01 Feb The last body I ever opened
Craig Brockwell was found by his wife, dead on their living room floor, a plastic garbage bag tied off around his neck, and an empty bottle of Xanax on the kitchen counter, next to a suicide note.
My initial external examination of the body revealed no indications of a physical altercation with another person. Skin deep, the evidence was consistent with suicide by pills and suffocation. I was prepared to judge it such when Detective David Franklin requested an autopsy.
“It just doesn’t sit right with me,” said David. “I mean, this guy… he had it all. Pulling in millions, kid’s a superstar on the ball court, wife’s a knockout. And then he goes and offs himself?”
I frowned. “Depression can befall anyone, David,” I said. “And people can be quite adept at concealing it.”
“Sure, Jim, sure. I get that. I guess that’s not even what I’m talking about. It’s just… you weren’t there. At the scene. There was just….” David looked around the room, though there was nobody else there. “Something felt off,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What do you mean, ‘off’? Is there some other evidence that I’m not aware of?”
David sighed. “Look, let’s just say that you do this one for me, I’ll owe you. Take you out for beers later, for a start.”
I looked down at Mr. Brockwell’s corpse. Autopsies were invasive and expensive, and generally I avoided them unless there was a good reason to perform one. That was up to my discretion. But I supposed that a detective’s intuition was a good enough reason. It’s not like David made a habit of requesting autopsies.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do the autopsy. But David, I don’t drink.”
At time, it was true that I didn’t drink.
I made an incision along the body’s chest and set down my scalpel. A look at the lungs would tell me whether or not suffocation had indeed been the cause of death. I began to peel back the skin and muscle. As I did, I looked in shock to see that there was nothing there.
When I say that there was nothing there, I mean that it was totally black, like peering into a completely dark space, devoid of light. There should have been a rib cage there. There wasn’t. There was nothing.
I dropped the flaps of skin that I was holding and stood up. I shook my head. No, I thought, that’s ridiculous. I knew that I had a headlamp around somewhere, so I went looking for it. I pulled open a drawer and that’s when everything became silent.
We grow accustomed to them, but we are surrounded constantly by sounds. The slight buzz of the electric lights above us, the hum of the boiler in the basement, the sound of our own breath, the rustle of our clothes as we move. The sound of opening a drawer. None of it was there. It was as though I had gone completely deaf.
I don’t know why, exactly, but I had a sudden urge to look at the body on my examination table. I turned my head, but it turned far slower than I intended, as though I were losing control of my body, or time had slowed down, or the room had become thick with some invisible substance.
The dead and naked body was just as I had left it, of course, with the incision along its chest, and the skin there curled back slightly from where I had begun to peel it. All at once, a rush of sound returned to my ears, and my movements resumed their typical speed. I shook my head once again and turned back to the drawer.
I found the headlamp, strapped it to my head, and went back to the body. I flipped on the light, opened the skin up again, and… gazed into utter darkness. There was nothing there. The darkness consumed the light from the headlamp. It seemed endless.
I steadied myself and tore the skin back further. Instead of the rib cage and bits of tissue, there was only the nothingness. I tentatively stuck a finger into it. As soon as I did, the silence returned, and everything slowed down again. My finger felt incredibly cold, like touching dry ice. I withdrew it as quickly as I could, which was not very quickly at all. It was like coming out of quicksand, but once I was out, the expected pace of reality fell back into place.
I jumped back and picked up my scalpel. I made a deep slice along the right thigh and pulled up the skin. More nothingness. I repeated the procedure on the left thigh to the same result. My hands were shaking and my mind was in blank shock – my mind was as empty as the body in front of me. Nothing could explain this.
I walked around to the head and made a cut around the circumference of the crown. I peeled the flesh away and there was nothing. As I stared into it, I froze. I stood holding the severed scalp, staring into the nothingness, unable to do anything else.
I don’t know how long I was in that state, but the sound of David’s voice snapped me out of it sometime later. “How’s it going down here, Jim?”
I dropped the piece of dead flesh and hair that I had been holding and turned to look at David. “This is very bizarre. I have never seen anything like this. I can’t explain it.”
“And how’s that?” asked David.
I pointed to the body. “Just look,” I said.
David walked across the room and peered into the darkness. “What the fuck?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”
David started reaching inside the head.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I cautioned.
He ignored me, and kept reaching. Then his hand was inside the head. He froze suddenly, except for his eyelids, which opened wide in shock.
“David?” I said. “Pull your hand out. Now.”
David’s eyes got even wider. He was trying to say something, but his lips wouldn’t open. It came out muffled, but I had no doubt that he was trying to say: “Help.”
All at once, David jerked forward two feet, so that he was now into the body up past his elbow. The look on his face grew more frantic and desperate. I grabbed onto his other arm and yanked, but it was no good. The body was stronger, and was pulling him in, now up the bicep. I watched in pure horror as the head seemed to expand in size, as if it were growing larger so that it could suck in all of David.
Instinct took over and I ran to my tray of tools. I grabbed my bone saw and switched it on as I made my way back to David. I applied the saw to his shoulder, which was now mere inches away from the terrible maw of nothingness. I drove the saw in furiously, blood splattering on my face, the muffled would-be screams of David trying to assert themselves over the whir of the saw.
At last, I cut through the bone and David fell back on me, so that I hit the ground with him on top of me. I could see the last of his severed arm disappear into the nothingness.
Now that his lips would open again, David was wailing in agony. I rolled out from under him, and went to work on cauterizing the wound, praying that he wouldn’t die. I paused long enough to dial 911, and explained the need for help over the speaker phone function as I performed the surgery.
I sat by the hospital bed until David regained consciousness. He looked at me with terrified eyes and grabbed my wrist with his remaining hand, his fingernails digging into me.
“I saw it,” said David. “I still see it. Nothing. That is what I am, and what you are. Everything is nothing.”
I broke free of his grip. “That’s absurd,” I said. “I… don’t know how to explain that body, but I know that I am not nothing.”
David started laughing then. I left him at the hospital, went home, and had my first drink in two years. I knew that it was a horrible mistake, but I did it anyway, to wash away the horror. When I was drunk enough, I resolved to return to the morgue, determined to burn Craig Brockwell’s body.
I got in my car, like a monster, and drove, weaving across the road. When I arrived, I flung the door open, my mind and body overtaken by the alcohol. I looked into the room, and even through my drunken haze, it registered that something was very, very wrong.
The body was gone.
Craig Brockwell’s attempted autopsy happened 10 years ago. For a year afterwards, I drank. I lost my job, refusing to return back to work. I burned through my savings, and by the end of the year, I had hit “rock bottom,” as it’s called. That was shortly after Detective David Franklin committed suicide.
Now I have my life back together. I still have nightmares, but I have for the most part put the incident behind me. I have a loving family, and a new career. I cannot express how grateful I am for this new life. But yesterday, I saw something.
I left my office at 5 PM as usual, and walked across the parking lot to my car. I got in, started it up, and checked my rear view mirror. Standing there was a man. It was, unmistakably, David Franklin. I turned my head and looked out the back window. He was still there. He opened his mouth and there inside was endless darkness. The world grew silent, and I watched, unable to move, as he lifted his only arm and pointed a finger at me.
Then he turned and walked away.