabbed him in the shoulder. I’m guessing it didn’t seem like a mortal wound at first. But she’d managed to sever some large arteries. When the rapist kept torrentially bleeding, she and the friend threw the guy in a car and dumped him at the local band-aid station that was in no way equipped to manage life-threatening trauma. He had exsanguinated all over the ER floor. The volume of blood that covered the light blue tiles was astounding. The poor ER physician, who likely hadn’t seen anything like it in his life, had attempted to close the gash with some surgical staples. But considering the prolific nature of the injury, the end effect was kind of pathetic- “E” for “effort” and all… but it was about as effective as trying to dam a river with a screen door. Hirsch was with me as I, gobsmacked, surveyed the massive puddles of blood. Then Hirsch offered to help me put on some booties to cover my shoes as I waded into the swamp to perform an external exam on the body. It was quite the juxtaposition: me daintily lifting each foot at Hirsch knelt down and slid the stretchy surgical booties over my steel-toed combat boots. I’ve never felt so much like Cinderella in my life.

(Actual footage of that day… sans blood puddle)

So, seeing my “Prince Charming” on this, current death scene was a welcome relief I didn’t know I needed. Hirsch was with me, I could get through it.

I gestured for him to follow and walked to the front door of the dead girl’s place. Looking inside from the doorway, her one-room home was a disaster… a tricky disaster. Sometimes crime scenes aren’t obvious. TV would have you believe that you can spot the signs of a struggle because it looks like a tornado ripped through a room. But it’s tricky when you account for the fact that some homes ALWAYS look like that. I mean, how does a stranger look at someone’s living space and say, “Well… that pile of crap is perfectly normal… but THAT pile of crap is highly suspect!” Lots of people live in tangled nests of clothes, rotting food, overturned furniture and broken appliances. This girl was clearly a slob and her apartment gave the impression of only being slightly messier than normal. There were clothes all over the floor and dirty plates of rotting food piled on the countertop. Toiletries, electrical cords, discarded food containers and an index of other items littered every surface. But when we allowed the scene to sink in, the evidence emerged. We saw messes that couldn’t be lived around: A broken glass, a dumped out drawer, a freshly smashed bedside table. I also clocked some cleaning products, jumbled into a hurried pile by the door. Spilled jumbo cups of soda pop lazily rolled on the edge of a coffee table.

(For real, some people just LIVE like this)

I turned my attention to the body laying askew on the bed. She was in her early 20’s, naked below the waist and upside down on the bed. Her head lolled off the foot of the bed with long, black hair hanging to the floor. She looked fine. Eyes closed and face relaxed, she looked like she was sleeping. But leaning closer, I realized the truth- she was kinda messed up… No, she was really messed up.

Much like “evidence of a struggle,” people’s injuries can be subtle. It’s not all gushing blood and caved in heads. The play of light or the angle of view can drastically obscure your perception. The morning light seeping through her blue curtains washed everything in a ghostly pale hue. In that lighting, Hirsch and I looked just as dead as she was. But I squinted, tilted my head and realized her face wasn’t quite symmetrical. A shadow on her forehead was a little too dark. And as I ran my hands through her long, thick mane of dark hair, I felt large areas of swelling. I pulled my hands away and a smear of blood was on my gloves.

“Ummmm…” I mumbled to Hirsch. “Someone beat the shit out of her…”

(didn’t look like this at all…)

Right at that moment, the officer came to the door and called to us. “Hey guys? Family just got another phone call from boyfriend. He’s admitting to strangling her. We’re trying to find him now.”

Hirsch and I exchanged a glance. Thankfully, we had been careful not to touch anything. Because now the circus began. We tip-toed back out again and shut the door, leaving our decedent where she lay. A homicide meant a whole day of crime scene technicians, warrants and scans before we could go back in. The location of every last sock and make-up brush would have to be documented, marked, photographed, cataloged. It would be hours before the body could move.

I hadn’t slept in almost 27 hours.

Outside the duplex, the girl’s family stared their questions at me from a distance.  I consulted briefly with Hirsch and the patrol officer before they were both engulfed in phone calls to essentially everyone in the whole goddamned world: Judges, Sergeants, Crime Scene Techs etc etc. Sighing, I shook off my fatigue and approached the family with what I knew would be utterly unsatisfying answers.

I told them their girl had obvious(ish) trauma and given the new confession from her boyfriend, the police were mounting an extensive investigation. It would be hours before anything significant happened. And once the body was ready to be removed from the scene, they wouldn’t be allowed to touch her or even get too close. Evidence preservation was the top priority so we could prove who did this to her. I received silent, blank stares in return.

(NOT an actual scene photo, but you get the idea)

“So, it will be a… um… really long time. A lot of people will have to come here and do a lot of things. Seriously, like anywhere from 8-12 hours.”

“When can we see her?” This from the mother who was now wrapped in a blanket despite the summer heat

“I can’t say for certain, I’m sorry. There’s a lot that needs to happen in a very specific order and today’s Saturday so it will take some time to get everything together.” It was true. Getting all the players coordinated would be a nightmare. Half of them were probably drunk already. “If you’d like, maybe you can all go to someone’s house and we can call you with updates-”

“We’re waiting here.” The mother said with strict finality. She sat back in the chair and looked away. I glanced around at the rest of the family members. Every jaw was set with stoic resolve and their red eyes turned hard. If mom was staying, all of them were staying.

“Ok,” was all I could say… woefully off my game. Normally I could mojo a family into all kinds of more convenient decisions. But working a Jedi-Mind-Trick with my foggy brain that morning was like jumping rope with a sprained ankle. I might give it a go, but it wouldn’t look good. Walking away from the family, I informed Hirsch that whatever happened at the scene today, he could look forward to having an audience. He sighed.

Just to be clear, we never have anything to hide from a family. We know they want answers and we WANT to provide answers. But homicide scenes are incredibly stressful.  Usually some dick-bag news crew shows up and starts testing boundaries. The neighbors all have their camera phones out and recording.  Random lookie-loos stroll by and start demanding information. It’s not unusual for me or the cops to crack a joke just to relieve some of the tension. And joking, smiling or laughing in front of a grieving family would be catastrophically bad optics.

Not that it mattered for me, the pager was going off again.

The pager went off at least another 6 times that day, and I don’t remember any of the calls. I was on autopilot and the day is a blur. I can only hope I didn’t accidentally leave a dead body in a ditch or a car somewhere. Not a single death scene sticks in my brain, except one:

An elderly gentleman had died in his home. The guy was in his late 60’s and had a complex medical history. The death wasn’t suspicious or traumatic. Any other year I would have taken a phone report and released him to a funeral home without a second thought.  Except this isn’t any other year.  This is a global pandemic year and EVERY POSSIBLE COVID DEATH MUST BE ACCOUNTED FOR! The officer on the phone told me that this guy had been suffering from the now-typical cough, runny nose, fever and body-aches. The decedent hadn’t wanted to see a doctor, so he simply stayed home and suffered until he collapsed in front of his son….who was ALSO sick. Paramedics had worked our decedent for a few minutes before pronouncing him dead and everyone had immediately fucked right off.

(“BYEEEEE! We’re late for our chili cook-off and Playstation tournament!)

Thing is- because the guy hadn’t actually been diagnosed with COVID by a medical provider, the medical examiner’s office was obliged to conduct a death investigation and make sure and test him for COVID so his death could be accurately recorded and categorized. Ultimately this is what we do. It’s our prime directive. Oh sure, we answer the phone, we hold hands with the grieving, we coordinate the efforts of funeral homes, organ donations, primary doctors, and police. BUT first and foremost- we collect data. We are free-range statisticians. More than anything, THE STATE WANTS DATA!

(“When you’re done with your scene investigation, we have some forms we’d like you to fill out…”)

I dragged myself up the stairs to the apartment door like an early Christian on my way to the lions: reluctant but resolved to my fate.  Maybe this would be the day I finally caught COVID. After a year and a half of sticking swabs in dead people’s noses, maybe it was finally my turn. The cop at the door greeted me as I drifted past him and observed the inert form laying on the living room floor.  As I crossed the threshold into the home, the air turned from warm and brisk to stale, moist and heavy as a moldy towel. Our decedent was a big guy and scene markers indicated an array of medical conditions that could really make COVID dig in like a tick. His ankles were soft with edema. An undulating wave of ascites rippled across his belly as I palpated his abdomen. The fingers were thick clubs- indicating a long-standing pulmonary pathology. I sighed as I took pictures. His death certificate would undoubtedly state that he died of COVID, I could practically smell it as I buried the long, slender swab in each of his nostrils and swirled it around 5 times. Maybe I should lick it… I thought absently as I inserted the swab in the test tube and broke off the end… maybe then I’d finally get sick and FINALLY have a day off.

(WOOOOOHOOOOO!!! I HAVE COVID!”)

After my physical exam on the decedent, I squared my shoulders and crossed to the hallway of the residence to speak with the son.  He was in his bedroom, unmasked and sniffling, sneezing and coughing to beat the band.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m the county medical examiner and I’m going to tell you what happens next.” He nodded and sneezed at me, not bothering to cover his mouth. “Ok… ummm…”- and I stumbled through the whole spiel, imagining tidal waves of disease washing over me every time the guy coughed or heaved out a weighty sigh. Despite my foggy brain and half-hearted death-wish, I found myself taking a step back. This had been the biggest danger, as far as I could tell. All this time during the COVID disaster, I wasn’t worried about the bodies or exposure to people who had actually DIED of the coronavirus.  But family members of the dead would lose all sense of themselves. The most ardent mask-wearer would begin slobbering all over me with their naked face when I showed up to their loved one’s death. Their grief trumped any mandate or warning. Over the last 18 months I had been a human Kleenex for innumerable mourners. No one worried about getting me sick.

I did my best to be sympathetic and supportive.  The son was obviously devastated and the combination of COVID with his relentless sobbing made him a swamp of bodily fluids. I think I might have shaken his hand, but I honestly can’t remember. I observed his grief with faraway interest. I recognized his raw suffering the way other people watch TV. I could see it happening, but I was beyond feeling anything. I distantly wondered if this was how psychopaths moved through life: watching with empirical interest while other people have emotions. Maybe I’m turning into a psychopath.

(“I’m sorry for your loss… I think….)

I excused myself and went out to the small landing in the apartment stairwell to get some air. I was dizzy, hot and having a hard time focusing. And upon exiting the sauna-like atmosphere, I ran directly into Officer Jordan who was just rolling in to the scene to say hi.

I love Officer Jordan.

The first time we met, we were on a scene where a woman had been found deceased after being MIA for almost a month. Obviously, she was beyond help, having died of natural causes in her apartment. She was in a state of advanced decomposition and the odor was as thick as cement. But that didn’t stop me and Officer Jordan from tearing that place apart in an effort to find the woman’s cat who had been trapped in there with her for all that time.  The poor thing was dehydrated, starving and barely drawing breath when we located him hiding behind the toilet in the master bathroom. Tears welled up in our eyes… partially from the smell and partially from the heartbreak at the cat’s condition. I couldn’t leave the scene investigation, but Jordan had bailed on the scene to personally drive the cat to the nearest vet… lights and sirens.  Then the two of us spent the next 3 days incessantly calling the vet’s office to ask if the cat was going to be okay. They ended up having to euthanize the poor kitty and both Jordan and I took that pretty hard. I got us matching lapel pins of paw-prints as a memento of the event.

