Hands of Mercy
by John Miller
The hand trembled. I watched its gnarled fingers, the twitching of cords along the wrist, and the rotted condition of the skin. It was an ordinary hand like any other that had been dead a full week, and it should not have bothered me. The way it looked was not abnormal—gray flesh mottled with red and purple patches of rot, and the darkening underside from coalescing blood pulled downward by gravity. No, it was not the way it looked that fascinated me, but rather the way it moved.
Or, to be more exact, that it moved at all.
It hung from the autopsy table, the white sheet covered the body, and only the hand was visible. I watched from my seat with keen interest. I had heard of dead bodies moving, twitching, sometimes sitting strait up—all symptoms of rigor mortis.
I was a student at UCLA. Forensic Science was my interest. I had volunteered to work at the city morgue, surprised that such a fantastic opportunity had presented itself to me. Why had no other students taken this learning opportunity? Not just a valuable learning experience, but a paying job that counted as two full credits toward my degree.
“Don't touch the cadavers,” Dr. Jenkins said.
That was on the first day of the job—or I should say night since I went to work at eleven and got off work at seven. Graveyard shift. I should have realized something was wrong with the position, but I was so excited to land it I didn't think twice because it was late in the term.
I was in my first year of college. Forensic Science 110 was interesting, but I wasn't ready to work on the dead yet. I had to learn medical coding first. Medical coders were highly sought after by hospitals, doctor offices and morgues. Across America medical coders classified diseases, maladies and types of death. Before I learned the secrets of dead bodies, I had to learn the medical terminology, and even before I learned the magical language of medical science, I had to learn how to code the cadavers. It would jump me light years ahead of my fellow students.
St. Mercy Hospital was large but old, and the morgue had many secrets. A door opened on the west side but was filled with brick. The medical examiners played the same trick on every new attendant—that's what they called my position. They asked me to, “Head out back, will you?” Find something or somebody, and then they laughed and guffawed when I opened the door and found a brick wall blocking my progress.
“What's the matter?” Dr. Jenkins asked. He and the other medical examiners had tears in their eyes, and they bent at the waste from deep belly laughs. “Can't get your job done?”
It was funny, I suppose, but I felt their hysterics was more from stress than the humor of the situation. And I learned their jobs were very stressful. It was a big city. Lots of death. There were new bodies each night, and the workload never lessoned. I heard second-shift complain about how little first-shift got done, and before the night ended third-shift complained about the amount of work second-shift accomplished. When first-shift came in—all intimidating bosses—they gave us disdainful looks and asked why some things weren't done and what we did all night. They were assholes and admitted as much.
It was this competition between shifts combined with the endless river of flesh and death flowing through the morgue that stressed everyone out. The medical examiners were always trying to catch up. There was always another body to examine. The autopsy room consisted of eight gurneys, and next to it was the storage room . As a medical examiner finished each body in the autopsy room, it was slid into what the M.E.s called the vault . Combination lockers opened, thin tables rolled out, and they transferred cadavers from gurney to table, slid the cadaver into refrigeration, and locked the vault . Once an opening became available, another gurney from the storage room was rolled into the autopsy room.
Twelve gurneys filled the storage area. White tape marked rectangles on the floor where the gurneys were expected to rest—and God help whoever failed to position the gurneys correctly. The heads of the cadavers pointed west and the feet pointed east. Sometimes there were so many cadavers they were stacked in black body bags in the far corner like bags of feed. Other times there were five or six open slots for gurneys.
I sat there alone on first break every midnight an hour into my shift. The medical examiners always took first-break then, and they came into the coding office where I worked. Jimmy and Sam smoked cigarettes to cover up the scent of pot. They used the exhaust fan built into the wall to blow smoke outside. I always gave them the privacy they craved, and they were thankful, letting me eat my midnight lunch at the desk in the storage room.
I became comfortable with the moving hand. Same time each night it fell out from beneath the sheet on gurney no. 2—gurney number one held a naked cadaver in the process of examination, v-slits from neck to groin, insides sometimes glistening in the florescent lighting. The gurney was closet to the desk Jimmy and Sam allowed me to use. My ham salad sandwich rested on the paper towel with a plastic bottle of iced tea. The first time the hand fell out I yelped. Jimmy and Sam rushed into the autopsy room with wide eyes of fear, then broke into guffaws of laughter.
“Rigor mortis,” they said in unison.
