In the biting cold cemetery air, the word seemed to float out of Terence’s mouth. Even with the lampposts lighting pockets of tombstones, Terence had difficulty making out the epitaphs. He took a chilled hand out of his pocket and traced the name engraved on the granite face. Bob Amigone. His stone was so plain. So simple. Bob hadn’t been a plain or simple man. He certainly possessed more charisma than the stone denoted. Terence tore his hand from the stone.
“Idiot,” he repeated.
Smiling eyes. An encouraging tongue. Patience. Insight. Trust. Dead―and without warning. Terence shouldn’t have come to Bob’s grave.
Before leaving, he took one last glance over the row of markers. At the very least, Bob was in good company. Now, Terence wasn’t so sure he could say the same for himself. As he walked up the hill where he lived, he could feel the prying eyes of curious children, studying him from their bedroom windows. People often stared at Terence when they thought he wasn’t watching. He could always feel their eyes, raking his towering gaunt form. He felt like a science experiment gone wrong: the monster in a childhood ghost story.
“Why would anyone give everything to me?” Terence wondered. He pushed aside the creaking iron gates that marked the front of his house. It was a hair past midnight and he had to be up early the next morning to prepare a body for a funeral. His hands were numb with cold and he struggled to turn the key in the lock. His faithful bald companion trotted to greet him as soon as he managed to pry the old wooden door open.
“Hello, Anubis,” he said to his cat. The creature rumbled and practically leapt into his arms. Together, the two of them marched up the stairs and slipped into bed.
The following morning, Terence awoke. His body ached inexplicably. He’d had a horrific dream, though he couldn’t remember what had made it so horrific. He’d been in the embalming room, preparing a body, that much he could recall. The rest was a painful blur. He reached over to the lamp beside his bed and switched it on. The sudden presence of light made his head pound like a drum.
Wincing, he turned to his cat― a peachy lump at the foot of his bed and grumbled, “God, I hate mornings.” At the very least, he could look forward to an embalming. Just him, several metal tables, and a corpse. Three hours of alone time. Terence couldn’t wait.
He walked through the doors of Amigone Funeral Home. The irritating hum of a vacuum resonated from the chapel. Terence glanced at his watch. It was 7:30. Swearing to himself, Terence stepped into the room and yanked the vacuum hose from the outlet. The chapel wasn’t an extravagant room. Simple wooden pews balanced either side, leaving a runway for caskets in between. Cream-coloured drapes covered the back wall. A cross sat at its centre.
“Since when do you come in an hour early to vacuum?” Terence questioned. The assistant, Mr. Rubin, chuckled and started gathering up loops of cord. He was a retired man with a cloudy fuzz of white hair covering the top of his head. Many of the staff referred to him as ‘Q-Tip.’
“Well, Big Fella, I thought I’d just give you a break. Now that poor ol’ Bob’s gone and you’re the big bad boss, I figured you could use a hand.” Mr. Rubin gave a mocking bow and grinned, cheekily. Terence rolled his eyes. In doing so, he discovered several burnt out light bulbs in the chandeliers. Because of his abnormal height, Terence usually replaced blackened bulbs, but, seeing as Mr. Rubin was so eager to be of assistance…
“When you're done vacuuming you can replace those dead bulbs in the chandeliers,” he ordered. Mr. Rubin squinted up at the high ceiling.
“Way up there?!” he said in alarm. “But I’ll―”
“Yes, you’ll have to balance on a rickety ladder from a disorienting height while combatting the blinding nature of the fluorescents.” Mr. Rubin ran a hand over the white fuzz atop his head and stared aghast at the lights above. His fear of heights was a well known fact to the staff of Amigone Funeral Home. Terence gave Mr. Rubin a chummy pat on the back. “Bet you wish you hadn’t come in early now,” he said sadistically.