“Hey, woah!” Jordan laughed as I stumbled into him and almost took a header down the stairwell. “Are you okay? I heard about the homicide. Sounds like a real shit show!”

I stared at Jordan for a minute and teared-up a bit. Out came the whole sordid tale of another night without sleep, another homicide, another COVID case and a dozen more deaths that I had dealt with on zero-sleep. I was a wreck… ragged to my very core.

“You need some coffee,” Jordan grabbed me by my elbow and started pointedly into my eyes. “I AM GOING TO GET YOU SOME COFFEE!”

I offered a feeble protest, but Jordan was already barking orders at the rookie officer that had been watching the door. “I WANT YOU TO DRIVE TO THE CLOSEST COFFEE SHOP AND COME BACK WITH THE MOST CAFFIENE ALLOWED BY LAW!” The rookie glanced back and forth between the two of us in confusion and alarm. He wasn’t sure if this was technically against the rules, but a field-training officer was giving him a directive and his daily evaluation was on the line if he didn’t follow it. The kid took off, leaving me and Jordan alone on the outdoor landing of the stairwell. I hung my head in a combination of shame and gratefulness. It was unprofessional to display this kind of weakness, but I was hanging on by a thread and Jordan could tell. Looking up, I caught a look at Jordan’s arm which bore a tattoo I had never seen before. Most likely it had always been there, but I didn’t notice. I stepped closer, squinting to get a better look and realized…

… it was a “Golden Girls” tattoo.

The hairstyles of each of the golden girls: Blanch, Rose, Dorothy & Sofia was tattooed on Officer Jordan’s arm, along with the phrase, “Thank You For Being a Friend.”

(Actual tattoo on the actual day…)

I burst out laughing. “Oh my God, is that a ‘Golden Girls’ tattoo on your arm?”

Jordan grinned. “Of course it is. That show is genius.”

“No,” I gasped as I laughed. “YOU’RE GENIUS, you’re my fucking hero, man. I almost didn’t make it today. Thank fucking god for you…”

I pulled out my camera and, against every scene investigation rule in the book, I snapped a photo of Jordan’s arm just as the rookie was returning with a 30oz cup of what equated to melted ice cream. I didn’t care. I was taken care of. I was seen.

As Jordan was walking me back to my county truck, we passed by a couple who was walking their tiny French Bulldog puppy. After asking for permission to pet the pooch, Jordan took several pictures of me rolling around on the sidewalk with the wiggly little dog who couldn’t get enough of trying to lick my face.

(Actual dog on the actual day…)

The rest of the day is lost to history. The next thing I remember, I was heading back to the scene of the homicide, having been told by detective Hirsch that the crime scene guys were done, the warrants had been signed, everything had been documented and it was time to go deal with the body.

When I pulled back in, the cul de sac was dark, except for the victim’s house which was awash in floodlights. The whole length of the roadway was packed with parked cars, presumably those of the decedent’s family as they all arrived to hold vigil in the front lawn.

I had to park almost 100 yards away from the home and traversed the unlit street to the house which was probably visible from space. I noted the collection of family had swelled to at least two-dozen, probably more. All of them were staring intently at the front door of the house where the crime scene guys were packing up their stuff. I’m almost done I told myself. I can knock out this scene, take the body to the morgue and maybe then get some sleep. I squared my shoulders and steeled myself for the family, the detectives and all of the questions I would be asked. I was almost there. Some of the family had caught sight of me and I could hear them murmuring to each other that I had arrived. It was almost time….

… and then the ground disappeared beneath my feet. I pitched forward as my ankle buckled and I collapsed into the bath-tub sized pot-hole (crater) that I had noted earlier in the daylight. The pot-hole was completely invisible in the blackness. What’s more, I had utterly forgotten it was there until I was lying it… having screeched “OH FUCK!!!!” at the top of my lungs as I tumbled down.

Time stopped, just for a second. I lay there in the pothole, staring upward at the night sky where a few stars were still visible over the ambient light of the police’s floodlights. It was the first time I had reclined in almost 36 hours and my body instinctively relaxed into the jagged, rocky contours of the crater. This is nice I thought briefly.  Maybe I’ll just stay here. The stars twinkled above me and exhaustion pulled me deeper into the hole as I willed myself to simply sink into the earth and never come out.

“Jesus Christ, Grace. Are you okay?”

Hirsch’s face appeared above me. He was unsuccessfully choking back laughter as he grabbed my arms and attempted to heave my crumpled form out of the pot-hole. “That was.. hawwwumm… That was… mmmph… that was really something…” Hirsch was joined by four other officers who were all gagging and gasping in an attempt to maintain a professional front for the bereaved family who had just heard me shriek profanity as I ate shit in the middle of the road in front of the neighbors, the police, God and everybody.

“Seriously, are you hurt?” Hirsch had gotten control of himself and was registering actual concern now. I writhed, turned and scrambled out of the hole with his help, gasping that I was fine. I was fine. I WAS FINE. I probably wasn’t, but the adrenaline and embarrassment were more effective than a pipe-full of meth in terms of waking me up. I straightened myself and took a few steps. The snarling pain of a freshly sprained ankle made me wince, but I was functional. And now, more than ever, I REALLY had to pull it together. I hobbled over to the family, re-introduced myself, apologized for the spectacle and went to work.

Of course, once we were inside the scene and in relative privacy, the officers and detectives erupted in muted peals of laughter. The overall consensus was that it was absolutely the funniest thing any of them had ever seen and I could expect to hear about it until the day I die. I’d like to say that I took it all in stride, but I don’t remember. What I do remember was the laughter dying down as I once again bent over our dead girl’s face and realized we had a problem: Bugs

Insects had been in and out of the door and window all day… attracted to the faint smell of early decomposition. The crime scene folks had been so busy with trace evidence, they hadn’t bothered to shoo them away. As a result, the early summer flies had unfettered access to the dead body and all of her orifices for roughly 12 hours. She was covered in maggot eggs. And in no uncertain terms, it was gross.

Her eyes, though open, were completely obscured by a thick layer of the white, miniscule pods. Her nostrils and the corners of her mouth were likewise clustered with eggs. While I had been forced to wait a whole day to process the body, nature had wasted no time at all. In a dozen more hours or so, those eggs would hatch and our decedent would rediscover her role in the food chain.

“Shit!” I spat. “Shit, shit SHIT!”

“What’s wrong?” Hirsch joined me as I surveyed the corpse.

“She’s covered in maggot eggs, man. She looks terrible. I can’t take her out there like this. Her family wants to see her.” Hirsch recoiled in disgust as I gloved up and began picking the sticky white masses out of her eyes and throwing them on the floor. I couldn’t get them all, they were incredibly tiny and stubbornly adhered to her skin and hair. I could only hope to get the biggest clumps and pray no one out there had good night vision. “Okay guys, here’s the deal. The family can’t touch her. We can wheel her out and they can stand 6 to 7 feet away and say goodbye, but if anyone lunges for the stretcher, we tackle them. Got it?”

The family wasn’t happy when I explained it to them, but they understood. Even though her dirt-bag boyfriend had confessed to strangling her, he could always change his mind and then we’d need uncompromised evidence to make sure the truth was told. It was a gamble. Many death investigators wouldn’t have let them see her for fear of one of them doing something crazy.  But I’m kind of a bleeding heart. The family had been waiting out there all day. How could I possibly deny them the chance to see their girl one last time before the autopsy.

It went as well as could be expected. They all kept their distance and cried. Some called her name, some screamed. Her mother collapsed to her knees and keened like a cold wind. It’s fine I told myself. I’ve done this before. Stand with your eyes averted and wait. Don’t say anything. Don’t try to comfort. Don’t try to make it better. Let them have their grief but don’t absorb it. Hold it together and keep your mouth shut.

I almost slipped into a dissociative stupor as I waited… for WHAT, I’m not sure. The family wasn’t going to stop crying. They weren’t ever going to tell me Ok, you can take her now. I think I just kind of zoned out. My conscious mind was done. It wasn’t until Hirsch stepped forward and whispered in my ear that I snapped out of it.

“Uh, Grace, I think you should go now.”

“Huh? Oh… right, Jesus… yeah ok.”

The assembled company of officers helped me load her into the truck and Hirsch escorted me to the driver’s side door, his face puckered with concern.

“Listen, I think you should probably file a worker’s comp claim. You went down pretty hard. And you’re limping.”

“NAH,” I spat. “I’m fine, this ankle has been fucked for years. I sprained it like a decade ago and it’s been a mess ever since. Don’t worry about me.”

“If you say so. Give me a call if you need help. You haven’t slept and I don’t want anything to happen.”

He scooped me into the driver’s seat and shut the door for me. I drove off, the cops, the family and the longest shift of my life in the rear-view.

Now, months later, I still think about that shift. For starters, no one who watched me fall into that pot-hole will let me forget it. But there’s more. As a young girl and teenager, I spent so much of my life wondering who was going to love me. I tied myself to shitty boyfriends and dysfunctional peers. I went to church and cheerleading camp and when that didn’t work, I went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Renaissance Fair. I searched every extreme for a place where I belonged. Where I could be seen and therefore, finally see myself. As an adult, nothing has changed. I still stubbornly subject myself to impossible situations in the hopes that someone, somewhere will pat me on the head and tell me I’ve done well.

Charles Bukowski once said “There is a loneliness in this world so great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock.”  I couldn’t agree more. There is a loneliness so great that you lose the capacity to feel your own body. You’re so divorced from your own welfare, your own feelings that you’re lonely for your OWN company- you’re lonely for your own presence of mind. You need the people around you to tell you you’re falling apart.  You’re burned out. You need to rest and maybe drink something. You need a pat on the head and a “That’ll do, pig.”

A lot of people wonder why I still do this job.  And I think it’s because in this line of work, I’m constantly surrounded by people who pay attention. That day was shitty, but I felt seen and held in a way I never experienced by my family, by churches I attended, by classmates or roommates or boyfriends or cliques. Say what you will about the cops, and the fire department drives me crazy, but their situational awareness is next level. They won’t let you go down alone.

I may not need this job, but I need people like Hirsch, people like Jordan.

Survival is a cup of painfully sweet coffee and bonding over a dead cat.

Love is getting dragged out of a pot-hole in the dark and a worker’s comp claim

An unexpected tattoo that reads:

“Thank You For Being A Friend.

(Actual photo of me, Hirsch, Jordan… and the French Bulldog)

The Truth of the Matter: The Purple Rose and The Apple Cart

Secrets.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected aspects of my job is all the secrets.  And I suppose that’s part of what I love about it.  I get to find out the big reveal behind almost every mystery. Being a paramedic was a huge disappointment in that regard.  You don’t get to find out jack-shit working 911.  I remember picking up each patient and only having enough time to stick an IV in them, run a 12-lead EKG and ask a few questions.  Then we passed them off to the ER staff like diseased little hot-potatoes and never had to think about them again. Except I did.  I always wondered what happened.  Did they make it out of the hospital?  Did they die?  Was my suspected diagnosis right?  Did my actions in the ambulance help them at all?  As an incurable storyteller, I wasn’t satisfied with the abrupt, unresolved conclusion. It was like a symphony that never played the final chord, or having the power go out right before the end of the movie.  I would fill out “follow-up” cards at every hospital.  The EMS liaison was supposed to call or email to update me on my patient’s condition.  But I never heard from any of them.

