As I walked through the valley of the shadow of arms, I quickened my pace to just less than a jog. For better clarity and my own sanity I felt my first visit should have been during daylight; instead my professor insisted on meeting at dawn, knowing I was always early for appointments. It was still dark, with the sun barely above the horizon, and rain clouds threatened to make me even less comfortable. My professor was late, as he often was, but he always thought it was OK as long as he apologized.
Looking around me I understood exactly what my professor had warned me to expect. Arms grew out of the ground like dandelions in the summer, only they weren’t bright with petals; they were dreary with disturbing protrusions. It certainly wasn’t like any forest I’d ever seen. Even the books didn’t depict the finality of the Arm Farm, which was sinking in quickly.
Save for the sinewy arms against the dreary backdrop and the random chirp from faraway birds, I was alone. The only immediate sounds were my footsteps, the pounding of my heart, and quiet words. I was confused — unsure of where the words were coming from — but listening more closely, suddenly realized that it was me praying.
“…Stay inside me as I dare to tread, be beside me in case I stumble. Dear God, guide me through this…”
Unfortunately, this was the first moment I had ever put my trust in God so I found it difficult to believe He would suddenly appear. Years without feeling His presence wasn’t a strong indication that He would suddenly take an interest in me, because He had done me so wrong when I was a little girl that I found it difficult to let myself embrace His existence.
Without much looking around I knew I had found the right tree where our meeting was to take place. It appeared exactly like the professor had described; it was hard to miss a tree shaped like a ‘D’. Looking at the tree’s void of branches and foliage I sat right in its belly, which offered only a bit more comfort and safety than one of its protruding limbs. I was slightly shocked at the health of all the trees despite the bombardment of decomposing appendages. There wasn’t a barn or any livestock in sight, not a sound to hear without straining. I was left to my own devices with only my imagination, which too often played cruel tricks on me. The text books discourage wild flights of imagination, but those in the field embrace them. Harder than any test my professor could offer was my own task of learning to embrace — and control — my wild imagination.
The hands below began waving at me; the arms with missing hands were swaying despite the lack of wind. Sinew had collected on each protruding arm and swayed softly in the light, warm breeze. My own hand began to tremble and I began trying to concentrate on calming the shakes away, but they insisted on staying. I wouldn’t give up trying. One by one the waving hands began to point at me and then seemed to turn to point to an approaching vehicle that looked nothing like the professor’s. My nerves peaked, and then relaxed when I saw a familiar face emerge from the red PT Cruiser.
“Professor!” I shouted, knowing he could only barely hear me, but wanting to make his presence concrete in order to slow my racing heart. I thought about running to him, but decided that the professional thing to do would be to wait. My trembles had reduced to a minimum and I remained seated on the tree. The professor, dressed simply in tight, dark-colored jeans and an old plaid sweater, strode more confidently than I had a few minutes prior. His hair was combed much like he wore it at school, but he looked much more at ease than I had ever had the pleasure of seeing.
“Natalie, you made it. Terrific! And punctual as usual. I know you won’t want to spend your whole Saturday here, so let’s get started whenever you’re ready.”
The professor’s light blue eyes peered at me like he had known me all of his life. I sensed we were starting to become more than teacher and student — and I liked it.
“Ready and waiting. Thanks again for this opportunity. I realize you probably don’t want to spend your entire day with me here either, not to mention that you’re teaching for free.”
“It’s no trouble at all. I love teaching when I know the student is absorbing the material. Besides, I can only teach so much in class and you are the only student who realizes this. You have a lot of potential and I want to embrace that. Just remember me when you’ve made it to the big league.”
Despite the chill in the air, my face flushed; Professor Matthews was the only teacher who could do that to me. I realized that he noticed my embarrassment even though he tried to conceal his knowledge.
“I trust you brought your tools,” he said.
Jumping down from my perch, I stumbled over the top of my bag and Professor Matthews saw what broke my fall. Great, my second embarrassment that day — not that I was keeping track. Opening my backpack, I pulled out a notebook and my forensic evidence kit as he pointed to the nearest protruding arm and asked me to get started. When I bent down to get a closer look, I was startled by the smell emanating from the test area; Professor Matthews noticed my reaction.
My hands shook and I clamped one to my mouth to block the sudden bile rising from my stomach, fighting to escape. To the disapproval of my stomach, I forced it back down and brought my tweezers and test tube to the rotting arm. As I tried to be nonchalant, I saw Professor Matthews’ grin out of the corner of my eye. I was already flustered enough not to worry about blushing. Taking a deep breath through my mouth, I completed my task as his husky but clear voice filled the creepy silence.
“That odor was always there, you’re just becoming attuned to it at the closer position. You won’t believe me but by the end of the day the smell will no longer be an issue. Do remember that each corpse in its varying stage of decomposition and condition will have its own distinct smell. What you smell right here is not necessarily the worst of it. I’m not trying to lecture you — I’ll save that for the entire class. As you know, crime scene investigators who haven’t seen all stages set up the Arm Farm. That way we can catalog differences of decomposition and compare them with actual crime scenes. Doing this tells us a lot about time frame and how nature can tamper with evidence.”
