Asher Todd needed coffee. Actually, he needed ten hours of oblivion in a dark room between cool cotton sheets. He did not need two more hours in a florescent lit surrealist painting. But coffee would do for now. Dr. Todd was at the end of a double shift; what he and the other interns at Vanderbilt Medical Center called a Brain Crusher, as in “Hey Ash, can you walk Rufus for me? I’ve got a Brain Crusher tonight.” Asher didn’t own a dog – he couldn’t understand why any intern would, though Rod Burbank asked him to walk Rufus occasionally. “Man,” Rod told him over a couple of pints at Dan McGinnis, “Rufus can only hold it for twelve hours, after that he shits all over my fucking bed. Do you think he’s trying to tell me something?” Ash thought about telling Rod to get a lower maintenance pet, something like a goldfish or a parakeet, but kept these critical thoughts to himself. Interns in their last year needed all the support they could get.
Tonight’s was the Brain Crusher to beat all. The ER seemed less like a hospital and more like a sterile circus; packed from eight PM, when the Predator’s game let out, until after two AM when the bars closed down. Armed robberies, car accidents, fist fights, just plain falling down drunk and one head trauma: Marsha Griggs, 42 Calliope Lane, Nashville TN 37216. Unconscious. Prognosis? Ash didn’t think she’d live through the night. There was nothing you could do but wait in cases like this, and Dr. Todd did not think they would be waiting long.
Asher asked the ER nurse, Cat Sylvan, “Hey babe, have a look through her purse, won’t you? She eye rolled and side glanced him before striding away muttering. He stood alone for a few moments replaying the fight he and Cat had that morning over breakfast. Why would it upset her so much that he brought her bagel with butter instead of cream cheese? Cat confused him, and Asher Todd was not used to being confused. To divert his mind from the decaying relationship, he surveyed the woman on the table; her chest rose and fell regularly with the cycle of the respirator. The florescent bank hummed, and the heart/blood pressure monitor beeped. The lights gave her skin a greenish cast. Dr. Todd shuddered.
Marsha Griggs traveled light. She’d been wearing a tan skirt and a blue waistcoat with a white silk blouse, powder blue “Body by Victoria” bra and a matching color thong. Her legs were shaved but she wore no hose and a pair of blue Kenneth Cole pumps.
At least the silk shirt was white and the bra was powder blue. These articles were now soaked in Marsha Griggs’ type “O” negative blood (same type as mine, a semi-aware part of Dr. Todd’s brain noted), and stuffed into the yellow bio hazard bag, having been cut from Masha’s slight body by nurse Sylvan’s merciless bandage shears. The bag would soon be tied and hauled to the basement and incinerated; all traces turned a fine grey ash.
Ms. Griggs heart rate increased to one hundred and ten beats per minute. Her blood pressure touched ninety over one sixty and continued to fall; skin cool and pale. Asher’s diagnosis was an intracerebral hemorrhage from a fall or a blunt object blow. Basically, the back of her head was skull split. Blood had leaked from her ears, but since stopped. Her pupils were dark dots extending to the sclera and unchanged by penlight. There were some scrapes on the backs of her shoulders in addition to a jagged wound on her neck beneath the left ear.
Ash lifted the sheet covering Marsha Griggs’ body to have a private viewing of her small, naked nipples, but his attention was hooked away by bruises just beneath her shoulders. Someone had pushed her forcefully. The marks were developing the signature violet of recently broken blood vessels. If she lived, which was doubtful, the subdural hematomas would mature to a deep purple highlighted by a lovely jaundiced yellow. He realized that her eventual death would be ruled suspicious. “Probably murder,” he said. The word hung in the disinfectant scented air.
The meat wagon had picked her up from an alley by the bus station. Ash said, “Ms. Griggs, you don’t look like the sort of girl who rides the Greyhounds or hangs around the mission.”
He compressed the tip of her right index finger and watched the capillaries sluggishly refill – a sure sign of blood loss and diminishing vitals. Asher held her small, cool hand for a moment and sighed. After the respirator and the IVs there was really nothing more he could do for her.
The Music City homeless shelter was next door to the bus station. The one-way street, which ran toward the river, was punctuated by strip clubs and bars. The EMT said there were no witnesses and they almost wrote her off as a Jane Doe. He spotted her Calvin Klein purse twenty feet away just as they were loading her in. Asher sensed some sort of unusual puzzle, but he did not have enough brain juice left to assemble the jigsaw.
He estimated that she was about five foot six, one hundred and five pounds. “A little thin for my tastes,” he said to nurse Sylvan when came back in. Cat snorted and shoved the blood work report at him. The sheaf of papers splashed across the tiles.