Now, endings are all I do. I get to open every drawer and cupboard. I get to find the secret door, I get to unearth the buried treasure. I go through every lock-box and read every diary. Everyone’s secrets are laid bare for me to discover… unless they’ve deleted their browser history or encrypted their files- even then, I have methods.  It’s deeply satisfying.

Except for when it isn’t. There are some secrets I don’t want to know.

Some secrets dig in and curl up in your mind and start chewing on the wiring like vermin.  It’s just a little secret- just a tiny little fuzzy one that hardly eats anything at all… But given enough time, it will burn your house down.

My house is burning down.

In January 2021… the rodents started creeping out into the light… dragging the secrets with them

People commit suicide when they have secrets- secrets that they can’t keep anymore. Secrets that will cause trouble.  And those secrets usually have something to do with sex.

Pedophiles commit suicide… in droves.  It’s like a scene from an old Japanese movie in which a fallen army all commits seppuku- tearing their own bellies open with shame at their failure.  But these guys aren’t warriors and it has nothing to do with honor.  They’re cowards, and they opt to die much the way they lived: fancying themselves the wretched victims in an unfair, condemning world. I know thi because I read their suicide notes. They blame everyone except themselves for their twisted perversions.

It frustrates me on a good day.  On a bad day, I want nothing more than to gut them myself.  But more than that, I want them shown for who and what they were. More often than not, these assholes commit suicide because once they’re dead, it won’t matter.  There won’t be police cars in front of their house with nosy neighbors asking what happened.  There won’t be a mugshot posted online and no newspaper articles, detailing their crimes.  If and when people DO find out about their actions, at least they won’t have to face any actual consequences.  They won’t be judged by a disgusted, horrified jury.  They’ll never have to hear the “victim’s impact statements” before they’re sentenced to years of retribution from a prison system that doesn’t even pretend to be civilized.  They won’t have to face the brutal punishment meted out by other incarcerated criminals who, though they’re killers and thieves, won’t tolerate a pedophile. When I investigate the suicide of a child molester or a child pornographer, the cops and I always comment something to the tune of “Well… at least he’s dead…” and we do our best to pretend that it’s enough.  But it isn’t. I want them to be seen. I want them to stand before society and watch as everyone learns what they are and what they did.  I want them be-headed in the town-square.  I want them placed in the stocks at a cross-roads.  I want their bodies hanging from the tower wall. I want the spot-light shown on them before they squirm out of the heat. I want them to know WE KNOW what they did.

I know what you did.

But sometimes the secret you learn isn’t just about the child molester or child pornographer.  Sometimes the secret is about the people you work with. it’s about the government you work FOR.  The secret is about a system that you’re a part of.  And the expectation is that you’ll keep that secret… because that’s best for everyone involved. 

Except it isn’t. I’m not keeping their secret for them… not this time.  This time it’s not enough to sigh, take-off the blood-smeared gloves, shrug with the investigating officers and say, “well… at least he’s dead…” This time my house is burning down.  And I want everyone to see it.

-PART I-

The call came in as a suicide, which is nothing new or interesting.  Another suicide, big deal.  There have been dozens lately, more every month. Before the global pandemic even started, people were excusing themselves from the life-party long before their biological carriages turned back into pumpkins.

I dawdled out to the scene, pausing long enough to do my hair and stop for a Starbucks on the way.  I was even feeling a bit relieved because my decedent had reportedly shot himself in his car- which was great news for me.  Car suicides are easier because there’s generally less documentation. I don’t have to describe the geography and contents of an entire house.

Upon arrival, the local officers began filling in the lines for me.  The dead guy was in his car in the driveway to his house. He lived there with his wife, two biological children and FOUR goddamned foster kids… the oldest three were actual siblings and one solo. This struck me as bizarre. The residence was a none-too-impressive, single-level tract house in a trashier neighborhood of my jurisdiction.  Like any other residence in the area, an array of cars in various states of disrepair decorated the front lawn.  The “front lawn” was really more a dirt patch with a few straggly sprouts of crab-grass reaching feebly for the sunlight between piles of sun-bleached toys.  Nothing about this place indicated the inhabitants had a wealth of time or money to bestow upon a foster child, let alone four of them.  Of the multiple cars that dotted the property, our dead guy was seated in the driver’s seat of the one closest to the front door.  He was what I can only call an unimpressive specimen.  Overweight and pasty, his arms were crowded with tattooed skeletons that gyrated with curvy naked women. Weapons, roses and the occasional calligraphy wove through the imagery.  His head was tilted back with the mouth gaping wide open, a shaggy goatee on his face.  His, long, greasy hair was slick with blood that oozed from a gunshot wound that had almost completely blown out the back of his cranium.  A swamp of blood congealed around his shoulders and beneath him on the seat.  The roof of the car, as well as the back-seat, were flecked with bone fragments and small, putty-like scraps of brain matter.  A massive handle of whiskey sat in the center console at his right hand.

(Not an actual scene photo, but you get the idea)

“So,” began the lead officer as I poked my head into the car and registered all this information, “Our guy here has a history of drinking in the past but he’s been sober for the last few years until 2 nights ago.  He started hittin’ the sauce pretty heavy and no one knew why.  He also started fighting with his wife and his oldest foster-daughter who just turned 18.  Apparently, our guy went after the two of them, being a real dickhead and super mean.  He passed out by the firepit and then woke up yesterday morning… and he started right back up again.  Drinking this bottle of whiskey, yelling and screaming at everyone, especially the wife and foster daughter.  About mid-afternoon, he fucked-off to a friend’s house to drink some more- all this AFTER he and his wife talked divorce- which is something that they’ve been considering for like… 5 years now… but they’ve never actually gone through with it.”

“Wait a minute,” I look up.  “This dude has a history of alcohol abuse AND has been on the outs with his wife for the last 5 years… but someone still thinks it’s a good idea to give them foster kids?”

The officer snorted.  “Oh, you haven’t even heard the half of it yet.”

“Really? Go on,” I tell him.

“So, while this guy is at his buddy’s house, he got so wasted he let this little nugget drop:  He admits he’s been having a ‘sexual relationship’ with his foster daughter… the oldest one that he’s been chewing on the last few days. I guess the event that kicked off this whole shit show was the fact that this foster daughter is about to go into treatment for an eating disorder tomorrow morning.  Our guy realized as soon as she was out of his control and in a residential facility getting a shit-ton of therapy… all of this was going to come out.  She would likely spill the beans about the two of them having sex and his life would implode in fairly rapid order. So he started drinking and acting out like that.”

(Not actually our guy… but you get the idea)

“Oh shit…” I gasped, glancing toward the house where I spied a small, frenetic woman with a tear-stained face listlessly pacing back and forth under the eye of a police chaplain. “That the wife?”

The cop glanced over.  “Yeah, that’s her.  She’s a piece of work.”

“Did she know any of this?”

“Not as far as we can tell, she still doesn’t. We haven’t told her yet.”

“Fuck me,” I muttered. “Okay… go on.”

“So anyway, dude told his friend he’s been having this ‘relationship’ with this kid… if you want to call it that.  The friend basically tells him, ‘get the fuck out of my house, we’re not friends anymore.’  Then the friend calls Child Protective Services. Our guy left and goes who-knows-where until he came home this morning”

“Wow, good for that friend.”

(“I don’t care if she’s ‘just’ your foster-kid… it’s still SICK!”)

“Right?” The cop nodded.  “So CPS calls us this morning, and we’re setting up to come here and get this guy.  We’re just about to head over to arrest him when we get a 911 call from this address.  Apparently, this asshole came home and told his wife to come out to the car to talk.  She gets out here and sees that he’s sitting in the car with the handle of whiskey and a gun in his lap.  He tells her to get in the car but she refuses.  He screams at her a few times to get in. She says ‘no’ and turns to run back into the house, but glances over her shoulder to see that now he’s actually pointing the gun at her.  She calls 911- now we’ve got a SWAT situation.  He’s in the front yard with a gun.  Dispatch is telling her to lock the door so he can’t get in.  She’s actually refusing to lock the front door but barricades herself in a back bathroom with all 6 fucking kids. We’re pulling into position when he gets back into the car and turns on some shitty metal-core music.  We can see him in there, pounding his fists on the steering wheel and then bam. Single shot goes off.  We get closer and find he’s put the barrel in his mouth, and adios motherfucker. Good riddance.”

“Je-SUS!” I gasp.  “What a fucking story… ummmm… okay, so- Are the kids all still here?  Even the oldest one, the victim?”

“Yeah they’re all inside.  Like I said, wife doesn’t know anything about this shit with the foster kid. Not yet.”

When I talked to her, the wife was a perfect storm, flipping between frantic, bewildered and furious.  She would sputter, pace, sob, curse.  He was a narcissist, she said, capable of being incredibly sweet and endearing, but given to volatile moodiness and black-out rages. He hadn’t drank in years but for the last 3 days he’d been on an inexplicable, abusive bender.  He had been particularly ruthless with both her and the oldest foster daughter.  But clearly, the wife hadn’t made the connection yet… hadn’t figured out the end game… hadn’t yet realized that her husband had been both literally and figuratively fucking the child the county had entrusted to their care. 

It was the strangest feeling, watching this woman puzzle over what the hell had kicked off her husband’s detonation.  All the while, I knew more about her life than she did. I was pin-balling between wanting to give her a hug and wanting to scream: How could you NOT know your husband was abusing that kid?  What the fuck are you doing taking these children into your shit-show life?  How could you be so stupid? I said nothing. She needed to have her little spin-out. But also, I wasn’t sure whose job it was to clue her in to the facts. Was one of us supposed to let her in on the secret?  Was I supposed to tell her?  Where the hell was CPS?  They were supposed to come and pick up the foster kid- our decedent’s victim.  THEY knew what was happening, were they going to tell the wife? Was anyone going to?

The CPS caseworker pulled up just then and went inside the house.  The wife numbly watched and then turned back to me with her arms crossed tightly across her chest and tears streaming down her face. “So,” she barked. “What happens now?” I took a deep breath and began telling her that I was going to take her husband’s body to the morgue when the caseworker and the girl emerged from the home. I later learned her name was Bre’. This poor, defeated foster-kid looked like a flower with a broken stem.  She was tall and lanky, the kind of physique you’d see on a couture model.  But she slouched forward, hunched against the cold weight of misery.  Her honey-colored hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail that drifted stray tendrils into her face.  Her enormous eyes were hollow and red.  Easily a few inches taller than I, she shuffled forward as though she hated her height, like she wished for nothing more than to fold into herself until she disappeared.  The wife/foster-mom saw her leaving with the caseworker and charged forward.  She grabbed Bre’s face in her hands and sputtered out some proclamation about how Bre “couldn’t go anywhere” because the foster mom “needed her.”

I cringed.

