01 Feb The Coroner’s Son
My dad used to work as an EMT back in his twenties while he saved up money for med school. Growing up, I always pestered him to tell me gross and gory details from his time in the ambulance. He used to appease me, much to my mother’s disapproval.
“Girls shouldn’t be hearing these kinda stories,” my mother would clip at us from behind a newspaper. My dad would only smirk and wink at me.
“No daughter of mine is gonna be squeamish, that’s for sure,” he’d retort as he’d pat me on the knee. “She’s gonna hear all my stories, no matter how bloody or filled with vomit.”
“Well, if she’s fucked up, it’s your doing,” my mother huffed.
I didn’t care if it wasn’t “girly” to listen to my dad’s stories. I always loved them.
He told me a story about the time where him and his partner found a severed foot hanging from a tree limb in the local park. His buddy and him tried to get it down with a broom and a coat hanger. They were only successful when the foot came crashing down on his partner’s head, covering him in pus and blood. The owner of the foot came limping out of his trailer, cursing at my dad for disturbing his “property.” I also learned about the time when my dad was called over to an old lady’s house on Christmas Eve. No one was hurt, but the old woman was so lonely that she faked a heart attack to get someone to come and sit with her for Christmas Eve dinner. My dad stayed for four courses. He came back every year after that until she passed away one Spring morning. We all attended the funeral with him. And I even heard about the time when he was called to untangle two teenagers who got, uh, piercings stuck in, uh, let’s just say delicate places.
From broken bones to bloody accidents, my dad has seen it all. And he’s shared it all. Well, at least I thought he had. That is until a few hours ago when we polished off the last of the scotch we had on the shelf.
We were sitting on the front porch, watching the rain hammer into the street, collecting into big, sluggish pools. I set my glass down on the end table and leaned back on the rocking chair. We were silent for a minute, listening to the thunder roll across the small, Pennsylvania town.
“What’s the worst thing you ever saw as an EMT?” I asked, more out of boredom than genuine curiosity. I was sure he would reiterate the story about the time he found a kid who was hit by a drunk driver, his stuffed bunny still clutched in his bloody hand.
My dad was silent for so long that I thought he must have fallen asleep. I turned towards him only to find him staring hard into the night, his knuckles gripping the wooden chair so hard that I swore they were starting to look white.
“Pappa?” I murmured, afraid that I had upset him.
He ran his hands through his greying hair and rubbed his temples. He looked at me and smiled sadly.
“Did I ever tell you why I quit?”
“I thought you quit because you got into med school?”
He chuckled. “Nah, nah that wasn’t the reason. I quit a few months before I even began applying.” He took another sip of his drink and swirled the contents around with his pinky. The ice clinked against the glass lightly.
“You know how I told you how I was close with the town folk?”
Since it was such a small town, my dad pretty much knew everyone he worked with. He knew the local cops, the firefighters, the doctors, hell, even the street cleaners. My dad had always told me about his friend “Frank on the force” or his “buddy at the firehouse.” I guess when you’re in such close proximity to other people, relationships tend to bubble.
“Well I never told you about Paul, that’s for sure,” he sighed.
My ears perked up. “No, I don’t think you ever did.”
“Paul was a town coroner. Well, actually, he was the only coroner our town had. See, we were so small that we really only needed one,” he paused then, taking another sip of his diminishing drink.
“I guess you could say that Paul and I were real close. I saw him almost every time we had a bad shift. Which was a lot, back in the day,” he exhaled. “Drunk drivers, idiotic teenagers, angry men who beat up their wives…I guess that all led to some pretty bad shifts.”
The rain began to pound harder against our roof. I scooted my chair closer to my dad so I could hear him over the roaring of the storm. He smiled and patted my knee, his eyes lingering on mine longer than they normally would have.
“Paul had a son named Kenny,” he murmured, his eyes dampening. “He, uh, well he wasn’t exactly the best son. See, he was a big partier. Always up and in some sorta trouble or another. Nothing too crazy, just a few drug busts and some childish fights. Local kids always joked that he worshipped the devil. Ha! I mean, he had a temper, I’d reckon that at least. But Paul always handled it well. He was firm with the boy, maybe too firm. But firm enough to where he made sure that Kenny knew that if he ever got behind the wheel drunk, he would never step foot in their house again.”
My dad paused for a moment, collecting himself. He watched the storm as I watched his aged face, noticing the wrinkles that lined his eyes for the first time. He seemed smaller than I remembered, more human.
“Well, I guess Paul wasn’t firm enough with Kenny. Or maybe Kenny was just going through a phase or something like you teenagers do,” he smiled sadly back at me. “Like when you dyed your hair pink just to piss off your mother. She hated it, but I always thought it was beautiful.”
“Yeah,” I chuckled. “I almost forgot about that.”
“Ha, she was real pissed when you did that, thought you were defying her or something,” my dad took another sip of his drink. “But I knew that you were just testing the boundaries. Maybe Kenny was too.”
“Dad,” I asked softly. “What happened to Kenny?”
