NO BETTER WAY
“Burr…” Mikhail cupped her delicate brown hands and blew hot air into the hollow, trying to warm them. It did little else but cause her to shiver uncontrollably. Huddled across from her, Kim Lee looked a sickly shade of gray. Mikhail had often thought about what the end would be like. She had gazed into many dull, lifeless eyes and had glimpsed nothing of the other side. She supposed she would soon find out the answer.
Mikhail had been the forensic technician supervisor for five years. She had started with Cook County General right out of college. She had seen so many things, most of them would be considered gruesome, even horrifying to most. Her first day, a young kid barely fifteen who was the unfortunate victim of gang violence, was brought into the morgue hacked up beyond recognition. The sight and stench left her numb, like most everything else. Mikhail felt physical pain and sensations, but emotionally she was stunted. Something never quite connected. A loner, she had at times been accused of being standoffish even snobbish. They were all wrong of course. She never thought of herself as better or different, in fact she never thought much of herself at all. She ate, bathed, dressed and worked. That was her life with little variation. She had been raised in a middle class nightmare, of tyranny and abuse with an unrelenting father and an absent mother. Love, feeling, and human warmth became unnecessary luxuries in her small world on the outskirts of city sprawl. Little Mikhail learned early on that the only way to survive was to keep her heart in isolation. Secluded on her own private isle, observing life as it floated past was what became normal in an abnormal life.
Her natural detachment made her perfectly suited for the line of work she chose. If Mikhail was capable of love, her undying devotion would be to her work. She worked the night shift, no interference from other humans save Kim Lee. She and Kim Lee had worked together for four years and had never spoken more than a few sentences in that time. Every night she completed autopsies, ran labs on tissue samples from cadavers, and otherwise kept watch over the dead. She felt at peace among the sleeping remains of mothers and sons, of the great and the lowly. They were all the same in the end. Alone, and stripped, in a slumber that was uninterrupted by the coming morning.
Kim Lee worked noiselessly beside her each night. His hands were small and fine like hers, his step light and quick. His nondescript looks left you unprepared for the tragedy of his eyes. Those pits of light seized whatever he gazed upon with frightening intensity. He devoured the world with those starved eyes, with a passion rarely expressed by outward action. Each night was a seamless continuation of the night before to Mikhail. Bodies came and went, in a peaceful blur of changing faces and dead eyes. Kim Lee and Mikhail had fine-tuned their method of working to a series of gestures, working symbiotically with joined hands and minds.
This night in January was no different from any other, save for an extra foot or two of snow. There was an ice storm headed their way, reportedly the worst on record. Both Mikhail and Kim Lee were oblivious to the weather reports. From opposite ends of the city they made their way to Cook County General. Others would have turned back and sought the comfort of home, but there was work to be done. The subway and city bus services were suspended. There were reports of closed roads, water pipes bursting, and an appeal by local government officials to stay off the streets. At a little before eleven o’clock Mikhail and Kim Lee began their shift as usual, unfettered by the frozen world outside.
They neatly sliced open the chest of a newly deceased hit and run victim, clamped open his ribcage and harvested his organs for transplant. Next was a burn victim, then another and another as was their habit of working steadily from one empty vessel to another. At midnight, the lights went out in Cook County General. The ice storm descended upon the city. Icy daggers glittered dangerously on bare tree limbs, snapping them like matchsticks. Just as easily, power lines broke under the weight of the ice. Mikhail was in the middle of a procedure, when everything went black. She stood motionless, her hands against the cold flesh on the table in front of her. The sound of her breathing, rising and falling, echoed by Kim Lee’s own steady rhythm was the only sound. They stood suspended in time, as the generator came to life, bathing the room in dim light. As if awakened from a dream, Mikhail and Kim Lee resumed their grim work. At one o’clock in the morning the heat died, another victim of the storm. Forgotten in their basement office, the two labored on. They worked until they were too numb to lift a scalpel. Layered in their lab clothes, heavy coats, and whatever sheets they could scrounge, they huddled near the dying furnace to keep warm. The lights inside the morgue flickered and died more than once, only to rise again wanly.
It was in the early morning hours when the cold became biting, that Mikhail began entertaining thoughts of death. She was not afraid. That would be too strong an emotion. She was curious, which was no small wonder in someone who expected no variance in the ebb and flow of life. Kim Lee was barely conscious. His eyes were half closed, and he looked peaceful almost like the bodies they worked on each night. Was he on the edge looking over, she wondered. Mikhail crawled over to him. Up close she could hear his breathing. He was still alive, if only just barely. Sitting as close as possible, she covered them both head to toe with the sheets, making a tent around them to shelter them from the cold. Relaxing, she lay her head against his chest. She heard a faint beat, irregular and hollow, like a toy drum inside his chest. Closing her eyes, she listened to the rhythm like some mysterious Morse code, beating out a message. If she could decipher the code, what would the message read like? It won’t be long now, she thought before drifting into a dreamless sleep. Surrendering to the darkness of her mind was like drowning, being pulled under the mighty waves of a great ocean.
Stirred to life by the weight of her head against his heart, Kim Lee opened his eyes. Those hungry eyes took in the sight of her, of their bodies sheltered by the makeshift tent. He thought that this had to be a dream. He lifted a braid of her hair, holding it with the reverence a priest handles a sacred vessel.
If Mikhail felt nothing, Kim Lee felt too much. The nameless, the unclaimed were an agony to him. No one should leave this world unmourned he thought. Those bodies were once kindly neighbors, lovers missing the warmth of someone’s arms, friends sorely missed. He bore the pain each night because the thought of her alone in this tomb was a hurt too great to imagine. He watched her, and knew she was one of them. With no attachments except the bodies she gutted, she went year after year, unclaimed, unloved, separate from everything.
He knew she tolerated him better than most, and that gave him hope. Hope had taken him across the ocean, with no friend or family, and gave him the strength to start a new life. He carried the memory of those he had lost within him. He had been a well-loved man once, loved enough to last the rest of his days.
His breath came out, white smoke vanishing on the air. He brushed the braids away from her eyes, wondering what had made her what she was. He could barely feel his legs. The only thing that felt alive was the weight on his chest. There were as many ways to die as there were to live, and so few had the chance to choose. His wife and child did not decide their fate. They died walking the same road home they took everyday to their village. They were struck down and left like animals on the side of the road. There was no choice in that, just cruelty. Knowing he might never have this chance again or the choice granted the living, he wrapped his arms around the wounded woman who slept so serenely against him. He held on to her as tightly as he held onto life, fighting the creeping coldness that was taking over his limbs. He knew that if the cold took them both, there was no better way to die.