They left a cloud of marijuana smoke and a scared first year college student, me, staring at the hand. A man's hand. I walked over to the feet that stuck out the end and read the toe tag: Jonathan Myers . I walked over to the gurney's side intending to move Mr. Myers' right hand back on the table, cover it with the white sheet. I thought about disease, contagions, and I smacked on rubber gloves. I reached for the hand but became frightened. What if I screw up the examination somehow? What if I somehow taint the body? I pulled the gloves off and tossed them into a large round garbage container marked “biohazard.”
I went back and ate my ham salad sandwich. I kept my back to Mr. Myers.
The next night the same hand fell from beneath the sheet. I laughed spitting out ham salad, my heart beating hard but my mind grasping what Jimmy and Sam put up with all the time. I wiped my mouth and went to gurney number 2. It was the same hand. Hairy, thick wrist, beefy. Thick cords striated beneath the wrist when I bent to examine it. Don't touch the cadavers . The words of Dr. Jenkins came back to me. I'd heard they'd let one attendant go once for touching a body; I did not wish to lose two credit hours.
I looked at the clock on Jimmy's desk—or was it Sam's?—and saw it was a quarter after midnight . Same as last night. What are the chances of it happening at exactly the same time? I smiled at how spooked I was.
Then I went back to my ham salad sandwich.
The following night the same hand fell out from beneath the sheet. I dropped my sandwich and looked around. My breathing came in short gasps and my heart beat in tight thumps, a heaviness clamped across my chest, and I whimpered. Three nights in a row? No way! I thought of Jimmy and Sam smoking pot in the coding office. I remembered how Dr. Jenkins and the others from second-shift had played that joke on me about sending me to the brick-walled door. They used levity to ease the stress before. Is this some sort of… gag? I thought of Jimmy and Sam laughing hysterically, smoking pot, never high enough to not do their job, but buzzing enough to return to work all smiles.
I went to gurney no. 2, circled my fingers around the hand looking for thin wires, but there weren't any. I bent low and gazed at the hand. This is the same exact hand as last night… and the night before. That was odd. They'd informed me they had new bodies every night. Only special cadavers remained for more than one night, cases that involved murder or suspicious deaths, suicides and drug overdoses. I went to the foot of the gurney and read the toe tag: Janice McGovern.
“Problem?” Sam asked banging the double doors open.
I jumped an inch and yelped.
“Scared ya', huh?” Jimmy followed Sam laughing. “Kinda' jumpy, aren'cha'?”
“Yeah, there's a problem.” I waited until they stood beside her beside the dead woman's feet. “This says Janice .”
“This is a man.”
“You're not supposed to touch the bodies.” Jimmy looked pissed. “Ever!”
“I didn't.” I spoke fast, my words running over each other, using my hands as I spoke. “The hand fell out… again.”
Sam and Jimmy looked at each other. I noticed there was something in their gazes, some hidden communication I didn't understand.
“Again?” Sam said. “What do you mean?”
“Same time each night this guy's hand—”
“Stop!” Jimmy interrupted me, his face flushed. “Who told you to say that? Dr. Jenkins?”
“Relax, Jimmy.” Sam rested his hand on Jimmy's shoulder to calm him down. “Take another break.”
Jimmy nodded and turned. Sam waited for him to leave before he spoke again.
“Does the hand fall off the gurney at 12:15 am each night?”
He let out a heavy sigh. He walked to gurney no. 2. The hand wasn't there.
“It was there, Sam.” I wondered if rigor mortis had moved the hand back. “Honest.”
Can I tell you something?”
There was something eerie in the tone of his voice. His voice was almost a whisper, calm, like the way someone might explain a close family member had died.
I nodded my head too scared to speak.
“This is why we can't keep any attendants.” He walked me back to the desk where my ham salad sandwich lay on the floor. “Best thing to do it to ignore it.”
“Ignore it? But how can I ignore it?”
“Do you want to keep your job?”
I was stunned. Is he threatening to fire me? I remembered only Dr. Jenkins, the second-shift supervisor could fire me. Him and the big shots from first shift.
“I want to keep my job.” I thought of those two credits, of the invaluable medical coding experience which would look fantastic on a resume. “I really don't want trouble.”
“Last attendant—I think her name was Nancy —told Dr. Jenkins about seeing a hand same time each night. He fired her outright.”
“Yep. I guess Nancy told her friends on campus about the hand, and it sort of became a local legend. That was last year, and nobody applied for the position. Well, there were ghost hunters, but we need serious minded students. So when you applied we were kinda' surprised.”