To some extent, I knew that the foster mom was trying to tell Bre not to kill herself or anything.  But, honestly, I thought the last thing Bre needed was to feel responsible for someone else’s welfare. It didn’t take a genius to see that Bre was withering with guilt. Knowing what I know about narcissistic abusers, I had no doubt the foster-dad had managed to convince Bre that she was to blame for the abuse she’d been suffering.  And in tandem, I suspected Bre was blaming herself for his suicide as well. Her foster-mom didn’t have a husband anymore, her foster-siblings didn’t have a dad anymore, and I would put money on the notion that Bre believed it was all her fault.

She started to cry again as the foster-mom stumbled away and began pacing the front yard, cursing her deceased husband.  Bre’s bent head bobbed with silent sobs as she closed her eyes and turned to get into the caseworker’s car.  I was gripped with an urge to go say something to her. “Hey,” I imagined pulling her aside. “I know what happened here. I know what he was doing to you. I want you to know it wasn’t your fault.” I imagined pushing a business card into her hand and saying: “I want you to call me if you need help. This had nothing to do with you.  You are not responsible for his actions.”  The desire was like a rope tied around my chest, pulling me forward. But I resisted. I stayed rooted to my spot and watched her get into the car and drive away.  “I’m not a counselor…” I told myself. “I’m not a social worker or a therapist.  I don’t really have anything to offer her and I wouldn’t be allowed access to her if I did.”

The irony.  On the one hand, a complete fucking sociopath had unfettered, open access to Bre.  But I knew that if I approached her and tried to say anything, my ass would be dragged down on the proverbial mat.  I would probably get professionally dinged because I didn’t “stay in my lane” and I would be reminded that doing the wrong thing for the right reason… is still doing the wrong thing.  I’m the medical examiner.  My role is to deal with the death- not to try to correct dead people’s mistakes.

Reminding myself of this, I went to the car where my decedent sat and began sifting through the scene. My suspicions were confirmed when I pulled the crumpled-up “suicide-note” from his pocket: a hastily scrawled testament to the dead guy’s selfishness.  He admitted nothing, took no responsibility and offered no apologies. I don’t remember it verbatim, but it said something about– all he wanted was a little help and no one cared about him… or some such self-indulgent drivel.  And I remember reading it and handing it to the officer beside me. I remember thinking about the wife/foster-mom’s devastated confusion, about Bre’s crumpled, tear-streaked face… about the wrecked lives he’d left in his wake.  I glanced at the officer, who was shaking his head as he read the note.

“Hey,” I said to him. “At least he’s dead.”

PART 2-

The week went by in its unremarkable way. I thought about Bre a few times. I hoped she’d be ok. I mean, she was supposed to be in a care facility now, right? Someone was handling this debacle. Someone was being held responsible. How did something like this happen anyway? Who was vetting these foster parents? Who the hell thought it was a good idea to deposit vulnerable children in a home with that guy? God, I hoped someone was losing their job over it.

A niggling little gnat in my ear sent me to the internet.  Maybe I could do some volunteer work or something. Maybe I could help some of these kids. Teach them poetry or trapeze or anything that might snap them out of their own, precarious existence for an afternoon. I attempted to google “Foster kids” and the first five items that Google spat out made my skin crawl:

“How much money do you get for housing a foster kid?” was one top suggestion from the web.

”Can you earn a living as a foster parent?” was another.

One site advertised that you could select your foster child by viewing their picture on an online catalog.

Across the board, the message was clear: These kids weren’t people, they were commodities. This family had acquired four cash cows and our shit-head decedent figured he could do what he wanted with at least one of them. Who was going to stop him? Who would believe her? Who would care? The foster care system had blithely shoveled four little souls into this child-molester’s house like coal into a steam engine. They were fuel. And as soon as all their value burned up, there would be nothing left but ash.

I was enraged by my own helplessness.

But it was being dealt with. That’s what I told myself. It wasn’t my job. This event must have set off alarms. This must have gotten someone’s attention.

I negotiated my way out of the anger and discomfort by the next week. My brain back-burnered Bre. “After all,” I rationalized, “horrific tragedy is my job description. If I went off the rails every time I witnessed human depravity, I wouldn’t have time to eat.” So, by the time Henry (my wizened old co-worker) and I were in the parking lot, smoking our cigarettes and drinking our coffee, I was level and ready to face another shift.

“So?” I asked him as he offered me a Winston Red and obligingly lit it for me. “How was your shift? What fresh hell am I facing today?”

“I had a couple of overdoses,” he shrugged. “If you could, would you go draw toxicology on one of them? He’s at Peaceful Paths.”

I nodded in response as Henry took a deep drag of his cigarette. “I had your girl,” he said.

“What?”

“The girl from your suicide last week. The foster kid.”

His words swallowed me like a sudden black-out and I was surrounded by a thick, suffocating silence. Every cell in my body gasped at once.

“Uh… She’s dead?” -or some other disfluency squeezed out of my lungs. I couldn’t breathe.

Either Henry didn’t notice, or he thought it was better to get it over with.

“They found her hanging on the soccer goal at the high school.”

My chest tightened and my diaphragm spasmed “Oh… ok.”

Henry was watching me out of the corner of his eye. With a decades-long career in investigations, my reaction wasn’t escaping his notice. But he didn’t say anything more, or if he did, I didn’t hear it. I numbly drifted back into the office, bade him farewell and gathered myself together to drive out to Peaceful Paths funeral home so I could pull some blood and urine samples on Henry’s OD victim. My body felt frozen, but my mind was flailing in an ocean of static. I staggered through the front office of the Peaceful Paths funeral home on my way to their cooler, checking in with the staff to make sure they were expecting me. They greeted me and assured, yes, the overdose victim was on a table in the prep room and ready for me to start sticking him with needles. Then one of the funeral directors, Clark, spoke up.

“Your girl is in our cooler.”

“My… what?”

“The foster kid from your suicide last week. CPS sent her to us.”

‘She’s here?”

On the one hand, it’s no surprise everyone knew. Fucked up calls make the rounds. Doubtless, the investigation into Bre’s suicide had linked to the foster-father’s suicide and once that connection was made, people couldn’t stop talking about it. Still, I felt exposed. It seemed like the degree to which I would be affected was not only well known, it had also been a topic of much discussion. Why else would everyone keep calling her my girl.

I didn’t say anything at first. My eyes began to sting. “I… I can’t fucking believe that shit…” I hiccuped out… doing my best to put off my typical fuck-if-I-care attitude. The funeral home folks exchanged looks. They weren’t fooled. If anyone can tell when you’re trying not to cry, it’s funeral home employees.

Clark hesitated and spoke up again. “They’re… ummm… they want her cremated. But-“ he added hopefully, “-the caseworker is doing a good job. They picked out a really nice urn for her…”

I almost choked. I spun to face him and hissed with concentrated venom, “Did you seriously just say ‘the caseworker is doing a good job because they picked out a nice urn for the dead foster kid’? Did that sentiment really just come out of your mouth?”

I whirled away from the speechless funeral home employees. They’d seen me pop-off before, but my ire had never been directed at any of them. I felt a flash of regret for snapping, but didn’t have the energy to explain to them what seemed achingly obvious to me. If the fucking case-worked had done even an ADEQUATE job, Bre would still be ALIVE. How could they fail to recognize that?

I went to the prep room and must have drawn fluids from the OD case. I really don’t remember. I do remember being pulled into the cooler by an undeniable force. I couldn’t NOT go in. I had to. I owed her that much. Her case-worker wouldn’t see her, her family wouldn’t see her, the other foster kids and her foster mother wouldn’t see her. The bureaucratic, county government jerk-offs that ruled from their sanitized offices and condemned Bre to the custody of that monster… they would never see her.  Everyone that had failed her would never have to look into her vacant, opaque eyes. But I had to. SOMEONE had to. Someone needed to bear witness. Someone needed to acknowledge the inhuman crime that had been perpetrated on her tiny, barely begun life. She deserved to be seen.

The cold, sour air from the cooler breathed over me in a chilly yawn as I opened the door.  Shelves lined either side of the cooler. Inert, bodies covered in white sheets lay positioned on each one, the silent witnesses as I stepped inside and walked toward the prep-table that held Bre’s body.  She was wrapped in one of our white, plastic body bags, which are really just glorified envelopes. Gingerly, I pulled the open the flaps, and there she was. Exactly as I remembered her: the same wide eyes, doll-like features and sandy-blonde hair, pulled back into a loose ponytail with wisps curling around her chin and neck. She was wearing the same dark hoodie, which initially obscured the deep, waxy groove looping sharply along the line of her jaw and pulling upward toward the back of her neck in a classic tear-drop shape. It dug into the soft skin of her throat like a plow-furrow. She had used her shoelaces, or maybe the string from her hoodie. Her eyelids hung low and sleepy, almost closed but not quite. Just the cloudy lower rim of her brown irises hinted at the unseeing nature of her stare.

I put my hand on her forehead. She was cold- the soft, pliable cold of clay or mud. The cold of inanimate objects- cold with nothing inside struggling to fight it. The cold of surrender. 

It felt like a dull, barbed hook was being dragged through my chest. I choked and closed my eyes, that terrible cold seeping into my hand. “I’m so sorry…” I said. I don’t know if I spoke out loud or if it just radiated from the core of my heart where the hook was digging. “I’m so sorry I didn’t say anything to you. I’m sorry I didn’t try. I’m so sorry you were failed so completely by so many people…”

Nothing. Just the sound of my own breath with the indifferent dead watching, waiting.  It didn’t matter to them. Nothing I could say or do now would make a lick of difference to the dead who were long past caring how sorry I was.

I don’t know how long I stood there.

When I opened my eyes, I saw a large flower arrangement positioned close by.  Funeral homes will often put funeral flowers in the cooler along with the dead bodies to keep the petals from wilting before the service. There wouldn’t be any flowers for Bre. There wouldn’t be any memorial service, wake or reception with little sandwiches and bad wine. She was getting a direct cremation that very day. They were disposing of the evidence. FUCK IT. I thought. I reached over and pulled a huge purple rose from the arrangement, positioning it under Bre’s cold hand. She should have something nice. And that flower arrangement was an ostentatious cacophony of blossoms. No one would notice.

“I’ll see you later, kid.” I said to her as I covered her back up, switched off the light and closed the door behind me… leaving her to be cremated and deposited in the really nice urn her case worker did a good job of choosing.

-PART 3-

It’s not the end, not even close. Over a year has passed and it still isn’t over.

Roughly 3 days later, my phone rang. It was my friend, Laura. She was crying so hard I could barely understand her.

“Grace, I need you to tell me what happened to my sister. Her name was Bre.”

At first, I didn’t understand what was happening. Laura and I had spent a lot of time together driving back and forth to a class in another part of the state.  She had told me many details about her life. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her mother had kind of gone off the deep end. As I remembered it, Laura’s mother had remarried some Unabomber, conspiracy-theorist type. They had all been living “off the grid” in the undeveloped wilds of my county. Laura’s mom had wanted Laura to drop out of school at 12 years old in order to raise her younger half-siblings. But Laura had fucked right out of that situation to live with her dad who died a few years ago. Laura had indicated to me that she was alone in the world. Last I’d heard, Laura’s mom was in prison on drug charges and her step-father (and I use the term VERY loosely) was in the wind- wandering the streets, high on something-or-other and doing god-knows-what.

