The TV screens spent two days full of grave talking heads that spoke their sincere lies. Bethany and five other friends died from gas inhalation, the same gas that caused her parents home to explode like the final scene in a movie where they burn through their effects budget like virgins having sex for the first time. It’s a fun image in my head and I think about it through the entire walk to the town morgue. They’re gong to do autopsies. I need to talk to the coroner, and I’ve run out of time to put it off.
Because Official Questions will be asked, the kind that lead to cutting bodies open. And I have no idea what will happen when the coroner does that and finds that their bodies were just skin and the contents of bones and muscles and organs are really simulacrum made by tree branches and roots. I saw the tree sprit do that, Dylan hiding the fact that their bodies had been hollowed out days before and turned into puppets for Things from Outside the universe.
I got Dylan involved. He saved me and maybe the whole town too. And then went back to his small shack of a home. Left me to try and clean this up. I’d laugh but I’m not sure I’ll be able to stop if I start.
I’m not sure about many things anymore. I know my name is Kate and that I’m fifteen and that even a week ago many life was pretty normal. Before angles that frightened shadows took me some place far from this world. Before a magician saved me, saying that there was magic in me but he would bind it until I needed it, until I spoke his name. A name he never told me.
Only I was changed. I sometimes see things other people don’t seem to. When people talk I can hear under their words to what they really mean. It’s not power: I’ve seen real power and whatever I have isn’t that. But it’s enough to mark me, to make me different. Enough to mean I’ve seen enough to know I need to speak yo the coroner.
I’ve done my research. I’ve googled him. I have no idea at all what I’m going to say.
Luxenford isn’t a large town as such things go, but it does have the largest and most modern hospital around owing to political favours a decade or so back and probably backroom deals that define politics more than anything else does. All I knew was that our hospital was full of apps long before that caught on in even major cities and reason enough for a large morgue to be built here in order to serve every surrounding town.
Emily Price has been the town coroner for going on twenty years, only she is retiring – well, she’s been saying she is for over four years – but this time she actually hired an assistant. Emily goes to scenes as the medical examiner, gets all the press and knows how to deal with them. Meanwhile, Ronald Donald does all the work in the morgue proper. I didn’t dig up that much on him, only that he was in his early twenties, probably overqualified and had left a prestigious job in Toronto without notice to move out to the middle of nowhere.
I was certain there was a story behind that, but it might be even less interesting than what had possessed his parents to name him Ronald. The morgue was half a block from the hospital, an old brick building that had been a warehouse for some company in the fifties. Now it stores bodies instead and boasts a parking lot that is almost always empty. I poke my phone a bit, finding out that there had been plans to make a family tribute centre – aka a funeral home – as well, only they’d been nixed as not being tasteful and too close to a couple of retirement buildings. Which somehow didn’t nix the morgue.
I bluff my way past the receptionist with the magic words of ‘school paper’
The assistant coroners office turns out to be small, neat and tidy. Not a thing is out of place, not one stray piece of paper visible anywhere. The metal desk looks clean rough to use as an examination table if someone had to. Ronald Donald himself is a tall, narrow man with glasses so thin they were invisible in uncertain light. His clothing has a crispness to it that makes it seem like forced casual, as though he is wearing jeans under protest and his eyes are cold and hard as he looks me over.
I notice a small scar running across his left eyebrow. I have no idea what he might notice about me until he gestures sharp with one hand for me to sit in the lone chair on the other side of his desk, sitting stiffly with his hands clasped tightly together.
“You told Maureen that this is about a school report, yes?” Ronald says, barely making it a question.
“I see. You were not friends with Bethany,” he states as a fact it up for discussion, “and participating in an autopsy goes far beyond a mere school report even as a witness. I will not have the dead profaned in order to sell pictures for a high school paper. You may leave.”
I take a deep breath. “The bones and organs aren’t made of bone.” Ronald says nothing, but the silence is a weight pressing around me. “They’re made of tree roots. They will hold together until the funerals. I don’t know for how much longer after that.”
