Snow swirled under the dim bare bulb outside the Medical Examiner’s Office. Working later than intended, I was now in a hurry to get home. Only two days before Christmas, the usual traffic was absent; my staff gone home early. My coat flapped in the wind. Shivering, I pulled the door closed and locked it.
“Come on, honey,” I said to my 5-year-old son. School had let out early for the holiday. Josh spent the prior two hours taking a nap on the waiting room sofa. Tired still, he dragged his heels. A cough sounded from deep within his chest, worrying the doctor in me about his asthma. We headed to the dark parking lot with one stanchion light illuminating the boundary.
Nudging him towards the station wagon, I said, “You can ride up front today.” This would allow me to keep an eye on his breathing. He waited at the forward passenger door while I fumbled for the car keys. My arms were encumbered with presents and case files. Purse straps dropped from my shoulder to mid-arm unbalancing my parcels.
In the shadow of an eave, a burly shape distracted me; why was the custodian working at this hour?
In an instant, we were face-to-face. The man was not the super. He was not anyone I knew. He slammed me against the car, shoving something hard against my ribs. His breath was sour; his hair brushed my forehead. Our lips were close enough to kiss.
“Don’t scream or I’ll shoot,” he whispered. A primal shriek filled the air. I had emitted it despite his admonition. My body dropped to the ground, landing hard onto my knees. Teeth banged together from the impact. The robber deftly lifted my handbag from among papers and packages flung in an arc around our feet.
Dream-like images played in a split-second in my mind, a re-enactment of the last moments of hundreds of my dead patients. A vivid hallucination of the weapon firing, the fatal injury, and my death:
Asphalt dusted by a patina of fresh snow.
Blood pumped from a severed aorta.
Skin paled like Snow White.
Numbness and cold advanced.
Bullet traversed fabric, tissue, metal.
Fired gunpowder scented the air.
He didn’t shoot. The thief turned, pocketbook in hand, leaving me alive on the blacktop.
At some point, I stopped shouting. Scrambling to the other side of the car, on my hands and knees to avoidbeing a target, I needed to reach my son. I yanked Josh down with me. He hadn’t moved yet and stiffly tumbled. He began to cry, breathing in gasps and wheezes. I ran my hands quickly over him — no trauma. Then I cried.
We crawled back to the building, the armed mugger’s whereabouts unknown. After unlocking the door, and hurrying inside, I dialed 911. We sat huddled on the floor.
The robber must have looked mammoth, trench coat billowing, as he hurdled a chain link fence to escape.
“He flew, Mommy,” Josh said, “like Superman.”
“You’re bleeding,” he said. My knees were raw, stockings torn open. Pink saliva dripped from the corner of my mouth. I had bitten my lip in the fall.
“We’re ok,” I said, reassuring myself by patting my body — no gunshot wounds.
“Was that a bad man?” Josh said.
“Will the police catch him?”
“I hope so.”
“Why did you scream when he told you not to?” he sobbed anew.
I brushed the hair out of his face. He felt feverish.
“I wanted to warn someone about what was happening,” I said. Throughout my career as a forensic pathologist, I had seen too many victims who had remained silent and died.
“But nobody heard you, Mommy,” he said. He looked at me with eyes luminous through his tears.
“The most important person of all heard,” I said, bending to kiss his head, “you.”
I couldn’t make it go away with a kiss.
That night I held him close as we sat in the rocking chair in my bedroom, a gift from my mother when he was born. It had been a long time since I had held him like this. An hour earlier, when we had entered the bedroom, he had started crying. He was afraid of the dark beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. Our pale reflections looked ghostly in the glass. I lowered all the blinds and drew the curtains. He stopped crying but wanted to cuddle in my lap. I wanted that too.
“Where’s the bad man, Mommy?” Josh asked.
“The police are looking for him, honey,” I said.
“Why are you crying?” Josh said.
“That man took something important from us,” I said. It wasn’t my purse or wallet or anything tangible that the robber had stolen. My son’s innocence was gone. How would I explain that to him?
Josh looked at me then put his head on my chest and wrapped his arms tight around me.
It would be years before he could look out of dark windows.