Autopsy in Absentia
“It’s everywhere! All the children!” a passenger said, looking up from his Blackberry and staring around the cabin in horror. Sofia gave him a startled look.
’Everywhere?' All over the world? she thought, trying to wrap her mind around it.
“You got service?” someone said. Passengers gathered around him, hoping for a glimpse of the outside world, while others kept trying with their own phones. The cabin erupted in a din of chatter as people talked into phones, tried to talk into phones, or pleaded with anyone with service to let them call their relatives.
“Oh, sweet Jesus, why? Why?! Clara McGillicuddy said, her words turning into a long wail of anguish. She reached out to scoop up her husband’s clothes, but Sofia caught her hands.
“Please ma’am, I need to examine—“
“Don’t you see?!” Clara cried. “Your science won’t do you any good. Won’t do any of us any good! Jesus has come back for His faithful! Why, Jesus, what did I do wrong?” This last was an entreaty, directed heavenward. “I believed…I believed!”
“Holy shit! What if it is?” a man two rows down from her said.
Sofia looked around and saw despair spreading across several of the faces of her fellow passengers. The flight attendant was on her way back up the aisle with the things Sofia had asked for, and she noticed it too.
“I’m sorry, but if this is the Rapture, isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? People getting beamed up to Heaven?” Sofia said. She’d seen the bumper stickers boasting “In the Event of Rapture, This Vehicle Will Be Unoccupied.” Some of her rationalist friends in America would make reference to the “Rapture Ready” crowd as an especially noisome sort of American crazy. It seemed like a weird kind of Christianity, waiting for Jesus to beam you out of life instead of living it for him. Sofia regretted not researching it further, but as paranormal beliefs went, it made no testable claims.
“It was you…” Clara said.
“Ma’am?” Sofia replied
“When Frank tried to preach the Gospel to you…I was…I was embarrassed. I could tell you didn’t want to hear it and I was embarrassed because he always does it…he always leaves…left a tract at the table. He…when we’d call the plumber, he’d talk to him about Jesus while he worked…
“And I was embarrassed! ‘If you deny Me before men, then I will deny you before the holy angels…’ Oh Lord! I’m so sorry!” Sofia reached over and took the woman by the shoulders as more tears started streaking down her face.
“Ma’am, I find it hard to believe that Jesus would reject you for some momentary thought you had—“ Clara clutched Sofia’s upper arms and shook her feebly.
“Don’t you understand?! This is the Tribulation! God is about to pour out His wrath upon the world! There’ll be suffering and pain like mankind has never known before! And then Armageddon!”
“Oh, God…the End is fucking nigh!” the man said, then his face paled and he looked fearfully skyward as it hit him that he’d spoken an expletive.
“Alright,” Sofia said, struggling for calm, “Let’s say you’re right. That just means that you have all been given a special calling.”
“What are you talking about? He’s abandoned us! The Bridegroom’s feast has begun and we can’t get in! It’s too late!” Clara said.
“Well…if this is the ‘Rapture,’ then you know things the rest of us don’t, things we need to know. You can be happy that your loved ones are safe in Heaven, but… Well, Jesus left Heaven and all of its joys behind to come down and share the sufferings of humanity, to demonstrate compassion and show us the way. Isn’t that what the whole Jesus story is about?” Sofia said. “Why don’t you think of it this way: that Jesus chose you to remain behind so you could be the bearers of his light and love in dark times? ‘Deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me.’
“If you want to be followers of Christ, then follow him. Go where he went. Do what he did. Why aren’t you counting yourselves to be the lucky ones?” Their looks of incomprehension matched her own. Sofia ransacked her memories of Catholic school for anything resembling what these people were talking about, and came up empty. The Christianity Sofia had grown up with glorified suffering too much in her mind.
From Peter wanting to be crucified upside down because he thought himself unworthy of dying in the same manner as his Lord, to the torture and martyrdom stories of so many of the saints, to the self-imposed sufferings of the ascetics, to the images of Christ hanging heavily on the Cross with blood trickling from his wounds as he looked to Heaven in the moment of his death, the Christianity she knew seemed almost to worship suffering rather than seeking to alleviate it. But these Americans, they looked at her as if the idea that Christians might have to suffer, really suffer for their faith was completely alien to them.
