01 Feb I work in a Morgue: I can’t Explain what I Saw the Christmas of 2003
The town of Christian Springs was big enough to justify having its own cold storage but far too small to make proper use of it. On average I would end up seeing about five bodies a month, most of them overdoses from the smaller towns nearby.
My work at the morgue was quick and impersonal. No one that I could recognize ever ended up on my table and the toxicology reports always came back with a clear-cut cause of death – usually something in the realm of opioids. What I saw in that fluorescent-lit room always stayed where it belonged. My work life and my family life were always two separate entities.
That all changed during the Christmas season of 2003.
Two local bodies were brought in within twenty-four hours of each other. Neither of them were like anything I had ever seen.
The first body once belonged to Chelsea Steeler, a local first-grader. After school let out for winter break Steeler walked off the premises only to return a couple minutes later. Bleeding from her mouth, Steeler stumbled through the school’s playground, begged for help and then collapsed. She was pronounced dead as soon as emergency services arrived.
The second body I recognized, Christine Morgan. Morgan was someone that most people in the Christian Springs community would recognize. She was the ‘crazy religious lady’.
As the name of the town might imply, we had our fair share of ‘bible-thumpers’ in town, but Morgan’s breed of spirituality was considerably more aggressive than anything you could find being peddled by the televangelists the locals watched. Both of the cinemas in Christian Springs banned the woman from their premises on account of her interrupting screenings of even the most milquetoast of movies with her raving sermons. When the local museum set up a dinosaur exhibit Morgan was banned from there too. To her, dinosaur bones were the work of Satan – created to lead true believers astray.
It was Christine Morgan’s daughter, seven-year-old Grace Morgan, who discovered the body. When I first heard this bit of information I found myself pitying the child. My ruminations about Grace Morgan’s wellbeing were soon whisked away by what I discovered during the autopsies.
Both of the bodies exhibited internal damage the likes of which I had never seen or read about before. Their stomach lining was shredded to bits, chunks of their livers were found inside of their esophagus, every internal organ that was still intact showed signs of extreme scarring; it was as if something had torn them up from the inside.
The cause of death was a complete mystery. Aside from a shared geographical location the two women had nothing in common yet the severity of their injuries was almost identical. It was as if someone had planted bombs inside of them and sent tiny bits of shrapnel flying through their organs, yet there was no shrapnel to be found. There was no clear trace of the instrument that had killed these women.
On closer observation, however, I found something else that connected the two bodies. In the confounding mess of viscera I found something that made their cause of death seem quaint by comparison.
Even though they were bloodied and covered in loose chunks of flesh and membrane I immediately knew what I was holding in my hands. I was holding two tiny gingerbread men.
They were small, both fitting into the palm of my glove, but they still inspired fear. Unlike the big eyed smiling gingerbread men that were sold in the local bakeries, the creations I held in my hand had tiny slits for eyes and their mouths were stretched into long harrowed screams that descended well into their torsos. The baked goods I held in my hand were the product of a disturbed mind.
I called just about everyone I went to school with. From the few colleagues that picked up I couldn’t find anyone who was willing to drive over and take a look at my findings. Everyone was either far too busy dealing with the personal aspects of the holiday season or was swamped with the suicide spike that Christmas brings. Even past their business, no one believed me. When I described the two foreign objects I found lodged in the bodies a couple of my old classmates even inquired whether I was sober.
Not being able to find any explanation through my informal channels I called my boss on the county level. His annoyance with my phone call was crystal clear. The town of Christian Springs was not on his radar, and, in his opinion, mysteries that weren’t directly connected to criminal investigations were better left unexplored. After a long back and forth he agreed to drive down and investigate the gingerbread men as soon as his schedule cleared up. He suggested that I shouldn’t go into details on my report if I didn’t want to undergo a psychological evaluation.
I filled out the report as best as I could, but the cause of death still ended up as ‘UNKNOWN’. After a couple more phone calls to old colleagues who didn’t pick up the first time around I gave up. The mystery of the gingerbread men would have to wait until after the holidays. I placed the cookie creatures face down in a glass jar, put on my coat and drove back home.