“It was a long shift. 15 hours, I’d say. Me and my partner Bud were real tired. It was the night of the full moon. I know that you and your mom think it’s horseshit, but weird stuff always happens on a full moon. I don’t know why. Maybe people just like to cause trouble…or maybe it’s something else. But we were finally nearing the end of the long shift. We had already dealt with a drunken brawl, a beat up wife and some old lady who tried to cut her knickers off with a pairing knife.”
My dad finished the last of his drink, wincing as the scotch hit the back of his throat.
“We were called to the scene of a car accident, a real bad one too. Apparently some car had been going 120mph in a 30mph zone. It barreled right into the side of a tree and wrapped itself around its trunk real good. The whole thing burst into flames on the scene. The fire crew was able to put it out pretty quick, but they needed our help treating the crash victims.”
“When we arrived on the scene, we could tell that it was going to be a lost cause. Three fire trucks were lined up on the side of the road, accompanied by no less than five police cars. This was bad, Bud and I both knew it.”
“Scorch marks littered the road, leading us to the dented and smoking mess of a car that stood before us. Its metal was hot to the touch, glowing dimly against the moonlight. Its front hood was completely wrapped around the massive oak tree before it. We tiptoed around melted metal and pools of blood. Now that I look back on it, those were pretty weird signs. I don’t think a car is supposed to get so hot that the metal melts right off of it. But me and Bud didn’t think about that in the moment, we thought about the victims.”
“Were they still alive?” I asked, my breath caught in my throat.
My dad nodded slightly. “Just barely.”
“How did they survive that kind of a crash?”
“Because they weren’t human.”
I paused, waiting for the punch line that never came. The storm lessoned above us, the rain now falling in gentle drops.
“When we got to the driver’s side, we knew instantly that something was wrong. The driver was burnt to a crisp. Its skin was black and charred and its hands…its, its hands were still wrapped around the steering wheel. We thought for sure it was dead. I mean, it had to be. But it wasn’t. It turned its head to look right at me,” my dad paused for a second, catching his wavering breath.
“I swear, it looked right at me and it spoke. It told me to tell its dad that it was sorry, that it never meant to be a bad boy. It told me that it never meant to kill her, he just got carried away.”
He put his hand up. “Don’t interrupt me.”
“But—“ my dad looked at me with steely eyes and I closed my mouth.
“It told me all of those things and then it turned its head back to the steering wheel. And it was quiet. It wasn’t breathing anymore. So Bud and I are able to get the driver out of the car and put it in a body bag. Then we move over to the passenger side and I swear, I swear that’s the part that really killed me. It was a kid. A small kid—a girl, I think. She was burnt the same way the driver was, the same impossible way. Her mouth was pulled tight into a wide smile, teeth still intact. She wasn’t breathing either. So we loaded her up too.”
“We talked to the police officers and the firemen for a bit and they all say the same thing. That they didn’t know what happened. They imagine that the driver just lost control because he was going so fast. But no one ever reported a car going that fast on that road. Not even one call came through. In fact, the only call that came through in that location was from an out of date phone booth. And it was static, just static and the name of the road—Devil’s Run. Hell, the phone booth didn’t even work no more! So they don’t know how that call was ever placed to start with.”
“So me and Bud go to move the bodies to the hospital and that’s when we get a better look at the car. It’s still a mess, mind you, but now we have time to examine it. Bud goes up to the plate and he nearly faints. He calls me over and asks if I recognize the numbers that are still intact. And I do. I recognize them better than my own license plate. It’s Paul’s car. I’ve seen it every day of my life.”
My dad shook his head. “No, no I knew Paul was working that night. I had already seen him when I took in the old lady who bled out.”
“So, so it was Kenny?” I asked, clutching the edge of my seat.
My dad shook his head again. “That’s uh, that’s what we thought too. So we call into dispatch to let them know that this would be our last run. We wanted to tell Paul ourselves. So we get to the morgue and Paul is all bright and cheerful, he’s just excited that his shift is ending soon. And we just crack. We crack right then and there in front of him. Bud tells him that we have some bad news and I just stay stone silent. I let Bud tell him that we think we have his son. And the entire time, the entire fucking time, Paul just stares at me. Like he can’t believe I could be such a silent coward.”
“But Paul is brave. He tells us he needs to examine the body—son or not. We protest, tell him that we can find someone else to handle the autopsy, but he persists. He says he has to know. He has to know so he can tell his wife. So I stay with him. I stay with him for hours, watching him work under the harsh fluorescent lights of the lab.”
“And Paul, fuck, Paul held it together. He was stone-faced and straight-backed. And when he completed the autopsy, he turned to stare at me. And he nodded. He said that I was right, that it was Kenny. He told me that Kenny had knee surgery as a kid, and his knee matched the body lying on the table before him. Steel plates and all. Dental records matched too. It was Kenny, alright. There was no going around it.”
“So I drive with Paul back to his wife. He didn’t want to tell her alone. I don’t think anyone could do that alone. So I follow him up to his front door, my hand on his shoulder. He nods at me and opens the door with his key. His wife is sitting on the sofa, drinking a glass of wine. Her happy face bubbles into confusion as she sees me standing there. I guess I must have looked like I’ve seen a ghost or something.”
