By Caitlyn Pace
Cherry was my favorite flavor of
popsicle growing up. I loved the red, sticky taste of the sweet liquid. On hot
summer days, it would coat my hands like the dried blood I had become all too
familiar with from the many times I had to check my blood sugars by poking my
finger. Courtesy of a non-functioning pancreas.
Her skin was pulled tight across
her body. Thin, like paper. I could see every bone poking through it.
A body—no longer a her, but, as the embalming
fluid began to fill her veins, bringing a rosy color back to her cheeks and
arms, it was hard—for a second—to forget to call her a body.
It wasn’t sad, but more of a
realization. An acknowledgment of a life gone by; one that had become a part of
my routine as the bodies passed through my hands over the years.
My stomach still rumbled over the
memory of me having slid the knife down the skin of her chest only moments
earlier, revealing the layers of muscle and tissues underneath. I had stuck my
hand in her chest and felt for the bomb that would have destroyed the
crematorium if I had not taken it out of her.
The rumbling brought a tightening
to my chest, and I reminded myself to breathe slowly before I started panting.
she was just going to be buried, I wouldn’t have had to cut her open, I
thought with some distaste towards the family, but they wanted a viewing and
then a cremation. Unusual orders, yes, but everyone had their wishes.
After I placed the pacemaker on the
countertop – the ticking bomb away from
its target of the furnace – I sat down while the dizziness spread across my
vision in black spots.
you cut open a body, it releases this primal urge that goes back to our
Neanderthal ancestors. The urge to consume. You become unnaturally hungry.
hadn’t believed Frank when he told me that during training. It should have been
mentioned in one of my
science classes in college, I would have liked to believe, but all my
professors had failed to mention it. Even every mortician I knew – all of which
I could count on one hand – besides Frank, that is, had failed to mention it. I
thought he had made it up. He was a bit immature for his age. Perhaps he was
making a pathetic attempt to see if I could stomach handling the everyday routines
of the job. But he had never laughed; had never shown any indication that he
was joking. He only mentioned it after he heard my stomach growling, the first
time I opened a body to remove a pacemaker.
Lucky for me, few bodies in the heart
of Appalachia were ever cremated. It only figures for a small town, where the
majority of the residents are descendants of the Irish and Italian pioneers who
settled the town and still follow traditionally Catholic beliefs of their
ancestors, including the one where God will raise their bodies from the dead
one day. As such, they want to be buried whole.
But this one wanted to be cremated,
and so I had to check for a pacemaker. I lost count of how many times I had to
check for pacemakers, but it couldn’t be more than twenty. Still, with each
one, I would cut open the body, and the rumbling in the bottom of my stomach
would usually follow. But it had to be done: if the pacemaker entered the cremation
chamber, the heat interacting with the body would not only blow up the body
itself but damage the chamber as well, possibly causing a mini explosion in the
process. That was a lawsuit that no one on my team, including myself, wanted to
I closed the door to the morgue behind
me and began the process of removing my equipment. Afterwards, I washed my
hands and disinfected myself. All the while, I could only think about my bagel
with cream cheese and my protein bar waiting for me in my lunch bag.
When Mark walked into the lounge, he
immediately turned his head and saw me sitting at the table. Had we evolved to sense
when someone else
was in a room as soon as we were in it? Yet another thing my science
classes had forgotten to teach me, but I suppose it wasn’t really all that
important with the dead.
“Lunchtime already?” He asked.
“Yeah,” I said after swallowing a bite
of my bagel. “I was starting to get a bit dizzy while I was working back
He turned on the coffee machine, and
said, “Oh yeah? What time did you get in here?”
“Around six this morning.”
Mark leaned his head back and let out
a long sign. “Man,” he said. “every mortician I’ve ever met works crazy hours.
And I thought nursing was bad, but at least I can choose to work the night
“Always on call,” I said. “but it’s
not so bad. You learn to take advantage of the time you have off.”
“Take advantage by sleeping?”
“For the most part,” I said and
smiled. “and nursing has its downsides too. I mean, you’re certainly not working
the night shift right now.”
“Oh, I will be. I’m doing a double
shift today.” I could smell the coffee in his mug as he took it out from the
pot. “You know, got to pay off those student loans somehow.”
“But I’ll be fine after a few cups of this,”
he said and gestured the mug in my direction. “Besides, I’ve always felt more
awake at night. I’ll take a night shift over waking up at six in the morning
I shook my head. “Couldn’t be me. I
can’t think right at night. I’m always in bed before ten.”
