A peculiar thing happened the next morning when Terence entered the doors of Amigone Funeral Home. Ash Wilson, followed by every other male who worked for Terence, began to clap. Their applause made him wonder if he’d forgotten his own birthday again.
“There’s the lucky man!” Mr. Verdin slapped Terence on the back. Terence glared at him. He despised his assistant Billy Verdin even more than he despised Billy Rubin. Mr. Verdin always accompanied his greetings with a painful slap to the kidneys. These slaps wouldn’t be so bad, if his hands weren’t the size of frying pans.
“Why am I lucky?” Terence sighed. The men all raised their eyebrows at him incredulously.
“You know,” Ash said in a hushed voice, “the bath with your little lady last night.”
“You mean, Anubis?” Uncomfortable with the attention he was getting, Terence started for the stairs. The quicker he could escape to his office, the better. He was disgruntled to see his employees’ mischievous faces reflecting in the glass picture frames.
“Ooh,” their voices droned. “Sounds exotic.” Terence ignored their whisperings.
The funeral home owners grew more recent as Terence neared the top of the stairs. Bob’s serene photo hung at the top. The wrinkles around his eyes, mouth, and forehead spoke his age. However, his eyes contained a youthful spark―one Terence thought would never be extinguished.
“Come on, Terence, fill us in on the details!” Mr. Verdin whined.
“Yeah,” Ash piped in. “Was she a dirty girl or what?” Terence turned to his employees in surprise. Why were they so interested in his sphinx cat?
He looked down his nose at them suspiciously before replying, “I wouldn’t bathe her if she wasn’t dirty, Wilson.” His response triggered a bout of ooing and awing from his coworkers. Terence scoffed. Did they not know sphinx cats needed to be bathed? Bunched together on the stairway, his white-collared employees stared at him like a pack of hungry dogs.
“Don’t you all have work to do?” Terence shouted. “Quit pestering me and do whatever the hell it is you do!”
“You got it, boss!” shouted his assistant, Paul Jones. Terence rolled his eyes at Paul. He couldn’t tell whether the platinum spikes atop the man’s head was hair, or if an albino porcupine crawled up there one day and decided to die. Either way, Paul’s appearance was not professional. Terence made a mental note to mention this to him later. The rest of the group dispersed, leaving Terence with a far more adequate breathing space. He smoothed his hair back and padded through the staff lounge to his office.
“Hi, Terence!” The plucky Miss Fairweather stood up from his chair holding a cup of coffee. “I made this for you,” she said, forcing the hot ceramic mug into his hands.
The office used to belong to Bob. By the looks of it, it still did. His memorabilia were spread throughout the room. Thank-you notes addressed to Bob were pinned to the cork boards. His ties hung on the back of the door. His name tag was still fastened to the desk. Even the World’s Best Funeral Director mug scorching Terence’s hand, belonged to Bob.
“Jaune told me you were going to do some restorative work on Spine Less this morning,” Miss Fairweather said. Terence disliked her stance. She had her hands behind her back as though she was hiding something. Terence felt dizzy watching her rock back and forth on the balls of her feet.
“Yes, I am,” he replied, unable to look at her any longer. “Meet me downstairs and I’ll show you.” Miss Fairweather laughed jubilantly and clapped her hands together in excitement. She trotted quickly out the door, nearly running into Jaune on her way out. Jaune chuckled and shook her head of springy hair.
“She sure is an eager one, isn’t she?” Jaune said. For a middle aged woman, Terence thought Jaune to be a tad over glamorous. Her lips were always high glossed and her nails done just so. She also seemed to have a thing for leopard prints. “I really think she admires you, Terry,” Jaune added. “In fact, I think she’s got a little crush on you.” Terence raised an eyebrow at her and sniffed his coffee tentatively. The aroma was off somehow.
Slipping by her curvaceous form in the doorway, Terence exchanged the mug to her hands and hissed, “Nice try,” into her ear. He turned a corner and was out of sight before she could open her plump-lipped mouth in defense.
