behind the house, I crawled out of the battered SUV, slung my
canvas bag of forensic nursing supplies over a shoulder and blinked
into the early morning light. Jas ran from the house and jogged
over to me. Bending, she kissed me once on the forehead. "Bye,
little mama. I haven't fed the dogs."
"You never feed the dogs anymore,"
I grumbled, feeling the age difference as she loped to her truck,
looking lithe and nimble. And skinny in her size-five jeans. Waggling
her fingers at me through the driver window, she gunned the motor
of her new little GMC truck and spun out of the drive, heading
to early class at the University of South Carolina. "And
good morning to you, too. How was Sunday night at the hospital,
Mama? It was lovely, Jasmine. Thank you for asking," I said
to the trail of dust in her wake.
Thinking I was talking to them,
Big Dog, Cheeks and Cherry yapped at my hips, thighs and knees
according to their height, demanding attention, which I absently
gave while I yawned, a pat here, an ear-scratch there. Abandoned
dogs needing a home made the best pets, and I took in as many
dogs as I could, even adopting some from the county, when K-9
dogs became too old to work. The well-behaved animals romped and
writhed in delight as I trudged to the house. They reeked of something
they had rolled in, probably dead rabbit or squirrel, and wanted
me to play a game of fetch but the shoe they brought was stinky.
"Bring me a stick. That thing
is nasty." I nudged it away with my white nurse's shoe.
Big Dog, my half moose, half monster
protector nudged it back, his floppy ears dangling, long tail
wagging. Cheeks stopped my progress, a wriggling clot of hound-dog
muscle in front of me. Cherry bounced up and down on her front
feet, still yapping her high-pitched bark. "Hush. Okay. One
toss," I said, "then I bury this thing."
I bent and lifted the shoe. A smell
gusted out, sickly, almost sweet. I knew that scent. The scent
of old death. The world seemed to slow as I held the small red
sneaker. It was no longer than my hand, filthy, laces snarled
with leaves and twigs. Reeking of the grave.
A child's shoe.
Turning it over, I looked inside.
Tissue. Something soft and rotten. A sycamore leaf twisted into
the laces. A deep scuff along one rubber sole, some gummy substance
ground into the uneven ridges. Decayed-meat smell. The early morning
air shivered along my shoulders.
I returned to the SUV and opened
the hatch, placing the shoe on the floor. This was dumb. This
It couldn't be. I was too tired
and not thinking straight. I moved the photocopies of the family
genealogy charts to the side so I wouldn't dirty them or contaminate
the evidence. If there was evidence.
I dumped out everything from the
canvas tote I still carried and dropped the bag beside the spare
tire attached to the sidewall. From the pile, I pulled a pair
of blue non-latex gloves, tweezers, evidence bags, a tape measure
and a sterile plastic sheet on which I set the shoe. I added a
small handheld tape recorder and my new digital camera, part of
the tools of the trade for a forensic nurse. I checked the time.
Then I hesitated. I felt the chill air beneath my scrub shirt
as I rested my hands on the rubberized ledge of the hatch. "This
can't be what I think it is."
Big Dog huffed at my words and finally
brought me a stick, sitting politely, with one paw raised. Though
I called him part moose, he was part mongrel and part Great Pyrenees,
and his head was higher than my waist. I tossed the stick once
and the dogs ran, baying.
Should I call the cops? Stop right
here and call the sheriff's office? If I contaminated evidence
after graduating with honors from the forensic nursing course,
I'd feel like a failure as well as an idiot.
I blew out a breath of air. Okay.
I knew how to preserve evidence.
I was too tired to think and my
feet hurt and my lower back ached. All I wanted to do was drop
the shoe and go to bed. The smell from the shoe permeated the
SUV as I stood there, hesitant, staring at the red sneaker.
What if I called the cops and it
was just a shoe from the illegal dump near the new development
at the back of the farm? And the tissue was an old half-rotten
hamburger that had gotten shoved inside, or a dead mouse? I'd
feel even more like an idiot. I didn't waste much effort on pride
but I'd be embarrassed if I called law enforcement all the way
out here to look at trash brought up by the dogs. The guys on
the call would never let me live it down. I had worked as a volunteer
for the Dawkins County Rescue Squad long enough to know I'd receive
a new nickname and it wouldn't be flattering.
It was probably nothing. A mouse.
The remains of someone's lunch. My chill subsided. I pulled on
the gloves and dated, timed and initialed two evidence bags. I
marked one bag FOLIAGE FROM LACES. Just in case. I snapped two
shots with the digital camera and checked the viewer, making sure
the sneaker would be visible, acceptable in a court of law. Not
that I would need it. I was absolutely ... I was almost sure.
