Carly Heath Drabblecast cover for EchoesThe Drabblecast is on the scene this week, with an original story by Gail Ann Gibbs, read by Starla Hutchton, that reminds us that it’s ok to be a little weird. Or maybe even, SUPER weird…

I like the way Richard smells. The next time a psychiatrist asks me what makes me happy, I’ll say it’s the way Richard smells when he’s on the job.

Karen tilted her head down so Richard wouldn’t see her smile, which would be inappropriate here. He was standing next to her, rummaging through her tool kit.

“I could have sworn I brought the small sieve.” He pulled one out and waved it. “Thanks, don’t let me forget it’s yours.” He headed back to the crime scene in the kitchen, and Karen turned back to her own dead body, here in the dining room…


by Gail Ann Gibbs


I like the way Richard smells. The next time a psychiatrist asks me what makes me happy, I’ll say it’s the way Richard smells when he’s on the job.

Karen tilted her head down so Richard wouldn’t see her smile, which would be inappropriate here. He was standing next to her, rummaging through her tool kit.

“I could have sworn I brought the small sieve.” He pulled one out and waved it.

“Thanks, don’t let me forget it’s yours.” He headed back to the crime scene in the kitchen, and Karen turned back to her own dead body, here in the dining room.

There was nothing romantic about her thought. Double her age, bald, and rather grizzled, Richard had never behaved as anything other than a supervisor and mentor to the team. But he wore a piney aftershave and used a flowery-scented fabric softener. Together they created a unique, but not offensive, odor. It was definitely Richard’s odor, and Karen had grown rather attached to it.

She shook her head at herself, for daydreaming on the job. The small mummified body jammed between the radiator and the wall deserved her full attention. She concentrated on scraping the flesh that had stuck to the radiator away, so that the desiccated remains could be moved to a plastic sheet without further desecration.

Not that they would show this body, or any of the twenty-two bodies the team were recovering, to the families. Grieving parents had buried these children once, assuming they would stay in the ground, and no doubt their imaginations were enough to let them know that the remains stuffed in closets and cabinets of the ramshackle house were no longer anything like their children.

I hope they don’t make us see psychiatrists. No, psychiatrists would be too expensive. Counselors maybe. I suppose the work we’re doing could be considered trauma-inducing. I mean, we work with bodies every day, but usually they arrive in ones and twos, not two dozen at once.

Karen didn’t feel especially traumatized. True, this had been a difficult couple of days, but not in any way she could discuss with a medical person. In the past, she had confided in various members of the medical profession, and the result had been increased medication. Karen was proud that she wasn’t on medication now, and she wanted to keep it that way.

The last of the flesh came away, and the little mummy sagged down to the floor, as if relieved to be free. Karen reached around one side of the radiator and began alternately pushing on the girl’s skull and shoulders, then moving to the other side and pulling on the tiny feet to work the small body out.

I wonder if I can refuse counseling. This is our job. We’re supposed to do this. She fought the smile again. A job. Karen had a job. She had a real job, for the first time in her life. She’d turned the tables on her unique problem, adapted, and made it work.

Thumping sounds came from the upstairs hallway. The other two interns, Tom and Tasha, maneuvered a small stretcher with a body bag on it down the angled staircase, trying to keep it somewhat level. Tom was willowy thin, and Tasha was stout and practical. They made a good team.

As they worked the stairs, the little body bag moaned softly, that gentle keening that only seemed to come from the remains of children. So Karen knew the boy had only been dead a few years.

Tom and Tasha chatted at one another amiably, oblivious to the whining from the stretcher. They couldn’t hear it, of course. Karen had never met anyone else who could. If they were out there, they were probably all insane, like Karen.

Karen looked again at the little skeleton on the floor by her knees. This little girl was long silent, probably dead at least fifteen years or more. However, the minute the forensics team had entered the two-story house, Karen had heard several dead voices moaning from upstairs, and knew it would be a difficult crime scene.