Terence would never forget the time Jaune poured cough medicine into his coffee. He lied about having bronchitis to get out of supervising two simultaneous visitations. The gagging tongues, protruding eyes, and pulsating hearts haunted him. To sit back and watch hundreds of people die― to experience every last shattering detail―was agony in the purest form. Fear made Terence an excellent actor. He feigned a violent fit of coughing so well, Jaune stepped in to take his place on the floor during the visitation. She’d also taken it upon herself to make him her special home remedy. The combination of coffee and cough medicine made Terence’s gut turn like a top. When he discovered what Jaune had done, he yelled at her until his throat was raw. That’s when Bob entered the picture. He was calm and carefree even in the midst of a heated argument.
He took Terence aside and said, “I know about your secret.” Terence remembered the silence following his statement. The pounding of his heart. The ticking of the clock. “I know why you avoid visitations and why you wince every time you greet someone with a handshake.” Bob’s smile was infectious. He took Terence warmly by the arm. His sincere gaze stilled Terence’s quaking limbs. “There are germs everywhere, Terry. You’re not the first to fear them.” He winked at Terence. “You don’t have to feel ashamed, Terry. You can tell me anything. I promise, I won’t tell anyone.” Terence wanted to tell Bob the real truth. He wanted to say he was plagued with something far more complicated than germaphobia. Unfortunately, the truth was insane. Terence feared if word got out he could read death dates, he’d play palm reader to the terminally ill.
“How do you do that so fast?” Miss Fairweather asked in awe. Terence didn’t answer. He was too deeply embedded in concentration. So far, he’d managed to greatly reduce Spine Less’ disfigurement in only twenty minutes. His left eye, which had been a vacant slimy hole, now resembled a gently closed eyelid. Terence removed the strings of flesh that were once Spine Less’ ears and began creating his own replacements.
“Turn your head for me, Miss Fairweather,” Terence requested. Miss Fairweather’s face became a palette of rouge. She bashfully obeyed. “I need to use your ear for reference,” he explained. When she didn’t move to tuck the curtain of blonde curls behind her ear, Terence sighed and reached down to do it himself.
“Every ear has a ‘Y’ shape in the cartlidge,” he told her, scraping away at the lump of wax. Miss Fairweather said nothing. She seemed to be at a loss for words. For her sake, Terence hoped she didn’t admire him as much as Jaune let on.
“Our boss here is an expert restorative artist,” Paul said. Terence couldn’t remember Paul entering the prep room, and wondered how long he’d been observing. The man looked a little too relaxed with his legs folded atop the dryer. He was more like a lazy pet than an employee.
“Did you register Spine Less’ death, Paul?” Terence questioned him.
“Sure did, Boss,” Paul responded.
“Then why are you here?” Terence huffed. He felt mocked by Paul’s presence. The way Paul referred to him as ‘Boss’ verged on insubordination. Paul yawned and bounded from his place on the dryer.
“Remind me, Boss, cause my mind’s a little fuzzy. Did I or did I not register that Bloom guy’s death?” Terence fumbled with a piece of wax. Bloom was the name the fraudulent doctor used. Terence left the ear-shaped blob to Miss Fairweather―who was more than a little ecstatic―to complete, while he took Paul into the casket selection room to speak in private.
“Is this some sort of a prank?” Terence accused him. Paul lifted his hands innocently and backed slowly into a display of personalized casket paraphernalia. His eyes wavered uncertainly under his arched brows. If Paul was acting surprised by the accusation, he was certainly doing a formidable job.
“Don’t call me Boss!”
“Bloom was that night removal. Don’t you remember? The two of us were on call,” Paul explained, his voice panicked. He looked like a man afraid for his life. Terence stepped away from his coworker. His skull felt like it was being compressed between two transport trucks. He gritted his teeth against the sudden flare-up.
“I can’t remember!” he growled. Perhaps Doctor Archie Boo Boo was really a doctor. Perhaps Terence really did have amnesia. Or, Paul was in cahoots with this mysterious scraggy man in attempts to get him out of Amigone Funeral Home. Only―Paul had no motive. Why would he want Terence terminated from management? What would he serve to gain? Terence thought of something else― something far more prudent.
