Field Trip to the Morgue

                                                            By Paul Briggs

 

It was the end of my sophomore year in high school, the Monday after the senior prom. That was the first time I ever saw a human corpse — more than one, even. It was also the day I finally got even with Miss Vardaman, but the circumstances were such that I couldn't really enjoy it.

To understand how a thing like this could have happened, you need to know just how desperately the school had been fighting the problem of drunk driving. Now as you know, drunk driving is a problem everywhere — but the Department of Health and Human Services says it's worse in Wisconsin than anywhere else in the U.S., and I for one believe it.

As of that spring, Red Cedar County High School hadn't made it through a prom night in 17 years without at least one teenager getting drunk and dying on the road, usually more — and sometimes getting other people killed too. It was like some kind of annual human sacrifice to the god of… not wine. Beer, maybe. Or stupidity.

That year the school had tried even harder than usual to get the message across. More posters. More lectures. More students walking around all day with their faces painted white, not speaking to anybody. A specially bad mock accident out in the parking lot, using cars that had been wrecked in real accidents. If there was anything someone forgot to say on the subject, or any way somebody neglected to put it, I don't know what it was.

And how did the students reward all this effort? On prom night, there were seven incidents where graduating seniors were stopped for DUI or DWI. Four of them were stopped by cops. One of them was stopped by a lamppost. One of them was stopped by a ditch — not the one on the side of the road, but a different ditch a good sixty yards away. At least in those cases, nobody got hurt.

But then there was… the big one. Scott Scherer and his dancing pickup truck, with his girlfriend beside him and Mike and Jenni in the back. They went off the road at well over a hundred miles an hour, and the result was pretty much what you'd expect. At that point, I think something inside the principal must have snapped.

I heard the general outline of what happened on Sunday — from my father, who picked up all the gossip. Just knowing they were dead shook me up. I knew all of them. Especially Mike — he lived only a few blocks away. I'd had a crush on him for a while, but of course he could have had any girl he wanted and somehow I never made it onto his A-list. It made it a lot harder to study — which was not a good thing, with exams starting on Monday.

For breakfast Monday morning, I had half a box of Mueslix with skim milk, two whole grapefruit, four of those weird little maple-flavored breakfast sausages and a pint mug of coffee. Remember this — it'll come up later.

So there I was, at 9 a.m., ready to kick the ass of some trigonometry, when the announcement came. The junior and sophomore classes were being called away on a surprise field trip. We'd be back by noon. As for our exams, they were being "rescheduled."

We couldn't believe our ears. For a good many, it seemed like a reprieve, but… why?

Well, we found out. The school buses took us to a hospital in Eau Claire. The rest of us waited on the buses in the parking lot (and oh God it was hot in there, with the engine off and no air conditioning) talking amongst ourselves, trying to figure out what was happening, while the junior class went in, a busload at a time. Between one busload being let out and another being let in, there was a long pause — and the last busload was taken in there in small groups. It was a very long wait.

But that wasn't the bad part. The bad part was watching them come running out of the hospital, one by one or in groups of up to half a dozen. Three times I saw a student stop to bend over and puke on the sidewalk. We wanted to get out, but the driver said we had to stay until we were called.

Of course, I personally didn't have to stay anywhere. I could have said to the driver, "I'm going out there to talk to somebody. Stop me if you can." It's just that I don't like to do things that way if I can possibly avoid it. I like being resented even less than I like being pitied. But… it is a temptation, sometimes, when somebody won't treat me with basic respect. And I made up my mind that if I got too hot and thirsty, I would go for the intimidation option and damn the consequences. (One of the side effects of my size is that I'm a little more vulnerable to heat than the average girl. It's a volume-to-surface-area thing.)

Finally, Lucas Johnson, the vice-principal, showed up. I noticed he'd tried to clean off something that was splattered on his trousers.

"We're going to be bringing you into the building in groups of four," he said. "Who wants to be first?"

As one, the whole busload of kids looked at me. This was kind of an honor, I suppose. I stood up (as far as I could — the ceiling on the bus was very low) and stepped forward. Meredith Holk, Kent Pedersen and Dwayne Dennis followed me.