“Oh, come on, you don’t really believe that Rapture bullshit, do you?” the man with the graying buzz-cut said. “Those End of the World prophecy douchenozzles have been predicting the Rapture forever, and they’ve always been wrong. ‘It’s gonna happen in 1988—no, wait, I forgot to carry a two, make that 1989. Oops, it’s gonna be October 2009. I mean, December 2012!’”
Sofia held up a hand to forestall an argument. “Please. I’m not going to say I think this is the Rapture, because I don’t know. These people do seem to have been expecting something like this, so I think that makes the ‘Rapture’ a hypothesis that deserves to be considered. We can’t jump to any conclusions until we’ve gathered as many facts as we can.”
“What ‘facts’ could you possibly need?” Mrs. McGillicuddy said. “Look!” she said, waiving a wrinkled hand at her husband’s suit.
“Whatever facts I can lay my hands on, ma’am. If you’re right, whatever I find will only support your beliefs.” Sofia turned to the flight attendant. “Thank you,” she said, taking the bags and latex gloves. She set the seating chart, passenger manifest, and other documents aside for later inspection.
“Here…I brought you this too,” the flight attendant said. It was a packet containing heavier rubber gloves, goggles, a face mask, and a roll of red Biohazard bags. “It’s a biohazard waste clean-up kit…we use it whenever we have to clean up vomit or blood or anything like that.”
“Thank you,” Sofia said, smiling at her. “I should probably use this at least,” she said, taking out the face mask.
“You think the clothes could be…contagious or something?” another passenger asked.
“No. But I should probably do what I can to keep from breathing any contaminants onto the scene,” she said, slipping the white mask over her mouth and nose. With practiced motions, she put on the latex gloves. “I’ll get done with this as quickly as I can so you can have your husband’s personal effects,” she said to Clara. “I think it would be good to send some of the smaller objects, like the dental bridge and fillings for laboratory analysis. I’ll be happy to inform you of what they find. Is that alright?” Clara nodded absently, then turned away to bow her head in prayer.
“So…you’re some kind of scientist?” the flight attendant asked as Sofia scrutinized the clothes, planning how to go about dissecting them.
“Yes,” Sofia said, glancing up at her. The flight attendant was so delicate it was as if she’d left her butterfly wings and flower-petal dress behind somewhere to go incognito as a human. Her big blue eyes held a hint of need, looking for some island of strength and stability in a world turned upside down. The eyes flitted away from Sofia, forward toward the cockpit. Sofia’s gut tightened at the thought of her going there for refuge.
“Can I get anything else for you?
“Are you free? Would you be able to assist me?” Sofia said.
“I don’t know anything about…”
“You don’t have to. Do you have anything to restrain your hair with?”
“Yes, I’ll have to go get it.”
“Good, does anyone have some Scotch tape, and maybe a Sharpie?”
“I might,” a man said, and retrieved his briefcase from under his seat. “Here!” he said, handing them over.
“Thank you,” Sofia said, and started using the Sharpie to label Ziploc bags. The flight attendant returned, her hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“I’m Sofia. Sorry I can’t shake, at least until you get your gloves on.”
“H-Hattie. Hattie Durham,” the flight attendant replied, slipping her slender hands into latex gloves. The gloves fit loosely, forming yellowish-white wrinkles over Hattie’s flawless porcelain skin.
“Nice to meet you, Hattie. Could you please take the tape and start making loops for me, sticky side out?” Hattie nodded and reached for the tape.
Sofia reached into her briefcase and took a small jewelry box out of a pocket on the lid. Inside the box was a lens cannibalized from a CD player, and squeezed through a hole made in a thick rubber band. This she stretched over her iPhone, adjusting the CD lens over the lens of the phone’s camera, turning it into a modest microscope.
Sofia pushed the cacophony of the other passengers’ conversations out of her mind. People desperately trying to get through to family members, or getting through and finding out their children, their nieces, nephews, grandchildren were gone… She felt a spike of worry for her own family pierce her heart.
