A Vein of Copper
By Becca Jenkins
For J.P. Beauchamp each new crime scene presented itself in the form of what he might best describe as tasting notes—and this one had the crimson aroma of liver paired with the mouthfeel of a freshly-licked battery.
To say such things to a victim's mother, to the one standing before him specifically, would not be empathetic or kind. This woman was not just a mother, but someone who had held his empathy for an eternity already. This was not the first time Petronille had bared her heart before him. But she wasn't supposed to be here.
She had made an assumption, no doubt justified by years of bad choices on her part and her child's. Her child that now filled his sinuses with the taste of offal, with mallard breast and bloody shot, a dirty penny stashed under his tongue.
Her child had given everything to his elemental pursuit, and from the patina on her sternum, he knew that she, as mother, had not been spared from his ravages.
Petronille blinked at him from her side of the police tape, a strangely common sight in their sleepy town. On the northernmost tip of the peninsula everyone forgets belongs to Michigan, residing in the 21st century but living in a history forgotten by others, except by those who clung to it as if it their history were their existence.
"You can't cross this line," he said.
"I know the truth," she replied. Her hand snuck up to her collarbone and rubbed the round space where her necklace would have rested against her skin. She leaned to her right, to see beyond him.
"You don't know," he said, as he leaned in kind to block her. "Even if you did, you don't want to see."
A bony finger of cold morning air lifted a long swirl of her gray hair and draped it across her forehead. She pushed it behind her ear and held it there. Sadness tugged at the corners of her mouth. She looked up at him with her wet, round eyes and his guts clenched in a spasm of stupidity.
"Of course I don't want to see," she whispered.
He resisted reaching across the police tape to touch her, to grasp her shoulder, to feel her pulse beneath his fingertips. She had always felt like shades of pink: watermelon and strawberries and bubble-gum. Her scent was the tickle of kitten fur in his nostrils. Her voice quenching his thirst like chilled lemonade on the hottest day of summer. It was hard to imagine that still inside her, the girl he had known inside this woman weathered by grief, but he wanted to imagine it possible—that a flicker of something lived beneath the layers of mantle. He wanted to reach out, hold her and tell her it would all be okay, but he feared touching her would confirm the girl from those lemonade summers was long gone. He stepped back from the police line.
"I'll come find you later if you're right," he said. "I won't let anyone else tell you. But consider that you're wrong."
"Will you come tell me if I'm wrong, too?" she asked. She let go of her hair and pulled her coat tightly around her. "I don't want to know the answer just because I see you at the door."
"Go home," he said with a nod.
He watched as she walked back to her car. Her body stiff with the tension that comes in anticipation of a punch to the stomach, to the soul. He watched as she readjusted the mirrors that surely no one else had touched in her absence. He watched until he was sure she was gone, making sure that she wouldn't sneak back behind him and try to peak around his elbow at the atrocity no mother should see. No father, either. In that way he was blessed, free to do his work without the burden of imagining his own child.
He turned and walked to the blackened circle in the center of the empty lot, scorched by the pop and hiss of the electrical explosion. Crime scene investigators wearing paper booties lingered along the edges of the circle, kneeling, talking—placing evidence in their specimen bags. As if anyone had any doubt what had occurred here. They would box it all up, this day and the life that ended here, and life for everyone else would proceed. Just another day when the power went out and it wasn't due to a squirrel, or a bird, or a fallen tree.
He stood at the edge of the circle and inhaled, the smells growing in intensity, fueled by oxygen like a flame. He exhaled and surveyed the scene. The doors on the power transformer cabinet had been warped before the fire. Disemboweled by the meth addict that now lay as a sacrifice at its base. Inside the metal box its precious innards still remained, its copper veins, ready to be undone, stripped, and removed.
The small amount of wire the thief had unleashed still hung in the air, drifting above the charcoal powder that covered the empty lot, mingling with the ozone in the aftermath of the storm. All of it was enveloped in an acrid cloud that left Beauchamp with the sensation he couldn't stop licking a somehow mildewy, yet brand-new shower curtain. The copper and ozone poked at his sinuses and the fleshy cushion at the back of his throat.
The thief's face had melted, his body congealed against the transformer box. One shoe was twenty feet away, clean and white—the other a blob of rubber that ran in the moment of heat and then froze again, malformed. A patch of red that might have been skin, or meat, or something still retaining blood stretched across where the man's forehead would have been. The larger picture of him was a cascade of shocked, molten rubber.