A low rumble sounded in the distance. I looked around, afraid it would rain, and felt like I was being watched. The Farm sure does play tricks on its visitors, I thought.
“When you’re called to a scene, the evidence will have been left by the killer, not a scientist. The possibilities are endless when you’re in the field.”
Lacking words, I ignored the moment of silence and quickly finished my preliminary examination. “Done.” Reading from my notebook, I explained the arm owner’s estimated age and race, and my personal insight on how this arm came to be rotting here. The cause of death, of course, could not be proven without the rest of the body.
“Excellent, but you missed something.”
I thought for only a second. “Oh, right, the fingernails. I examined them, but I just didn’t report what I found.”
“Always report all of your findings, or lack thereof. You may not think a certain piece of information is important but you have yet to put the puzzle together. If you’re missing pieces, you will never be able to see the whole picture.”
“I’m sorry, it’s still too early in the day for me.” I knew the excuse was lame and felt terrible for saying it. I quickly continued, “I found quite a bit of dirt under the nails. At a crime scene I would bag it and bring it in for analysis, but I will leave it here for the next guy to miss.”
“Good work, CSI Hartman, now on to the next one.”
I gathered my tools and followed where Professor Matthews directed. By the second arm I was breathing through my nose, not noticing the putrid smell — I was a natural.
The rest of the morning continued in much the same manner until my stomach grumbled. Third embarrassment. Professor Matthews offered to break for lunch and I eagerly accepted. Maybe too eagerly, in hindsight. As we walked back to our cars we agreed on a restaurant where we’d have lunch, and we continued our chat as he locked the gates to the Arm Farm. I gave him back the key he’d lent me for entry and we got into our separate cars. On the way, I called my friend Amanda.
“Hi Amanda, how are you? I know we had plans for today but I’ll have to reschedule.” I sounded nervous and she knew it. I couldn’t hide anything from her, but she seemed too distracted to pry any more than she did.
“No biggie, but why? Do you have a date?”
“Yes and no. Amanda, you can’t repeat this to anyone and I don’t have time to explain. Professor Matthews took me out to the Arm Farm and is now treating me to lunch.”
“Nat, that’s awesome! The lunch, I mean. The Farm idea freaks me out.”
“It’s nothing.” It didn’t feel like nothing, but I tried to play things cool. I could only imagine what Amanda was thinking after I hung up the phone. She was the only one who knew how I was beginning to feel about Professor Matthews. Admittedly, I couldn’t even decide how to feel, yet she was with me every step of the way — sometimes even a step ahead. But we both knew I had to move past those feelings.
The professor and I arrived at the Meet and Griddle and I drove around the parking lot, scouring for people I recognized, before pulling in to a spot. I hoped no one from school would see us together, but Professor Matthews didn’t seem to mind.
While the professor and the waiter chose a table I excused myself to go to the restroom. I needed to clean up and I also used the opportunity to scan for familiar faces on my way through the restaurant. No one I recognized caught my eye. The restroom was as spotless as the restaurant alluded, and it was mortifying to realize, as I walked by the reassuringly empty stalls, how disgusting I must have smelled. I hoped I wouldn’t ruin any of the other diners’ appetites.
By the time I returned, Professor Matthews had already ordered for me. A glass of red wine stood alone at my table setting. “What’s this?”
“I thought we’d celebrate our findings. I hope red wine is OK and that you’re also not allergic to shellfish.”
“I love seafood, thank you, but what did we find?”
“I found — or, we — found your niche, your talent, when you found the evidence.” Not used to hearing compliments or even references to having talents, I blushed for a fourth time that day. “I can count on one hand all the students I felt the need to test at the Farm. Three of them made it past the gate without vomiting, and one made it through the entire day without retching. You’ve already completed all of the tasks I’ve set without a word of complaint.”
“That first arm almost got me, and you didn’t see how I did when I arrived.”
“And you’ve aced all the tests until now. I was at the Farm before you, you know. I watched you hesitate at the gate and saw you contemplate sitting on the ground or remain standing. I…” His voice trailed off as he saw the look of astonishment on my face.
I couldn’t decide between slapping him, leaving him, or hugging him, but the smell of the arriving lunch paralyzed me into inaction. The waiter left and the tension returned.
Even the best and most observant could miss important facts. Having watched Natalie since she was a baby, I stepped up my own game when she began making decisions that could affect me. I could have been sitting at the same table, yet she wouldn’t have seen me no matter how hard she tried. Within earshot I sat and worried.
I felt proud of her accomplishments but fearful of them as well.
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I totally enjoyed your book. I love “whodunnit” stories, and yours kept me guessing for quite some time. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes the suspence of murder mysteries.