I can’t do them any good right now, she thought. If I got through, people would be all over me wanting my phone. Just do this, so she can have her husband’s clothes…
Sofia touched her iPhone’s screen to start recording. “Investigation of unexplained disappearance, Seat 28-B, Frank McGillicuddy,” she said, her voice cracking. She gave the date and time, and started in. She held the phone close to the coat and twiddled with the focus until the coat’s fibers came in clear, then snapped a picture.
“You’ve done this sort of thing before?” Hattie asked. Sofia shut off the recording and took microscope pictures of the coat at different locations.
“Not this sort of thing…” I have to be strong…the world would be in panic…this may be the only scientific examination that gets done… “I’ve investigated alleged flying saucer landing sites, and crop circles…’haunted’ houses, people who claim to be mediums,” she explained, keeping her voice level by an act of sheer will. Carefully lifting back a flap of the coat, she took microscope pictures of the shirt, tie, and inside of the coat.
“Did you ever find anything?” the guy with the buzz cut asked. “Like proof of aliens? Do you think this could be aliens?”
Eyes. The eyes. Sofia shook her head, pushing the memory away.
“Not proof, exactly. Some anomalous trace evidence in a few cases, like heightened radioactivity in soil at a ‘landing site.’ Enough to keep my mind open, not enough to make me a believer,” she said, giving him a fleeting smile.
Though she’d tried to replace the coat flap as gently as she could, the coat finally slid down to crumple into the seat. With a startled jolt, Sofia grabbed the collar and kept it from landing on top of the Bible and the dental remains.
“Um…what do you want me to do with these?” Hattie said, holding up fingers draped with rings of tape.
“Keep them from getting stuck to anything,” she said, smiling at Hattie. Sofia took a ring and pressed it to the seat back that had formerly held the coat, flattening it all the way. She pulled it off and repeated the process at a different spot on the seat back with the other side of the tape to pick up more fibers, then slid it into a Ziploc bag labeled “28-B McGillicuddy seat back.”
Taking more tape rings, she collected fiber samples from the inside and outside of the coat, front and back, the tie and the shirt. Mrs. McGillicuddy finished her prayer and started to watch with teary eyes.
As Sofia unbuttoned the dress shirt and started examining the undershirt, she felt something hard slipping through its folds. Carefully pulling it up to expose the object, she saw a flat, lima bean-shaped piece of metal the size of a fifty-cent piece, with wires attached.
“Oh, Frank!” his wife said, snatching the object up and clenching it to her chest. “Sorry…” she said, opening her hands to reveal the pacemaker.
“It’s alright,” Sofia said. “I would like to take a picture if you don’t mind. Do you want to keep it?”
Clara looked at it for a long moment. Finally, she extended her trembling hands toward Sofia. “You can have it…”
“Thank you ma’am. You’ve been very helpful. I really appreciate your patience,” Sofia lifted the magnifier lens out of the way to take a quick shot of the pacemaker in the woman’s hands, then picked it up carefully and set it down on top of a Ziploc bag she spread out for it. Then she set the iPhone down and took another of the rings Hattie had made. “I hate to impose on you…but would you mind if I took a sample from your hands, so the lab techs might be able to separate the residue on your hands from any residue that might be on the pacemaker?”
Clara nodded and held out her hands. “Do you have a…a relationship with Jesus?” she said. “Please…let Him into your heart…oh, God, that sounds so hollow! I’m sorry!”
“Don’t be. Ma’am, I can’t really imagine how hard it must have been for you to just sit there next to your husband’s clothes and not touch them, not try to feel something of him. I’ll make sure the world sees the pictures, and whatever other information I can find. If this is the Rapture, and this is the proof,” Sofia said, gesturing at the pile of clothes, “then your act of simple kindness could reach millions. I think it was St. Francis who said, ‘Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.’”
Would Jesus really do something like this? Sofia thought, trying to imagine events on the plane multiplied several million fold, all over the Earth. It’s more like something they would do, if they existed. It’s what they do isn’t it? Abduct people…terrorize them?
“Are you alright?” Hattie said.
“Yes…I’m fine…thank you.”
Some Women I Love
4 weeks ago