Fiction · 03/11/2015

Searching for an Afterlife

Except for its lemon-yellow complexion — Brie-ann thought to herself — the naked corpse was beautiful. She tried hard not to see the body in that way, as something beautiful and alive, but Brie-ann was having trouble shaking herself free from her rebellious imagination.The age of the deceased woman was probably the problem. She’d been aware during previous autopsies of a niggling discomfort in her gut whenever the cadaver was too close to her own age.

The body lying on the stainless-steel table in front of Brie-ann had belonged to a woman exactly her age — thirty-eight.

Even so, she had to admit the age of the woman wasn’t the only problem. The other half of it — if not more — had to do with this woman’s former life. Every clue about it smacked of a world which had eluded Brie-ann.

The dead woman’s medical record listed a husband as her next-of-kin, and the address in the chart revealed her home was in a posh neighborhood. What’s more, there were children. That’s what the word “multiparous” meant, although there was nothing in the chart that told how many.

The number hardly mattered. Two might have been nice, but Brie-ann would have been satisfied with one. If only Mark hadn’t refused to go to the fertility clinic.

Why couldn’t she have had a better husband than Mark? One who’d have stuck by her until death parted them, like this woman’s husband had done. Instead, it was the teacher in the classroom down the hall from Mark who’d done the job of parting them.

“Ready for the Y-incision, Dr. Lawson?” her assistant asked, bringing Brie-ann’s attention back to the chilly autopsy room and the cadaver lying on the table in front of her.

“Yes,” she answered and held out her gloved hand to receive the scalpel. He slapped its handle into her latex-covered palm with a satisfying thwap.

+

From among Brie-ann’s limited repertoire of recipes, chicken parmigiana was one of her better concoctions. She’d gotten a hankering for that particular dish tonight. Instead of her usual — something from the frozen meals section at the grocery store — she’d gone to the extra trouble of preparing it.

Her mind drifted back over the morning’s autopsy as she sat with knife and fork in hand. Without thinking, she sliced a “Y” design down the entire length of the melted mozzarella. She peeled back the edges of the pale-yellow cheese, revealing the naked slab of chicken underneath.

She poked her knife into the lower right-hand corner of the meat — remembering the dead woman’s liver — and carved out a small triangle. The liver had been riddled with dozens of marble-sized tumors. No doubt they were the cause of her jaundice, plugging up her bile ducts like evil globs of grease.

Lost in thought, she folded the mozzarella edges back over the chicken, and etched little circles into the rubbery cheese — jabbing a dot for a nipple into their centers. She stared at these tiny, two-dimensional breasts.

The woman’s breasts had been so nicely formed — even the reconstructed one from the cancer surgery. “Nice plastic-surgery job,” she’d muttered to her assistant before folding them aside so he could buzz-saw a path through the rib-cage into the woman’s chest.

She’d not dissected the breasts. In retrospect, she wondered if the hospital’s chief pathologist would criticize her for that omission.

At the time, she saw no point in it. Everybody knew the woman had breast cancer. Gazing now at these miniature mozzarella breasts, Brie-ann wondered if that might have been why the deceased woman’s husband had requested the autopsy: To see if the surgeon had missed part of the cancer and left his wife with a time-bomb hidden inside — one that would launch its deadly metastatic missiles long after he’d pronounced with a handshake and a smile, “I think we got it all.”

“Too late…” she mumbled to herself and sawed off a bite of chicken. She stirred it in a puddle of parmigiana sauce, popped it into her mouth, and chewed absent-mindedly.

The cause of death on the autopsy report would read “Cerebral Infarction, Secondary to Metastatic Breast Carcinoma”. What a fancy way that was to say that a plug of cancer had swum upstream from the woman’s breast and eaten a hole right through one of the blood vessels in her brain. When it burst, blood had flooded her brain, no doubt killing her instantly.

Brie-ann had discovered a cranium full of black-gelatinous blood when she un-roofed the cap of the skull. There’d been tons of metastases in her liver and lungs, but it was the one in her brain that got her in the end.

+

“What harm would it do?” she argued with herself.

Brie-ann asked that same question at least a hundred times over the course of the morning. The rational part of her mind tried to warn herself away. “Bad idea!” it answered.

Two p.m. on Sunday — That’s when the newspaper said the funeral was scheduled. She knew where the church was. She’d driven by it dozens of times on her way to the upscale mall in that part of town. The restaurant in that mall was where she and Mark had celebrated their second wedding anniversary.

She would walk right up to the widower, reach for his hand, and shake it in a caring fashion. She’d tell him how sorry she was for his loss — and how much she had admired his wife even though she hadn’t known her very long. She’d explain how they’d met by chance at the grocery store and then visited over coffee at a nearby cafe. (Brie-ann had Googled grocery stores and coffee shops in the area in case he questioned her further about this.)

Brie-ann tried to imagine what else she could say to him. Perhaps she should tell him what a good mother she was sure his wife had been. And how beautiful she was!

