Orbital: A Halloween Story

Orbital Jack-O-Lantern

I discovered my brother-in-law was a serial killer over breakfast one morning, while I was eating oatmeal and looking inside his brain.

And…I should probably explain that.

See, I’m a neuroscientist at Yale University. My name is Mark Cornell. Last summer, my sister Faith got married. Finally. She was so happy because she’d met the perfect guy: a talented chef with his own restaurant up in Boston. They were a dream couple.

Over winter break the newlyweds drove down to New Haven for a visit and I snuck them into the lab so I could scan their brains. It was supposed to be harmless – in fact my other sister and her husband had done the same thing years ago after they got married, as an amusing way for me to tell them the differences in their personalities and warn them of the inevitable times they’d clash. It’s sort of like a Meyers-Briggs thing: I can tell you the type of personality you have from the lights in your brain – flashes of blue, red and yellow amid darker patches of black.

It’s what I do.

I remembered how amazed Jenn, my youngest sister, had been when I gave her and her husband Tom their readings. “Oh. My. God. That is totally me,” she’d said. Then, punching Tom in the arm, added, “And that is definitely you. Tell me that’s not exactly the way you are.”

Tom reluctantly agreed with my findings, but not before shooting an annoyed look at me over Jenn’s shoulder that told me – guy to guy – I’d just made his life hell for a few weeks. And thanks a bunch for that. So I’d been a little worried about running the same tests for Faith – one angry brother-in-law seemed enough – but the way Jenn raved about her results forced my hand. “You have to do it,” she told Faith. “It’s so cool.” Great. Now Faith would think I was playing favorites if I refused her request for the same treatment.

The one thing I decided to do differently was avoid providing them immediate results in person. I told them I’d mail them later and we could discuss over the phone. That way if there was anything embarrassing for Faith’s husband Sam, I could decide whether or not to share it, and avoid any repeat brother-in-law angst.

Orbital Brain Scan

And that’s how, a few weeks later, I ended up reading their scans over breakfast before heading out to teach my morning class. That’s when I saw it, right in front of me: a dark patch in Sam’s orbital cortex, just behind the eyes. I recognized it immediately. The orbital cortex is the part of the brain involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and impulse control. It acts like a damper on the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with aggression and appetites. Every serial killer’s brain scan I’ve ever seen – and I mean every single one – has had that dark patch in the orbital cortex. The same one I saw in Sam’s brain, right behind his eyes. The one that means there’s an imbalance and the orbital cortex isn’t doing its job.

It’s on strike.

And the result of this particular work stoppage? The amygdala – the part of your brain driving your id-type behaviors – your unchecked rage, violence, eating, sex, drinking, all of it – takes over. You become a sociopath. According to my data, you’re likely to be a serial killer.

I felt I had no time to waste. As far as I knew, the behavior dictated by his profile had yet to manifest, but who could tell when it would? How could I live with myself if I waited too long before taking action? What if my sister was killed by her maniac husband in the interim?

First I called Faith. She answered with a surprised tone. I didn’t call that often. “Hey, Mark. Everything okay?”

“Yes,” I answered quickly. “Everything’s fine. How about you? Are you all right?”

“Me? Sure, I’m fine. Just getting ready for work.” I listened for any change in her tone, something to indicate she wasn’t telling the whole truth. “Mark, you sound a little odd. Are you positive you’re okay?”

“Sure, sure, I’m great. I just hadn’t called in a while…and I was thinking about you this morning. Where’s Sam?”

“Oh, he’s still sleeping. He won’t get up until almost noon. He’s at that restaurant so late every night. But you know, it’s his dream. I’m already asleep by the time he gets home. We’re like ships passing.”

I remembered Sam complaining about his daily schedule: because he tried to minimize his staff’s hours as a way of keeping costs down, he did most of the afternoon prep and late evening cleanup all by himself, starting at two and ending after midnight. “It’s one killer of a day,” he had told me once, laughing as he said it.

I checked the clock. Not even 8 a.m. yet. I had plenty of time.

“Say,” Faith continued. “You read those scans we did yet?”

Hesitating just a moment, I tried to keep my voice even. “Not yet. I will soon, though. Promise.”

She thanked me for calling but apologized that she really had to run or she’d be late for work. We said goodbye and hung up.

The next call I made was to my assistant Travis. I told him I’d had an epiphany of sorts – this wasn’t all that unusual a claim for me to make – and asked him to cover my classes for the day. He took it in stride. He’d covered for me many times before – one of the crosses he had to bear to earn a Masters degree was to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the nutty professor. “Wait. Is this about a serial killer?”

My heart thumped in my chest, but then I realized he had no idea what I planned to do with my day. No, he was referring to the paper we were working on together, the one we were close to publishing, on serial killer profiling. “Sort of. I just need to take care of something before it leaves my head.”

After I hung up from that second call, I headed to the bedroom, pulled out the little footstool I kept next to the closet and mounted it, standing tiptoed and reaching deep into the back of the top shelf, above my suits and belts and ties.

It took a moment, but finally I grasped the metal lockbox that held my handgun and pulled it down.

