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That Time of the Month

“Sure is good of you to come to dinner like this.”

Amanda, hunched over her aching belly, smiled. She’d had misgivings, of course, but Kieran was good. They understood each other.

Her older sister Eliza had never gotten that part. She’d had plenty of boyfriends, men tended to be attracted to women who raged like fires, but in Amanda’s world it was quality, not quantity that set the standard.

Not like that had mattered to her. Lizzie, recipient of a little genetic…problem, had never put much truck in social niceties. Each time her father related a new emergency from Lizzie’s end, he’d point at Amanda and say, “don’t you ever be like that.”

And Amanda wasn’t. She starved and preened and bent herself into the good girl shape society left for her. That’s what it took. Even when the genetic curse struck her too, she kept to the wall. She was on her way to meet Kieran’s family, wearing a dress and a bow in her hair (a bow!) and even a hint of makeup. She could do this. Yes.

The waxing moon followed the car, puffing out its pale cheeks at her.

Kieran’s mother opened the door. She brushed kisses to either side of Amanda’s face and pronounced her the prettied thing under the sun. Amanda smiled back and willed herself not to scratch the spot where she’d waxed the unibrow away.

Kieran’s older brother and wife were there, and Kieran’s uncle, and Kieran’s father. Amanda’s smile went to all the right places in her face. She was properly demure. She laughed at off-color jokes. She let Kieran’s sister-in-law admire her nails, which always grew long and straight.

The first rumble of trouble was very much disguised as a well-meaning jest.

Kieran’s mother, a plump woman who didn’t look like she’d skipped a meal in her life, asked, “so when are you and Kieran going to give us kids?”

Amanda stopped and flushed. She hadn’t expected this so soon.

Kieran came to the rescue. “Mom it’s too early to be thinking about this.”

“Sure, sure, but when,” the old bitch prodded.

Amanda realized she was drooling and dabbed daintily at her mouth with her napkin.

“Actually,” her voice broke. She cleared her throat. “I have a genetic condition. I just as soon wouldn’t pass that down to anyone.”

The family blinked as if she’d spoken in a different language.

“You know, they do wonders with IVF these days,” Kieran’s uncle put in, “I bet you could season your turkey and cook it in another pot.”

“Oh, Bill,” Kieran’s mother said.

Amanda was on edge now. The questions picked at her like biting ants. She went to school where? Her family was from where? She was getting a job when? All the while a tingle and burn in her abdomen. She could do this. She could do this. Normal people did this all the time.

She was salivating excessively now. She thought to excuse herself from the table, but Kieran’s mother misunderstood it as a gesture to help clean. She ordered Amanda back down.

“Mom, it’s not that,” Kieran said, picking up on her body language. God bless that boy. “She’s got real intense monthlies, you know?”

“Oh dear.” His mother smiled widely at Amanda. “You know, a girlfirend of mine switched to soy? Never had cramps again.”

Amanda smiled tightly as she got up from the table. The bathroom was alarmingly neat, like no one had ever used it for its intended purpose. She went to rub her eye and—too late!—remembered her eyeshadow. Then she wasted clumps of wet toilet paper trying to scrub it off.

Someone knocked at the door. “Sweetie, are you almost done in there?”

She hadn’t been in here that long, had she? Amanda looked at her face in the mirror. God, she had really botched the removal job. And, yes, when she leaned in for a better look, she could see the unibrow was already trying to re-assert itself.

Kieran’s sister-in-law looked surprised when Amanda finally opened the door. She rallied, but Amanda had seen it.

Her skin was flush and felt prickly. God.

Kieran was conversing in the dining room over beers with the men in his family. He was just so good-looking and sweet it made her ache for a minute.

Kieran caught her gaze. He came to her, free and easy.

“I’m sorry sweetie,” she whispered as her stomach constricted, “but I’m going to have to go. Tell your family I’m sorry, okay?”

Kieran shook his head. “No.”

Amanda gulped down panic. No, not you. You were so good. “Sweetheart, I mean it. You agreed to let me go when I said go.”

But now Kieran was blocking her way, shaking his head and setting his beer aside to take her hand.

“You don’t get to walk out,” he said gently, “it’s family time. You’re always telling me on how you’ve run from family your whole life. Well it’s time to stop running.”