My wife didn’t like me talking about work at home; in fact, she didn’t like me talking about work at all. Whenever the question of what I did for a living came up at dinner parties she’d quickly say I worked ‘with the police’ or call me a ‘doctor’ and then quickly change the topic. When I came home that evening I didn’t mention anything about the gingerbread men, but all night long those slitted eyes haunted me.
I dreamed of my son walking into our bedroom in the middle of the night, clutching his stomach. I dreamed of my wife getting up to comfort him but soon kneeling over in pain as well. I dreamed of my family lying on those metal slabs, of me cutting their chests open, of finding nothing but pink mush where their organs should be.
When I woke up that morning I was overjoyed to find my wife sleeping next to me, unharmed by the baked monstrosities that tore through my sleep, but the joy didn’t last long. My family might have been alive, but those two gingerbread men were still real. They were still waiting for me in the examination room.
During breakfast my son excitedly told me about his last day of school. I knew he went on a field trip to the museum, I signed the permission slip for it after all, but all my son could talk about was the gingerbread men his class made in the morning. I kept on trying to ask him what his favorite dinosaur exhibit was, but all my son could talk about was his newfound interest in baking.
The house phone rang. My wife picked it up. Whatever was being said on the other line made her visibly uncomfortable, but when she came back to the table she simply resumed eating. It wasn’t until my son went outside to play with his friends that she told me that the school called. One of my son’s classmates suddenly died. The teachers were calling the parents to let them know.
“Chelsea Steeler?” I asked.
She immediately noticed the beginning of a conversation she didn’t want to have. “Let’s not tell him until after Christmas. Let him be a kid for a little longer.”
I didn’t argue. I didn’t share the details of what I found inside of Steeler’s body. Instead, I told my wife that there was some last minute paperwork I had to take care of in the examination room before I fully clocked out for the holidays.
It wasn’t entirely a lie; I did spend some time going through the autopsy report making sure it didn’t sound completely mad, but it wasn’t the reason I drove back to work that day. My real reasons were lying face down in a glass jar.
Yet when I took the jar out the gingerbread men weren’t lying down. They were pressed up against the glass, facing the outside world. There was no doubt in my mind that the creatures had shifted, that they had somehow stood up in my absence and were looking out into the world with their slitted eyes. For a moment I stood there, confounded by the blood covered baked goods staring back at me, yet the longer I stood in the empty examination room the more I thought about my family.
Beyond the corpses, beyond the ripped up muscle and flesh, I had a family. Back home my wife and son were waiting for me. I closed the cupboard that held the gingerbread men, shut off the lights and drove back home.
It was difficult to keep the malformed creatures out of my head on the drive back, but as soon as I got past my front door the mysteries of my professional life dissipated beneath the sheer pleasure of spending time with my family. After lunch the three of us went outside to build a snowman.
Two big eyes of Christmas ornaments, a thick carrot nose and a wide grin of coal; the creature that my son had constructed wiped away any memory of the harrowing gingerbread men in the examination room. Once the snowman in our front yard had been completed and the sun had set, the three of us settled down on the couch and watched a Christmas movie. I scarcely paid attention to what was on the television. Whatever was on the screen was irrelevant, just a bright backdrop to a calm evening spent with those that I loved.
It wasn’t until my wife and I were falling asleep that I thought about my work again. Just as she drifted off to sleep she mentioned that we should have a talk with our son about bullying. While I was off “finishing my paperwork” my son told my wife about one of his classmates tormenting the daughter of the ‘weird religious lady.’ Apparently the bully had taken the girl’s gingerbread man and ate it in front of the whole class, embarrassing the poor kid.
“Christine Morgan’s daughter?” I asked.
“Probably,” my wife said, yawning.
“Was the bully Chelsea Steeler?” I asked.
“Don’t know. He didn’t use names,” she said, yawning again, “But we should talk to him about standing up for the weaker kids.”
For a moment I thought about breaking the unspoken rules of my marriage and telling my wife about the two corpses in the examination room, but that moment dragged on for too long. By the time I started to whisper my worries she was already asleep. My mind was still desperately trying to make connections between the two bodies and their gruesome deaths, but I forced my eyes shut and tried to get some rest. I hoped that some sleep would help me forget about the gingerbread men.