Karen had done her part, helped Tom and Tasha earlier upstairs, pretending to “find” the newer bodies, the ones that sung to her, in closets and the attic. Once the upstairs bodies were all located, she’d beat a hasty retreat, and concentrated on recovering the older, blessedly quiet skeletons in the living and dining rooms. She didn’t think that was shirking, although she wasn’t sure. Richard was good about dealing with any unacceptable work practices, immediately and gently, and he hadn’t said anything.

Little bones weigh next to nothing, so once they were on the ground floor, Tom balanced the stretcher under his arm and went out the open front door to the van, the whimpering following him like a dog.

Tasha pulled out a clipboard, made a few marks on it, and then came over to Karen, pen ready. She looked exhausted, but then she had kids of her own. This would be harder for her.

“How are you doing?” she asked. Tasha didn’t realize that was often a loaded question for Karen.

“OK,” Karen said and realized that she really meant it. She had been OK for almost two years now. She had a job and an apartment, a boss she liked, and coworkers she could almost call friends. It seemed like too much to expect her to give up all that now. She wondered how badly she was going to mess that up.

Tasha nodded, and pointed to the tiny body, now on the plastic sheeting of the body bag. “Well, we’re almost done.” She consulted the clipboard. “Girl, brown hair, age four, that would be Melissa Dupree.” She checked something off on the clipboard,

“Well, Melissa, we’ll get you back to where you belong soon.”

Karen just nodded, recognizing the black humor the others used. Tasha wasn’t really talking to Melissa, just pretending. The bodies remained silent to everybody else. Even Richard, who sometimes tilted his head over gray lips and seemed to listen, was pretending. Karen was sure.

Karen herself rarely heard words. Just soft moaning, crying, and a kind of constant wordless singing. She had spent years, decades trying to make the voices go away, alternately pretending they didn’t exist, or seeking them out, believing they were talking to her, asking her something, wanting something. She drove herself mad trying to set the voices free, send them off into the light, like in the movies.

Ironically, it was her last stint in the mental ward that had cured her, but not in the way the doctors had planned. In this particular inner-city hospital, the psychiatric ward was right above the morgue. Suddenly, she wasn’t hearing one voice or two, but ten or twelve at a time. During the long, sleepless nights, she had time to really listen to them, to realize that they were indeed just making noise. They were not talking to her, or about her, or anything like that. They were just moaning out loud, the souls of the bones reluctant to leave the earth and go wherever souls are supposed to go.

So she turned the tables. She snuck down to the morgue, stood outside the door, and listened. After they let her out, she spent weeks in cemeteries and outside mortuaries, listening to the dead echoes, proving to herself that she wasn’t the focus of their keening. It was just random calling and moaning.

Now she worked with dead people all the time. The morgue always had at least ten bodies on the shelves, all of them moaning and murmuring in that sing-song maddening way. It made it easier for her to ignore the one or two calling from funeral homes as she passed. It reminded her it wasn’t personal. The dead didn’t know she was there, were not calling her. They were just… noisy.

Slowly, she began building a real life for herself. She’d first considered working in a cemetery, but really the only jobs in a cemetery involved heavy lifting, and she was too small to be considered for those. And mortuaries usually only had two or three bodies at a time.

So she’d signed up for crime lab school. It wasn’t easy to get in, stay in, or to get a job, once they got a look at her mental history, but she’d worked hard, kept her head down, and acted as sane as she knew how. In the end, they couldn’t argue with her professional skills. The most they could say was that she was a little weird.

And once she’d gotten on the forensics team, it pleased her that everyone was a little weird. Who else would work with bodies of crime victims all day long?

The crying had been unusually loud here, in the rambling old house. Apparently, disturbing the graves pissed off the newly dead. A crazy woman had pulled these children from their graves and stashed them in closets and cupboards all around her house. A new definition of hording.