Turning on the tape recorder, volume
up high, I set it to the side, gave the time, date, my name, location
and a short account of how I came into possession of the shoe.
Extending the tape measure, I held it against the bottom of the
shoe and took a photograph of the two together so the size could
never be lost.
At the same time, I said the dimensions
aloud for the recording and noted that it was a left shoe. Somehow
that seemed important, though I was certain that was the mother
in me reacting, not the forensic nurse.
With the tweezers, I pried apart
the shoelaces, putting the leaves and twigs in the first paper
bag. Using my fingers, I worked the snarled knot from the laces,
gathering the material that fell out and adding it to the evidence
bag, even small grains of dirt and grit and what looked like pale
yellow sand. When the laces were unknotted, I pushed apart the
stiff sides, exposing the tongue curled deep into the toe.
I snapped another photograph and
labeled the second evidence bag CONTENTS: SHOE, TONGUE. Prying
with the tweezers, I pulled on the cloth tongue, easing it out,
gathering the scant granules and vegetable matter that escaped
and put them into the second bag. The tongue twisted out, awkward
and un-yielding, wrapped around something, and I stepped back,
letting the early morning sun touch the thing I had exposed.
Painted a bright, iridescent blue,
the nail was separated from the surrounding tissue by decomposition.
A lively shade, bright as the Mediterranean Sea. Blackened tissue.
It was a child's toe.
In the distance the dogs barked,
a horse neighed, a door slammed. A crow called, the sound like
mocking laughter, grating.
After a long moment, I found a breath,
strident, harsh. The air ripping along my throat. My vision narrowed,
darkening around the edges, focusing on the bright blue toenail.
I leaned forward, catching my weight on the tailgate. I wanted
to throw up. I sat down on the dirt at my feet, landing hard,
jarring my spine.
The cool air now felt unexpectedly
warm and I broke out in a hot sweat. My breath sped up, hyper-ventilating
from shock. A mockingbird song I hadn't heard until now sounded
too loud, too coarse. In the distance, a horse tossed her head
and snorted. Cherry, the small terrier, nudged my leg and romped
around the SUV, yapping. I hadn't been practicing forensic nursing
a month yet, and here I had a toe in a shoe. Nothing I had studied
told me what to do next.
Where had the dogs found the shoe?
There was no doubt. I had something
important, something horrible, in my truck. A part of a little
I shuddered. A part of a little girl...
And I had tampered with evidence.
"Well..." I said, wanting to say something stronger.
I added another, softer, "Well," not knowing any appropriate
swear words that might cover this situation. What do you say when
your dogs bring you part of a little girl? I fought rising nausea,
swallowing down vile-tasting saliva. A shudder gripped me. Part
of a little girl...I dropped my head and tried to slow my breathing.
When my vision cleared and the faintness
passed, I stood again, pulling up on the tail of the truck, my
knees popping as they had started to do in the last few months.
Nausea rolled through me and faded. "Okay," I said.
"Okay. I can do this." I wasn't convinced, but I also
knew it was far too late to stop.
With surprisingly steady hands,
I rewound the tape in the recorder, found the place where I'd
last spoken and took up my narrative. I turned to the shoe, describing
what I had discovered. Forcing myself to breathe deeply and slowly,
I took digital photos and checked to see that all the shots so
far were in focus. That the shoe measurements were clear, that
the toe was visible in the tongue of the shoe. I added the length
and depth of the toe to my recording, doing the job I had learned
in the forensics and evidence-collection class. I pulled a Chain
of Custody form out of the pile of my forensic supplies and filled
it out, comparing the times with the time on the photos.
Carefully, still narrating, I curled
the tongue back into the shoe and placed the shoe into a third
evidence bag I labeled SMALL RED SHOE/TOE. I gathered up the plastic
sheet and placed it into another bag. I placed all the evidence
bags into a large plastic bag labeled EVIDENCE in big red letters.
I pulled my gloves off, one at a
time, gripping the wristband of the left, pulling it down and
inside out, over my fingers. Holding the left glove in the right
fist, I pulled that one down over my fingers and over the other
glove, securing it inside the right, to keep the evidence I had
touched in place. The scent in place. They went into a final evidence
bag with a separate Chain of Custody form. I switched off the
tape recorder and repacked my forensic supplies, setting the final
bag on the top of the truck.
Closing the SUV hatch with the
evidence inside, I took the bagged gloves and COC with me into
the house, then washed my hands thoroughly at the kitchen sink,
carrying the last bit of evidence with me as I moved.
With Jas already gone for the morning
the house was empty and quiet ...
Gwen Hunter - Reprinted by permission - All rights reserved