In the sideways light of the morning, a ribbon of steam spirited its way from the body that was not a body and spiraled past the stench of rotting flesh and burnt plastic, up into the air. A bit of DNA. A fractal. Oxygen. Hydrogen. All of the things that every body was and remained whether breathing or not. When the defective, dirty, and deficient burned away, its crispy edges flaking away, starting with a sizzle and ending with the soft hush of a flame turned to something between smoke and morning mist.
Beauchamp watched as the strand of ether twisted into the gray sky and he breathed the air the dead man breathed.
He rolled his shoulders back and pushed his hands deep into his pockets, letting the tension release from his own body, reminding himself he could move. His knuckles grazed against a coin. He pulled a penny from his pocket and flipped it between his palms. He watched the investigator kneeling on the ground poke at the meth head's deteriorated form. A pile of carbon. A sculpture of raw elements. A bust roughly hewn. Never finished, until suddenly it was.
"Have we made an identification yet?" Beauchamp asked.
"No," the investigator said. A few random raindrops began to fall from the sky, powerless to wash away any of the blackened crime scene residue.
Beauchamp flipped the penny to the back of his right hand. Heads. The strong jaw line of Lincoln.
A raindrop fell on the penny. Lincoln's jaw line drifted, melting off the edge of the coin. It wasn't Lincoln. It was Beauchamp's old Indian Head penny.
On a woman's palm.
He looked up into her face. Her aquamarine eyes twinkled at him. His wife, as a teenager, when their lives first mingled.
"I stole it from my daddy's desk for you," the redheaded siren whispered.
"It's lucky, I swear."
She held out her hand, and then looked down at the ID in his hand. She winced.
"It's not what you think," he said, but she was gone.
Beauchamp opened his eyes and rubbed the penny between his thumb and index finger, running his fingertip across the edge of Lincoln's beard.
"Sir?" the man on the ground asked, looking up at Beauchamp.
"Nothing," Beauchamp replied. Despite his vision, despite Nora's judgment, this meth head was no different from any other or from any other human, in fact. A man driven to rationalizations that he could do what he could not. Starved by the demon that occupied his soul. Making a final fatal grasp at existence. As his palm tightened around his prize, the error of his ways must have occurred to him. Or, perhaps, for his sake, it did not. Perhaps the end came quicker than any man deserved.
Another crime scene investigator tiptoed through the black circle. She moved toward Beauchamp while still eying the ground.
"Found this," she said, without looking up. She handed him a leather wallet. A driver's license poked out the top. She had looked at it already and put it back for him to rediscover. Her face revealed nothing. He held the penny in his palm, so he could pull the man's identification from the wallet. The ID was pristine. The man's face melted. The facade incinerated, or was it the other way around? A Darwinian smelting—a melting of the slag, exposing the purity underneath. But when all darkness was tossed aside in the search for purity, sometimes nothing remained.
Beauchamp glanced down at the ID card in his hand.
He did not recognize the subject who prayed at the copper temple. No one could.
But he recognized the man on the license.
A face and name he knew.
A name he now gave to the carbon and flesh, to the aroma of liver and the taste of electricity, to the early morning call that ruined his day before it even began. It all belonged to a name he knew, a boy he knew, and he mourned what he had to do next.
He pushed the penny back down in his pocket.
Beauchamp stood in the entranceway of the mother that was no longer a mother's house. Petronille's house. Outside the rain had increased and he hoped it would hold the smells and the burnt powder of the crime scene to the ground. Inside this house, the dust had never settled. It hung in the air, obscuring his vision, marking every attempt to disturb the past. It twisted into the fibers of the runner on the side table, knotted into the wooden swirls of the photo frames, and layered across the faces of the family members posing stiffly in front of the mine entrances with their tools and their vacant, flat eyes. Only one object refused the dust--a ball of malachite. Rubbed smooth and clean by the worrying hands of a wife and mother.
Beauchamp and Petronille stood next to each other in silence, staring at the menagerie of the past. So many more photos they held in their heads that did not have to be lined up on the table. They both saw them and knew what each other remembered.
Only one photo contained Petronille herself. It was faded, as if it had always been black and white, or maybe even a daguerreotype. No longer the Kodachrome of their childhood, the portrait reached back farther and survived longer.
"He looks like his father, eh?" she said.
In the photo, she stood between two dark, strong-faced men with long black hair.
Beauchamp shook his head. "I always thought he looked like you. When you were young."
"No, he's handsome like Blackbird."