Brie-ann stole a glance at herself in the hall mirror. No one had ever described her as beautiful, but at least she was presentable, and she had aged well. “Well preserved” was the term her cousin, Arnie, had used when they’d seen one another at the last Lawson family reunion.

“He’ll be lonely,” Brie-ann thought. “He won’t be looking for some hot young chick, and he’ll need someone to help him raise those kids!”

She glanced at the face in the mirror again. “First one in his sights — That’s the one he’ll pick,” she told herself.

+

She tried to hide among a somber-faced group — women who looked to be Brie-ann’s age –probably members of the dead woman’s book club or some-such. She’d followed behind them as they exited the church’s sanctuary. When one of them tried to speak to her, Brie-ann darted sideways and slipped in among another group of mourners.

Everyone who bore no relation to the dead woman, including Brie-ann, gathered on the church’s front lawn. Some milled about the yard casting concerned glances toward the darkening pregnant skies. Most huddled together in clutches, conversing in low hums.

The last to emerge from the church’s arched doorway was the family. They fell in line behind the casket-carrying pallbearers.

Brie-ann watched the family parade by her. The dead-woman’s widower wasn’t hard to spot.

He was a tall, beautiful man who led the line.

A handful of handsome children — Brie-ann counted four — trailed behind the widower. Each had the same unmistakable blond curls as their dead mother.

A female drill-sergeant with flame-red hair buzzed above this tribe of wolf-pups, prodding and whispering at the little brood. Who was this woman? She bore no resemblance to anyone else in the family.

Could this buzzing hornet of a woman be another she-wolf on the prowl for a mate? Was there a chance Brie-ann might be too late? She bristled at the notion.

Shuffling close behind the woman were two red-headed boys. They hung a step or two back from the pack of golden-haired wolflings. Were these two of her own?

A messy collection of kinsfolk stumbled into place behind the fiery-headed interloper and her sons. Then the crowd of non-relatives joined the parade. Everyone plodded in the direction of the church’s nearby cemetery.

One of the straggling family members captured Brie-ann’s attention. A bald but otherwise nondescript man kept shifting his position. He appeared to be tracking someone near the front of the line like a hawk watching its prey. If Brie-ann were to bet which someone, she sensed he might be keeping his sights on the red-headed woman.

Carried along somewhere in the middle of the crowd, Brie-ann slithered into an opening left by a slow-moving mourner. Inch-by-inch she advanced herself forward. As if pulled by his magnetic field, she moved in the direction of the bald man.

Soon only a solid lump of a woman separated Brie-ann from the man’s back. When Brie-ann attempted to slip around her, the woman waddled sideways and thwarted her effort.

A few isolated raindrops offered warning to the marching mourners. The family vanguard reached the funeral tent and tucked themselves underneath, leaving the herd of non-relatives exposed to the impending elements. The group began to thin as the less committed mourners raced back to the protection of their cars.

Not anticipating the waddling woman’s sudden decision to leave, or the bald man’s plan to find a spot behind the tent’s last row of folding chairs, Brie-ann launched herself forward and found herself colliding with the man’s chest. Instead of defending his position, his chest gave way — swaying backward a bit and allowing her to sink into his form for a very brief but not altogether unpleasant instant.

“Excuse me!” he croaked. Untangling his arms from around her, he stiffly re-arranged them back along his sides.

“My fault…” Brie-ann mumbled. Her face flushed hot with mortification.

The rain picked up its pace and began to thunder down with ferocity.

“This way!” he said. Placing an arm across her shoulder, he guided her under the tent.

At the front of the tent, the minister had already begun his eulogy, but the heavy drum-beat of rain pounding on canvas muted his voice to a murmur. At the rear, Brie-ann and the man stood together — alone and unnoticed.

“Who are you?” he whispered.

“Um…no one. Just an acquaintance of the deceased.” She knew the woman’s name from her chart, but to say it aloud might be a violation of some professional privacy code.

“Who are you?” she countered.

“Brother-in-law of — as you called her — the deceased. Do you mind if we call her Laura?”

“Fine,” He could call her whatever he wanted. “So how are you related?” she asked.

“Married to her sister?”

“Nope. I’m married to that gal up there.” He pointed to the red-headed woman. “Or at least I was until last week. She just served me with divorce papers.”

Alarmed by this revelation, Brie-ann’s stomach clenched. The newly divorced woman was sitting directly behind the widower.

She meant to tell the man how his wife was sticking too close to the grieving widower, but he stole her chance by asking, “So why are you here if you weren’t that chummy with Laura? How’d you put it? An acquaintance?”

“Curious, I guess, about her life and about her… afterlife.” She surprised herself by how near she’d come to telling the truth.

The man responded with an amused laugh. “Afterlife?!”

“You know…What’s gonna happen to everybody after her life. Now that she’s gone.”

“Oh…” His eyes drifted away and focused somewhere across the cemetery. “When you say everybody, does that include me?”