His morning much improved, Terence trumped down the stairs to the selection room. He often brought families down to choose a casket or urn―something to encase their loved one for eternity. Some of the caskets, or ‘dead beds’ as his assistants liked to call them, came with magnetic panels to display bronze hearts and messages such as: beloved mother. Other caskets came with a choice of decorative corners for further personalization. It was beyond Terence why people chose to spend thousands of dollars on a fancy wooden box, which would simply be crushed under the weight of the earth.
Bob had gone in a solid oak rental casket. It had been a sensible choice. Rental caskets came with multiple inserts and were reasonably priced compared to other caskets. The ugly insert would be cremated and the beautiful exterior could be used over and over again. It had taken every ounce of salesman in Terence to convince Bob’s estranged brother, the executor, not to throw Bob in a cardboard container.
As Terence pulled back the velvet red curtains, which concealed the doors to the preparation room, Bob’s done up corpse flashed in his mind’s eye. Suited as he always was for work, and bespectacled, one would think he was simply sleeping. Terence had done a remarkable job embalming him. His body had been autopsied, much like the body that now covered the preparation table.
Terence rolled away the blood-soaked plastic. It was cold beneath his latex touch. The mangled lump of flesh below barely looked human. According to the autopsy findings, this man, Spindelli Lessimo, died from a blow to the back of his head. It was suicide. The entire county knew that. Judging by the slimy condition of the skin, the body had been macerated for nearly three days. The man’s eyes were torn and vacant. Clearly he’d made an excellent snack for the fish.
Terence clicked a blade onto his scalpel. Just as he was slicing through the man’s navel suturing, he heard the approach of his intern, Miss Fairweather. So much for three hours alone in the embalming room.
“Eww!” she exclaimed, upon witnessing the revolting pile of open flesh. Terence ignored her presence and reached into the man’s squelching cavity. Packed neatly into the body was a bag of carnage: entrails, lungs, stomach, brain, heart, kidneys… all slopping together to create a vile stew.
“Ugh! That is so gross!” the intern cried.
“It’s not gross,” Terence snapped. “It’s cool. Don’t ever say gross again.” Terence beckoned for her to bring him a plastic pail lined with a garbage bag. He spilled the mess of gore into the pail. He turned to his bright-eyed intern.
“Do you understand?” he asked. She nodded. “Good. Now go get suited up. You’re going to help me embalm an autopsy case.” Miss Fairweather straightened her glasses and hesitantly began sliding into a smock. She clipped a stray blonde curl back from her face. Her eyes flitted nervously between her gloved hands and the steel table.
“Is there something wrong?” Terence said, noticing her unease. She licked her lips.
“No. It’s just…isn’t that the body of Spine Less?”
“Yes.” Terence poured two bottles of cavity fluid into the pail of viscera. He fastened a lid over top of the pail to contain the acrid scent of formaldehyde. The odour made his eyes burn and well with tears.
“He was an artist like you. Weren’t you two pretty close?”
“Not particularly,” Terence grunted, and began sloshing chemicals into the embalming machine.
Terence remembered Spine Less well. He’d been a stringy fellow, always dressed in stripes. His hair was disheveled, his fingers were always stained with paint residue, and he looked like he’d never learned how to shave properly. The two of them had never been friends, per se. Spine Less respected Terence’s sculptures and Terence respected Spine Less’ paintings. All that transpired between them was a handshake. The chalk-like numbers. The whooshing of wind and water. The shattering of bone against rock… Now, Spine Less almost looked like one of his portraits: droopy and distorted.
“What’s the date?” Terence asked.
“October the thirtieth,” Miss Fairweather answered. She was bent over the body, clamping a leaky vessel with a pair of locking hemostats. She straightened up. “Why?”
“Five days,” Terence breathed. “He’s been dead for five days.”
The phone rang and a sporadic pain flared in Terence’s head. At that instant, he remembered the contents of his dream.
He was in the prep room, embalming a body late at night. He remembered thinking how warm the blood felt, and how readily it belched from the incision. He remembered chuckling to himself because he imagined dead fingers twitching. He remembered swearing because the blood was obstructing his view of the cervical vessels. He turned to retrieve a wad of prep towel, and when he turned back, the man― lying dead and defenseless on the table― was sitting up, alive.