“I won't say anything to Dr. Jenkins.”
“Good.” He smiled and nodded. “You'll do okay if you remain silent. Jimmy and I can wait out here with you if you want.”
He said it but he didn't mean it.
“So… Nancy got pretty freaked out, huh?” I smiled and acted nonchalant as I goaded more information from Sam. “Did she complain about anything else?”
“You mean other than the hand falling out at exactly 12:15am each night?” He bent and picked up my sandwich, threw it in the trash beside the desk. “Nope. Just the hand. You worried one of these cadavers are gonna' get up and pull a Freddie Krueger on you?”
I laughed and used my paper towel to clean the few specks of ham salad on the floor. He thumped my shoulder and we laughed.
“You sure you're okay?”
He walked toward the double doors, paused and turned around.
“If you need anything just call me.”
He exited the doors. When they closed I heard a rustle of cloth. It can't be! I looked at gurney no. 2 and saw the hand hanging from the table. Again. My stomach knotted and squeezed until I was glad I hadn't eaten. Pressure pushed its way up from my diaphragm until it seeped through my throat into my ears and eyes and head. My throat constricted as I watched the hand turn over palm up, all except the fingers closing into a fist except for the index finger which curled then extended… curled then extended. The pressure within me continued to increase, to rise, until it forced my wide eyes to pop out. An ocean of sound rushed in my ears and my head pounded.
The hand gestured, “Come here.”
Now, eight weeks later, I had gotten used to the hand. It fell out from beneath the sheet on gurney no. 2 at precisely 12:15 each night. Sometimes it gestured for me to approach, other times—like tonight—it just laid there or stretched toward the ceiling. I wondered about it, but mostly I wondered about me. Was this some sort of hallucination? Was I going crazy? Did all medical examiners experience similar symptoms but ignored them?
“You always get bread crumbs on the floor,” Jimmy complained. “Except for the first three nights you worked here, you always leave crumbs on the floor.”
“That's because I never eat on the desk anymore.”
Sam and Jimmy and I looked at gurney no. 2 at the same time. Nothing else was said. They knew I wouldn't turn my back on gurney no. 2.
At Dr. Jenkins retirement party we went to Jimmy's Bar and Grille, an Irish Pub close to the hospital. We drank and danced, and I covered several times while Jimmy and Sam excused themselves to go out back and smoke some hits .
“They had to use the bathroom, Dr. Jenkins.”
“Together? They're worse than a couple of women—no offense.”
Hours later Jimmy passed out drunk on the floor. Sam called Jimmy's live-in girlfriend, and we carried Jimmy to her compact car and tossed him into the cramped backseat. We watched them drive off together.
“True love,” I muttered.
Sam had a bout of uncontrollable giggles before we went inside. Once inside most the staff from the morgue had left. Since we worked the graveyard shift, it seemed pretty early for us at one in the morning. We sat down at the bar and Sam ordered us a round of margaritas.
“You'd better go easy on that stuff or I'll be driving you home,” I told him.
“You trying to get fresh with me, Miss. Lane ?” he said.
He had another bout of the giggles before silence ensued. The bar became quiet. The bartender kept going into the back, and he'd come out ever fifteen minutes to see if we were still there. I looked around and saw we were the only ones in the bar. Strange for such a big city.
“You still seeing the hand?”
I almost spilled my drink.
“I'm not supposed to talk about it.”
But I did. I told him what I saw every night at exactly a quarter past midnight . Same hand no matter what the name read on the toe tag.
“Does the hand match the toes or feet?” He looked baffled. “I mean, it's the same hand each night, right?”
“I see what you mean.” I took a drink and set it down. “I guess I never thought about it. I mean, with you saying to let it drop and all, I forced it all out of my mind. But to answer your question, no. The feet don't match the hand. The feet can be elegant ladies feet or peeling old men's feet. It doesn't matter. Doesn't matter what name is on the toe tag either. The hand always looks the same.”
We were quiet for a long time. So long, in fact, the bartender came out twice to see if we were still there before we spoke again.
“You know why I believe you?”
I looked at him and our eyes met. He looked like he'd sobered up.
“Because you smoke too much pot?”
He smiled and shook his head.
“Because you're the eleventh—I repeat, the eleventh —attendant to tell the same story.”
“The hand goes back to the Fifties when some nurse went crazy over the hand. Her husband, a doctor at the hospital, had her committed.”