We entered the hospital by a side door and went downstairs, very carefully. Of course, I always go carefully down stairwells, trying not to fall down headfirst or bang my head on the staircase above. In this case, the problem was that the stairs — in fact, pretty much everything — had been freshly hosed down and were still a little wet. The smell of vomit lingered in the air… never a good sign. With the help of the handrails on both sides and what Dad calls my "Russian Dancer Walk," I managed to get to the basement.

It got worse. The basement ceiling was so low I had to stoop a little. There was more fresh mopping, more smell of puke, about a dozen little plastic buckets for our convenience… and just to stoke the fires of paranoia, there were four nurses or orderlies or whatever they were — strong-looking guys, two on each side of me, in flanking positions. They were watching me very carefully, like zookeepers around a not-exactly-tame bear.

I bet you've already guessed what was in store for us. Yes, our esteemed principal had decided that the time had come to show us the potential effects of drunk driving, for real this time.

First up was Mike Harlan. He'd been a big guy — six foot three and built like a tank. In any town that didn't have me as a standard of comparison, they would've called him "Big Mike."

Even looking at his body under the sheet, I could see something was wrong with him. From the neck down everything was normal, but the outline of his head and neck looked more like some kind of stump.

Here's where I met the coroner. A coroner should be a weird, spooky-looking guy chuckling over everybody else's misfortune. This one was all business. When he pulled back the sheet and explained how the injuries came about, that was what made things… almost bearable.

You won't believe this, but while Scott was driving his truck at around 115 miles an hour, with the cops in hot pursuit, Mike and Jenni were in the back of the truck… either kissing or having sex, depending on which version you hear. So Scott decided to take the exit to the interstate at the last minute, but at that speed, steering is not an exact science. The truck went into a horizontal spin, and Mike and his girlfriend were thrown clear.

Mike landed on his head, crushing and caving in the top half of his skull. He had enough football scholarships already to pay his way through college. His face was gone above the lower jaw. We'd all been looking forward to seeing him on TV one day. His brains and eyeballs were still out there somewhere near the side of the road. He used to shovel the sidewalk on Tallmadge Avenue from Breslau up to Fox Street.

Meredith burst into tears at this point. I hugged her. Mike's drawer was slid shut before she looked up again.

The next corpse belonged to Jennifer Straight, who was another one I could recognize even through the sheet — she'd had about the biggest tits in school. (Well, mine might have been bigger, but hers were attached to a smaller frame.)

She landed on her back, right on top of the highway guardrail. It collapsed under her, but also nearly split her in two crosswise, just below the armpit. She had never been very nice to me, but that made it worse — I hadn't wanted this. Her top and bottom halves were actually being held together by those mammary glands and the skin of her chest. Her mouth was hanging open a little. From the expression on her face, it looked like she had something to say but couldn't think of the words right at the moment. Her breasts had sort of flopped down over her armpits.

Meredith fled the room at this point. Dwayne and Kent had backed up against the wall, and were looking very, very pale. (Whatever else happened, at least I knew I wouldn't be the first one to lose it.)

After Mike and Jennie were launched out, the truck sort of pirouetted down the slope and onto the interstate. It came to rest lying on the driver's side, with the cab, unfortunately, just sticking out into traffic. The driver of the oncoming semi never had a chance to react. The cab was just crushed — completely. What was left of Scott and Erica was in one shapeless-looking body bag — they hadn't even tried to sort out which bits belonged to who. When the coroner opened the drawer, the contents of the bag shifted slightly.

That did it. All of a sudden, I had to get out of there. And what was more, I had to do it now, before I really lost my shit and hurt somebody. Now I knew why those four guys were here — the hospital could handle normal teenagers freaking out, but not me.

"Excuse me," I said in what I think was a very calm voice. "I need to go to the ladies' room."

When I ducked to get through the doorway, I had to clamp my jaws shut to keep from losing my lunch right there. I was only barely conscious of Kent and Dwayne following me out the door and taking off in a different direction. The buckets in the hall didn't look big enough. I ran down the hall, skidded to a halt (I was already massive enough that sprinting was a chancy business), dislodged a ceiling panel with the top of my head, turned the corner and…

"Just where do you think you're going?"

Miss Vardaman?!?

What in the name of Cthulhu was she doing here?

Was she volunteering at the hospital? Was she helping the principal? Or did some fool summon her with dark magic and forget to turn off the pentagram when they were done?