Crazy woman. Like Karen, maybe? Would that be her in a few decades, not just quirky dysfunctional mad, but completely raving mad? Would she go around digging up the graves of children and bringing them home, trying to hush that constant crying?

Karen thought back to the police reports. No, this woman was a different kind of nuts. They had caught her in the act, the contents of a new-raided grave stinking and seeping into the upholstery of the back seat of her old Ford. She’d rambled on about reclaiming her children, taking them back home and raising them properly this time. She praised her imaginary family, how well behaved, how proper, how quiet they were. Definitely a different kind of nuts.

No, Karen thought. Her insanity would take a different direction. She remembered the park rangers looks when they’d caught her sleeping on Stone Mountain, a solid chunk of granite in Georgia. She paid an outrageous amount of rent for an apartment on the tenth floor. But it was the kind of nuts that wouldn’t get her locked away.

All the technicians were all a little nuts. Tom pretended he was a pre-med student. Tasha lied to her friends about what she did.

But under Richard’s direction, they got along and did their jobs well. Karen had a few close calls. Once she had cut straight through the bushes and trees to the crime scene, instead of following the gravel trail to the spot that the park ranger had marked. Another time, she was distracted and had walked right past the yellow-taped crime scene and towards a second body hidden in a nearby ditch, realizing too late that the police hadn’t found it yet. Both times she’d been able to cover by making noises about how a corpse smelled, and they seemed to buy it. But she was never sure.

This time was different. There was no way she would be able to “stumble” onto it. She would have to say something, and it would ruin everything.

Maybe not. Karen fought to keep her voice casual, adopt that black humor cadence the others did so well. “Are we sure that’s all? Did anyone check the basement?”

If Tasha thought Karen was weird, it didn’t show. She flipped pages on the clipboard and nodded. “Richard did. It’s empty, no boxes or hiding places or anything. Anyway, Looney Lucy gave us that list of all her ‘babies,’ and everyone is accounted for. Nope, I think we can get out of here by lunch.” She shivered. “Can’t be soon enough for me.”


Karen could just ignore the wailing cry and leave with others. Forget about it. Walk away. One more body. Who would care?

Except Karen had seen photos of Tasha’s kids, and Richard’s grandkids, blurry photos shown with loving pride and warmth. The little voice screaming in the basement, the one Richard, Tasha, and Tom couldn’t hear, had a mother and a father somewhere. It seemed a sin to walk away, leave the remains unmarked and alone, when they belonged in a lovingly prepared memorial.

The parents might never know, but Karen would. This final child screamed to be returned to its proper grave, and no one could hear it but Karen.

Tasha helped Karen finish up with the remains of little Melissa, and Tasha carried the small body bag out to the van.

Karen gathered her tools and went into the kitchen. There she saw another sight that almost made her smile.

Richard sat at the kitchen table with the sieve and a dustpan in front of him. The little boy’s body had lain for years in the cabinet under the sink. The area was now meticulously clean. Richard sifted through the dirt in the dustpan, sorting out mouse turds before adding the remaining dust to the tiny, flaking skeleton in the open body bag.

It’s OK, she wanted to say, he’s long gone. He doesn’t care anymore. The ground he’s going back to is probably full of mouse turds.

Yes, they were all a little nuts.

Richard looked up from his work and gave her a wan smile. He slipped off a glove, stuck his finger in his ear, and twisted it. He did that a lot, turn down his hearing aid to work, then up again when talking to them. In the beginning, Karen thought he might hear the dead, too, like her. If he did, he was superb at hiding it. And of course, she didn’t dare ask.

“How are you doing?” he asked. Once again, that loaded question.
But she knew the proper response. “OK, how about you?”

“I’ll be glad when this is over, but I’m all right. This is the last one.”

She took a deep breath. Now or never. “I think there may be one more.”

Richard frowned.“One more what? Body? Why?”