He paused then said, “I don't think they work there anymore.”
“I don't want to talk about it anymore.”
“Can you drive me home?”
“Jimmy was my ride.”
Twelve weeks into the job. The hand fell out at 12:15am each night. If Sam and Jimmy were in the room with me, nothing happened. It seemed only an attendant could see it happen, and then only if they were alone. By then I had gotten used to the fact that I was quite sane. I had a 4.0 grade point average in school. Sam invited me to more than one party, and sometimes he didn't even smoke pot when we went out—we were just friends.
Then it happened.
I knew something was wrong because I just looked at the clock. 12:14am. I heard a rustle of cloth. I was just getting ready to take a drink of iced tea to wash down a bite of sandwich and turn around. I planned to wait for the hand to fall out. I had to watch it each and every single night, but this night I'd missed it because it was early. I had heard the sound of it falling out so many times I knew what had happened before I turned around, swallowing my tea, I choked when I saw the hand.
It was different. A shade of red, almost pink. Long claws ended in razor-sharp points. Thick drops of blood splattered on the white tiled floor.
The sheet moved. Just a little, but enough to freeze me in the swivel chair. My throat locked up, the scream I intended turned into a hoarse whisper.
“Sam,” I said. Over and over and over, but my words came out broken whispers. “Sam, dear God, please Sam.”
My plastic bottle fell to the floor. Tea spilled as the sheet slid to the floor. The figure on the gurney rose. Please let it be rigor mortis! Dear God, please let it be… Twin horns protruded from its brow. It had black hair close to its head. Its black goatee framed a fanged smile. Incisors protruded over thin lips. It was the traditional image of the Devil from Medieval Times, but it was real. The Devil stepped around gurney no. 1 and faced me. I felt a breeze shift toward me as it approached, heard the sound of cloven hooves clopping on the tiled floor. His shadow fell over my lap. He stopped before me, his cloven hooves mere inches from my shoes. A pointed devil's tail slid from behind him, reached toward my face, lifted my chin. As I looked up I saw he was naked, gigantic.
Then I looked into his eyes. Those dark orbs of blackness, twin abysses of wanton desire and impassioned lust, capable of dealing in soul-trade and the murder of infants. I didn't think that about him. I knew it, sure as I knew he was real and the sun would shine tomorrow.
“He almost escaped, you know,” the Devil said. “Mr. Brandon. He's been with us for quite some time, but he found a… wormhole, you might say. The wormhole led to gurney no. 2.”
My eyes flashed to the gurney now empty, the sheet resting on the floor. I saw a toe tag on the metal gurney.
“He almost made it, too. He kept gesturing to whoever he could. All they had to do to free him was take his hand.” The Devil leaned close and I smelled a whiff of burnt flesh and sulfur. “You see, we held him against his will; he didn't belong.”
His laughter, mocking and painful, pierced my reasoning and forced itself into me, a kind of rape. It sought out all embarrassing moments within me, all the times others had made fun of me, mocked me, teased me, and it brought those memories forward. Not just the memories, but the emotional turmoil as well.
That was just the beginning.
I remembered the alley in my hometown. A party. A young man I'd said “no” to. He was indignant. He hurt me in that alley. I smelled his dried sweat, felt him pierce my self-esteem as he raped my confidence forever.
My father. Alcoholic. Beating my mother. Make it stop, please! Her face frozen in a death-mask—the same expression that woke me from my nightmares—standing between him and her little girl. I was wide eyed, crying. Blood splattered. The hammer.
“A ward of the State.”
The judge's voice was compassionate, but I was removed from the foster home. They loved me. I loved them.
“Why can't I stay?”
“They already have too many foster children to care for you based on their income, sweetie.”
The orphanage. Dark and evil. The girls paid the attendant with sexual favors, to go away for a while . And while the attendant was away, the girls did play. I was the new girl, the focus of their attention, and I—
The Devil's laughter brought me back. His face was close and I smelled sex on it. Sulfur rose in the autopsy room like steam. The remaining gurneys shook. Seven bodies rose. Sheets slid off. I saw my father on gurney no. 1, my mother on gurney no. 3. The young man who'd raped me leered from gurney no. 4. And so on down the line until the judge smiled sympathetically from gurney no. 8.
“We have a new home for you now, sweetie.” The judge looked exactly the same as he did when I was eight years old. “It's a little hot down there… but you get used to it.”
They all laughed at me. My mother and father. The young man and judge. The three small girls from the orphanage whose names I'd long ago forced from my mind. And the Devil.