“Paul leaves me in the doorway and he moves towards her, his back slumping forward. That’s when he starts crying. Shit, he barely even makes it to the couch. He just falls on his knees in front of her and cries, telling her that their son is dead.”
“Oh my god,” I whisper. “That’s horrible.”
My dad shook his head back at me. “That’s not the worst part. See, the wife is just sitting there, listening to her husband, and then her face goes real dark. She’s furious. She smacks Paul hard across the face and tells him that this was the worst prank he’s ever pulled on her. Now, Paul is just dumbfounded. He’s sitting there on his knees in front of her, tears just pouring down his face. His wife stands up and glares at me. I swear her eyes could’ve burned a hole in my head.”
“I don’t know what to do so I start stammering on about how we found Kenny’s body and how Paul identified him by his knee surgery and dental records. Paul’s wife goes real quiet like. Then she looks up towards the stairs and yells Kenny’s name. A few seconds later Kenny comes barreling down the stairs, annoyed that his video game was interrupted.”
“Kenny…Kenny was alive?!” I stammer.
My dad nodded slowly. “We didn’t know what to think. Apparently Kenny had too much to drink at the local pub, so he called a taxi to take him home. He left his car there at the bar.” My dad laughed shortly. “I guess Paul’s firmness really did make an impression on him. With drunk driving, at least.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Yeah,” my dad said gruffly. “We didn’t either. So Paul and I headed over to the pub where Kenny says he left the car and low and behold, it’s still there. It’s in pristine condition, license plate and all. Not a scratch on it from what we could tell.”
“Then what happened to the car you guys found wrapped around a tree trunk?” I asked.
My dad ran his hands through his hair. “Well, it was still there too. After we found the car at the pub we headed back to the scene of the accident. The car was still there seeing as how the fire crew hadn’t been able to remove it so quickly. Paul was confounded. He said it was the same exact car. There was even a charred disco ball hanging off of the rearview mirror, the same one he had in the car at the pub. It even had the same initials carved into it—PMK, his full name.”
“Impossible,” my dad interrupted. “I know. But that’s not the end of the story.”
“What about the people? The two bodies?”
“Well,” my dad said. “That’s what we looked into next. We headed over to the morgue where we left the teenager and the little girl. When we got there, the two bodies were gone. Straight up and vanished. The security footage didn’t notice a thing. And the records? Those were gone too.”
My dad paused for a moment as we both stared off into the distance. The rain had almost stopped entirely, creating a strange calm that seemed almost unsettling rather than enjoyable.
“Dad,” I asked hesitantly. “I know you think one of the bodies was Kenny…but what about the little girl?”
My dad frowned, scratching his head. “That’s the part that scares me most. We don’t know. We looked into missing persons reports and we couldn’t find nothing. Sure, there were a few missing persons reports of little girls, but the bodies were always found. They were always uh, abused to some degree. But not burnt. No, nothing like this. And that boy’s body was Kenny’s, Paul swears by it.”
We were quiet for a long time after that, listening to the night begin to murmur back at us.
“I quit the next day,” my dad whispered. “I never went back to that road or that hospital.”
“What about Paul?” I asked.
My dad shook his head. “Uh, well, he took his own life—after what happened next.”
“What happened, dad?” I asked hesitantly. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear anymore.
My dad blew his nose into his handkerchief and wiped at his teary eyes. I hadn’t even realized that he had started crying.
“Kenny was a bad kid, he was a bad kid alright,” my dad sobbed. “A few months later they found him in bed with a uh, a little girl. No more than 12. She, she had been dead for a while.”
“How could he…”
“He had been doing it for a while, they reckon. Picking up little kids in that car, touching them….hurting them. Killing them. Keeping them. I don’t, I don’t know how he could have done something like that. But when they caught him, he took off in the car with the girl’s body. He was speeding real fast, too fast.”
“Devil’s Run?” I asked.
My dad just nodded, too emotional to say anything more.
“He crashed, didn’t he?” I probed.
My dad nodded again, blowing his nose into his handkerchief.
“Paul wasn’t the same after that,” he murmured. “Paul gauged his eyes out a month later, on the next full moon. He was in the morgue when he did it. He took a scalpel to his eyeballs and he just, he just kept going. No one found him till morning. And by then, he had cut his arteries out one by one.”
“Dad, I’m so—“
“It’s fine,” he interrupted. “It was a long time ago.”
We sat in silence once more. The crickets had finally come out after the storm, blanketing the night in sound. My dad played with his empty glass, cupping it between his hands.
“Pappa,” I began. “If the crash didn’t happen for a few months later, who did you see in the car that night?”
My dad gently put the glass back on the table, looking up at me stoically.
“I saw Kenny. I saw Kenny and the girl he would murder.”
We sat side by side and watched the full moon rise above the night sky. My dad turned back towards me and grabbed my hand.
“Warnings are everywhere, we just have to listen.” His grip was tighter than normal, almost painful.
“I know, Pappa.”
“Tell your mother I’m sorry,” he pleaded. And then he got up and went back inside.
I’ve been sitting here all night, typing this out. I’m too afraid to go back inside the house—too afraid of what I will find waiting for me. See, my mother has been dead for six months.