She'd always called the man who became her husband Blackbird. Never Mack, like the rest of them. Makadepenasi, for the famed warrior of the Odawa. Beauchamp felt the edges of her son's driver's license as his fingers fidgeted in his pocket. He pulled it from his pocket and held it out to her. She stared at it and blinked, as if trying to see it clearly through the dusty air. As if it might disappear, as if the whole day might. After a long moment, she took the ID from him and leaned it against the picture of her and the strong-faced men.
"Are you going to be okay?" Beauchamp asked, hating himself and the wall he stared at for asking such a stupid question, one he never asked. The moisture of her sigh dampened the dusty air to his skin.
"You tell me, Jean Pierre," she said.
She never called him J.P. She never had.
"Do you remember when we buried Blackbird?" she asked.
Petronille traced her finger along the photo frame.
"I'm glad Blackbird wasn't here today," she said. "Maybe that's why it all happened. So he didn't have to be here."
"That's a lot of reason to put on something," he replied.
"Why do you think Blackbird died?"
"Because accidents happen."
"That's no reason."
"And your wife?" she asked as she picked up the malachite ball and rolled it in her hands. "Do you miss her?"
He watched the green globe move from her left hand to her right and back again. An anxiety grew inside him, that she might drop it, that it might smash to pieces on the hardwood floor. That pieces would skitter beneath the side table never to be found again so that even if she collected what she thought was every piece, the sphere would never be whole again.
"I miss her," he said.
She set the malachite ball back on the side table and let her hand rest on it.
"I just wanted to hear someone else say it, too," she said to the photos. "I miss them all," he offered.
"For your sake."
"And my son?"
"It's too soon to miss him," she conceded.
"No," Beauchamp said. "He's been gone a long time."
"He was here just yesterday morning," she said. Her eyes drifted toward the kitchen, where she'd probably cooked him breakfast and offered to do his laundry and told him he could stay over anytime he needed, though she knew he only came to see if she'd replaced the electronics, if she had a new TV, if she still kept her cash in the same predictable hiding spots.
"No," Beauchamp said. "He wasn't really here."
The sadness tugged at her mouth again, as it had since Mack's passing, since her childhood, since before any of that. Since the day the first copper miner blasted the first mine open wide. Since the day her great-grandparents awoke in a cabin surrounded by wolves. Since the day Mack's namesake fought for his land. That sadness tugged at her mouth. The same sadness that slipped down from the past, down the broken branches of the evergreens, down the burial mounds, down the mine shafts and into the darkness of the tunnels and caverns, drowning the men in a way that water never could. A sadness that ran like a vein of ore through the ground beneath them and flooded back up into their lives, in the very food they ate, in the taste of their blood.
"It's been a long time," she said.
Beauchamp pulled the penny from his pocket. He set it on edge on the side table and spun it.
She smacked it down. The copper clapped against the wood. Like a gunshot breaking through the dust-encrusted silence, a bullet ricocheting between the long-deaf walls of her house. Beauchamp startled, and she laughed at his surprise. The sound of her laughter plinking off the hardwood floors and skittering into the other rooms. She plucked the penny off the table and tried to spin it herself. It wobbled and then danced across the surface, dropping off the side. Beauchamp swiped at it, but not before it skipped across the floor and disappeared into the heating vent.
She tilted her head at him. "Will I see you again?"
She'd looked at him like this before.
"I won't come here again unless you ask," he said.
"As if asking for something has so much power."
She could say this because she didn't know what he'd been asking for all these years. That as horrible as this day was, it was everything he had been hoping for, asking for—for her. She could say this because everything she'd asked for, prayed for, she'd never received—at least not to her knowledge; at least not to his.
"You should rest now," he said. He opened the front door and stepped out into the night. She stood in the doorway, holding onto the frame. The rain had lessened in the time they had spoken.
"I thought I would be sadder today," she said.
"Is that okay?" he asked.
"I think so." She smiled and the long-lost gesture cracked the skin of her cheeks. He hesitated. Afraid he might frighten this new thing away. He reached out and hovered his hand near her face and she leaned ever so slightly into him, the little hairs on their skin reaching out to each other.
The streetlight flickered and then darkened.
"They'll call you about another body tomorrow," she said, her voice more accepting than resigned.
He turned to face the street and she stood next to him. In the field across the street, tiny lights turned on and off. A layer of sparks, pulsing, vibrating their natural-born energy through the night.
"Fireflies," she said, as she slipped her hand inside his and the sky suddenly tasted of lemonade.