Welcome to another chapter of Lost. A warning: some of you may find aspects of this chapter disturbing.
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~ Chapter Fourteen ~
It was nearly dawn before the medical examiner arrived. Though exhausted from the four-hour drive from Duluth, Allan Ebata commanded respect. Sharp, intelligent eyes dominated his moon-shaped face.
“Let’s get to it,” he sighed. He pulled out the tools that always reminded Jake of an archaeological dig: small shovels, brushes, and sifting trays.
The bleary yellow eye of the morning sun gazed down at the group as Ebata crouched over the mound of earth. The larger branches, chunks of moss, and other debris from the top of the pile had been set aside. The medical examiner scraped off thin layers of soil. He poured a sample into a vial, which he then sealed in a plastic evidence bag.
“The earth appears to be soaked with something which is most likely blood,” he said, speaking into a headset recorder. Jake’s men blanched at his words. Ebata frowned in concentration, lines creasing the smooth skin of his forehead. He reached for a hand shovel and gently moved more of the dirt away. For the men around him, time dragged on with heavy feet. It seemed like hours before Ebata spoke again.
“A hand has become visible. It appears to be female. The fingernails are polished, and she’s wearing two rings.” He muttered something under his breath. “What is wrong with the world?” he asked, expecting no answer from the assembled police officers and finding none.
Jake felt sick. He’d been praying that Forbes’s infallible dogs had made a mistake. During the wait for Ebata, he had developed a dozen benign theories: Tessie was safe at a friend’s house, with no idea that people were searching for her. Or she was stranded somewhere else, perhaps abandoned at the Husky Truck Stop three miles out of town—she was anywhere but in that hole.
He held his breath as Ebata used his small brushes and gloved hands to skillfully uncover what was buried in the earth. A quilted blue jacket was removed from the pit, and with it came a sickeningly sweet smell, accompanied by an unmistakable metallic tang. Most of the men pulled back, covering their noses and mouths with their arms, but not Jake. He focused on the pale arm that reached out to him, as if begging for help that had come too late.
Piece by piece, layers of clothing were removed from the hole. All were stiff with frozen blood, and the officers grimaced as they handled the garments with gloved hands. The men had committed themselves to finding a lost, and perhaps half-frozen, pre-teen girl. They were not prepared for what awaited them here.
Ebata gingerly lifted the final item of clothing—a tattered dark T-shirt—from the pit. What was underneath would give the men nightmares for years to come.
* * * *
Audrey stared at the star for a long time. It’s funny how the mind works. At the moment, she was thinking about how she’d never believed in horoscopes or astrology. Only silly people trusted their fate to a bunch of meaningless stars.
And now here was a star that was going to change her entire life. A meteor could not be more cataclysmic.
Her mind raced back to the first time she’d seen it. It wasn’t much of a star then—just a tiny speck on her infant daughter’s leg, noticeable only because it was so dark against her ivory skin. Audrey had laughed the moment the nurse put Tessie in her arms. Laughed at all that bright red hair.
Tessie was a difficult birth—so difficult that Audrey later learned she had nearly died bringing her into the world. To die of childbirth in a civilized country, in this day and age. How archaic. She was almost embarrassed. The doctor had opted for an emergency caesarian, saving both mother and child.
Audrey was left to wake up alone, not knowing whether the child she’d carried for nine months was alive or dead. At first, Audrey thought that she was dead herself. It took her a long time to forgive Jim for leaving her alone in that empty room.
As if to repay Audrey for her suffering, Tessie was a perfect baby. Constantly laughing and smiling, the flame-haired infant charmed all who crossed her path. Tessie never cried—the most displeasure she ever mustered was a feeble whine.
Children are funny that way. You can’t predict how they’ll turn out. Sara Raye was a surprisingly easy first labor. It was over in three hours, but Sara came out screaming and Audrey didn’t think she’d ever stopped.
She was fully aware that her eldest daughter hated her. One of the strange and twisted things about life is that caring about someone can make you the bad guy. If Sara only knew how many hours of sleep Audrey had lost worrying about her, maybe she’d feel differently about her mother. But then again, maybe not.
Sara often accused her of favoring Tessie. This came up repeatedly in the midst of their most terrible fights. Audrey knew it was Sara’s way of throwing the focus off her own behavior. But she wasn’t that easy to fool.
As she continued to stare at the star, Audrey thought about the many times she’d braced herself for this moment. Whenever her job required a visit to the morgue, she imagined herself sitting in one of the hard waiting room chairs, waiting to view the body of her daughter.
But it was always Sara she pictured lying on the gurney. Sara was the one who chased Death with such determination, tugging on the Grim Reaper’s cloak with all the stupidity of youth. Audrey was prepared, even resigned, to lose Sara.
But she had never expected to be in this room, to look through this window, and see a star.
A little star that marked her youngest daughter’s left thigh.
A star that meant the end of the world.
The voice was little more than a whisper, but Audrey jumped. She tore her attention away from the birthmark on Tessie’s leg.
Jake’s eyes mirrored her own pain so acutely that she could hardly bear to look at him. Feeling a sob catch in her throat, she turned away. He’s a good man, but he can’t help me now. No one can.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. He touched her shoulder. “I’ll take you back to Sara.”
“Do you need more time?”
“I’m not going anywhere until I see my daughter’s face.” Audrey was surprised by her own words, but she was convinced it was the right thing to do. I owe it to Tessie.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Jake gazed through the plate-glass window to the covered body inside. Ebata stared back at him, waiting for a decision. “This isn’t how you’ll want to remember her.”
Frustration flushed her cheeks. “I’m a nurse, Jake. I’ve seen dead people before. I want to see Tessie.”
“Of course, it’s your decision, it’s just…you may want to think about it for a minute.”
“I’m not leaving until I see her face.” She clenched her hands into fists.
Nodding in resignation, Jake went back into the room and spoke with the medical examiner. Audrey couldn’t hear what they were saying through the soundproof glass, but she saw the other man frown and shake his head.
Jake spoke to him again. The man shrugged in acquiescence and Jake returned to Audrey’s side. The door closed with a soft whoosh behind him.
She held her breath in an attempt to brace herself. As she waited for the sheet to be drawn back, she raised her gaze briefly and found herself looking directly into the medical examiner’s eyes. Audrey was taken aback by the sadness—the pity—she found there. She forced herself to look away.
“Jake, wait…” She was barely able to get the words out. “Maybe this isn’t…”
But it was too late. Tenderly, as if Tessie was sleeping and he didn’t want to wake her, the medical examiner drew the sheet back.
Her daughter’s face was a dreadful sunset of bruises: shades of black, blue, and green. Her nose—the turned-up, freckled nose Audrey loved so much—was smashed to bits. It was a swollen, discolored lump in the middle of her crumpled face.
Audrey would never have recognized her daughter if it wasn’t for her birthmark. Tessie’s face was swollen to twice its normal size. Her lips were horribly damaged, the lower one split wide open. Underneath the rainbow of bruises, Tessie’s skin was a sickly grayish-blue.
Over the thudding beat of her own pulse, Audrey heard a terrible wailing, an animal-like howl in the stillness of the room. Eventually, she realized the sound was coming from her.She felt arms wrap around her, helping her stand. It was over. Tessie’s face was gone. The man who’d shown her that horrible mockery of her daughter merely stood and watched her from behind the glass. She stared at Ebata for another long minute before she allowed Jake to lead her away.
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