He gave a slight laugh and shook his
head. “The only person who goes to bed before ten is my grandma.” I tried to
look offended, but we both started laughing. “But, for real,” he started. “I
wish that I had more of your traits. I don’t get a lot done at night, except
for lying awake. Over the years, I just thought I might as well put my habits
to good use and take on the night shifts.”
“Well, I admire you because someone
has to take on the night shifts, and it certainly couldn’t be me unless I had
“Here’s to mutual admiration,” he said
and tilted his cup towards me. I tilted my bagel at him. We both laughed, and
he took a sip of his coffee while I ate more of my bagel.
“Oh, you know, if you like bagel
sandwiches, the café down the street, the Yellow Duck, you know the one I’m
I nodded. I saw the sign for it every
time I drove into work, but I never stopped to go into it.
“Well, it has the best ham, cheese,
and bagel sandwiches. You ought to try it out sometime. It’s to die for.”
“I haven’t been yet, but I’ll have to
go sometime. I won’t be eating that, though. I mean, I’m sure it’s good, but I
don’t eat meat.”
“What? Don’t tell me you’re a
He pressed his lips together and shook
his head before finally saying, “How can you live without meat?”
I gave a slight laugh at that. “I’ve
just never liked the taste of it. It’s always grossed me out, even when I was
little. I would hardly ever eat the meat my mom made for dinner, and,
eventually, she just gave up on making it. That was about the time I went
vegetarian, I guess you could say.”
“Well, listen, I could never do that,
but I know it’s supposed to be healthier for you. Just make sure you’re getting
I pulled the protein bar out of my
lunch bag and waved it at him, slow enough for him to see that it was, in fact,
a protein bar.
He smiled at that, and his expression
lingered while he said, “Well, I’ve got to go now. You can’t pay the bills by
doing nothing,” he said. “I’ll see you around, okay?”
“Sure,” I said and waved at him as he
walked out the door.
With Roomy curled up at my feet on the
bed, his tail hitting the back of my leg every time he waved it, I listened to
the winds outside. They pushed themselves against the house and caused the old
walls to creak. Was it supposed to storm
tonight? I thought.
As I closed my eyes to go to sleep, my
memory returned to that day in the cemetery with my mom, sister and me.
The cemetery was behind our house, and
the familiar image of my sister and I pushing our dolls’ strollers along the
pathways between the tombstones formed across my vision. The pebbles used to
get stuck in the wheels, but they would always turn out when we pushed the
strollers a bit harder.
But, on this day, one of them had
gotten stuck a bit more, so I pushed harder on the stroller.
“Do you need to check your blood
sugars?” My mom asked, “You’re stumbling.”
I knew it was probably only the pebble
that had made me look like I was stumbling, but I thought about the cherry
Popsicle my mom had packed for the picnic. If my blood sugars were low, I would
be able to have that Popsicle now.
“Let’s check,” I said and held out my
finger to my mom. She pulled out my blood sugar tester from her bag, and poked
my finger with the needle. A dot of blood appeared on my fingertip, which was
then sucked into the test strip.
“76. That is a bit low,” she said.
“What do you want?”
I rubbed my fingers against one
another to get rid of the blood. “The popsicle,” I said, and, while I said it,
my voice became high-pitched. I wasn’t able to contain my excitement.
She swung the cooler off her shoulder,
unzipped the top of it, and handed the red popsicle to me. It had already begun
to melt, and the sticky cherry juice spread over my hands and dripped down my
“Make sure you use this,” Mom said
while she handed me a napkin. “You don’t want to ruin your clothes.”
I grabbed the napkin from her and
wiped my arms down. When I was done, I put the napkin in the stroller for
I held onto the Popsicle with one hand
and the handle of the stroller with the other as we began to walk forward once
“Alison Tromberry,” My mom said,
reading a tombstone. Her slight southern twang came out at the end of
“Tromberry.” “That’s such an interesting last name.”
“Maybe her family grew berries,” I
My mom smiled down at me, but, in my
memory, I couldn’t see her expression. Instead, all I saw was a shadow.
Her shadow spread across my vision
while I began to fall asleep.
my blood sugars low?
first thought as I struggled to open my eyes with the pressure building around
them. I took off my pump from the waistband of my pajama shorts to check my
Dexcom. My phone was buzzing on the cabinet across from my bed.
Nope, they were a good 106. At the top
of my pump, I saw the time: three in the morning.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes while I
forced myself to get up and walk over to the cabinet. My alarm stopped. Why had I
set it this early?
I picked up my phone, I noticed that there wasn’t an alarm at all, but a call
from the hospital.
I pressed on the contact to call them
“Hello,” I heard a woman say. It
sounded like Janice.
“Hello,” I mumbled back at her.