The Griggs woman had small features and olive colored skin. Asher’s old undergraduate roommate would have called her “Elvin,” but that was only because Sam had a penchant for all things Lord of the Rings; though her ears did seem slightly pointy.
Cat told Asher, “Look doctor, you can rummage through this girl’s personal effects yourself, I don’t have time for your shit.” She spun to exit and postscripted: “you’re an asshole, Asher.” He thought, the makeup sex would be great, babe, if you can just let go of it. But at hour fourteen of this sixteen hour Brain Crusher, he could not even attempt to articulate the sentiment. I’ll have to take some time to apologize later, maybe get some flowers at the gift shop. His thoughts were sluggish and disconnected. Ash folded his glasses into his shirt breast pocket and rubbed both eyes with his palm heels.
After tossing the report aside, he dumped the contents of Marsha Griggs’ tan clutch purse onto the stainless steel counter. The small pile rattled loudly. He used a plastic Bic pen to push the items around, not because he was concerned about contaminating himself, but because he was exhausted and cross-eyed and the activity gave him some perverse, if not fully recognized, pleasure.
There was a Tennessee driver’s license with a blank organ donor section, a blue DKNY compact, a yellow Universal pencil (made in China) with a broken tip and a white number ten business sized envelope.
No wallet, no keys, no cell.
The envelope had something scrawled on it in a smudgy script. It was almost illegible. Asher considered calling Metro, but they were sure to be poking around plenty later. There would be an autopsy for sure, though the cause of death looked pretty obvious. “Zee human person can’t-a live too long with a completely smashed scull und 35% blood loss,” he said aloud in a strange foreign accent. His voice made a metallic echo in the tile and stainless room. God I’m so tired I’m beginning to babble, he thought. He held the envelope up to the pulsing florescent lights and shook the contents, but could not see through the safety paper. It contained a hard nugget of an object, about an inch long, a quarter inch thick. Asher pressed the paper down around the item and felt its lumpy outline. It was a key – from a storage locker.
He squinted at the writing on the front. He could almost make out a name: Albert or Alfred. The first letter of the last name was either T or Q. It was no use – if this were written by Ms. Griggs’ dainty hands he would have been surprised. Someone else had scribbled these hieroglyphics and given it to Marsha. Or maybe she stole it…
Asher’s imagination ran on its own track now, like he was watching a late night TV mystery. The Southern Ohio freight whistle blew breathy and faint from the yard adjacent to the college along the Cumberland River. An overhead page smacked him into the present.
“Dr. Todd to the ER desk, Dr. Todd…”
“Shit,” Asher said to no one. I guess this night isn’t over yet. He used the side of his palm to sweep the contents back into the purse, but the envelope missed the small opening and fell with a muffled clink.
Asher stared at the white rectangle, and pictured the lockers at the Nashville Greyhound station. He had never seen them, but he was sure they were there. The overhead paged him again –
“Alright already,” he mumbled to the garishly lit room. “Hold your fucking polo ponies.” In his sleep deprived state, Asher Todd had become infected by an irrational desire to check the lockers. It tugged at him like the smell of sex.
He plucked the envelope from the floor, and stuffed it into his exam coat instead of putting it in the purse. Asher dreamed of dancing locker keys and seedy singing mission-district prostitutes dressed as 1940s nurses in white vinyl, but he forgot the dreams upon awakening thirty-two hours later. By that time Marsha Griggs had given up the sheet that replaced her Liz Claiborne skirt and J. Jill silk shirt. In its place she wore a manila colored tag on her right big toe and her body temperature was down to a brisk forty three degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the blood had been washed off of her face, but there was still a considerable amount of it matted and drying in her short blond hair. Though the nail beds of her fingers were cyanotic blue and the block beneath her neck created a disturbing wrinkle behind the ears – ears Asher Todd thought were pointy and kind of cute – anyone would think that Marsha Griggs had been an attractive woman. But they would have been wrong. She wasn’t a woman at all.
Asher woke in the half light of dusk. It was 8:30 PM. The inside of his mouth felt as though he’d been chewing on kitty litter. He was afraid of what his breath might smell like. After standing for what seemed like fifteen minutes in front of the toilet, his bladder finally emptied, and he shuffled off to the inadequate kitchen of his efficiency hole-in-the-wall to seek coffee.
Asher’s refrigerator was empty aside from a quart of organic whole milk, a jar of Clawson pickles and a white Styrofoam take out box, the mystery contents of which would not be solved this evening. There was little to eat or drink in his cabinets. What Dr. Todd’s kitchen did sport was a professional Mazzer burr grinder and a top of the line Ranchillio one group head espresso machine, complete with a real, professional steaming wand.