Amanda bent double with a twinge. “Not my family,” she managed through a constricted throat.

“Well they will be. So take an ibuprofen or two and lay on my mom’s bed, but you’re staying,” he lovingly ordered.

A thin drool ran from her mouth. No keeping it in any more.

Amanda lashed out with her free hand, slashing Kieran’s throat clean through.

Kieran was more surprised than anything. He put his hand to the blood at his throat and then looked at it, as if unsure what had just transpired.

Kieran’s mother happened to look down the hall at precisely the wrong moment. She dropped a dish. Her face was round and plump, her cheeks fat white moons that mocked Amanda.

Amanda threw back her head and howled.

 

Lizzie shut the door on her truck. “Jeeziz, smells like my bachelorette party.”

Amanda was on the stoop, smoking a cigarette. “It’s not funny. I thought it would be okay.”

“Ah, everyone thinks that. One more shot of whisky, one more hit, I’ll be okay.” Lizzie had embraced her monthly hirsuteness, scratching one hairy forearm with long nails. “You can’t get with someone normal and expect it to fix you. S’what I learned with Andrew.”

“Is he the guy dad liked?”

“No, that guy was actually a coke dealer.” Lizzie snorted through her nose as she surveyed the carnage within the house. “What have you done, Mandy Jane, Mandy Jane?”

“Lizzie Ann, Lizzie Anne, I done a shame,” Amanda said back.

Lizzie scrubbed her eyes with a sleeve. “That’s my girl. Now up and at ‘em, it’s gotta look like a wild dog let loose in there.”

“You won’t tell dad?”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

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Ends

“For some people, Halloween is a holiday. For others, it’s a way of life.”

Leonard wasn’t looking at Kyra or the box that held her dead cat. He was looking down the hill to the street where Marybeth was strolling along with her new friends, decked out in a dress that looked like a black wedding cake.

Kyra didn’t reply, she was still digging the hole. She only had a hand trowel to do it. Toonces had been a big cat towards the end of his life.

The shoebox that held her cat’s body was tied giftwrap-style with twine. Leonard had done that. Leonard had also said he’d show up with a flatnose shovel and help her dig the hole, but he hadn’t done that. He stamped his feet against the cold and looked after Marybeth.

“Are you going to her party later? Could you get me an invite?”

Kyra used the measuring of the hole as an excuse to not answer right away. It was wide and long enough, but was too shallow.

“We’re not really hanging out much anymore,” she said when enough time had passed.

“Oh really? Thought you two were tight.” Leonard looked at her for the first time since Marybeth hove into view. Kyra bent so that her hair hid her face.

“That was the beginning of the year,” she said carefully, “she’s made new friends. A lot of them.”

The earth mounded over Toonces’ box. Leonard lifted his boot to stomp it flat. Kyra winced.

“Toonces was a good cat,” she said by way of services, “I always had to hide him right around this time of year. My dad said people hate black cats. They think they’re the devil. He wasn’t all black anyway. He had that white spot on his chest.”

Leonard finished stomping and scraped his boot sideways to get rid of the dirt. “You have a headstone?”

Kyra held up a chunk of feldspar. “I didn’t paint it or anything. I don’t want to attract attention. You’re not supposed to bury pets, you’re supposed to have them cremated.”

“Too bad, you could’ve done some cool things with the ashes.” Leonard was looking down at the street. “You sure you don’t want to mark it?”

“I’ll remember the shape.” Kyra crossed her arms. She wanted to flick or hit Leonard so he’d look at her, just so he’d stop drifting his attention away.

“You going out tonight?”

“Dunno.” Kyra thought of the black dress she’d been working on since July, identical to the one currently occupying Marybeth Andrews’ person. “Aren’t we getting old for Halloween?”

Leonard didn’t deny it, like she hoped. He did a single-shoulder shrug and left after more forced small talk.

Kyra crouched by the grave. Toonces had not made a very big impact with his passing. She remembered coming home from trick-or-treating, feeling his body wind between her legs, his cold, curious nose pricking her ankle.

She looked away from the street.

