CNF: The Scream

by Mary Jumbelic

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 last 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. My body dropped to the ground, landing hard onto 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.
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.

These images played in a split-second in my mind. The thief turned, pocketbook in hand, leaving me on the blacktop. He didn’t shoot. The scene in my fantasy was a re-enactment of hundreds of my dead patients. A vivid hallucination of the weapon firing, the fatal injury, and my death. I stopped shouting.

Scrambling to my son, I yanked him down with me. He hadn’t moved yet and stiffly tumbled. He began to cry, breathing in gasps and wheezing. I ran my hands quickly over him — no trauma. Then I cried.

We crawled back to the building, making ourselves smaller targets for the armed mugger. After unlocking the door, and hurrying inside, I dialed 911. We sat huddled on the floor.

“He flew, Mommy,” Josh said, “like Superman.” The robber must have looked mammoth, trench coat billowing, as he hurdled a chainlink fence to escape. “You’re bleeding.” My knees were raw, stockings torn open. Pink saliva dripped from the corner of my mouth.
“We’re ok,” I said, reassuring myself by patting my body — no gunshot wounds.

“Was that a bad man?” Josh said.

“Yes, Joshie.”

“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. Too many victims were silent.

“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.”

Mary Jumbelic is an author from Syracuse, New York, and the former chief medical examiner of Onondaga County. Performing thousands of autopsies in her career, she has developed a strong voice for her deceased patients. With her experience, Jumbelic is intimately acquainted with the biologic and human perspectives of death. Her stories explore the personal side of her work through the lens of forensic cases. She placed in the top ten for the 2014 AARP-Huffington Post Memoir Writing Contest. Other pieces have been published with Tortoise & Finch, Foliate Oak, GFT Press, and Vine Leaves. You can read her blog, Final Words, at www.maryjumbelic.com

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The Scream”?

    The Scream occurred when my oldest son, Joshua, was 5-years old. He is now 28. We were living in Central Illinois in a place called Peoria, the idyllic Midwest. The robbery shocked me in a way that my daily work didn’t; this violence was personal. Though my money, credit cards, and glasses were stolen, at the time, I was most angry about the theft of my son’s innocence. He was no longer naive to the world’s evils. With the intervening years, the importance of the moment has crystallized into my ability to alert Josh, to make him aware of the presence of danger. Our mother-child bond deepened that day. The story was titled ‘The Robbery’ originally but has been renamed to ‘The Scream’ to reflect this deeper meaning.
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