Because I hear her crying. All the speeches Karen had been practicing fled from her brain, and she stumbled. “Just a hunch. A hunch I have. The count, the count is wrong. I think there may be one more.” She stammered and turned red. “Just a hunch.”

Richard’s eyes narrowed. “A hunch.” It wasn’t a question. Please don’t look at me that way. You never looked at me like I was crazy. Don’t start now.

Karen tried again, the weak logic that had taken all morning to work out, seemed like it might work, suddenly sounded idiotic on her thick, stupid tongue. “Well, we’ve found twenty-two, and she had one with her. Twelve bodies have been here for at least a decade. I think after a while she needed twelve more. She was working in groups of twelve. You know,” she forced a grin, “Cheaper by the dozen?”

Oh, God, it made no sense at all. Richard stared hard at her, and Karen’s hands began to tremble. It didn’t help that the wailing was louder in the kitchen. “Just a hunch.” She stammered again, careful not to raise her voice above the din only she could hear.

Frowning, he turned back to the blue bag on the table. He picked up the dustpan, gently tapped the remaining dust into the bag, and slowly zipped it up, seeming to consider her words. It filled Karen with despair. It was too late; she had ruined everything. She was just as screwed as if she’d told him the truth. He knew she was crazy.

She may as well do what she could for the child. Karen plunged on in a rush. “We’ve been all through the upstairs, so I’d like to take another look in the basement. If it’s OK, I’ll pop down for another quick look. You know, I’d just … feel better.”

Please, please, just let me go into the basement. I’ll find the body, and then we’ll pretend this is normal. Please.

Karen was edging toward the basement door when Tasha came into the kitchen with her clipboard, with Tom behind her. She was saying something about Golden Corral for lunch, but then she stopped and frowned at Karen and Richard.

Hot tears gathered in Karen’s eyes. Her face flushed, she felt like a trapped animal under the staring eyes of her former friends. Meanwhile, the wailing and keening filled her head and made it impossible to think straight. She backed toward the basement door, stammering. “I just want to… I’d, I … I’m just going to check out something I thought about. I…”

Something touched her hand, and she looked to find Richard had taken it. Suddenly, he held both her trembling hands, and studied her face. She looked away from his intense look and a tear escaped down her face.

Then, Richard looked back at the others. “Karen has a hunch. She thinks there may be something else in the basement.”

His warm hands squeezed hers and then let go. Reassured, she nodded and cleared her throat. “I just want to check it out. I’ll be right back.”

Richard said, “Let’s all go down. We can split up and have it searched in a few minutes.”

Tom and Tasha looked unhappy, but didn’t argue. Karen realized that it didn’t matter whether they knew she heard the dead. When they found this new body, spooky rumors would begin about Karen and her weird hunches. No matter what happened, she would end up alone again.

Richard opened the cellar door, and they made their way down the wooden stairs. At the bottom, they all stood in silence for a moment, silence to all but Karen, who winced under constant, pitiful, mental howling.

“Oh my God,” Tasha whispered. “Can you hear that?”

Hear what, Karen almost snorted. Stop pretending. You people can’t hear anything. I should have walked away. Everything I’ve worked so hard for is down the drain.

“Yeah,” Tom said, his eyes wide. “It sounds like…. There is somebody down here!”

Then there was all sorts of noise. Hushing each other simultaneously, Tom and Tasha rushed forward and split up, moving along the walls of the filthy basement.
They ended up at the same area of the brick wall a little less filthy than the rest, lumps of fresh mortar at the base. Tasha was frantic now, slapping the bricks with her hand and crying. “Oh, God, oh, God. We’re coming, Honey! Hang on!”

Between shouting, Tasha would lean over and press her ear against the wall. Why was she doing that? Either you heard it or you didn’t. To Karen, the child’s screams echoed through the bricks and bounced around and around inside the basement.

Finally, Karen couldn’t stand it anymore and pressed her fingers into her ears.
Tom backed away from the wall and bounded toward the stairs, “I’ll check outside. Air has to be getting in somehow.”