Then the reality hit me.

Laura and Bre had the same, wide eyes, full lips and porcelain skin.  Laura’s complexion was a bit darker, as was her hair.  But other than that, the two of them were carbon copies.

“Oh my god… oh my god… oh, Laura…” was all I could babble for the first minutes. It all made sense now. Of course, they had different last names… they had different fathers. And of course Laura was 10 years older, Bre had been born during a whole different era of their mother’s life. Their mother was in prison and Bre’s father was just gone. Of course Laura’s half-siblings, the one’s she had essentially raised until she was 15, were in foster care. Perhaps the most fucked -up death I had ever witnessed had been that of a good friend’s little sister.

“Just tell me what happened? I just want to know what happened.”

My throat hurt. I could feel the bureaucratic collar tightening. It’s deeply rooted and yet cleverly unspoken in the culture of civil service: Avoid liability! Protect THE COUNTY at all costs. From the moment you get hired, the gag order begins.  You never say anything that could make THE COUNTY look bad. You never reveal anything that could be used against THE COUNTY. You suckle the hand that feeds you and you sacrifice everything to defend it. Because you don’t want THE COUNTY to turn on you. Don’t you want your retirement package? Don’t you like two-weeks paid vacation and bank holidays? Then keep your trap shut about the things you see here.

I faltered.

“What do you know so far?” I asked Laura.

And that’s where it all fell apart. She reeled off the heavily edited and powerfully spun story that CPS had given her about her sister’s suicide. They’d claimed Bre had been having a “sexual relationship” with the man in the house where she and her siblings had been placed. She had been “removed” after his suicide and was in the hospital on a mental health hold for a couple of days before being released to another foster home where she was being “watched” 24/7. But Bre had somehow escaped the supervising gaze of whoever had been tasked with protecting her. She ended up hanging on a soccer goal, found by complete strangers the next morning.

Laura sobbed out the story of how she had found out that Bre was in the hospital and how Laura had attempted to get CPS to release Bre into her care.  Laura was her sister, after all. Laura had basically raised Bre from birth to the age of 5 when Laura finally had to preserve her own life and leave as their mother devolved into drug use and chaos. 

CPS, however, had denied Laura’s request, self-indulgently claiming that Bre was better off with them. They were professionals, after all.  This is what they DO. Laura hadn’t gotten a chance to see Briana before she was cremated. Neither did the two younger siblings whom CPS had decided to leave with the abuser’s widow. Now, no one was talking to Laura. She wanted to see her two younger half-siblings, but no one was returning her call. They just wanted it to go away. They wanted to forget it ever happened.

This is what they DO, indeed. I felt my pulse quickening and my breath leaving my chest in furious heaves. It was sickening. Clearly, whoever had been talking to Laura was engaged in the time-honored tradition of covering their own ass.  Bre and her siblings had been placed with a malignant narcissist and his conveniently oblivious wife.  Bre HAD ABSOLUTELY NOT been in a “sexual relationship” with that motherfucker. She had just turned 18… she was being MOLESTED by her foster father who didn’t let slip it was happening until AFTER she was 18. And WHO WAS SUPPOSED TO BE WATCHING HER? How do you forget what happened to that kid? How do you take your eyes off her?

This is what they DO.

It wasn’t hard to see the desperate hand-washing, the not-my-fault gestures of Child Protective Services. They knew they had fucked up. They knew they were on the hook for Bre’s death.  Their only, pathetic hope was to bury their heads in the sand, leave phone calls unreturned and hope that time might win this war of attrition for them.

This is what they do.

I told her everything- every last detail.  Everything I just told YOU, I told Laura.  It all came tumbling out and I sobbed along with her. I told her I was sorry. I should have done something. But more than that, I told her this:

“Look,” I said. “You need to get a lawyer. Hopefully, someone will take this case pro bono and can get paid out of the settlement.  But you need to sue the FUCK out of the county.”

Laura began to protest. But I was way ahead of her. “I know nothing is going to bring Bre back. I know that money won’t make this better.  But you need to understand that money is the only language the county speaks. Unless you make them feel this financially, it won’t matter to them. And don’t let your mother get involved and take some cheap cash-out so she can throw it all away when she’s released from prison. Put it into a trust or something so when your younger siblings age out of the system, they have some kind of support to get started in life. They’re going to try to throw $30,000 at you. That’s their ‘fuck-it-and-settle’ price when they just want something to be done. DO NOT SETTLE.”

She hasn’t. As far as I know Laura got an attorney and nothing is settled yet. At least not for her.

It’s a bit different for me.

My disgust for the county government has taken root with ferocious vigor. I’m infected with contempt for any member of administration as they all sit, wedged into their cubicles, shitting out vapid memos and congratulating themselves for the latest, pointless “policy.” I’m so strangled with resentment I can barely walk into the Public Service Building. I’m the poster-child for disillusioned burn-out. I hate the fact that I work for the same grinding, indifferent machine that feeds children into the slow machinations of its own, fat apathy.

I was so distraught, I ended up calling a friend who’s a former sheriff’s deputy for THE COUNTY. He once told me the story of his own departure from faithful service. He left a few years ago when the futility of the work and frustration at his own helplessness finally overtook him in the form of panic attacks and rage.

“Chris…” I said to him. “Something happened, something bad. I’m not sure I can do this anymore.”

I didn’t have to elaborate.

“One day, the apple cart just tips over and we are left wondering what the fuck happened,” he said.

And he’s right, there are some mistakes that can’t be smoothed over. You can overcome some misgivings.  You can whether certain storms. But there’s just no coming back from some catastrophes.

So here, I am… surrounded by apples…

Wondering what the fuck happened,

A purple rose in one hand, and a lit match in the other.

I know what you did.

And I hope this secret burns your fucking house down.

____________________________________________________________________________

Epilogue:

There are still more stories coming. If you like my weird little tales of death, don’t worry, there are lots left. That said, I truly believe that this might be the most important thing I’ve ever written. I enjoy penning amusing anecdotes about my job- but this is something different. Brianna’s story needs to be heard and every last word is true. I didn’t change her name because her name needs to be known. Her story needs to be known.

So please- tell it. Please share this story with anyone who will read it or listen. And please do something for the foster kids in your community. They are vulnerable and are being exploited like this everywhere. Please, for Bre.

A Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Job, PART 2: If The Dead Could Speak, They’d Say “F^<K YOU!"- So I'll Just Say It For Them

Death is cool.  I get it.

When I first started as a medicolegal death investigator, I was giddy with amazement at everything I was suddenly seeing and doing. It’s normal to catch a couple Gs when you first enter the world of law enforcement, forensics, pathology etc.  One minute you’re watching it on television, the next you’re crossing the crime scene tape and you’re inside the scene. It’s fucking wild. How did this happen? I remember the first time a police officer said to me, “Well, what do you want us to do? It’s YOUR scene,” I was terrified and elated.  I was the real deal! I was in charge!  I had the lead in the school play! I was sitting with the cool kids at lunch!  I had the inside track on everything and I couldn’t WAIT to tell everyone every last detail so they’d all know how awesome I was.

You guys wanna hear about my latest decapitation?”

Of course, that’s exactly the problem. I wasn’t awesome. I was an asshole who thought she was awesome. I was working an internship at a medical examiner’s office. I was high on my own, newfound knowledge and I was keeping a blog that was WAY more inappropriate than this one- a blog that was found by my internship preceptors and almost cost me my career before it even started. I hadn’t learned yet.

“Learned what,”  You ask?

Learned that people are awful. I’m frequently awful. The world is a trash-fire and there are certain things you

JUST. DON’T. DO.

…Like divulge details regarding people’s identities and deaths. Sure, I tell you a lot in this blog, but I certainly don’t tell you everything.  And the stories I DO tell you are mostly true. But some aspects have been shifted around just enough so my dead folks are safe and my identity and location aren’t obvious.

Oh, wait… you thought “Grace Baudino” was my real name? That’s adorable.

And I think, therein lies the crux of the matter.  You’ll notice I referred to them as “my dead folks.”  They are. They’re mine. Their stories are in my hands.  It’s up to me to see that their truth is told. I know these people. I know them more than their own families sometimes, more than the pathologist who will literally pry their brains out of their skulls.

I hold their faces in my hands and look in their eyes. I stick my fingers in their mouths. I squeeze their chests, feel their bones and run my hands over stretch marks and fat rolls that they’re too ashamed to show anybody. I pull their clothes off and document their pubic hair and nail polish. I rifle through pockets and cell phones, reading their text messages and suicide notes. I root through their bed-side tables and refrigerators. I find their drugs, their guns, their porn, their bottle of vodka they stowed under the bathroom sink.

I find hidden cigarettes when they told everyone they quit. I find positive pregnancy tests buried in bathroom wastebaskets. I even water their plants sometimes.  I’ll feed their fish and make sure animal services is coming to pick up their cat.  I’ve cried over some dead people because I was so heartbroken I would never get to meet them. I’ve hated others. But they’re all mine and I’m NOT SHARING THEM.

That sounds weird, let me backtrack.

At the beginning a death-investigator career, the dead are just a means to an end… an opportunity to have a new, cool story to tell. The weirder, the better.  Each case is nothing more than another stage, upon which to prove yourself. It’s fun, exciting and very SENSATIONAL in the truest sense of the word. But around year 7 or so, the varnish has all worn off your glamorous job and you really start seeing the deaths… like… you’re not just recording them anymore. By the time you’re broken in a bit, you don’t have the same frantic focus that you had as a rookie. Once you stop worrying as much about what you’re going to miss or screw up, it frees up bandwidth for you to really start seeing your decedents. They’re suddenly people again. At least, that’s how it went for me.

Of course, the problem is, you realize other people are “seeing” them too… and not in a good way. I feel about my dead people the way folks feel about their siblings.  I might get angry at how inconvenient they are. I might make fun of their home décor. I might roll my eyes with exhaustion and disdain and make snide remarks to the cops… but I’ll be damnned if I’m gonna let someone else do it. Furthermore, I’ll be damnned if I’m going to tolerate people treating a death scene like it’s a live-action episode of CSI.  If you want to see a show, go flip on Investigation Discovery. This isn’t the Roman Coliseum in 100 A.D.  People aren’t dying for your entertainment.

But we’ve lost track of that somehow.  We’ve all been given some weird entitlement serum and believe we have a right to witness complete strangers’ most intimate, traumatic and painful moments. Real life is nothing more than hi-def reality television… and it’s grotesque. To me, asshole spectators staring at a mess of blood and carnage is even worse than people thinking they have the right to see other people naked.  The entire nation has turned into a carload of drunken douchebags, yelling “show us your tits!” at every woman they pass on the highway.  Except they’re yelling, “SHOW US YOUR GUTS!” and they’re not even going to toss you a shitty string of Mardi Gras beads.  They’ll just yell, “The public has a right to know!” and mother-fuck you on social media if you suggest they’re in the wrong.