I woke up drenched in sweat with my heart racing. In my dreams I saw my family sitting in the kitchen making gingerbread men. My wife and son seemed so happy, so full of life, so innocent, yet the cookies that they made shared none of their joy. Slitted eyes and maws of crimson stared back at me from the kitchen table – slitted eyes that blinked and maws that chomped. Before I could warn them, before I could save my family, the gingerbread men leapt into action. Soon enough my wife and son were gone, and all that remained of them was blood and mangled skin.
Seeing the kitchen clean and free of death brought a tiny bit of calmness to my mind, but I knew that what I truly needed was sleep. With a generous helping of sleeping pills and a nightcap I returned back to bed. At first the thoughts of Morgan and Steeler tucked at my mind, but soon enough I fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
I woke up to an empty bed that morning. For a moment, past the chemically induced grogginess of my slumber, I found myself worrying about my family being kidnapped by a group of possessed gingerbread men. Walking down to the kitchen and finding my wife and son safe and sound calmed me somewhat, but the calmness didn’t last.
They were baking gingerbread men.
Their creations were unlike the ones I had seen in my dreams; the cookie men they made were cheery and happy and full of pep, but that didn’t matter to me. All I could think about were those slitted eyes and screaming maws. All I could think about were the two gingerbread men standing in my office, waiting.
They invited me to join in on the baking, but I busied myself with beer and television. I hoped that alcohol and channel hopping would distract me, yet all I could think about were the bodies. Regardless of how much I drank or how loud the Christmas music blaring from the television was, all I could think about was Morgan, Steeler and the cookie men that were lodged in their broken corpses. My mind kept on trying to find some semblance of reason in a bewildering world.
“Daddy, I made you something,” my son’s voice cut through my frenzied internal monologue. In his hands he held a little gingerbread man with a bushy moustache and glasses. The facial hair was made of green frosting, and the glasses were far too big for the man’s face, but I could tell that the gingerbread man was meant to be a representation of me.
“Do you go to school with Grace Morgan?” I asked him.
He seemed confused by the question, but eventually he nodded.
“Did Grace ever talk about her mother? Did they get along?” I asked him.
“Gracie’s mom was mean,” my son said, “When the class went to the museum Gracie’s mom was standing outside yelling at us.”
“But did Grace ever talk about her mother? Do you think Grace would ever want to hurt her? Would Grace ever want to hurt Chelsea Steeler?”
“Well, Gracie’s mom didn’t let her come to the museum with us and Chelsea was always mean to Gracie,” my son said, unsure of my questions. “Do you like this gingerbread man I made you?”
I didn’t. Even though the cookie held an innocent smile and was made by the most important person in my life, I could barely look at it. Yet as uncomfortable as I was, the pride in my son’s eyes was undeniable. I accepted his cookie.
I knew full well that the effigy in my hands was a product of love, but all I could imagine was the little gingerbread man tearing through my insides. “Are you going to eat it dad?” he asked, “I promise it’s not bad. Mom helped me.”
I almost told him that I wasn’t hungry, or that I would eat the cookie later, but the pride in my son’s eyes was undeniable. The pride in my son’s eyes was more important than the fear in the pit of my stomach. In one swift motion I decapitated the gingerbread man with my teeth. Once I was sure his head was crushed enough to not do me any harm I drowned the chunks of gingerbread with a gulp of beer.
“Tasty,” I said, but I wasn’t able to mask my discomfort.
That evening, as my wife and I wrapped up the Christmas presents, she asked me if I was all right. Both her and my son had noticed that something was bothering me. That evening she was willing to talk about my problems, be they work related or not. Yet by then my fear of the gingerbread men had grown to such an intensity that it could not be put into words. I just told her that work was a bit more stressful than usual this year, but that I would be fine eventually.
She asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I didn’t. I couldn’t.
She tried to get me to open up a couple more times, but eventually, with the lights off and the presents packed beneath the tree, I was left alone with my thoughts. My thoughts were singular.