His laughter was a weapon that pried open the pain of my life until I couldn't take any more.
A week later I was in the mental ward of a different hospital. They medicated me heavily.
Two weeks after that I was moved to San Francisco to be closer to home. What was home? I'd grown up in an orphanage.
It was a joke.
After five years I became used to the doctors and nurses and orderlies. They no longer had to wipe after I used the toilet. They no longer had to give me sponge bathes daily, or bathe me in the public tub once a week. I learned to walk again. I began feeding myself.
On the sixth year of my confinement I learned to speak again.
Seven years later something happened to State funding. Taxes and politics. I didn't keep up. All I know is I was sent back to St. Mercy Hospital. Instead of the morgue I was sent to the seventh floor. Mental ward.
“I feel you have to be closer to where it all happened,” the doctor explained why I went back.
I didn't have a problem with it. The only time I screamed was when they covered my body with white sheets or I saw a hand hanging from someone's bed. That was all.
Then I met her. Mrs. Gladys Miller. She was ninety-two years old and never spoke to anyone.
“What's she in here for?”
“She worked in the morgue same as you,” the nurse told me. “According to her file her husband was a doctor at this very hospital.”
My mind functioned slowly from the drug haze, but I felt something click inside, and a memory was close to the surface, like a forgotten word on the tip of the tongue. I shuddered through the visage of the Devil, through the atrocities he gave me, until the story of the original nurse who saw the hand hanging from gurney no. 2.
I began feeding Mrs. Miller daily. All three meals. Her husband, long dead, had been a heart surgeon at the hospital. Mrs. Miller would die on the seventh floor of St. Mercy Hospital.
I would, too.
Although she never spoke, she watched my hands as I fed her. Intently. Never taking her aged and yellowed eyes off my hands. I noticed she watched the orderlies passing by her room, but she never looked at their faces or bodies; she only watched for their hands. She watched the hands of approaching doctors and nurses with keen interest, and when satisfied she turned away to stare off into space.
“Why does she stare at everyone's hands?” an orderly asked me once.
“To make sure they're safe,” I answered.
He looked back at me while changing my bed sheets.
He was new. Didn't know any better. The bed sheet was white. He opened his mouth to say something else when I started screaming.
Mrs. Miller died while I read her the Bible. I closed her eyes and kissed her forehead. Then I pulled her purple sheet over her head—she hated white sheets and screamed louder than I did at the sight.
A hand fell from beneath the sheet.
I slumped in the chair. The Bible fell from my lap.
The hand was a man's hand. Mr. Brandon again, I presume. I saw the thick wrist, hairy hand, thick tendons at the wrist. A working man's hand.
An orderly passed by Mrs. Miller's room without glancing in. I stood and shut the door. When I turned back Mr. Brandon's hand gestured, his finger curling for me to come closer.
“You need a corpse don't you, Mr. Brandon?”
I walked back to the bed. I grabbed hold of Mr. Brandon's hand and looked down. My eyes fell upon the Twenty-Third Psalm. Mrs. Miller's favorite. I began to pray it as I held the hand from the man in hell. I prayed and prayed. When I opened my eyes orderlies entered the room. I looked down and found myself holding an old woman's hand.
“What happened?” they asked.
A dove flew past her window three times, back and forth. Then it ascended toward the heavens.
Two years later they let me out. I applied for a job in the morgue at the hospital.
I didn't get it.
But they didn't get it either. The curse has been lifted. The doorway to hell is closed, what the Devil called a wormhole. Mr. Brandon is spending eternity in his rightful home.
I found a job at a mortuary. I embalm people. I make good money working the graveyard shift. Pretty good at my job, too.
I work. I watch. I wait. At precisely a quarter past midnight each night.
And sometimes, when the time is right, another hand spills from beneath the sheets or rises from a coffin. At those times I don't scream or run like the other morticians and embalmers. I simply hold the person's hand with a smile. My fellow workers watch from a distance in amazement as the hand I hold transforms back into the cadaver's hand.
When I leave work each morning I hear them. Mourning doves. Such sweet songs.
John has full physical custody of three small children. He has had an assortment of jobs: police dispatcher twice; salaried management; running his own store; and he's even preached in his younger days. He tells others that writing is his hobby. Those closest to him tease that he's addicted to writing. He is excited to appear in the anthology Vault X, and he has around 16 publishing credits to his name (some poetry). He believes children rule the world.