On the one hand, I get it.  People are curious and sheltered. I’m not sure about other societies, but in America, we’re cloistered from the reality of death. Death only happens in TV shows and movies, usually to a minor character and usually just to further an inane plot-line. But when death happens right in front of our faces, we’re frozen with disbelief and fascination. What are we looking at?  A summer camp of slaughtered teenagers on a screen is completely different from the caught-breath sucker-punch of seeing an actual person, stripped of their soul. Sometimes, I can practically hear the crackling buzz of peoples’ brains short-circuiting as they attempt to comprehend the fact that a death has occurred so close to them.  I imagine it feels a lot like standing right next to someone who just got struck by lightning. How did this happen?  How did it come so close? Why them and not me?

But shock and awe will only excuse so much gawking.

I remember the first time I really got pissed at a bystander. It was a complicated scene.  A couple had been found deceased in their home, a man and a woman. They were in their mid-50’s, living in the middle-class suburbs: as nondescript as a pair of paperclips living in an accountant’s office. But then they died, and their mauve little cul de sac turned into a glittering circus of red and blue lights.  I had just arrived on the scene and the typical collection of neighborhood busy-bodies were all gathering in the street along with the police cars and a couple of news crews who had decided to make a day of it.  I watched as one desperate housewife approached the crowd, asking what was happening.

“John and Sonia are dead,” came the answer.

“OH MY GOD NOOOOOOOO!” the woman screamed in response. “HE WAS SUCH A NICE MAN I CAN’T BELIEVE HE WOULD DO THAT!”

No one had yet said anything about this scene being a homicide/suicide. At least not officially.  As investigators, the possibility of a homicide/suicide was on our radar.  But we knew better than to say so out loud. Of course, this woman didn’t give a shit about any investigation unless it involved the news crews gathering around to investigate HER… because that’s exactly what happened. Microphones were shoved into her face and reporters drilled her with leading questions about the deceased couple. Beaming with the attention, her performance amplified to Oscar-worthy proportions as she lamented the murder/suicide that had just taken place. What a shame it was! It’s never who you expect! She howled and wept and the cameras ate it up… putting it all on the evening news for the consumption of the general public.

Thing is… it wasn’t a murder/suicide.

Autopsies later confirmed that the woman had died of a stroke. And the man… shattered with grief… had opted to kill himself, rather than live without his wife. Post mortem changes confirmed he had died of asphyxiation approximately a day after her passing.  Of course, it took a couple of days to thread through the whole, tangled story.  But the media didn’t want to wait a couple of days. They wanted to run the story now.  “HOMICIDE/SUICIDE IN SLEEPY SUBURBAN NEIGHBORHOOD!” screamed the headline. And there, on the front page of the newspaper was the “grieving community”… a.k.a. a bunch of dick-bag Karens, carrying on for the cameras.

When the truth came out, the media didn’t bother to follow up or issue a retraction. Subsequently, I was the one who got stuck on the phone with the couple’s son when he called and asked why the world had been told that his father had killed his mom and then himself. I refrained from telling him it was because some deplorable lookie-loo decided to make his parents’ deaths a springboard for her attention-seeking bullshit. I still gave a shit about professionalism and decorum back then. These days I wouldn’t hold back.

I used to try to take it in stride- the staring, the questions and the performative nature of people’s interest.  It’s normal, I suppose. But then I saw a guy lift his child on to his shoulders so that child could get a better view of a suicide victim who had jumped off the 5th floor of a parking garage. Things changed for me. That’s when I started stepping in. I could forgive curiosity. But, I could no longer abide people treating someone’s death as a side-show, or an opportunity… or an amusement.

I began giving lookie-loos the stink-eye when I marched on to a scene, making sure they saw the words: “MEDICAL EXAMINER” printed in big, block letters across my back as I passed them. I willed for my contempt to simply ooze off me with every step. That’s right!  I thought as I passed them. I’m in charge here and I DISAPPROVE of you! But soon I realized no one noticed or cared.

So, I began grumbling insults under my breath… which was a bit more satisfying but still didn’t really scratch the insistent itch of my ire.  In the last year, I’ve begun staring bystanders in the eye and barking, “CAN I HELP YOU?” I’m attempting to draw attention to the fact that they don’t actually have any reason to be standing there watching me pull a crushed body out of a demolished car.

Every time I start shouting at bystanders, the cops titter and exchange nervous glances. It’s like they sense what’s coming, the way animals can feel a tornado coming from miles away. Believe it or not, the cops are better-behaved than I and are far more concerned with upsetting the public than I have ever been.  With the advent of Black Lives Matter, the police in my area don’t attempt to block the public’s view of anything.  It makes sense, I guess. They don’t want to give the impression that they’re hiding their alleged nefarious deeds.

Subsequently, the cops have viewed my devolution into a snarky, confrontational monster with a mixture of delight and terror.  I’ve actually started saying things to people that they only think. And even as they snigger behind their hands, they wonder if my antics are going to get all of us fired.

All I can say is: Not yet.

I’m getting closer though. Recently, I had another “jumper.”  An elderly man who was beginning to lose himself to Alzheimer’s opted to walk off the roof of his 6-floor retirement home rather than inflict his dementia on his family.  I find these situations unbearably tragic. I believe our ancestors deserve better than to think self-destruction is their only option once they’ve outlived their earning potential. But this situation was made much worse by the gossiping old biddies who insisted on poking their graying heads out of their windows so they could observe me performing an external exam on the body. Normally, I would have just loaded up the decedent and taken him to a funeral home so I could assess him, but no one witnessed his terminal events and he had been found deceased in the parking lot.  There was some confusion as to whether or not he actually jumped, or if he had been hit by a car as he was walking across the pavement. And since it was a possible hit-and-run, the scene had to remain untainted until I made my assessment.

It was maddening.  I would bend down to palpate the decedent’s head or chest, to turn him over or take pictures of another injury and down came a sinister shower of whispers sprinkling down on me from above.  I would look up to see shades pulled aside or blinds split apart as the community reveled in the latest happening.  I was grinding my teeth to nubs and bristling under the stares until finally I just began shouting up at the windows. “THIS MAN DID NOT DIE FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT! SHUT YOUR SHADES AND STOP STARING!”

I also considered telling them that if they didn’t knock off the gaping I was going to come up there and throw them off the roof as well… but that would have been too far.  As it was, I had a sheriff’s deputy recruit helping me with that scene, and he looked a little worried as I shrieked my displeasure up at the neighbors.  Usually, the law enforcement field instructors like having me on death scenes because I’ll happily babble-on at length regarding death investigations.  This time however, I recall hearing the recruit ask his field instructor if we were really allowed to yell at people like that.  The field instructor said “no.”

That’s not the worst of it though.  The dam really broke a couple of months ago on the scene of an overdose.

I know it doesn’t sound like much of a spectacle.  It certainly didn’t attract as much attention as a 4-car pile-up or a double homicide.  It wasn’t so much that a hoard of lookie-loos gathered around like the witnesses at Christ’s crucifixion. But the situation… this single PERSON… finished me. My public exterior collapsed like a theatrical backdrop, revealing the rusty, crippled machinery that had kept the show running for over a decade.

It was cold, VERY cold. That was part of the problem.  It was also late. At my office we work 48 hour shifts- 8am to 8am two days later.  This was the second evening of my shift and I had been at home getting ready for bed when this call rolled in.  Some guy had been found deceased in the laundry room of an apartment complex.  The death was almost definitely an accidental overdose and it meant a mandatory scene investigation. My abdomen locked up in a painful spasm as dispatch relayed these details. I was tired. I had already been on several death scenes that day and I was not thrilled to add yet another laborious case file to an already monstrous load of paperwork. I ground my teeth with anxiety as I pulled off my freshly-donned pajamas and put my practical business casual back on. Stepping outside, I noted my breath hung in the chilled air as I shuffled to the county truck. I climbed into the driver’s seat and sat there, gripping the steering wheel for a moment, checking the clock to calculate the likely number of hours before I’d be home in my pajamas again… then how many hours of sleep I might still get, provided nothing else happened tonight.

“Fuck.” I murmured.

I heaved the truck into drive and rattled off to a multi-building apartment complex across town.

There was quite the show going on even as I arrived.  I pulled in and positioned the truck close to the death scene which had been surrounded by police tape. But a few yards away from this area, the investigating officers were engaged in a one sided battle royale with some crazy woman. She was wearing ratty pajamas and a pair of flip-flops.  Her hair was twisted into a makeshift bun that erupted haphazard tendrils of hair like an exploding firework.  She was screaming obscenities at the police and stomping around in a fury.  The police, to their credit, looked too exhausted to really get excited about her display.  The officers stood, casually observing the tirade and backing up a step or two whenever the woman’s orbit circled a little too close. One of the officers said something to her and this was apparently the last straw, because she yelled one last expletive and scurried off towards the street. For a split second, I was afraid she was charging into traffic.  But she course-corrected and veered back onto the sidewalk and disappearing into the night.

“What the hell was all that about,” I asked when the cops spotted me and approached to brief me on our situation.

“That’s our dead-guy’s girlfriend.  She lives in the apartment complex down the street.  I guess he was there and the two of them had some kind of fight.  He left and took all their drugs with him.  About a half hour later, someone in this complex comes down to the laundry room to get their clothes and finds our guy, unconscious on the floor, surrounded by scorched aluminum foil and other shit. She’s pissed because we wouldn’t give her the dead guy’s phone.”

-Which made sense.  In cases like this, the phone is often the “smoking gun” and the drug investigation taskforce (DIT) can use it to figure out where and how to contact dealers. Either the girlfriend didn’t want the dealer to get caught, or she didn’t want to lose her only means of contacting the dealer now that her boyfriend was dead. Maybe both.

“So, our guy doesn’t live here? How did he get into the laundry room?”

The officer giving the information, Brandon Ryans, motioned to three young men, who stood at the stairwell of a nearby building.  “They live here. They say the lock has been broken for months. Anybody can get in.”  The three guys were trying to appear nonchalant, shuffling their feet and smoking. But they were watching the evening’s happening with rapt attention… like they couldn’t quite believe they were actually inside the crime scene tape.

“Are we done with them,” I asked Brandon.

“Them? Yeah, we told them they could go a while back.”

“Then why are they still standing there?” I snarked back at Brandon, probably too sharply. It wasn’t his fault these dudes were lingering.  The cops have been heavily trained for the last couple of years NOT to tell people to fuck off.

I marched towards the civilians, with long, firm strides.  “Hey guys, are you part of this?” I was being polite, but definitely using a tone that a typical, male ego would call aggressive.  They looked at me and looked away, rattled that I had addressed them while everyone else had just been content to let them lurk.

“No,” one of them mumbled. “We’re just smoking.”

“Come on you guys…” I said in a conciliatory but final tone. “Go on and get out of here. This guy didn’t die for your entertainment.”

They bristled and exchanged looks, each of them wondering if the other was going to try and challenge me. After a beat, the speaker flicked out his cigarette and ambled away, making sure to amble off with a pouty: “Well, it wasn’t really all that entertaining…” He said this with a wounded air- as though he had bought a ticket to these amusements and felt that he’d overpaid.

“Worst death scene… EVER!”

I rolled my eyes and shivered in the sub-zero air.  As I walked to the landry room, I saw that the apartment complex was arranged with all of these buildings were facing inward toward the parking lot in a sort of courtyard configuration.  I saw curious residents all gathered at their windows, taking in the scene.