# # #

I spent the morning trying to convince myself I was wrong. That all the work I’d done my entire life was a sham, every article I’d written baseless, all my research conclusions mere conjecture. I tried to believe my brother-in-law Sam couldn’t possibly be a serial killer.

But it wasn’t true, and I knew it. I’d never seen the scan he had in a non-killer before. I trusted my results. After all, this is what I do.

I kept checking the clock. I’d originally planned to drive up to Boston and be there by two, to confront Sam alone in his restaurant before the rest of his staff arrived. To do that, I’d have to leave for the two and a half hour drive no later than eleven, just in case there was traffic. I-95 was rarely a picnic. But as the morning marched on and I argued with myself, it occurred to me that wasn’t the best plan after all. If I arrived in the afternoon, it wouldn’t be long before his staff started coming in. And what if one of them was early?

No, if I was going to kill my brother-in-law, it’d be better to do it late that night, under the cover of dark, when he was closing his restaurant alone.

# # #

During the drive up to Boston, every single moment I’d ever spent with Sam Byrd ran through my mind. The time he taught me how he cooked steak at his restaurant on his backyard grill, including showing me the precision he employed to trim the fat first using the sharpest knife I’d ever seen. The kind of knife a killer would use to cut someone’s throat. The angered expression only I’d noticed when Faith hadn’t been ready to walk the aisle when the music started at their wedding, the one I’d mistakenly attributed to his stress and nerves. His claim to be a passionate Patriots fan followed by a complete lack of emotion when “his team” lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl and their perfect season was ruined. The blatant flirting and ogling of every attractive woman he seemed to come into contact with, even at his own wedding reception.

It all seemed so obvious now that I’d seen his brain. The man was a classic sociopath.

I arrived at nearly ten p.m. and discretely parked several blocks away from his restaurant, walking to it so there would be no witnesses who could claim to have seen my car in the area. There were only a few tables of customers left inside, and most appeared to be wrapping up their meals. I snuck around the back and found Sam’s car parked in its usual spot. Crouching near it, I finally caught sight of him sneaking out the back kitchen door for a cigarette break. This gave me all the confirmation I needed – my brother-in-law was working tonight. I slid the gloves I’d brought onto my hands and waited for everyone else to leave.

Once they were gone, the head chef and I were going to have a nice, long talk.

# # #

“Mark?” Sam asked, surprised, when I walked in through the back door from the alley. Everyone else – all the customers and his staff – were gone now. I’d seen the last of his cooks drive off just minutes before. That same sharp knife hovered in his hand over the remnants of a side of beef. Early prep for tomorrow, I guessed.

“Hello, Sam,” I said.

“What are you doing here? I didn’t know you were in town.”

I hastily pulled out the gun from my jacket pocket. It got stuck on the flap a moment and I had to wrestle with it until I finally had it pointed straight at him. “I’m here to talk about your brain.”

Sam dropped the knife in shock and his wide eyes fixed on the barrel of my weapon. “Mark, what the hell?”

“Take a step back.” He did, towards a chair near the industrial ovens. “And sit down. Right there.”

He looked around, and a smile hinted at the corners of his mouth. “Wait a minute,” he said slowly. “This is a joke, right? Some kind of prank?”

“Sit down!” I yelled, brandishing the gun.

His face lost all color and he backed into the chair without uttering another word. I took advantage of the silence and started talking then. I told him all about his orbital cortex scan, about my research, about my memories of his previous sociopathic behavior. I finished with “I won’t let you hurt my sister. I can’t.”

“This is crazy,” he said, his voice pitched higher than I’d ever heard it. “Mark, I’m no killer. I love Faith. We’re going to start a family. You can’t believe – ”

“Just shut up,” I yelled.

He must’ve decided he was in real trouble then, because he started screaming for help. I charged over and touched the cold metal of the gun to his temple. Just as suddenly as he’d started, he stopped.

We waited several minutes in the new silence, my unmoving gun still making contact with his skin. I watched as a bead of sweat slid from his hairline to the gun, around it and down his cheek, and hoped I wouldn’t hear sirens or see flashing blue lights through the windows. I didn’t.

I grabbed several large, wet towels from a bin waiting to be brought to the cleaners with my free hand and wound them up like a bully in gym class about to torture some poor nerd. Then I used them like rope, securing Sam to the chair.

While I worked, every time he tried to implore me to hear reason, every time he assured me he’d never, ever hurt my sister, I threatened him with the gun again. “Shut up!”

When I was sure he was secure, I finished my job with a smaller, wet, dish cloth from the sink and some duct tape I found on a shelf, using them to form a rudimentary gag. “Now, we can talk,” I said with a smile.

He muffled something back, but I couldn’t make out the words. Perfect. He wasn’t going to talk me out of what I had to do. My sister’s life was at stake here.

I never planned to use the gun. I didn’t know all that much about forensics, but I was pretty sure they’d eventually trace it back to me if I did. No, as soon as I’d remembered his teaching me to trim the fat off a steak with that sharp meat knife, I knew what I had to do.