“Terence!” a voice snapped. It was Miss Fairweather. She had the phone in her hand. “Wilson wants to talk to you.” Terence stripped the gloves from his long fingers and took the phone.
Ash Wilson was a new employee Bob hired before he died. Terence despised Ash. The man made his way in life with his flashy smile, smooth tongue, handsome face, and curly hair. He was hired as a sort of snake charmer. When people were around Ash, their sorrows melted away. He convinced people to buy the most expensive funeral packages. Ash could make a dog’s breakfast seem appealing to clients, but when it came to caring for their deceased loved one, he was useless.
“What do you want, Wilson?” Terence demanded.
“There’s a man named Mr. Bartholomew here, who claims he’s a relative of Spine Less. He says he’s come to offer his musical talents for the service.”
“Again?!” Terence moaned. Mr. Bartholomew claimed to be a relative of at least three different families served by Amigone Funeral Home.
“Yes,” Ash sighed. “I told him we weren’t interested, but he wishes to speak with the manager.”
“Did you explain to him it’s me and not Bob anymore?”
“For God’s sake, Wilson!” Terence tossed the phone to Miss Fairweather, who fumbled to place it back on the receiver. “The man can’t even play the piano!” Terence exclaimed. “He’s a lonely old nutcracker who comes here just to talk to Bob.” He tore off his smock, draped it on a hook by the door, and marched out of the prep room, leaving Miss Fairweather completely stunned.
Much to Terence’s chagrin, as he came up the stairs to the main level of the funeral home, he was met with Ash Wilson, leaning casually on the wooden banister.
“Terence! Up from the dungeon I see!” he declared.
“Don’t call the preparation room a dungeon, Wilson. It’s a place where bodies are prepared respectfully, not where people are tortured,” Terence replied.
“Of course. You’re right,” Ash agreed.
A middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a well-developed beer gut wavered slightly as he approached Ash and Terence.
“Is this the famous undertaker that I’ve heard so much about?” Mr. Bartholomew’s nose and cheeks were flushed. Obviously, he’d been drinking. “I heard about Bob’s death,” he slurred, “I guess you’re the boss now, eh?!” He grabbed Terence’s hand and pumped it like a stress ball.
Ghostly numbers danced above the man’s balding head. A day, a month, and a year. Terence gasped as the visions streamed into his mind. Flashes of tile. A dirty sink. He was in a bathroom. A panicked whimpering seemed to float in the back of his head. Then there were fingers gripping fabric. A nest of hair sat around a sweating bald head. Mr. Bartholomew’s body hit the floor. His head smashed against the edge of the toilet seat on the way down, filling the grooves of his incomplete tile floor with blood…
Terence forcibly pulled his hand from Mr. Bartholomew’s clutch.
“Not even a week,” he uttered. Terence immediately felt Ash’s sideways glance. Mr. Bartholomew ignored him and instead shielded his eyes and gazed up at Terence as though he was a mountain.
“Wowza, you’re tall!” he whistled. “You should consider trying out for professional basketball. Hey, maybe you could start a new team and call it the Undertakers! Wouldn’t that be something, eh!?”
Irritated by this comment, Terence looked the man in the eyes and said,“I suggest you lose weight and abstain from drinking alcohol. If you don’t, I predict I will see you again shortly on the stainless steel table in the preparation room.” Ash winced as soon as the words were out of Terence’s mouth. He apologized for Terence’s alleged sense of humour and managed to fix the scenario by offering the man a cup of coffee.
“In the meantime, why don’t you make yourself comfortable in our reception area,” Ash suggested. “Terence will be right down with your coffee.” Terence rolled his eyes and marched up the stairs. Mr. Bartholomew was going to die very soon, and there was nothing Terence could do to save him.
