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Inhalants

Blair Hurley

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The autopsy report is as follows:

EXTERNAL EXAMINATION: The body is that of a thirty-five-year-old female with no distinguishing physical marks or lesions.

INTERNAL EXAMINATION: The autopsy revealed there were three inches of standing water in her lungs.

The autopsy report showed the dime-sized, mossy patches of tar from three and a half furtive, nauseated years of smoking and pretending to like it in front of a college boyfriend.

The examiner found a fine floor carpeting of cat hair and a light dusting of dandruff from pressing her nose into her baby’s floury scalp and breathing deeply.

There were eleven cashmere fibers from when she wrapped her scarf high around her nose and mouth in winter.

There was a teaspoon worth of New York grime, the kind that turns your mucus black if you live in it too long, and Chicago bus fumes, and hazy wisps of San Francisco fog.

There was a nonzero amount of the kind of mold that only grows in the pages of old books, and a pulpy lining from cheap paperbacks.

The examiner found years of chalk dust and laser toner, eraser shavings, and college students’ voices telling her why the paper was late. The sides of her lungs were coated with excuses.

The sides of her lungs were coated with excuses.

An X-ray showed the light scarring from her year of chronic bronchitis as a child, still emanating menthol and camphor from her mother’s constant efforts with Vicks VapoRub.

The X-ray showed three ruptured alveoli, those delicate cauliflowers of tissue: one from her endurance-running days in high school, when she ran on and on into the gray boundaries of what her heart could bear; one from the straining and effort of giving birth; one from a single, sharp gasp, brought about in the changing room of a thrift store by a man whose name no one living now knows.

The examiner found popcorn kernels—you never really can get rid of them—and crumbs of chicken fingers and pizza grease, and the voices of grown-ups: Look at that, she inhaled it. She’ll be a big one. I thought big girls were grateful.

And the cigarette smoke of strangers who leaned over her on street corners, hoping for a smile, and the thin vapor of her mother’s shout: You’ll bring down this family the way you’re going, aren’t you ashamed?

The examiner found whispered words still tangled in the furry shag rug of her neuron receptors, the ones that tell you to take in a welcome breath and the ones that tell you to cough back a poison: lovers sighing into her hair, others frightening with their demands, her mother making promises for her life that she couldn’t keep.

The report showed long-term structural damage from too many nights waking up with heart pounding, woozy with fear over what her own baby’s life would be like, how it was just the two of them, no backup, no buffer for disaster.

The report showed all the things she wanted to say but did not say, the secrets kept, the ones that never rose past the larynx or got caught in the voicebox or tripped on the tip of the tongue. Nothing that remarkable, really. Just a thousand love yous or I’m sorrys or one recurring word beating like a chime: Help.

Nothing that remarkable, really. Just a thousand love yous or I’m sorrys or one recurring word beating like a chime: Help.

EXAMINER’S NOTES: We often see such things in this profession. The lungs, wonderful absorbent sponges, take everything in and hold on and do not let go.

CAUSE OF DEATH DETERMINATION: The autopsy showed pond water, brackish and green, rimmed with foam. It showed that she opened her mouth, not to speak, but to welcome it in.


Blair Hurley received her AB from Princeton University and her MFA from NYU. A 2018 Pushcart Prize winner, her stories are published or forthcoming in Ninth Letter, West Branch, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, The Devoted, was published in August 2018 from W. W. Norton & Company. Learn more at blairhurley.com.

Illustration by Meghan Irwin.

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