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Autopsy by Theresa Williams

Gregory’s mom died quietly in her bed in a house on Easy Street.

She died in the morning. That night was the new moon, the dark moon, absence. He made a wish, to see his mom again, and it was granted. She came shortly after they put her in the ground. The whole kitchen glowed red. She looked warm to the touch. This made him glad because her face in the coffin was cold like river clay. The most important thing was that she appeared to him and no one else. It made him special.

He drew pictures of her. He made her look like the Lady of Guadalupe. At Christmas, he decorated her like a tree. Her single brief appearance affected him more than any other event.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” his father said. This set off a quiet alarm in his head. He squeezed his eyes shut and shrank until he was the size of a nutshell, frail beneath his father’s feet. If his father stepped on him, he’d turn to dust. He’d be a nothing. If only he hadn’t screamed and scared his mom away.

“They gave my mom an autopsy,” he blurted out in class one day.

“What’s that?” someone cried.

“A prize for being dead.” They all looked at him.

He was thirteen before he found out how autopsies were performed. His friend Mitch told him while they were eating hamburgers at Big Boy. They cut the skin at the top of the head, Mitch told him, and they peel the face down like rubber.

They never knew why she died. Though they cut her into a million pieces, they couldn’t find a cause.

His drawings of his mom changed. She was a terrible angel, her body full of eyes and sores. In dreams she warned him about unfaithful girls, tragic mistakes, and losing himself on Easy Street.

He obsessed about death, whether by suicide, hanging, murder, or on the battlefield. When he thought of suicide, he imagined it as a sacrifice, a dance—sometimes writhing, sometimes jiggidy-hop—into a flaming sunset.

The jaunty rhythms of his life continued. He impregnated his girlfriend in his bedroom beneath a poster print of “The Great Masturbator” by Salvador Dali. On his stereo was a tumbling melody with lean and hungry horns. In the next room over, his mom died. His headboard knocked against the very wall. He thought about this while fumbling through the act. Inside he was crying but he also felt hate.

A few weeks later, frantic, his girlfriend wondered aloud the best ways to abort the fetus on her own, such as falling down stairs. She’d heard if she mixed vitamins with vodka … but she might need something else, like a turkey baster. Somebody else said you could stick a hanger up there. It was all nonsense. She’d never do such a thing. Gregory, hugging her, felt faint.

They married and had a girl, a beautiful, happy child, and Gregory searched her face for signs of his mom. But he worried. She was born on the night of the new moon, and Gregory found this significant. He quickly made a wish for her to live a long and happy life. But punishment was on his mind. Would he have to pay for his thoughts at the time she was created, that witch’s brew of anguish and lust and hate?

And then it did happen. At a routine checkup the doctor measured his baby’s head and said it was too big. Tests were performed. Gregory’s head swam with terminology: open fontanelle, shunts, herniation, collapsing trachea.

In no time, the baby developed seizures and emitted high pierced cries. And though the doctors pierced her body a million places, they couldn’t make her well. Her head grew bigger, her eyes drooped, she wouldn’t eat, and she died.

People told Gregory there’s a reason for everything on earth, and we’re meant to learn from it. What did he learn? Death infects every house. The bereaved for some reason have an inkling to shave their heads. When the new moon comes, mourning has to cease, else it go on forever.


Theresa Williams has had short fiction in Chattahoochee Review, Hunger Mountain, The Sun and other magazines. Her novel, The Secret of Hurricanes, was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. She’s just now learning the rewards of writing speculative fiction.

“Autopsy” is a spin off from a previous story called “The Ghost” in which a woman wishes she was dead, goes back to bed one morning, and inexplicably gets her wish. In “The Ghost,” the woman banishes herself from her house after accidentally appearing to of her young son. After finishing “The Ghost” I started wondering how that son would grow up, having seen his mother’s ghost just once. Her ghost left him, thinking she would wreck his life, but we can never know how our actions will affect others, especially the ones who love us. I’ve enjoyed writing “The Ghost” and “Autopsy” so much that I think I’ll write a collection of stories based on characters who live on Easy Street.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 08/08/2011 01:54

    Theresa, This is the richest, tightest story of your work that I’ve read. The details are powerful! It’s the realism in this tragic ghost story that makes it so engaging.

    One sentence in particular shows how action and detail evoke the character’s feelings in the reader: “He was thirteen before he found out how autopsies were performed. His friend Mitch told him while they were eating hamburgers at Big Boy…” The detail that he was a thirteen year old boy intensifies the horror of the realization that his mother’s body was not as he remembered her.

    One more thing….WOW!

  2. 08/08/2011 11:58

    Theresa, This is the richest, tightest story of your work that I’ve read. The details are powerful! It’s the realism in this tragic ghost story that makes it so engaging. The images stayed with me all night!

  3. 08/08/2011 21:55

    Oh, apologies for two comments. I thought ‘awaiting moderation’ indicated my comment was too long! And I wasn’t surprised….

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