“Fuck.” I said again.  There was no way to shield the goings-on from public view. I was going to have to work with an audience. I greeted the DIT guys as I approached the laundry room, seeing with dismay that this laundry room opened directly to the outside and it was the size of a small walk-in closet.  The decedent had been dragged out by paramedics and now lay on the sidewalk under a couple of blankets… essentially on display for the whole world to see.

I jammed into the laundry room with the DIT guys and they showed me the paraphernalia. I took my pictures and gave them a ration of shit for hiding from the crazy woman confrontation outside- and they admitted it was one-hundred-percent true. When she had bulldozed her way on scene, they all scrambled into the laundry room to let the patrol guys sort it out.

I stepped back outside to perform a brief external exam on the dead guy- just enough to verify there wasn’t any obvious trauma or foul play. I felt the burning weight of hundreds of eyes on my back as I did this.  My muscles tightened even more and I tried to keep the body as covered as I could.  But it was impossible. I was going to load him into my truck and take him to the closest funeral home where I could do a proper external exam, but all of this would be tricky.  He was a massive human, easily 300+ pounds.  He was laying on the ground which meant we would have to lift him up and then parade him through this coliseum of on-lookers who were undoubtedly filming this whole fiasco with their bedazzled phones.

And FUCK it was COLD.

“Ok guys,” I addressed the officers. “I’m gonna need your help loading this guy.  I have to take him to a funeral home to get a good look at him.” The officers’ shoulders sagged at the announcement, but no one refused to help or walked away. (Except the DIT guys who were suddenly SUPER busy with the decedent’s phone).  I pulled my stretcher from the back of the truck, grabbed a body bag, breathed heavily on my hands to warm them and went to work.  It took four of us to muscle the dead guy on to the stretcher, all of us straining and huffing.  But we did it while keeping him mostly covered, which was a miracle. I was just coaching the police on lifting our dinosaur of a stretcher and wheeling it back to my truck when I heard the voice.

“WHAT HAPPENED?”

I whirled around, certain the crazy girlfriend had returned, maybe with a knife this time.

But it was a different woman. A mid-to-late thirties, portly, white woman who wore a velour tracksuit with “JUICY” printed across the ass in big, shiny letters.  She was clutching a convenience store bag and also had the exploding clutch of brown hair perched atop her head in a bun. She looked all of us in the eye with an expectant blink.  Not concern, definitely not alarm.

My eyes narrowed even as Brandon threw himself at her like he was shielding someone from a grenade.  But who was the grenade- her or me? Brandon and I have often worked together over the years. My husband and I have even gone out drinking with him.  Brandon has seen me go from fresh-faced newbie to embittered veteran and while he may have enjoyed watching the progression, he also knows I’m becoming a bit like aging dynamite. Anything might set me off.

“Hey…” He called nervously. “There’s nothing going on, it’s not a problem. Just a police matter ma’am, thank you!”

She would not be dissuaded.

“DID SOMEONE DIE!?” She demanded as she craned her neck to see around me and catch a glimpse of the dead man on the stretcher who, thankfully, was covered with sheets.

My back was to the woman as I had been guiding the stretcher off the curb and into the parking lot to load it into my truck.  Brandon was at the head of the stretcher and had an unobscured view of both my face and the caterwauling woman behind me. I can only assume that my expression looked like a gathering storm cloud. And Brandon was the wild animal who could sense the tornado coming.  He tried again, sounding a little bit more manic this time.

“Ma’am, there’s nothing to be concerned about. There’s no risk to the public. I promise you, nothing going on here concerns you.”

He gestured to me to go ahead and maneuver the stretcher forward, off the curb, past the woman and safely into my truck, away from probing eyes. I followed his direction, resolving to ignore her and just get the hell out of there.  I could barely feel my feet, I was hungry and even after I left the scene, there was still so much work to do.

“I JUST WANNA KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON! YOU HAVE TO TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON! WHO IS THAT? I LIVE HERE, I HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW…”

She rattled off a couple more typical phrases, in particular a bunch of bullshit about her “rights” and how they applied in this situation.  She even went so far as to begin following us toward the truck as we tried to navigate past her and load up our decedent.

Something snapped.

I couldn’t say what. The evenings’ frustrations coalesced into a single, ferocious lightning strike in my head and the thunderclap was about to follow.

“That DOES IT!” I growled under my breath as I turned, letting go of the stretcher and stomping toward the woman who still stood there, clutching her phone, her cigarettes and her completely baseless sense of entitlement.

“nonononoNoNoNONONO!” Brandon reached out to grab me but had to grab a hold of the stretcher to keep it from rolling away… seeing as how I had just released it and was bearing down on the woman who blinked at me expectantly. “GRACE, it’s NOT WORTH IT!”

I ignored him. After almost 12 years of obnoxious observers, I was going for it. I was done with being the bigger person, I was done with professionalism. I was loaded for bear and I was aiming to give her both barrels.

“Ma’am,” I hissed at her as I pulled up to her. (“Ma’am” because I was going to rip her a new one but I was going to do it politely?) “I want you to take off all your clothes, right now.”

She gasped and stared at me for a second, like she couldn’t quite believe I had just said that.

“I… beg your pardon…”

“I SAID TAKE ALL OF YOUR CLOTHES OFF RIGHT NOW!”

“How… dare… you…?” she huffed in astomishment.

“IF YOU THINK THAT THE GENERAL PUBLIC HAS THE RIGHT TO SEE SOMEONE IN THEIR MOST VULNERABLE AND HUMILIATING MOMENTS, THEN I WANT YOU TO TAKE OFF ALL YOUR CLOTHES RIGHT NOW!”

She stared at me for a moment, her confusion and shock slowly evaporating under my heated point. Her face shifted from blank to furious.

“FUCK YOU” she shrieked. “WHAT THE… FUCK YOU! I HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW! HOW DARE YOU?!?”

I whirled away from her and grabbed the stretcher, pushing it forward as I caught a glance at Brandon’s face.  His expression was a mixture of dread and amusement. He followed my lead and guided the stretcher to the back of my truck and helped me load our decedent as the woman’s screaming tirade continued… Variations on the theme: Whatever was happening, she had a right to know.

“You don’t have a right to shit,” Brandon called to her. I suspect he felt obligated to back my play, even as he was cringing at it.  She was still raining down a hail of profanity as I pulled out of the parking lot and drove away, leaving Brandon and the other officers to deal with the bomb I had just detonated behind me. I grit my teeth down to nubs as her caterwauling faded.

I’m not sure what I had hoped to achieve in that situation, but it didn’t happen.  Looking back, I guess I wanted her to consider her actions and recognize that she was in the wrong.  I wanted her to understand that human devastation isn’t a show to save her from her uneventful evening. This was a real person who was really dead… not some one-dimensional character on a shitty program.  He had real friends and family who would be really heartbroken over this.  And none of it was her fucking business.  Someone just lost their turn on planet earth, and whether or not he’ll ever get another one is up for debate.

But none of that mattered to her, just like it doesn’t matter to so many other people whose lives are ruled by the principle of: “I DO WHAT I WANT.”  And when we, as emergency workers, first responders and the undisputed janitors of the human race respond with: “Yes, but do you really want to be an asshole?” I’m always astonished at how often that question is answered with an unequivocal and resounding, “YES!”

I was disappointed as I left that scene.  I had always imagined that finally letting loose on a lookie-loo troll like that would feel good.  But it was a hollow victory.  She hadn’t learned or realized anything, just flipped out and I probably should have guessed it would go that way.  What’s more, I was not super proud of the fact that I had lost a hold of my faculties so much that I had actually engaged with a gawker.  Lastly, I felt guilty because I put the cops at risk.  Oh sure, my actions are my own and I don’t even work for the sheriff’s department.  But “juicy-ass scene-goblin” wouldn’t see it that way.  It was possible, likely even, that she would call in a complaint to the “Police Community Standards” hotline and regale them with a story about how a police officer ordered her to strip. I hadn’t been wearing my uniform coat and was dressed all in black, but I was there with the cops. She wouldn’t bother to make any distinction.

“Fuck.” I said under my breath as I pulled up to the funeral home. I dialed Brandon’s number on my cell phone and when he answered I didn’t bother to introduce myself. “That was really bad, wasn’t it?”

Brandon sighed. “Well… yeah.

“I’m sorry man, I’ve been wound super tight lately. I should’ve let it go. I’m sorry, you tried to stop me.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” I heard him shrug. “It was awesome, but yeah. It was kinda bad.”

“Do you think she’s gonna call and complain? I don’t want you guys to get in trouble.”

Brandon sighed again. “I don’t know, she might. It’s fine, people are complaining about everything right now. Some girl accused me of being a racist yesterday when I arrested her boyfriend for beating the shit out of her. And she’s the one who called 911. The world is a shit show.  But on the upside, what you did was so off the wall, I doubt administration will believe it if she does complain.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Are you ok?”

I sighed. “I don’t know. I’m kind of on the teetering edge.”

“You’ve been on the teetering edge for two years now.  It’s why you’re so much fun.  Don’t stress about it. Go home, get some sleep. I’ll catch you later.”

Sometimes it feels like I’m living in reverse.  People are supposed to care less as they spend more time in this job.  I thought all the contact with trauma would make me callous over. Instead, I feel like my skin is getting rubbed off and I’m just a raw nerve, exposed to the world and everything in it. I’m taking things more personally. I’m getting more protective of the dead. I have less and less patience with people who exploit death as a curiosity an amusement… a side-show.

I think I care too much. It matters to me that these people are dead. They’re NOT just extras in someone else’s movie. I want people to know that… to feel that. Maybe I’m asking too much of the human race, but I care.

I feel like this job NEEDS people who care… but this job also DESTROYS people who care.

So what is the answer?

Bleach and Bleachability

So, today we’re taking a brief break from the “Acting Out” posts of yester-week, and I’m addressing a problem that has once again found it’s way into the news

Yes, folks, once again the prospect of drinking bleach has come to our attention.

I recently joined a google group for true-crime aficionados and the following news article was under discussion:

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/florida-family-allegedly-sold-thousands-bottles-bleach-marketed-covid-cure-n1265244

If you don’t feel like clicking on that link, rest assured that the majority of the information is already included in the title. A Florida family allegedly sold thousands of bottles of bleach, claiming it was a cure for the coronavirus. They called it “MMS” for “Miracle Mineral Solution.”

Florida. Amirite?

Now, most people realize that drinking bleach is not a good idea. But as I read through this article, it occurred to me to wonder what the “general-public” ruling is on drinking bleach. So, with a whole day that was packed with other stuff I should have been doing, I decided to dedicate some time to really unpacking the whole, “drinking bleach” question: We all know it’s bad… but HOW bad.

Here, I should note that while I was on my quest to really unpack “drinking bleach,” I had the movie Pride & Prejudice & Zombies on in the background.

What follows is the brief essay that I posted for all my new google-group friends to read. I call it Bleach and Bleachability in honor of Jane Austen and every bastardization that has ever been inflicted on her beloved works.

————————BLEACH AND BLEACHABILITY—————————————————

(Please do me the favor of imagining the first two lines of this being read by Kiera Knightly with a lovely baroque piece being played in the back ground as you you gaze over the English countryside:)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a wife, must be in want of a means to dispose of her.