“I guess.” She wasn’t sure. She still didn’t know who he was. How was he connected to the widower and his kids? They were the ones she was interested in.

“Okay. Since you guess you might be interested — I’ll just tell you about my afterlife — after Laura.”

The tone of his whisper changed — tense now and a tinge husky. “What’s going to happen is that I’ll have to watch that woman I used to call my wife move into that ridiculous mansion with my brother — the same man who used to be Laura’s husband. Meanwhile, she’ll drag me into court and tell the judge our two sons should live with her, along with my scumbag brother and his spoiled brats, but my boys don’t want to. They want to stay in their own home — with me.”

He paused long enough for his adam’s apple to bob up and down in a swallowing motion. “So that’s my afterlife. But you wait and see! I’m gonna fight! And I’m gonna get custody of my kids!”

His chest was heaving in and out by the time he finished. He wasn’t looking at Brie-ann anymore. He was watching the red-headed woman, or maybe he was watching the two boys beside her.

Heartsick, Brie-ann realized her instincts had been right: The tart was trying to sink her claws into the bereaved man.

She tried to calm herself. This was only the bald brother’s interpretation of things. The widower couldn’t necessarily help it if the red-headed siren was stalking him. Even so, if Brie-ann had any hope of wresting the widower away from her, she’d need to find a plan and act fast.

“I’m sorry…” She wanted to say something kind to the poor fellow. “Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe he’ll get interested in somebody else.”

He answered with a “harrumph!” then followed this by saying, “By the way, my name’s Phil.”“Brie-ann,” she offered in return.

“So what do you do?” he asked. “Work? Married? Stay-at-home mom?”

He was being a bit too nosy. “Um, no…I mean, I work. Not married. No kids.

“Where?”
“Huh?” This was starting to feel like an interrogation. Her eyes drifted to the widower. Up front, the minister continued to drone on.

“Where do you work?”

“Oh… hospital.”

Best not to lie. How could she divert his stream of questions?

“What about you? Where do you work?” If she got him talking about himself, maybe he’d quit hammering her with questions.

“Me?” He chuckled. “I work for dead people.”

Brie-ann drew her gaze away from the widower and answered the brother with a quizzical stare.

His expression turned sheepish. “I’m a probate attorney. I kind of fell into it…”

Brie-ann waited for him to continue. He did after casting a nervous glance in her direction.

“I didn’t figure out until after I graduated from law school and got my first job that I…” He looked away again. “Um… I don’t really like people, especially when they have problems and start arguing with one another.”

He brought his gaze back to meet hers. “So I quit the law firm and started doing probate work. Anyway, it turned out to be what I really love to do!”

“Interesting,” she said, smiling at him. “You love working for dead people!”

He took a step back. “You probably think I’m weird.”

“No I don’t!” she said with almost too much enthusiasm.

He watched her warily. “Anyway, I’m sure you don’t understand what I mean—”

“Yes, I do!” she said — again with a little too much enthusiasm. “I do understand.”

She did. She still remembered the precise moment in medical school when she realized the patients she loved the best were the dead ones.

He stared at her with uncertainty in his eyes. Then a tentative smile crept across his face. They stood together — silent and awkward — smiling shyly at one another.

The downpour petered out until only occasional droplets dripped onto the awning from overhanging tree limbs. Scattered sunrays leaked through the clouds and danced around the edges of the tent.

The minister apparently took the break in weather as his cue to conclude the service because he embarked on a closing prayer. When he finished, the mourners stood and began to shuffle about.

Brie-ann’s opportunity to speak to the widower had come. Her eyes abandoned Phil’s and returned to the front of the tent.

“Uh…What?” Phil had asked her a question, but she hadn’t caught what he’d said.

“I said — Do you want to go grab a bite to eat with me?” he repeated.

“Um, I can’t. I’ve… I’ve got something I need to do.”

She watched the red-head navigate around a row of chairs and sidle up beside the widower. The two chatted with another couple as if they were a pair — a couple themselves. Brie-ann should move, go up to him, and start a conversation. But her feet remained frozen in place.

“What?” She was vaguely aware Phil had asked her something else. The widower placed his arm around the floozy’s shoulder. But he shouldn’t…This was his wife’s funeral.

“I said…” There was a hint of frustration in Phil’s voice. “Do you want to go out to dinner later? After you finish whatever it is that you need to do?”

“No thanks,” was all she said. She didn’t look at Phil. She was too riveted by what was transpiring at the front of the tent.

As she watched, the widower bent forward and — in full view of the other mourners — kissed the red-headed woman full on the lips. Brie-ann gasped in horror.

“Never mind,” she heard Phil say.

Phil was walking away from her. The man had just asked her out — she suddenly realized –and she had brushed him off, turned him down.

Brie-ann cast one last glance at the widower and the woman cuddled up next to him. Then she wheeled around and raced after the bald brother.

“Wait!” she called out to him.

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M.A. Kinghorn is a writer living in South Carolina. Her poetry and prose have previously appeared in Soaring literary magazine.