People loved to see painted corpses. They talked and laughed as though Grandma wasn’t rotting next to them. Visitations were repulsive and banal. Terence hated working them, but, even so, he was thankful to be back at the funeral home.
The day he returned, Jaune almost suffocated him with a massive hug. Why didn’t she understand: Terence hated hugs! Miss Fairweather, too, was pleased with Terence’s return.
“I take it Jaune was riding your ass during my absence?” Terence said to her when the two of them were alone in the prep room.
“Quite the opposite,” Miss Fairweather replied. “No matter what I did, I couldn’t get her to correct me. She treated me like a three-year-old and complimented me on every crummy thing I did!”
“Far too nice, isn’t she?” Terence said. “It makes me sick.”
The two of them embalmed the late Mrs. Lounsbury, marvelously. Her wrinkled cheeks and fingers absorbed just the right tinge of pink. Her turquoise suit, although ugly, was made to fit her body as if she hadn’t wasted away from the cancer.
“She looks lovely, Mr. Coon. Thank-you.” Mr. Lounsbury, with his turtle like neck, put his trembling arthritic hand into Terence’s and shook it weakly. What Terence saw next, astounded him. The man stood in place misty-eyed and smiling. There were no ghoulish numbers above his head. No symphony of suffering. Not a single vision occluded Terence’s mind.
“You’re welcome,” Terence said. Stunned, he watched the man saunter back into the visitation room. It was the first time he’d shaken a hand without the stench of death lingering like a phantom.
“Are you alright?” Ash called from beside him. He must have witnessed the exchange.
“Either that man’s immortal, or I’ve miraculously lost my curse,” Terence said. He stared at his hand in exasperation for a moment before excusing himself for dinner. Ash trailed after him. He was glad to have Ash close by. Funny. Usually Terence would have preferred to eat in the silence of his own company. Could this man really be Terence’s friend?
“Maybe Murry did steal your ability.” Ash said, lightly. He grinned at Miss Fairweather and Jaune as they passed by from their dinner. “Break a leg out there!” he told them. That was Ash: charming and affable. His giddiness was contagious to all except Terence.
A dreadful thought wormed its way into Terence’s mind as he took his place at the lounge table. What if Ash contracted the curse?
“Penny for your thoughts?” Ash bit into an apple.
“The penny was abolished,” Terence replied. He turned to face Ash. Innocent. Youthful. The man didn’t deserve to be cursed.
“Nice night,” Ash declared. He was wise to change the subject. Terence grunted an affirmation without even looking out the window. He then picked up a flyer and pretended to inspect it for cut-out coupons. “I get to meet my new roommate tonight,” he continued. Terence wasn’t listening.
“I’m free,” he uttered. The realization dawned on him― it was like waking up from a terminal illness, cured. His curse was like the cancer that killed Mrs. Lounsbury. It wasn’t the sort of illness you could catch from someone else. Terence’s curse was genetic. The Tale of the Three Morticians was more than just a tale―it was a legacy.
Terence stood so suddenly, he startled Ash. The night was beautiful. The moon was a bright sliver in the sky and the November breeze blew serenely through the mesh screen.
“I’m going to Bob’s grave tonight,” Terence announced. He turned to Ash, who was clearly puzzled by Terence’s sudden change in temperament. “Will you come with me?”
Ash accepted the invitation without pause.
Terence went home that evening and filled his empty canvases with colour. He painted the essence of his curse as a black dripping wisp―his liberation a flock of majestic birds. He lost himself in the artwork, expressing everything he couldn’t otherwise express. The shock of Paul’s open mouth when Terence told him of his disorder. Now Paul was a painting. Sad and alone…
The doorbell rang. Terence wiped his stained fingers on an old towel as he weaved his way down the stairs to the front door. His cat hobbled curiously after him.
Ash stood with his hands draped in the pockets of his overcoat. He was staring at his shoes with an uncertain kink in his brow. Anubis arched her back against his leg and gave a little mew.
“What’s the matter, Wilson? Are you afraid of cemeteries, too?” Terence pulled his long black coat on in a single movement. Ash chuckled. The sound was far from genuine.
“I guess I’m just a little tired,” he responded. “Must be spending too much time with the dead!”
“It’s the living that tire me,” Terence said. He bid his cat farewell and beckoned for Wilson to follow him.
Terence loved the night. Everyone was tucked away neatly in their beds. The stench of car emissions, barbeques, and tobacco, was gone with the day. Each breath Terence took was fresher. Ash said not a word until they reached the gates of the cemetery.
“You never shook Bob’s hand?”
Terence stepped onto the gravel path, avoiding a chalky puddle of rainwater. “Never,” he answered. “Bob believed wholeheartedly that I was a germaphobic. He dared not shake my hand.” There was an echoing crunch of stone as Ash ventured next to Terence.
“So, there’s nothing you can do to stop someone’s death once you see it?”
The rows of stones and crosses were audience to their conversation. The graves were like empty seats in a movie theatre. They all looked the same. Terence visited Bob’s plaque so often―its face became different from the others. He stood staring at the engraved name. Amigone.
“Why the hell did he leave everything to me?” Terence thought aloud.
“Isn’t it obvious, Dear? You were the son he never had.”
Rachelle’s sudden appearance terrified Terence. He yelped an exclamation and shot backward into Bob’s stone. Buried in black scarves, the woman was almost invisible against the night sky.