The young doctor would introduce women to his coffee maker by the name Georgiana. To the introduction he would predictably add, “Life is just too short to drink bad coffee.” He had not yet graduated to roasting his own, but that day would come. Nashville wasn’t exactly a coffee wasteland, but when he finished his internship he would be making his way to the Pacific Northwest. Seattle or Portland, where, as he would also often say: “real coffee is king, my friend; the promised land of the caffeinated.”
He bumped his exam coat, which fell off the back of a kitchen chair, and the number ten envelope slid out of the pocket. It stopped, wedged half under his refrigerator by the bulge of the key.
Asher had forgotten about Ms. Griggs until that moment. A small shudder began at the base of his spine (lumbar vertebrae six, his well-trained brain chimed in), and slowly, maddeningly clicked up each bone in his back toward his shoulders.
“Those pointy ears…” he mumbled, reaching for the envelope.
While Georgiana warmed up, Asher sat at his tiny table and tried to summon the personal ethics or moral centering that would coerce him to return the envelope. By the time the green light went from blinking to solid he had not succeeded in conjuring any feelings other than intensified curiosity. This is madness, he tried to convince himself, but he already had an erection, his body knew it was going to the bus station even if his foggy brain had not yet realized its fate.
He packed the portafilter and expertly compressed the perfectly ground beans to exactly eight pounds, slid a two ounce shot glass beneath the spout while tightening the head in place, and hit the brew switch.
While the creama collected in the crystal glass, Asher Todd tore the envelope open and poured its contents onto his countertop.
The brass key had an orange plastic ring around the shank with the number 26 embossed in white. He flipped it over, twisted the valve on the steam and foamed the three percent milk for his latte. Definitely a locker key, probably from the Greyhound station where Ms. Griggs was discovered.
Asher’s brain caught up to his body. Adrenalin zigzagged though his bloodstream. He sipped his latte imagining the locker’s contents: Money? Papers? Secrets? Without realizing it, he had committed to find the locker and open it, passing over any rational questions. He did not ask himself why, it became his vision of conquest for the evening. As the sky through his west facing windows quickly cycled through all the shades of grey to night, he drank his coffee picturing a living, breathing Marsha Griggs as though he possessed a key that would open her.
Young doctor Todd arrived at the mission on Demonbreun Street just after the thin band of light on the horizon finally gave up to dark, dressed in engineer’s boots, jeans and a blue chambray shirt. He parked and walked the two short blocks back up the street to the bus station. Even after dark the temperature had to be at least 90. On the way he handed out all of his pocket change to two grey-skinned weather beaten men and one legless, toothless woman of indiscriminate age. By the time he reached the bus station his armpits and shirt back were sweat soaked.
His glasses fogged with condensation as he walked through the second set of glass doors into a wall of frigid air-conditioning, he removed them. The lockers were directly across from a bank of broken pay phones just inside the doors.
The shudder at L-6 began scrambling around again like a caged ferret. He crossed the floor dodging an unbelievably thin woman hauling a beat-up suitcase by one hand, and two scrawny boys with crew-cuts by the other.
The building was crowded and stank of Simple Green disinfectant cleaner and stale tobacco. An overhead speaker announced arrivals and departures in a thick Nashville twang; still unintelligible as any other bus station.
Number 26 was in the second block of lockers; sixth one down from the top, which positioned it around the level of Asher Todd’s chest. He had been fingering the brass key in the right front pocket of his jeans. Metallic brass odor was so strong on his fingers that he could smell it as he brought the key out and slid it into the slot in the grey metal panel.
As he turned the key he thought he could hear the tumblers turn. A deep, suspicious part of his brain objected to this information, there are no tumblers in a keyed lock… the thought distracted him from noticing what happened next. He automatically pulled the door open and bent slightly to peer into the darkness. The locker was empty.
Well that’s depressing, he thought. Though I don’t know what I thought I was going to find.
He really believed the locker contained some clue to Marsha Griggs’ death or maybe a big brown paper bag full of crumpled one hundred dollar bills.
He filled his lungs with air and spun on his heel — plans for the rest of his evening began filling his mind — and began to exhale in a resigned sigh. It caught in his throat.
The cavernous bus station lobby was deserted. He froze, looking slowly around the room, and muttered, “What?” The word echoed. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes and shook his head slightly to clear his fog filled brain.
Echo and silence.
The room went black. Red terror filled Asher’s well-disciplined mind. An icy ripple rolled across his scalp as he struggled to control his muscles. Irrationally, he turned to close the locker in a grasping hope of returning the world to normal, but immediately rejected it and turned back to the doors.
Faint light from the Nashville night glowed through the glass, guiding him out. He found himself on the sidewalk where the sharp edge of the heat had curled off slightly, and a breeze stirred candy wrappers in the gutter.