I don't know exactly where she lived and I don't think she even had a job, but she seemed to volunteer everywhere. I met her many times — as a substitute teacher, a lifeguard, a camp counselor, you name it — and she was the most cruel, sadistic, hypocritical, self-righteous bitch I've ever met in my entire life. I personally know two girls who got eating disorders from her hectoring them about their weight. I still have one of the cards she was handing out as late as my senior year, with a number to call if we suspected our parents or neighbors of practicing satanic ritual abuse. I could go on and on, but we don't have time. Suffice it to say that even though there was never a good time to see her, she had a way of showing up at the worst possible moment.

This, for instance. I really, really needed to get into the ladies' room, and she'd just planted herself in front of the door with her hands on her hips as if blockading the entrance to an abortion clinic. I should have seen her before, but I'd been concentrating on keeping myself together and making sure I wasn't about to crash into anything.

So… how should I deal with this? I could try pretending she really was the kind and thoughtful human being that she tried so hard to present herself as, and ask her very nicely to let me through. Or I could pick her up and move her out of the way, which would be more likely to work but would also mean I'd have to touch her. (Although I'm pretty sure I could have lifted her with one hand — she didn't weigh much of anything.)

Just then, my four handlers caught up with me. I didn't think they'd let me lay hands on Miss Hatchet Face. (Unless of course they'd met her before, in which case they'd probably hand me a wooden stake to kill her with.)

"Couldn't haaandle it in there?" she said, stretching out the "a" in that way she had.

And then it happened. Remember when I said what I ate for breakfast would be coming up again? I'm afraid I meant that literally. I lurched forward, she ducked to keep my face from hitting her in the head, and then… half a box of Mueslix, a quart of skim milk, two grapefruit, four breakfast sausages and a pint of coffee… chewed, digested a little, and now, projectile-puked right into her silky blond hair. The force of it actually knocked her weak ass down.

At this point, two of the guys got under my arms and sort of hefted me away from her, as gently as they could. (If I hadn't been so sick to my stomach, all this firm yet gentle manhandling might have been a turn-on.)

Eventually, they let us go back to school, just in time for lunch. There I was, staring mournfully at the ham and cheese sub Mom had gone to so much trouble to make for me.

"What was she even doing there?" I said.

"She probably goes there for the free food," said Lester "Spew" Spuler. And just like that, the image popped into my mind of Miss Vardaman pulling chunks of meat off the corpses of Mike and Jennifer with her slender fingers and manicured nails and stuffing them into her wedge-shaped maw. There went what was left of my appetite. I divided my sub among the Spew and three other freshmen who'd been spared the trip to the morgue. And that's all I'm going to say about Miss Vardaman. She's taken up too much time already.

If you're wondering about our morning exams, they weren't rescheduled until later in the afternoon, so we didn't get home until after five. Concentrating on them instead of on what we'd seen… for me, anyway, it was kind of a relief. I don't know if other people managed so well. I think a lot of kids got their exam results fudged upwards a bit, as a gesture of compassion.

I'm told things were a bit lively at the next school board meeting. A lot of parents were very upset that their children came home late and traumatized. On the other hand, they'd read the paper just like everybody else, and they wanted their children to learn to be good drivers too. My own parents were in the "opposed" camp — they trusted me to be sensible and do the right things on my own.

The hospital employees were also of two minds — on the one hand, they were as opposed to drunk driving as anybody, especially since they were the ones who got to look at the results firsthand. On the other hand, they were also the ones who had to mop up after the school decided without warning to hold a barf mitzvah in their morgue. Anyway, nobody was punished, but they never did it again.

Damn, I forgot — I've got one more thing to say about Miss Vardaman. It turns out the trip to the morgue was all her idea. She'd been suggesting it to the school administrators ever since the previous year's death, and after that one bad accident, they finally decided to go ahead and do it.

This actually surprised me. She always seemed to be a believer in the power of words — and if a ten-minute lecture wouldn't do the trick, she'd try twenty minutes or half an hour. I wouldn't have thought she would have tried something so… visual.

Anyway, they never did it again, as far as I know. But the next two years, the next two proms, went by without one death among us.

I will say this once, and only once. On this occasion, Miss Vardaman may have done some good.

 

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