“What are you doing here?!” Terence cried.
Rachelle nodded calmly in Ash’s direction. “Your friend has acquired your ability.” Ash was on his knees, breathing spasmodically and clutching an inhaler. “Poor man.” Rachelle stroked his head softly. “You’ve shaken someone’s hand, haven’t you, Dear.” Ash had barely pressed his lips to his inhaler before showing the whites of his eyes.
“Witch!” Terence roared. He sounded more fearful than angry. Rachelle removed a thick tasseled scarf from around her neck and draped it over Ash’s body. His panicked fit was short-lived and he was now still in the damp grass. “What did you do to him?!” Terence demanded. All that could be seen of Rachelle were her darkly decorated eyes. They studied Terence, glittering like marbles beneath the moonlight. He blinked, and suddenly his hand was swept into hers.
A flashlight uncovered a gruesome display: rats nibbling on a scarf, hungrily tearing at the fabric and squealing with delight. The place was a madhouse. It was full of deep throated laughter and sharp acrid scents. A bundle rocked on a bed with no sheets. It babbled incantations and clicked its long nails.
“She’s gone,” said a man.
“End stage dementia, I’d say,” said another.
The scene dissolved to a grubby cramped hospital room. It smelled of stale bed pan and dying plants. Rachelle’s mouth was agape and browning with dehydration. Her body was a shell of what it was and her eyes were crusted over.
“Contact the family,” said a woman with a clipboard. “She’s dead.”
Terence wretched as he came out of the vision. The numbers were back and brighter than ever. They nauseated him.
“What have you done?” Terence coughed. He grabbed Rachelle by the shoulders and shook her wildly. “I was cured!” he screamed. His voice seemed to project louder in the quiet of the cemetery. Rachelle pulled away, her scarves still in Terence’s hands.
“You were never cured,” she snarled. Her exposed arms adorned faded tattoos and silver scars. “You knew that. You just didn’t want to accept it.” The scarves rippled like water from Terence’s fingers. He felt a weakness inside him he couldn’t describe. He thought he was free. He thought his curse couldn’t be shared.
His voice a grating hush, Terence said, “I shook another man’s hand today and saw nothing. Why?” Rachelle groaned as she bent to retrieve her scarves.
“He was there with you, wasn’t he?” She beckoned to the feverish lump that was Ash’s body. Terence hung his head and swore.
“Curses are tricky,” Rachelle went on. “Typically, they remain in bodies of the same blood line. Their hosts are embittered from them―isolated from them. In the case of your great grandfather and his brothers, they can be tortured to the point of madness. Curses like to survive. But how can they survive when they are driving their hosts off the edges of cliffs? When one man puts himself at risk for the life of another, he accepts the consequences so long as the other may survive. Wilson saved you from death―he saved you and he saved the curse. He accepted the possible consequences. Now, he has to live with them.”
There was a rustle as Ash stirred in the grass. Terence looked at the man with pity. He’d never have saved Terence if he’d known he’d be cursed.
“Where are the disclosure papers?” Ash wheezed and took a waft from his inhaler. Rachelle helped him to his feet. “I didn’t consent to being cursed!”His knees wobbled and he collapsed at the foot of the late Wilbur Ross.
“The universe doesn’t have an attorney, my Dear.” Ash laughed. Even cursed, he was cheerful.
“So long as you are together, you may shake hands and experience no visions. Mathematically, this makes sense. Two negative numbers cancel one another out. The same applies for two cursed men. When together, the negative energies cancel one another out, rendering the curse inactive. But when you are apart, or when one of you is incapacitated, the curse and all its horror, will remain.”
There was a silence in which the three of them stood glass-eyed. The information was overwhelming. Terence’s suspicions were correct. His beaming bushy-haired friend was cursed. Funeral arrangements and services would be a nightmare for the two of them. On his own, Terence was deemed germaphobic by everyone in the area. He was accustomed to the gruesome sights and smells of his visions. Ash was squeamish. The sight of blood sent him sprawling to the ground. Without Terence, the curse would cause Ash great illness.
Ash spoke,“Well on the plus side, at least we’ll get to know each other better.”
Terence pressed two fingers to his forehead, and sighed deeply. It would be his responsibility to teach Ash how to live with his curse. If he didn’t, the man would be at his side like a lap dog. Terence didn’t mind Ash, but his constant company would drive Terence insane. The man was as optimistic as a Disney princess. Even in the bleakest of times, Wilson would break out into song.
Terence shivered, “This is going to be dreadful.”
“Nonsense.” Ash put out his hand for Terence to shake. “You teach me how to be alone and I’ll teach you how to be with others. Deal?” Terence hesitantly took his hand from his pocket. The cemetery had grown colder since their initial arrival.
He sniffed and took Ash’s hand. “Doesn’t appear as though I’ve got any other choice,” he said. Ash’s grin filled his entire face. Terence grumbled, “Could you please stop smiling. You look like a clown with an agenda.”
Ash laughed, “This is going to be fun!” Terence swore.
Rachelle vanished. Just as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone. Ash followed Terence’s gaze passed his shoulder, his smile dissipating.
“Where’d she go?” he asked.
“Back to the hell from whence she came,” Terence answered. He pulled his hand from Ash’s and slid it over Bob’s marble head. “Idiot,” he uttered.