“You are telling me that I have six dead bodies without human bones in them.” The assistant coroners voice is soft and brittle, and there are old pains under it, deeper even than the fury that doesn’t show on his face at all. “Was this the cause of their deaths?”
“Did you do this to them?”
I shake my head. I have no idea what else to say.
“Very well.” He stands. “Follow me.”
“I shall perform the autopsy now. You will witness it.”
I want to say that I’m not here for that. That I just came to tell him about the bodies. But I’m not that brave. I’m not brave enough to leave. I’m not sure I know what bravery is anymore.
I stand. I follow, not daring to break his silence, not even with my own.
The body Ronald performs the autopsy on isn’t Bethany’s. The experience is quick: slice, peel, examine. He snaps off a piece of wood, makes a few more incisions and examines them without a word before stitching the skin back together in the same silence.
“Will this happen again?”
I start, blink. “I - I don’t think so? The creatures that - they were stopped.”
The assistant coroner looks over at me. “We will have no further involvement, I trust?”
“I really hope not!”
He almost, almost smiles at that. “I will make the necessary arrangements with the funeral home.”
I hesitate, then: “You’ve done this before?”
The could-have-been of a smile vanishes. Ronald Donald begins putting tools away, his silence a wall between us.
“Please. I don’t understand any of this,” I say; it comes out as a whisper. “The things I am seeing are one thing. I can accept the world having more to it than I ever knew. But how it - it intersects with everything I know…” I trail off, shaking my head.
“If you do anything long enough, you touch the edges of things that are not normal. Most forget them, sometimes by their own choice. Sometimes not.”
I remember the power in the magician’s voice and shiver a little as I nod. “I got lucky, then, meeting you?”
“Heh.” He says it as a word, not laughing at all. “Perhaps.”
And under the word are things he doesn’t want me to know, truths that could only hurt if pulled up out if the dark. I try not to hear, thank him and leave the morgue slowly. It’s dark, and dad is going to wonder why I am late coming home.
I have no idea what I am going to say at all. I just walk quickly, trying not to flinch when I round corners. Not wanting to remember the creatures that took my far beyond the world I know. And I wonder if the coroner helped me because he saw something close to kinship in my eyes.
“When I stop being afraid, I will have become something the dark fears.” The words slip out like a promise and it takes everything I have to say nothing more.
“Where have you been?” His voice is a whip, is a crushing, but under the anger a fear that takes my breath away. Who am I, that I should know this?
A week ago, I would have said: “Out,” made reference to the bottles beside his chair. Now I say nothing, every word feeling like it’s too much.
“Kate Emilia –,” he begins into my silence.
“Dad. Don’t. I can take care of myself. You don’t have to be scared for me every time I’m out late.”
He rocks back a step, eyes narrowing. “That’s what you think this is about?”
He doesn’t know. I almost laugh, choke it back. “Underneath, yes.” I don’t say I’m not mom, that I’m not going to leave. I reach for my own anger, can’t find it. I know him too deeply, hearing what he is saying and the words under that.
You can’t hate someone who loves you. Not when you know what drives them.
“I don’t want this.” The words slip out. “I haven’t –. It’s not –.” The magician said I wouldn’t have magic, not unless I found his name, not unless I spoke it. But this seeing, this knowing, this peeling back: this I seem to have no matter what. I’ve been marked and I don’t know how to undo it. It’s too much I don’t have words for, not ones that wouldn’t hurt or confuse.
“Kate?” The anger is gone, Dad fear-cold sober. “What is it? Drugs? Boys? Girls?”
“Nothing. Nothing like that. I promise.”
He stares at me for a moment that stretches almost to breaking, then: “There is pizza in the fridge.”
I nod, head into the kitchen. He’s trusting me, and somehow it’s that which threatens tears. I take a deep breath, another, a third. I don’t cry. I don’t cry. I don’t cry.