“Paul,” he said, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose, “if we removed a dead man named Bloom, where’s his corpse?” Terence spun around when there was no response. Still standing, Paul’s head was slack against his chest. He was asleep! Uncertain of what to do, Terence stood agape. The wooden steps leading down to the selection room creaked as someone made their way down. It was Ash. His hands were draped casually in the pockets of his pants. He chuckled when he saw Terence’s dumfounded expression.
“Don’t be alarmed, Terence. Paul does that all the time,” Ash explained. He snapped his fingers in front of Paul’s lolling head. “He’s somewhat of a narcolept.” Terence ran both hands through his hair and exhaled noisily. Meanwhile, Ash’s smile flourished more and more across his handsome face.
“Get out of my sight, Wilson,” Terence snapped moodily before returning to the prep room.
He felt like he was going mad. Maybe he was mad. Maybe he’d always been mad. Terence often wondered if the deaths he foresaw were hallucinations, which coincidentally came true. He considered seeing a psychiatrist, but was afraid of being turned into an experiment. Some would say his curse was a gift and could be used to save people. Terence knew this was not possible. Every death he witnessed, occurred, whether he intervened or not. Now, someone was trying to disorient him. To have him wrapped conveniently in a straight jacket and shipped away, leaving his job title wide open…
“Terence, dear, the family has started to arrive.” Jaune popped her head through the doors of the prep room. Her eyes widened when she saw Spine Less still lying on the table. Terence swore. The family was early.
“Terry! You don’t even have him in his casket yet!” Jaune shrieked.
“Your observational skills are uncanny,” Terence retorted. He then commanded Miss Faireweather to distract the family while he finished readying Spine Less for viewing. “Take them to the staff lounge and feed them those stale powdered donuts which I suspect are laced with anthrax,” Terence suggested. Miss Fairweather nodded uncertainly and bounded up the stairs to greet the family.
“Anthrax?” Jaune rested her long glimmering nails on either side of her hips.
“Yes. It’s a bacterial endospore. Once ingested, it will most often result in respiratory―”
Jaune interrupted, “Bob was right!”
“You really are a friggin’ germaphobe!” Jaune shook her head and left to retrieve Spine Less’ casket.
Once Spine Less was resting peacefully in his casket, Jaune and Terence wheeled him into the lift and snuck into the visitation room to set him up. The endeavor proved successful. Donut powder on their lips, and tears in their eyes, the family filed into the room and gathered around their beloved Spine Less to grieve his loss. Terence scuttled out just in time, stationing Miss Fairweather by the soon-to-be crowded doorway.
“Look cute, shake hands, and take donations,” Terence whispered to her. As people buzzed and sipped their coffee, Terence turned toward the stairway to make his escape. On his way up, he bumped into the last person he wanted to see: Billy Verdin.
“Hey!” Mr. Verdin pounded Terence on the back. “Just thought I’d bring down some water for our thirsty guests,” he said, water pitcher in hand. Terence walked past his assistant and said nothing in hopes of discouraging further speech from Mr. Verdin. Much to his chagrin, the man followed Terence all the while flapping his lips.
“Listen Terence,” he said, as the two of them entered the office, “I gotta know, how do you bathe Anubis?” Terence made a guttural sound in the back of his throat, not dissimilar to the sound an annoyed dog would make. Why was he still going on about the cat’s bathing routine?
Terence didn’t even glance at Verdin when he replied, “I rub her down with a dish brush, and apply soap to her body.” Verdin’s jaw went slack.
“A dish brush?!” he cried in astonishment.
“Yes,” Terence answered. He shuffled some files around on his desk and opened up a filing cabinet to file folders from the week’s previous funerals. “A dish brush gets into all of those hard to reach places,” he explained. Verdin smiled oddly and waggled his finger at Terence.
“You are a true genius,” he said in wonder. Terence raised an eyebrow at his assistant, who paused before leaving. “By the way,” Verdin added, “the Mayor of Belleville is here and wants to have a word.”
“Tell him to come up,” Terence said. He took a seat, interlacing his fingers, and glanced nervously at the ticking face on his wall. Why would the mayor of Belleville want to speak with him?