People always ask, what’s the worst thing you ever saw?
What they’re really looking for is the bad stuff. Addicts and child abusers and nutjobs. The semi-trailer underride that made your partner Preston a vegetarian. They want to hear about the family of six that got burned alive two weeks later when one of the kids kicked their blanket onto a space heater, and nobody noticed until it was too late, until they felt the flames licking at their bedsheets, because the landlord hadn’t bought batteries for any of the smoke detectors.
They want to hear about how afterwards, on the way back to the station, Preston pulled over in a McDonald’s parking lot and came back with a paper sack full of cheeseburgers and didn’t say a word.
So you tell them what they want to hear. But that isn’t the worst thing. Not really. The one that really sticks with you isn’t the strangest or the bloodiest, but it’s the one that does.
The call goes out and you’re the first to arrive at some piddly little shotgun shack in the boonies. An old man answers the door in a tank top and plaid boxer shorts. He leads you through a foyer that smells like old furniture and stale cigarette smoke, past a bookshelf full of Hummel figurines and a shadowbox full of Army medals. Framed pictures of beaming children, grandchildren.
In the bedroom, her medication is all laid out on the nightstand. There’s a brand new refill of nitroglycerin tablets in a tamper-resistant bottle. The old man gestures toward the bed, at the still shape underneath the sheets. He hasn’t pulled them back, because he already knows what he’s going to find.
Preston takes him out in the hallway while you go through the motions, checking for a nonexistent pulse, nonexistent blood pressure. You step outside and tell him what he already knows, hoping the clinical, Latinate words will create a kind of distance.
The old man shuffles into the bathroom and fishes a crumpled pack of Pall Malls out of the medicine cabinet. He lowers the toilet seat like it’s made of glass. Then he sits there and lights his cigarette with a trembling match. He turns on the exhaust fan and stares at the popcorn spackle on the ceiling and tries to hold it all together while you ask him a million questions. But he’s worlds away. He’s a cork on the ocean, thinking about that sharp intake of breath when he saw her walk down the aisle, or about yesterday morning, when he rubbed isopropyl alcohol into the swollen arches of her feet. You stay with him until the coroner’s van arrives.
This is the part you hate.
A week or so later, the call goes out. Same address. Neighbors complaining about a smell. The whole way there, you’re telling yourself that it’s probably just some animal that crawled into the attic and couldn’t find its way out. A raccoon, maybe. But you already know what you’re going to find.
This time nobody answers the door. You daub a bit of VapoRub under each nostril and go through the foyer, past the figurines and the shadowbox full of medals and the pictures on the wall, other peoples’ memories clinging to you like humid air.
You see the shape under the sheets, the empty bottle of nitroglycerine tablets. The smell seeps through the VapoRub, wrapping around your olfactory gland like a noose. For a minute, you don’t uncover him. You don’t do anything. You already know what you’re going to find.
Eric Shattuck is a freelance writer living in Charleston, South Carolina. He studied at South Carolina State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and served as an editor for the Inkwell Student Literary Journal.