by Lia Swope Mitchell

Nobody warned him that she would be naked, so when the blinds lifted and her skin shone there, its whole expanse overbright under the lights, a tech in scrubs and mask bending over her hand with a camera—Tom's first reaction was to close his eyes. Inappropriate, he thought, and almost said before he clasped a hand over his mouth and did not. He inhaled deeply through his nose, focused on the even buzz of fluorescents overhead. Whatever the protocol was, after all, they knew, and surely they were doing their jobs; surely all was right and proper here.

She'd been dressed for the fall weather when the highway patrolman had found her, next to I-35 a mile outside Rochester city limits, her jeans and light leather jacket gathering the damp. But no purse, no phone or wallet. Nothing in her pockets but some change and a receipt with Tom's name and number on its back.

"Well," the big cop said, "can you give us an ID?"

Tom looked, focused on the still face, the flat mouth. Her smile had been great, big and welcoming, with crooked teeth that she sometimes remembered and tried to hide with her fingers. She was new to town, she'd said, just moved from Chicago for a job. She wanted a quieter life. Simpler.

And in the calm of Casey's on a Sunday evening—beer glasses standing cool and golden on the bar, music turned down for the six o'clock news—it had seemed simple, remarkably easy in fact, to talk, to joke, to welcome her. Easy to make her laugh. He invented small town scandals, gossip about the local newscasters, sweet fat Marianne jabbering about the specials at Marianne's Homecookin' Cafe, the 4H kids planning for next year's state fair. She'd remained on the stool next to his, laughing at all his blatant libels, until the news ended and her beer was gone. He'd asked to buy her another sometime, and wrote down his number quickly, hoping the neon beer lights hid his flush.

He'd imagined her body, warm and solid in his arms, the skin soft under his fingers; his hands finding their way beneath her sweater, sliding up the curve of her spine. Getting ahead of himself, he'd thought, so stupid—he'd imagined her breasts. Her breath on his neck. A different kind of smile.

Now her skin stretched stiffly over ribcage and hipbones, breasts strangely pushed to one side where she'd lain on them, buttocks flattening, unresistant to the metal beneath. A rose tattoo faded on one shoulder, its petals blotched red.

"Her name was Sarah," Tom told the cop. "She worked at Mayo. In PR, I think."

"No last name?"

"I just met her the once."

"It's a start, anyway."

"Was she—" The blind rustled down, horizontal slats gray with dust beyond the window. "What happened?"

"That's the question. So last night, what were you doing?"

Last night was Tuesday, after work. It was gone, blotted out by all that pallor, the after-image still spreading on his retina, morphing and discoloring like a burnt negative. Gradually, though, he remembered: he'd gotten stuck at the office late, trying to match inventories with sales reports. Then the lights had been against him, orange flicking to red at every intersection. He'd picked up a pizza on the way home. Watched the news and some show about psychic detectives after. Fallen asleep in that warm hypnosis, heavy with food in the blue light.

While Sarah stilled in the cold dark, watching clouds drift across the moon, the stars going out. The highway a fading thunder.

There was paperwork, a statement to sign, before they let him leave. It was almost noon. The wind had risen, stripping the last leaves from the trees, sweeping them in whirls around the concrete. The sky hung damp and white: rain coming. And after it winter, stillness and snow. All movement frozen, all colors artificial. Tom got in his car and sat there, watching slight waves in the arcs of the powerlines. And he waited for a very long time.

BIO: Lia Swope Mitchell is a PhD candidate in French literature at the University of Minnesota. She writes fiction on the sly.