Tasha had grabbed a rusty garden tool and stabbed and scraped at the mortar like a woman insane. Richard pulled his ever-present black and yellow radio from his belt and spoke in quick, urgent tones.

The fuss puzzled Karen. Why the hurry to find another body? They had time; the child was dead. They always were.

A thumping, tearing sound came from outside, then the howls in Karen’s head abruptly ceased. The sudden shift to silence left her shocked and nauseated.
Then there were real, muffled words from the other side of the bricks, Tom shouting. “Call the medics! The cellar doors were locked and boarded over. There’s a little girl down here. Call it in! She’s alive!”

Tasha dropped her tool clattering on the cement and sobbed. She hugged Richard, then Karen, and ran up the stairs.

It was suddenly silent, shockingly so, in the old basement. Even with Richard there, Karen felt painfully alone and sick. She sat down on the filthy wooden stairs. Alive. The girl is alive, but Karen had heard her. What the hell did that mean?

Richard also sat on the stair below Karen, his back to her, and suddenly hunched over, his face buried in his hands. Alarmed, Karen scooted down and laid a cautious hand on his shoulder.

Richard looked up, wiping the tears from his face. He shook his head. “Dammit, I was down here for over an hour. I didn’t hear her. I couldn’t hear her now, even with these damn hearing aids. When I think how we almost missed…”

Karen was at a loss how to comfort him. She had little practice dealing with other people’s pain. “It was very faint. I had a hard time hearing it, really. And it’s quiet now.”

Richard took a deep breath and got up slowly. He pulled out a cloth handkerchief, wiped his face, and looked more like his old self. A crooked grin drifted across his face. “Yes, it’s quiet now. But you, now, you had a hunch.”

Karen nodded uncertainly, her despair making it hard for her to understand his words. His smile broader, Richard stared at the beams above them. “A hunch. Right.” He looked at her with new, intent eyes. “You know, we work for days in a house full of dead children. Very spooky, easy to think you are hearing things. We’re right below the dining room, where you were working this morning. Was it really just a hunch?”

Karen stared at him a moment, glorious hope surging through her very soul. She turned and began up the stairs, mostly to hide the conflicting expressions on her face. It also gave her a moment to compose herself, think of the best way to answer.

It didn’t have to be the end! Provided she said the right thing now, that is.

She spoke cautiously. “Well, you know, it just seemed so impossible. I didn’t think I actually heard anything. I thought, well, maybe…” Suddenly the phrase she hated so much, the one that graced the lips of dozens of teachers, psychiatrists, and counselors came to mind, and Karen found her salvation. “I thought it was all in my head.”

They’d reached the kitchen, and suddenly Richard hugged her, not a side-ways, polite hug of a supervisor, but a full on, fierce hug, full of warmth and happiness.

“Well, from now on, you listen to your hunches, you hear me. And don’t let any old fossil like me tell you not to.”

Karen grinned openly now, filled with relief beyond anything she’d ever experienced. Everything would be all right. She would keep Richard, her job, her friends, her life. She could even be joyful, since everyone would assume she was happy about the little girl. She was, too.

Together they headed outside. The ambulance had arrived, and the EMT examined the little girl, while Tasha fussed and comforted her. Karen wondered what they were waiting for, when a police car pulled up, and a woman jumped out and ran sobbing toward the ambulance. She clutched the child desperately, crying and laughing.

Richard put his arm around Karen and gave her another, proper side-ways hug.

“You did good today.” Karen slipped her arm under his and gave him a hug back. She knew what words to say. “Thanks.” But he would never understand the depth of her gratitude.

“Come on,” he said, releasing her. “We spend too much time with the dead. Let’s go walk with the living for a while.” Together, they stepped off the old porch and toward the group of happy, living, celebrating people. Walk with the living, Karen thought. Yes, I can do that, at least for today. And, for the first time, her step had a little skip to it.