Dirty Copper Pennies

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Carey LeRoy

A thick metallic smell hits you as you push through the heavy lead-lined door. A glimpse to your right confirms the detectives arrived on time and are waiting patiently for your appearance. A glance to your left reveals a gaggle of overly excited students who pant nervously on the viewing room window, waiting to observe their first autopsy. A few of them have their phones in hand, and stealthily update their Facebook statuses to “watching an autopsy!” or “show time!” You pretend not to notice. You throw a quick nod in all directions and pick up a scalpel. The scalpel comes to life in your hand the way a sword awakens in the hand of a Samurai. You wield it with absolute precision and confidence. It allows you to engage in your obsession. Identity and purpose take form and breathe life inside of you. A sad life, but it’s your life.

A cut is made. The blood slowly trails from the incision in small crimson rivers as the scalpel creates the familiar Y-incision. Your mind is a machine, running on cogs and batteries and miscellaneous bits of hardware, able to vacate any emotional attachment you have to your work in an instant, because that’s how you remain focused. Attachment leads to tunnel vision and tunnel vision can kill a medical examiner’s career all too quickly if they’re not careful. An “obvious gunshot wound” can have several possible explanations and the “attached” doctor winds up looking like a fool when further investigations prove them wrong. You know. You’ve seen it happen.

Up to your elbows in viscera, you begin the systematic task of removing the organs. Your pattern is simple: heart, lungs, bowel, liver, spleen, left kidney, right kidney, bladder and reproductive organs. You still don’t understand why some doctors haphazardly jump throughout the body, never quite doing an evisceration the same way twice, and it bothers you deeply. That lack of structure is another example of how rookie, idiotic mistakes are made. Not by you, of course, but by the others.

The storm that was predicted for today makes itself known and you hear the low rumble of thunder overhead and then the accompaniment of rain. You keep working and from somewhere in the room you hear someone making that casual comment about the weather that you hate so much. Suddenly everyone is an expert meteorologist, making predictions about this and that and rainfall and wind speed. You wish they would all just shut up so you could concentrate. And your annoyance rises when you realize that your afternoon run might be cancelled.

You finish with the evisceration and so you gesture in the direction of the technician assisting you, never quite looking them in the eye. They go ahead and start preparing the decedent’s head for the brain removal. Splitting the wig, as it’s called around the office. Well this person’s “wig” has been “split” already. It split when they took that .357 to the head earlier today. The tech makes the coronal incision and then reflects the scalp forward. The skull underneath is a labyrinth of fractures both full-thickness and superficial, skipping and hopping over one another, creating a wild mess of twists and turns.

The storm is growling madly outside and your irritability heightens. You need that run. It’s the one thing that keeps you grounded and sane. You run because after spending all day picking through the remains of each fragile life, it’s the only thing that allows you to go home to your empty house, dark and lifeless, and not lose yourself in a bottle of liquor or pills. You observe on a daily basis how others interact on a level that is foreign to you. They come to work, go home, help their kids with homework, and cuddle with their lovers. Well, not you. It was never that way for you, and it never will be. You have your career. You work it, pamper it, love it, and shelter it. People don’t come into your life easily and if they do, they are pushed quickly aside so your career can shine on. Your title proves yourself to people from a past life, but at the same time it makes your present life thorny and hollow.

Someone is asking you a question.

“Was he a smoker, Doc?”

You look up at the detective and hope disdain hasn’t established itself on your face. You absolutely hate it when you’re asked irrelevant questions. “Do you think he died from smoking?” you want to scream at him. “Huh? Do you think that’s why his head exploded, you ignorant peon?” But you remain calm, knowing that questions like this will continue to be asked each and every day until you retire. You cast a quick glance at the pair of black, tarry lungs waiting patiently for their turn with your grossing knife.

“Yes, it appears that way,” you say dryly and the detective seems satisfied.

The technician is now beckoning to you that their measly task of opening the head is complete and they step aside for you to finish the job of removing the brain. The students gawk from the gallery and impatiently you hold the brain to the window so they can finally see something a little more dimensional than a textbook drawing. A few of them return to their phones.

The case will wrap up as soon as you find that bullet in the brain. It shouldn’t be hard. You got a perfect lateral X-ray which showed it to be in the left temporal region perhaps just above the petrous ridge. It has to be in there. You make your slices through the soft tissue confident that it will soon appear. But it doesn’t. You cut through the entire brain and are losing your patience when you hear it.


The bullet strikes the stainless steel autopsy tray that the decedent is lying on and the technician looks at you dumbly, not comprehending that the bullet was lodged in the bone of the skull and not the brain itself. You grab it. Fifteen minutes later the case is wrapped up and you usher the flock out. Soon after that you are lacing up your running shoes.

Outside, wind mixes with the unrelenting rain. Lightening shoots overhead and thunder cracks the whip at your being. You don’t care. This is how you remain alive; this is how you cope. You start to run, hoping to leave your anxious thoughts and unfulfilled dreams behind, but you don’t escape. Something is following you. You play it off as your imagination, but you know it’s real, a perpetual pattern to your life that will shape itself tomorrow the same way it had yesterday and today. Your face is burning and your body is chapped and you become vaguely aware that the smell of blood on your hands is like dirty copper pennies.


One thought on “Dirty Copper Pennies

  1. An excellent piece. I really felt like I was at that viewing window watching this all happen. I had myself braced for a much scarier ending (like the patient not actually being dead), but this was really well done.

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