Turning, I found the knife he’d dropped when I first entered lying atop the side of beef he’d been working on. I looked around for a rag to wipe it off with. After all, it had just been in contact with raw meat. Then I laughed out loud at myself, at the idea that I was worried about passing along E-coli or Salmonella or whatever-the-hell disease with the knife I was about the cut his throat with.

I tucked the gun back into my pocket and approached him with the knife extended. He started to squirm, but the towels held fast. His eyes went wide and he screamed again, but the muffled sound would go no farther than the room I stood in. No one would hear.

Halfway to him, I stopped. This wasn’t right. It couldn’t be.

It was almost as though I watched the scene from above, detached, like a movie, trying to figure out how in the world this guy with the knife had gotten in here, had made the decisions he had. Then I realized the guy with the knife was me. And I remembered standing on our deck as a teenager, babysitting my sisters, watching them chase each other in the yard with huge smiles on their faces.

What if, after he killed Faith, he went after Jenn next? What if I lost both my sisters to this madman?

I felt myself sink back into my body, and began moving forward again. Frantic, he strained and strained against the towels as I approached, and one looked as if it might be starting to loosen. I couldn’t allow that. In two quick steps, I charged forward and ran the knife along his neck the long way, cutting both his jugular veins cleanly.

Blood, more blood than I could ever imagine, streamed out his neck, down his shirt and chest, along his legs and onto the floor. He convulsed, then began to shiver before going slack. The blood didn’t stop.

I backed away slowly and dropped the knife to the floor with a clatter. The still-pooling blood quickly overtook it. I turned and strode out the same door I’d entered, being careful not to touch anything as I removed the gloves from my hands.

I maintained a quick walking pace, not a run, keeping a careful out eye out for any witnesses. But at this hour, no one saw me. At least none that I could tell. As I turned down the street where I’d left my car, the streetlight above it blinked out, and shadows crept toward me, reminding me of the creeping blood from only minutes before.

Walking into those shadows, that darkness, without hesitation, I climbed back into my car and drove the rest of the night, straight back down I-95 to New Haven.

# # #

The next morning, on no sleep, I arrived at my office early, prepared for what lay ahead. I set my cell in the center of my desk so it could be ready for the call that would inevitably come. Faith would wake up and find Sam never came home from the restaurant. She’d call the police, and it wouldn’t be long before they’d discover his body, sitting tied to that chair and surrounded by a pool of his own blood. She’d probably call Jenn first, weeping, but soon after would look to her older brother, to me, for consolation as well.

And I’d be here for her this morning, just like I’d been there for her last night. I’d saved her life. It was only a matter of time before that animal killed her, I was sure of that. I didn’t feel guilty over what I’d done. Not in the least. My sisters meant everything to me. I’d do anything for them. I always said I’d kill for them if I had to. Now, I’d proven those weren’t just empty words.

I watched the phone so intently, trying to estimate how long it’d take for her call to come in, I didn’t hear Travis’ light tap on my door. I didn’t realize he was standing there at all until he spoke. “Professor?”

Shocked, I glanced around my office as if there might be something visible to indicate my guilt, to make him aware of what I’d done. But I knew there was nothing of the sort. I’d taken care of the gloves last night, depositing them in an anonymous dumpster outside of Mystic. I hadn’t used my gun and now it was locked back up in my closet. In the end, my dark deed would be untraceable. I had nothing to worry about. “Travis. Come in.”

I could see he held the tell-tale envelope containing another brain scan. We had so many of them, discussed them so frequently during our meetings, that wasn’t surprising. He held it up. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”

“Tell me what?”

“I think we’re going to have to hold off publishing your paper on the serial killer profile.”

“Why would we do that?”

“Because,” he started, pulling the scan out of the envelope. “Remember we both got scanned last week, for the final baselines?” I nodded. “This one’s yours. Look at the orbital cortex.”

I did and immediately saw what he referenced: a dark patch, right behind my eyes. Almost identical to what I’d seen in Sam’s scan. I stared at it in silence as Travis continued. “So, based on this, I don’t think we should be so certain of our theory. I mean, we thought everyone who had this profile would end up being a killer, right? But you having it sort of refutes that whole thing, doesn’t it? You’d never kill anybody.” He laughed. I hoped I didn’t wince at the sound of it, like nails on a chalkboard. “So I figure we must be wrong. At least, we might be – the theory needs more work, anyway. That’s why I don’t think we should publish. I don’t think we can. Not in good conscience.”

I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t. I just stared at that dark, orbital patch, my vision becoming blurred by the sheer depth of it, descending into its…blackness. I could almost feel the empty spot behind my eyes, knowing now it had been there all along, only I hadn’t been in touch with it yet. Not until what I’d done last night.

Thinking about how comfortable that darkness made me feel, how I wanted to pull it over me like a warm comforter, I realized how attuned to it I’d already become. It mesmerized me; I found myself unable to move, unable to tear my glare away from its location at the center of the scan Travis held in his slightly shaking hands.

My gaze didn’t shift one iota. Not even when my cell started to ring.

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