There it was: a hot pink, wide-mouthed milkshake straw sticking one and a quarter inches out of my boss’s right nostril.
We’d been hoping to find a victim with the straw still in place, but it looked like a joke. I pressed my fingers against my lips to stifle the hysterical noise that was equal parts giggle, guilt, and grief. To remind myself of the stakes, I slid my hands under his head and lifted; its relative lightness was obscene.
Each click of my camera shutter was like a socket wrench tightening a band around my chest. At least Frank looked as peaceful as the others had. Something viscous pooled under his nose and trailed onto his lip. I swabbed, bagged, and catalogued it without letting myself think about what it was.
While I worked, every current and past public safety official arrived and compassed around me and Frank. They stood at parade rest, forming an impenetrable line that held back the press jackals and silenced the crowd. It was how crime scenes should feel, but usually didn’t: solemn, momentous.
Careful not to disturb any part of the exposed straw and the DNA that was hopefully still there, I insinuated the tips of my finest tweezers between the plastic and Frank’s nose until they were up there a bit. The straw didn’t slide out easily, but required tugging and yanking and the strength of both my hands in order to extract all nine inches of it.
Once it was bagged, I looked down and, for a moment, saw him as a person and not a job. My hand cupped the top of his head, like a benediction.
And then everything and everyone froze. I wasn’t surprised when the eyeballs of one of the on-duty officers facing me briefly glowed electric orange – unnerved, but not surprised. It had happened every time. Not even an hour and a half ago, at the crime scene for the fourth victim, Frank had seen the victim’s mother’s eyes do the orange thing. He was the only person other than me who’d seen it. And now he was dead.
When I could move again, I finished the rest of my duties and sidled through the police line. “I am Hannah Smit, deputy medical examiner. I can confirm that Chief Frank Turner is dead. He did not die of natural causes. His homicide is connected to the four other deaths this week. Cause of—” I flinched as the ambulance door slammed shut behind his body. “Cause of death: brain extraction.”
Almost instantly, someone shouted, “Brains,” and then the question I’d dreaded: “Is this the zombie apocalypse?” Of course people laughed.
“This is not a joke! Five people have died.” I shut my eyes until I was calmer. “In each victim, a straw was inserted into the right nostril, pushed through the nasal cavity and into the base of the brain, and excerebration occurred. No other trauma. No signs of struggle.”
“Can a straw do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did the brains get out?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were they alive when it happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you have any leads?”
“No.” This wasn’t going well. “The Chief is the first victim with the straw still in place. The others’ straws had been removed and wiped down. I am hopeful there will be something recoverable on what we found tonight.”
“Who would do such a thing?”
I’m guessing a demon that possesses us and makes us kill each other. But they barely believed me about the straw. There was no way I was trotting out that theory.
“What are we supposed to do now?”
“Destroy all the straws in town and pray.” There were more questions, but I shook my head. “Go and be with the ones you love. I’m going home to hug my daughter.”
When I finally got home, the sitter didn’t say a word before bolting home, hand covering her nose. My daughter sat on the kitchen floor, her back to me, so engrossed in her task that she didn’t look up. I kissed the top of her head.
Then I noticed what she was doing.
She was fitting our cut-in-half straws together.
At two and a half, she shouldn’t be able to pinch the end of a cheap skinny straw and insert it without fumbling into another one; she could hardly put together Duplos.
Lucy looked up. I saw a flash of orange in the glass of the oven door.
I fled, slamming the front door behind me.
No. She’s too young. I didn’t need to run from her.
The demon only possessed those other people for a few seconds. What if it did that this time? What if she needs me? What if her diaper is full? What if she’s playing with the stove? What if she’s hungry?
I cracked open the door. She was crying. Oh, my baby. “Mommy’s here. Mommy loves you.”
She ran to the door, but I had to keep it mostly closed. I had to. “Not yet, honey. Mommy just has to see you. Look through the door crack for Mommy.”
She looked betrayed and scared, but her eyes were their usual beautiful brown.
I rushed in and knelt on the floor with her in my arms, rocking her until we’d soothed each other.
And then I couldn’t move.
Lucy’s eyeballs were orange.
In her dimpled fist was a long straw made of three short straws.
Those chubby fingers that fumbled through itsy-bitsy spider jammed and twisted the straw up my nose, which hurt, but, thankfully, the brain has no pain receptors.
She leaned close like she was going to give me sloppy toddler kisses, but her mouth closed around the straw and she sucked.
So that’s how it was done.
When my brain gave way, it felt similar to my milk letting down when I’d nursed her.
Her pigtails tickled my cheeks. How would she survive until they found me?
** This is a story that I wrote for a NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. I had to write a 1,000-word horror story that took place at a crime scene and involved a straw. I don’t like horror, so I’m not creeping myself out by looking for an image that works with the story — you’ll have to use your imagination. Edited to add: This story got second place in its heat!!**