I shouldn’t have been driving that night. I had drank enough throughout the day for it to be a bad idea and to make things worse there was a powerful blizzard that swept through the town that Christmas eve, yet I knew that unless I got some closure I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I drove through the curtain of snow until I could see the faint lights of the Christian Spring’s morgue.
The absurdity of it all was a steady drum beat in the back of my head, but it wasn’t until I was standing in the darkness of my office that I consciously acknowledged how insane my trip was. There was nothing to be achieved from closer examination. Morgan and Steeler were dead. There was nothing I could do to bring them back. I almost convinced myself to turn around and go back home.
Just as I was about to turn around and walk away I heard something. I heard the faintest of taps coming from the cupboard in which I had kept the gingerbread men.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Like little claws knocking on glass.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Like little gingerbread men, trying to make their way out.
Tap. Tap. TAP!
With my heart in my throat I opened up the cupboard.
Stuck in their glass prison the two gingerbread men stood there, staring straight at me. They were no longer standing in the spread out pose in which I first found them. Each of them had one of their blood caked limbs extended, as if they were about to knock on the glass again.
I stared at them, waiting for them to move again, waiting for something to happen that would convince me I had not gone insane. In the dim light of my office I thought that I could see their eyes twitch, I thought I could see the slightest bit of stifled movement in their mouths, but before I could steady myself to properly look my phone rang.
It was my wife.
She woke up in the middle of the night to find her husband missing, to find the car missing. She asked two questions; she asked whether I was safe and whether I was having an affair. The implication that I would even be capable of being unfaithful hurt me, but as I assured her that I would never break our marriage vows I realized how far I had let my mind drift. I closed the cupboard, slid down to the floor of the examination room and told her everything.
I told her about Steeler and Morgan’s unfathomable internal damage. I told her about the gingerbread men. I told her about how scared I was. She listened patiently, and with each word that left my lips, with each part of my insane story that I described, I found myself less and less scared.
The cause of death was still a mystery, but the pure act of explaining the gingerbread theory made it seem inconceivable. The murderous gingerbread men were not real, what was real was my worried wife who was waiting for me at home. Once I was all talked out she asked me to come home. I did.
As I shut off the lights and left the examination room, however, the tiniest bit of doubt slithered into my mind.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
I ignored it and drove back home.
The steadily rotating cast of extended family members that came through our house kept me occupied for the next couple of days. All worries of murderous gingerbread men disappeared beneath the fear that my mother in law inspired in me, but that fear wasn’t something that haunted my dreams. That fear was manageable.
When my wife and I had decided to tell our son about Chelsea Steeler he didn’t seem overly concerned. Apparently his friends had already told him, just about everyone from his class knew as soon as the playground rumor mill got going. He just never brought it up because he knew that mommy didn’t like talking about death in the house. The kid seemed pretty comfortable about the concept of mortality, but what can one expect from a child who’s father ‘works with the police.’
A day before New Years I got called back into work; another overdose from a town nearby. The ghastly gingerbread men had left my mind completely by then, I simply consigned them to be a part of some minor mental break down, yet when I entered the examination room the thoughts of those slitted eyed came flooding back.
The cupboard was opened and there was broken glass on the floor. The gingerbread men had escaped.
I spent most of January sleepless. I kept on thinking that somehow those two strange creatures made of gingerbread would come and track me down, that they would hurt my family and me because I was aware of their existence.
But they didn’t.
Life carried on as normal. My boss agreed that Morgan and Steeler’s injuries were difficult to explain, but he also insisted that they were not important enough to investigate. After the first day of classes my son informed me that Grace Morgan left town to go live with her grandparents and that no one was particularly sad with the school bully disappearing off campus.
Once it became clear that no murderous baked goods were coming after me and my family the thoughts of those slit-eyed creatures drifted away into the realm of pointless mystery.
I still don’t understand what I saw the Christmas of 2003, but I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never understand.
Sometimes, however, when I find myself sitting in a bar after a medical examiner conference and colleagues start sharing stories of the bizarre and unexplained, I tell my tale of the gingerbread men. And sometimes, when the booze is flowing freely and people’s tongues loosen, they tell me that I am not the only coroner who has found baked goods inside of a mangled corpse.