And although, heretofore, many have supposed that bleach ingestion may be a convenient and available means to such an end… in truth one must endeavor to educate one‘s self before simply adulterating the offending individual’s tea with a spoonful of Clorox.

So, obviously, we’ve all heard Trump’s speech in which he blitheringly mumbled that ingesting cleaners might cure the coronavirus.  I was just as horrified as anyone but didn’t really think about it much more than to assume that the gene pool would be well rid of anyone who looked to our ignoble 45thpresident for medical advice.  But upon being presented with this article, I couldn’t help but contain my curiosity.  Many, many years ago when I was a shitty paramedic, I remember hearing a story of a paramedic instructor who would begin the “toxicology” portion of paramedic school by opening a bottle of bleach and taking a swig of it.  His point being that everything we’ve been told about “toxic” substances isn’t always true.

sorry, wrong “poison”

I took my curiosity to my search bar, just to see what ye olde internet was saying about drinking bleach these days. One of the first articles I ran across was on the web-site Quora (which apparently doesn’t waste much time with fact-checking). A young man by the name of Luke Harrison stated: “just a little sip of bleach can kill you.” He then launched into an admirable work of gruesome science fiction in which he boldly stated that this, “little sip of bleach” would do a person in within 15-30 minutes. He then described how, if someone survived, the bleach would have burned the esophagus and stomach to such a profound degree that the unfortunate soul would have to get an “esophagectomy” and would never be able to eat solid food again.

Feeling somewhat doubtful, I then checked Luke Harrison’s credentials and discovered that he expects to graduate from college in 2023, AND he wrote this little treatise on bleach drinking in 2018.  So… yeah… pretty confident in his medical knowledge for a high-schooler.

Quora… it’s a real think tank…

FINALLY, I simply went straight to the source and called the state chief forensic pathologist and asked him about the toxic effects of bleach.  He said that the toxic effects of bleach are almost completely dependent on the concentration of the substance and the overall health of the person drinking it.  Most people wouldn’t have easy access to highly concentrated bleach and would have to settle for whatever could be found on store shelves.  These products typically top out at a concentration of 6%.  

The biggest issues tend to be less about the theoretical “burning” of the esophagus and stomach (although bleach is corrosive and this can be a problem if you have pre-existing tears, ulcers or esophageal varices due to other health issues) The real concern seems to be more the bleach altering the pH of your blood, because let’s all remember… what you put in your mouth, ends up in your bloodstream. Human blood has a pH of 7.35-7.45, whereas bleach has a pH of 10-11 (making it alkalotic, NOT acidic.) This can do a number on your blood cells (they will hemolyze and die, flooding your bloodstream with blood-cell debris) and result in an acute kidney injury that, again, may be further complicated by an already existing condition.

So… what does drinking bleach do?  Well… it depends.  In a healthy individual, it’s reasonable to expect that drinking a cup of bleach won’t feel GREAT, but it won’t kill you.  Especially if you chase it with a whole lot of water and a swift kick to the ass… because, why the fuck are you drinking bleach, idiot? It’s also reasonable to expect that REPEATEDLY drinking bleach will cause enough problems that you’ll end up in a hospital long before you actually die.  At that point the hospital staff will (hopefully) stop you from drinking bleach and get your dumb-ass better so you can go out and find other bone-headed ways to do yourself in.  Finally, it’s reasonable to expect that continuing to drink bleach WILL kill you as repeated exposure to the substance will eventually cause an esophageal or stomach perforation followed by sepsis.  And/Or it will eventually turn your kidneys into grumpy little brown nuggets who won’t want to do their job anymore due to the lousy working conditions.  

But remember, these outcomes largely depend on the concentration of the bleach.

So ultimately- FUCK THESE GUYS for selling people bleach and telling them it was a miracle coronavirus cure.   And as for Luke Harrison… well, judging by his completely unfounded confidence in his own knowledge of what will kill you and what won’t, I don’t expect we’ll be bothered with his Quora opinions much longer. 

Oh… yeah… and if you want to kill your wife, bleach poisoning probably isn’t the most expeditious way to pull it off.  Feel free to hit me up for a more effective method.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Anyway, while none of my new friends have yet asked me for new and different ways of dispatching an unwanted spouse, I did receive one marriage proposal.

Not sure how to feel about that…

New Podcast Episode!

Hey there folks…

Here’s another survival story. This one comes from the faraway land of Mexico… where my friend Duque managed to survive a shootout and kidnapping attempt… then he managed to leave that life behind and simply commit to social justice, cold drinks… and cooking tacos.

We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy Dead Men's Donuts

Greetings Travelers! Your favorite snarky medical examiner is here with more morbid adventures! There's a new format. I'm going to alternate episodes: For every episode featuring a survival story, the next episode will be a true story from my own experiences as a Medicolegal Death Investigator… but more importantly… as a Woman Medicolegal Death Investigator on the Autism Spectrum! That's right, just when you thought things couldn't get any weirder- turns out, I'm neurodivergent (of course, a lot of people already knew that but it was news to me) Anyway, this weeks story is a reintroduction to me, my profession and a true recounting of my very first autopsy
  1. We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy
  2. Charlie's Story Part 2: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  3. Charlie's Story: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  4. Deb's Story: How getting punched in the face can save your life
  5. Rachael's Story: Going Full Cockroach

New Podcast Episode!

Hey guys…

So, now I have two new blog entries in the works… because things happen faster than I can write about them. But they’re coming. I swear they’re coming.

In the meantime, here is a new podcast episode-

This is a story of miscommunication, racial tension, and 75 tootsie rolls (or a laser pointer)

We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy Dead Men's Donuts

Greetings Travelers! Your favorite snarky medical examiner is here with more morbid adventures! There's a new format. I'm going to alternate episodes: For every episode featuring a survival story, the next episode will be a true story from my own experiences as a Medicolegal Death Investigator… but more importantly… as a Woman Medicolegal Death Investigator on the Autism Spectrum! That's right, just when you thought things couldn't get any weirder- turns out, I'm neurodivergent (of course, a lot of people already knew that but it was news to me) Anyway, this weeks story is a reintroduction to me, my profession and a true recounting of my very first autopsy
  1. We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy
  2. Charlie's Story Part 2: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  3. Charlie's Story: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  4. Deb's Story: How getting punched in the face can save your life
  5. Rachael's Story: Going Full Cockroach

Lord Voldemort Rides Again!

So, I know it’s been a while since I’ve written anything. It turns out podcasts take up a lot of time, but a new adventure in mortality is almost complete. Stay tuned! But in the mean-time- here is the latest podcast episode-

We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy Dead Men's Donuts

Greetings Travelers! Your favorite snarky medical examiner is here with more morbid adventures! There's a new format. I'm going to alternate episodes: For every episode featuring a survival story, the next episode will be a true story from my own experiences as a Medicolegal Death Investigator… but more importantly… as a Woman Medicolegal Death Investigator on the Autism Spectrum! That's right, just when you thought things couldn't get any weirder- turns out, I'm neurodivergent (of course, a lot of people already knew that but it was news to me) Anyway, this weeks story is a reintroduction to me, my profession and a true recounting of my very first autopsy
  1. We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy
  2. Charlie's Story Part 2: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  3. Charlie's Story: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  4. Deb's Story: How getting punched in the face can save your life
  5. Rachael's Story: Going Full Cockroach

New Podcast Episode

So, here it is- Chris’s story.

We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy Dead Men's Donuts

Greetings Travelers! Your favorite snarky medical examiner is here with more morbid adventures! There's a new format. I'm going to alternate episodes: For every episode featuring a survival story, the next episode will be a true story from my own experiences as a Medicolegal Death Investigator… but more importantly… as a Woman Medicolegal Death Investigator on the Autism Spectrum! That's right, just when you thought things couldn't get any weirder- turns out, I'm neurodivergent (of course, a lot of people already knew that but it was news to me) Anyway, this weeks story is a reintroduction to me, my profession and a true recounting of my very first autopsy
  1. We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy
  2. Charlie's Story Part 2: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  3. Charlie's Story: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  4. Deb's Story: How getting punched in the face can save your life
  5. Rachael's Story: Going Full Cockroach

So… I’ve heard that people have had a rough time with anchor cutting off the podcast episodes after only a couple of minutes.

Has anyone had that issue?

Well- just so you know, it’s available on Google Podcasts

Or Stitcher

Or Spotify

Or Apple Podcasts

I’m sorry, I have no idea how to link those

Anyway, my point is- if you want to listen, you can find it all over the place…

and you SHOULD listen… I mean I like that people sometimes enjoy the stuff I write, but the fact is- writing essays can get kind of tedious for me when I’ve spent an entire shift cranking out case files.

SO- my own stories will continue to come suffering down the line. But in the meantime- listen to a survival story or two.

xoxox

New Podcast Episode!

So

this story isn’t new to you guys, but it is likely the first time you’ve heard me read one of these stories first-hand. If you would like to hear me read “The One That Got Away” to a live audience- you can check it out here:

We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy Dead Men's Donuts

Greetings Travelers! Your favorite snarky medical examiner is here with more morbid adventures! There's a new format. I'm going to alternate episodes: For every episode featuring a survival story, the next episode will be a true story from my own experiences as a Medicolegal Death Investigator… but more importantly… as a Woman Medicolegal Death Investigator on the Autism Spectrum! That's right, just when you thought things couldn't get any weirder- turns out, I'm neurodivergent (of course, a lot of people already knew that but it was news to me) Anyway, this weeks story is a reintroduction to me, my profession and a true recounting of my very first autopsy
  1. We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy
  2. Charlie's Story Part 2: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  3. Charlie's Story: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  4. Deb's Story: How getting punched in the face can save your life
  5. Rachael's Story: Going Full Cockroach

Otherwise- congrats to us all for surviving another week of the apocalypse!

High-five!

Love is Blind

You probably already knew this, but love makes you stupid. Especially when you’re feeling it for the first time-at the age of 35.

Confused? Yeah, so was Megz when her girlfriend tried to kill her. Hear all about it on this week’s podcast episode, Megz Story.

I swear I’ll get back to writing my own material this week. It’s just with all the crazy shit going on in the world today, I have been finding it difficult to do anything other than watch reruns of Ru Paul’s Drag Race:

strangely therapeutic… or just strange.

In the meantime, here’s the link to the podcast episode.

We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy Dead Men's Donuts

Greetings Travelers! Your favorite snarky medical examiner is here with more morbid adventures! There's a new format. I'm going to alternate episodes: For every episode featuring a survival story, the next episode will be a true story from my own experiences as a Medicolegal Death Investigator… but more importantly… as a Woman Medicolegal Death Investigator on the Autism Spectrum! That's right, just when you thought things couldn't get any weirder- turns out, I'm neurodivergent (of course, a lot of people already knew that but it was news to me) Anyway, this weeks story is a reintroduction to me, my profession and a true recounting of my very first autopsy
  1. We're Back! Special Episode: Neurodivergence and My First Autopsy
  2. Charlie's Story Part 2: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  3. Charlie's Story: "If you ever touch me again, I'll stab you in your sleep"
  4. Deb's Story: How getting punched in the face can save your life
  5. Rachael's Story: Going Full Cockroach