Asher’s heart was still slamming against his ribs as he looked up and down the deserted moonlit street. He willed his breathing to slow. A slight wind blew across his ears. The normal commotion of the city was absent leaving only this alien ear rustle and the ambient background whistle of his own brain.
Twenty eight year old Dr. Asher Todd, a young man who had sailed purposefully through his undergraduate and medical schooling with no physical or mental hesitation, stood in front of the Nashville Greyhound bus station with his mouth open trying to comprehend what had happened. He could not. It was as though his mind had gone through a reset. His thoughts were repeatedly derailed by fragmented images of the past few days.
I took the key, I came to the station, I opened a locker…
As soon as he realized that he was still standing alone in what appeared to be a completely empty world, his well-organized brain would begin to replay the details again, like a toy train on a small circular track. The image of a red and silver plastic Lionel Santa Fe locomotive took over his imaginings, complete with the scratchy electric train sound.
When she put her hand on his shoulder from behind, he nearly pissed his pants. “Excuse me,” she said.
Asher’s mouth was still open when he spun to her. Though she was shorter, they were nearly touching noses.
“Excuse me,” she repeated.
He recognized the barely contained terror in her eyes mirroring the confusion of his own mind. Automatically, his arms encircled her trembling shoulders and they embraced. She pressed her slight body into him and grasped him tightly; her head turned toward his neck and rested in the hollow of his shoulder. She sobbed.
They stood that way for a few moments. He thought, holding on to her feels good, right. He began to think coherently. He stroked her back watching over her shoulder as his large hand slid across the blue material of her suit jacket. He breathed in a long draft, smelled her perfume and a slight undercurrent of something else; not unpleasant but incongruent. It was a familiar smell, but one which did not belong; faintly animal and wild.
The woman broke away and gazed up into his eyes. She said, “We have to go. We can’t stay here.”
The statement didn’t leave a space for discussion. Asher realized that she was right, though the itch of a thought (somehow connected with that smell) teased his mind. Maybe because of the inexplicable disappearance of all people, or the relief of locating another human so soon after the terror of total darkness, he instinctively knew they must flee.
They walked briskly toward his car. Three long strides along she stopped and turned, pointing back at her purse on the sidewalk.
“Would you get my bag, Ash?”
He was bending down for it when he realized she had called him by name. As he stood up, the tan clutch was in his hand, and he saw the Calvin Klein logo. He opened his mouth.
The force of impact was tremendous and bone crushing. Asher had a moment to see the woman in the blue suit jacket and matching pumps spring the fifteen or so feet over the sidewalk toward him. She transformed in mid leap.
What Asher saw was a blur. If he had time to reflect (which he did not) he would have seen the slight, attractive, business clad young woman streak toward him in the dim moonlight, her form rearranging impossibly as she shot forward. The transformation looked like a reflection in the surface of water when a large stone is thrown. The complete picture splintered into ripples, and the fragmented reflections re-assembled themselves into a solid image again, but the form that she became was not at all the form she had been.
What Asher saw in the brief moments before she hit him was her narrow head followed by an elongated black body covered with oily, fluttering scales. Her tiny ultraviolet pin prick eyes lasered him from a nose-less face predominated by a wide grin filled with several rows of glinting, needle-teeth.
She slammed him into the brick wall crushing his skull. She cradled his limp body in her webbed palms, wrapping long frog-like legs around his hips. Her amphibious crotch created sticky suction against the taut skin of his belly. The needles of her teeth sliced into his rippling carotid artery. She hummed and trembled as she sucked.
Forcing herself to stop, she tore away from his neck, stood and dropped his body to the concrete. She fingered his face gently, almost lovingly, as she spoke. It sounded to Asher like his own voice garbled and underwater.
“I thank you Asher Todd,” she paused and cleaned the blood from her teeth with a flick of her reptilian tongue, “Good of you to attend my invitation.” Asher felt a violent wave roll through his broken body. When it subsided, he could see that his legs had morphed; naked now, thinner and shaved, feet ending in a pair of blue Kenneth Cole pumps. His thoughts were woozy, blurred and filled with buzzing, flashbulb spots of random colors. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
The jaundiced sodium vapor street lights above the sidewalk blinkered on one by one as she stood. Her alien body had transformed into a young man wearing black leather boots, jeans and a blue chambray shirt. He dropped a brass key into a white number ten envelope, and scribbled something on it before licking the glue and sealing it. The tongue was unnaturally long, thin and the color of a bruised plum. As the young man bent and stuffed the envelope into her tan clutch purse he looked over at Asher’s crumpled body and winked.
The last thought Asher Todd had before he lost consciousness was: Marsha Griggs.
NOTE: This story was published in LIMN Literary and Arts Journal in November 2012 as part of their special Halloween Issue. I encourage you to follow them and submit if you are so inclined.
Marsha Griggs by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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