Once in the lounge, Terence sat down. The fleeting bright images of his visions were excruciating. Even though Terence knew the man was going to die very soon, he still substituted cream and sugar for milk and sweetener in his coffee. The last thing the overweight alcoholic needed was calories. With the cup of coffee in one hand, Terence turned on the tap to refill the coffee pot. While doing so, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror hanging above the sink. There were numbers engraved on the gleaming surface.
“What the―” The pain behind his eyes spiked and he doubled over, wrapping his long fingers over them. An inexplicable freezing sensation shot through his veins. A voice shouted behind him. Terence jumped and knocked the mug of coffee to the floor. The cup shattered and the spray of coffee spotted the white cupboard doors.
“Are you alright, Terence? ”
Terence removed a tea-towel from the towel rack to clean up the mess. Ash took it from his shaking hands.
“You look like you just saw a ghost. Don’t worry about the spill. It was my fault, I caught you by surprise.” Ash went to dampen the towel under the tap when Terence suddenly found his voice.
“Somebody’s defaced that mirror!” he declared. Ash turned to him in surprise.
“It looks fine to me.” Ash was right. The numbers had vanished. Terence felt a panicked flutter in his chest. Had he just witnessed his own…no, that would be impossible.
Ash licked his lips. He seemed to be concerned about something.
“Maybe you should take a vacation, or a few days off,” Ash suggested. He smiled, and hung the damp towel neatly over the towel rack. “After what happened to Bob you must be―”
“I’m fine,” Terence declared. Lately it seemed like everyone was using Bob’s demise as an excuse to get rid of him. “Do me a favour and give Mr. Bartholomew his coffee to go. I want that man out of my funeral home,” Terence commanded. “If you need me, I’ll be in my so-called dungeon.”
As he ducked under the overpass to leave the kitchen, Terence felt a sickening weight settle on his shoulders. There was uncertainty in the cream walls and dark carpets of the funeral home. His skin prickled and a shiver rippled down his spine. He paused by the staircase to see if someone was spying on him. Terence often felt like thousands of hungry eyes were watching him. Behind those hungry eyes were hungry people, waiting for their opportunity to strike out at him. The sensation frightened him more than anything. He increased his stride toward the prep room―toward his sanctuary. When he entered, he found his employee, Jaune, had taken charge during his interruption. Miss Fairweather was busily suturing the naval of Spine Less, while Jaune folded her arms in observation. The two of them turned to acknowledge Terence’s presence.
“Hey, Terry!” Jaune took Terence by the crook of the arm. She was a very touchy woman. Both Ash and Jaune were. They were the kind of people who greeted one another with a hug, and held hands through times of travesty. The two of them together made Terence more than a little uncomfortable.
“Doesn’t her stitching look good?” Jaune said, smiling. Her teeth were startlingly white in contrast with her dark skin and black suit. Terence peered over the table, placing his hands in his pockets.
“No, it does not,” he declared, honestly. “ The sutures are crooked and gaping. If we leave him like this, he’ll be sure to leak. You’ll have to reopen him and start suturing again.” Terence could hear Jaune scowling in the corner. He knew she didn’t approve of his overly frank nature―and since when did she start calling him Terry? Bob was the only one who had ever gotten away with calling him Terry. Terence could sense the whites of Jaune’s eyes, scrutinizing his every action. She had seniority over him. Bob should have handed the establishment over to her.
“Why are your hands shaking?”
Terence looked down at his quivering fingers. He put down the needle and thread. At what point had he even picked them up? Miss Fairweather raised her eyebrows, expectant of an answer. A pain lingered behind Terence’s eyes and― for the second time that day―his body went cold.
“I―uh,” he groaned.
“For heaven’s sake, Terry, go home! You’re the colour of my husband’s milk potatoes!” Jaune pressed a hand to his back, steering him out of the prep room. Terence didn’t have the energy to argue with her. “Get some rest before you end up on a table! Miss Fairweather and I will do just fine covering for you.”
Terence just sighed and took his coat from the rack by the door, swooping it on like a cape.He glared at her curiously before leaving and said, “Millk potatoes?”