(Brendan Hsu)– I like to invent stories about them; it makes their bodies feel a little warmer. Most of my coworkers cope using a morbid sense of humor, but I’ll settle for fairy tales.
“Coroner’s report: March 21st, 2011. Evan Vaughan, LAPD number 58191.” As a kid I wanted to be a writer. I stayed up under the covers reading “Goosebumps” by flashlight in a glowing blanket-teepee of horror and graduated to Stephen King and Poe by desk lamp. But life replaced fiction with anatomy texts and other books about less interesting bodies. It wasn’t some morbid fascination, either: I was simply better with a scalpel than a pen. I doubt actuaries dreamt of insurance premiums and risk-management in their impressionable years. The older I got, the more I lost interest in fictional horror. The first time I saw a dead body was on a cold, ceramic observation deck, and I almost threw up. The next day I read Let the Right One In, and I did throw up. Had to pay for the book too.
“Victim’s name is Avery Staples, age 25. Five feet three inches. 124 pounds.” Avery. What a beautiful name. It’s carefree and fanciful, like it actually has anything to do with her character. “Blond.” She has golden hair that glowed atop the cold slab. I imagine fingers running through strands as effortlessly as sand. Avery basks with her partner by a fire. I make them warmer when I can. She is exhausted from her gallery premier, tired of inflating her work with pomp and pretense, so she can be quoted at dinner parties by people showing off their latest acquisition. Yet, despite the cheap wine and waning caffeine, her blue eyes glow like stained glass at her love.
I pry Avery’s eyelids back. “Green eyes.” Rewrite. “No contusions on the torso or lower body.” She’s cold again. I lift her right arm, always surprised by the heft of rigored bodies, as if lifelessness should make them lighter. “Slight bruising on the knuckles. Looks a few days pre-mortem. Probably unrelated to the incident.” Avery’s nickname is Blond Lightning, like out of a pulp comic. As she faces off against the current lightweight champion, she is thirteen years in the past scrapping with one of her older brothers.
“Hey, c’mon! I said no hitting faces!”
“Get over it, pussy!” He fired back as they traded welts.
Five years later, Avery wipes foreign blood off her hands before helping her little brother up off the cracked pavement. “Chin up, champ. He won’t bother you anymore.”
The bell rouses Avery to the present. She tunes out the roaring crowd like commercials on the radio, focused on reading her opponent. Blond Lightning never gets struck. Displaced air whistles harmlessly past her ears as she throws half-hearted jabs to gauge her opponent’s speed. The antagonist has arms like a racehorse, but Avery is a falcon. Impatient after a minute of shadowboxing, the soon-to-be former champion gambles an uppercut. It doesn’t pay off. Avery twists her entire body into the right hook, and the force sends a tremor down her arm and a mist of sweat off her adversary’s face. A limp body hits the mat and Avery, flashing Blond Lightning’s famous grin, welcomes the crowd back in her ears. She takes deep breaths of now sweeter air and turns to face her family in the stands.
“Turning the body over.” I treat her with delicacy and still there’s a thump. My eyes dart to her left shoulder blade, and I reach for tweezers to pull the slug from her back. At least she didn’t see it coming.
The cold round hits my tray, and I imagine her warmer. Avery is the CIA’s greatest spy…
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