“Oh, Christie, can you come in? A
patient at the hospital recently died due to a heart attack, and the family gave
strict orders that they want the embalming process to begin as soon as
“And ‘as soon as possible’ can’t
“I’m afraid not. I’m sorry for calling
you this early.”
I let go of the stress building into
my shoulders with a sigh and said, “It’s okay. I’m on my way. Bye.”
“Goodbye,” she said, and I ended the
There was hardly anyone out on the
roads, but I gripped the steering wheel so tightly that my fingers were
cramping by the time I pulled into the parking lot.
Nausea burned against the sides of my
stomach and crawled its way up to the back of my throat. I checked my blood
sugars again, but they were still 106.
I thought of the protein bar in my
bag; believing that, if I just ate something, it would make the nausea go away.
But the thought made me feel like I was going to throw up. I knew that eating
it might cause the feeling to become an action. As long as my blood sugars are good,
then I can save it for later.
pushed open the door leading to the morgue.
The man appeared to be in his late
sixties. His stomach protruded around him so that I couldn’t see his face until
I walked closer. As I did, I saw that his eyes were partially opened. They were
a light gray color.
After I removed the hospital gown, I
began to wash the body down with disinfectant. Luckily, the mask covered most
of the scent of the disinfectant. The nausea remained, but at least it wouldn’t
become any worse by the smell.
His limbs were stiff underneath of my
gloved hands, since rigor mortis had already set in. I placed the disinfectant
where it belonged on the counter top and began to massage his limbs. I did this
until the joints were able to move with me slightly touching them.
Cramps formed their way in knots
across the lower part of my stomach, and a wave of heat washed over me. I
leaned against the wall and checked my pump again. My blood sugars were still
fine. Was I only tired?
finish this, the sooner I can go back home, to my bed, and go to sleep, I
I waited for the rush of heat to pass
before I returned to the body. A tingling formed across my arms and down my
The body had a bit of stubble on its
chin and the sides of its cheeks.
I shave it? I thought. Maybe not. It
can be shaved later if the family wants it to be changed.
fixed his eyes with the eye caps and began to wire his jaw shut.
As I threaded the wire through his
skin, my gaze wandered down to his chest.
pacemaker. Had Janice said if the family wanted his body cremated after the
probably isn’t a pacemaker. I should just leave it, but
then I saw an image in my mind of the body
exploding, the pacemaker its catalyst, inside the crematorium.
couldn’t remember, and that wasn’t something I could necessarily check later. I
might as well do it now. It will only take
a few minutes to check.
his jaw closed, I picked up the scalpel and walked over to his chest.
I pressed the blade into his skin, and some
blood began to ooze out of the cut. It fell onto my gloves, staining the light
blue material. The cramps returned to the bottom of my stomach. I pushed the
blade further in, revealing layers of pink muscle and yellow fat underneath as
I cut a line down the chest and into the stomach.
longer than it needs to be, I reminded myself,
but too late now to go back.
cleared my throat, and the nausea went away. My stomach rumbled. I looked up
towards the ceiling and thought of the protein bar in my bag. The nausea
returned, but when I looked back down at the body—the open and exposed flesh—my
stomach began to rumble. I imagined the still-warm taste of the blood in my
mouth, staining my skin like all of those popsicles I had eaten as a child. The
smooth muscle would slide down my throat as soft as the melted cherry liquid.
I took the scalpel and cut off a bit
of the muscle and brought it up to my lips. Would it really be so bad? It
was cold against my skin, but I didn’t have
much time to think about it as I opened my mouth and placed it on my tongue. Just
a taste. It can’t hurt; only the brain can cause damage. I’ll stay away from
that. Better to not break the skull anyways; that could cause suspicion.
Anything to stop this rumbling.
rumbling ceased instantly.
wasn’t much of a flavor, but it was soft as it glided across my tongue. So
soft, yet chewy. It was a pleasant texture, like a peanut butter protein bar,
but it tasted so different from that. A flavor unlike any I had experienced
before, since, the longer it stayed in my mouth, the more I could taste it.
Like pepper and garlic with a faint bit of an ashy aftertaste. Had the
person been a smoker? I suppose I could check later.
ground it down and let out a sigh of relief after I swallowed it.
the scalpel pressed into the slimy intestines, I brought it down and cut off a
chunk of the next piece.
Pace is a horror and dark fiction writer, and she occasionally dabbles in other
genres. She resides in West Virginia, where she is often inspired by the
folklore and ghost stories surrounding her state and the Appalachian region.
Keep updated with her through her Twitter @CaitlynPace02, Instagram:
@caitlyn_pace02, or TikTok: @caitlyn_pace.