Where the hill ran into farmland, she spied a bit of movement. Old man Deakins was in the pumpkin patch, among the withered vines. The pumpkins had long since been harvested, set out on hay bales or clustered together by the tin shed that served as a produce market. Kyra watched as he took a funny little sideways step, kicking loose dirt over a vine. There was someone else dealing with the dregs of the season.

Kyra rose from her crouch.

“Hi, Mr. Deakins!” She called to him from the white fence that separated his farm from the empty land parcels that were carved from the neighboring farm.

Deakins looked up. His hair and mustache were still brown, but there was such an air of ancient-ness to his demeanor that they all reflexively called him “old man.”

“Well hey there, sweetie pie.” Kyra would have bet dollars to donuts that he didn’t know her name. That was fine. At least he was talking to her and not at her.

“Boy that sure looks tedious.” Kyra nodded at the pumpkin vines. Her voice sounded fake, even to her ears.

“Ah, no job that’s worth doin’ is boring to me.” Deakins went back to his procedure. Step-step-scrape. “Some folk burn the fields.” Step-step-scrape. “I like to give back to the earth.”

“Oh.” And because she needed to tell this to someone, anyone, she said, “I buried my cat today.”

Deakins nodded. “Oh boy. I remember putting my first cat down.” Step-step-scrape. “Called him Pudditat. Helluva mouser.” Step-step-scrape. “Fell afoul of a neighbor dog. Not a year goes by I don’t think of him, actually.” Step-step-scrape. “Buried plenty of cats, but none like him.”

“I got him when my mom—when I started living with my dad.” It was nice, commiserating like this. Even when it was with someone so far out of her social phylum he might as well have gills. “He was going downhill for a while, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Deakins shook his head. “Nope. I hear yah.” Step-step-scrape.

Kyra watched his peculiar dance for a moment to build up her courage.

“Do you feel—disappointed?” she blurted out.

Deakins stopped what he was doing to squint at her.

“I mean, I used to love Halloween. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s like, well, um, everything leading up to it just really psyches you up for it and then the day comes and it’s like—I don’t know,” she rambled, heart hammering. She had never said this out loud before and Deakins’ face lacked any clues as to what he thought of it.

Deakins cocked his head and looked at her. One boot heel sat on a vine that curled as if beseeching for escape from the soil.

“Sure,” he said, “think I do.”

Deakins beckoned her off the fence. Despite their rapport, she was shy about approaching him.

Deakins gestured to the farm. “You see my farm? I’ve got these fields.  Some I’ve got crops going year round. I take out the alfalfa, and suddenly it’s time for the safflower. But then there’s some I only plant but once a year. Like this one.” He kicked his heel into the brown earth. “I don’t make much on the pumpkins. Matter of fact I think I lose a little each year. But the feeling when those orange bastards come out, when the little ones come up with their faces all lit up—boy!” Deakins chuckled. “No feeling like it.”

“But when it’s all barren, like this?”

Deakins looked out over the field, scanning to and fro. “There’s a pang, I won’t lie. That’s why I’m out here. Got to give the boys a sendoff.”

“Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“Sure—a bit. But proud.” Deakins smiled, face creasing like a leather wallet. “You wanna see somethin’?”

He crouched to the ground, beckoning. Kyra came as close as she dared.

“You gotta realize every end is a beginning. I clear the wheat, the clover goes in. I butcher the cows, I feed a family. I plant the pumpkins—”

Deakins’ gnarled hands unearthed the stem of the pumpkin and dug deeper. It took a moment for Kyra to make out the stump that the vines projected from. Even then, she took a moment to process if she was truly seeing this, a purple twist of scarf around a neck. Deakins continued scraping the earth away, uncovering a vest, a jacket, a headless body with vines spewing from the throat.

Kyra did not scream. She backed away, vocal chords stilled by shock. Deakins smiled proudly, as if displaying a trophy.

“See, sweetie pie? Everything gets buried, eventually.”

Kyra ran, vaulting the fence in one go. She kept up a gallop past Toonces’ grave, already birthing a green sprout. Deakins called, his voice chasing up the hill after her:

“Come back in November—butternut squash’ll be ready!”

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A Delicate Matter

“Watch th’ rail, okay? Nearly took his arm off that time.”

“I’m watchin’ it as much as I kin, I don’t see how—”

Naylor rapped on the doorframe. “Gentlemen? How we doing?”

Agee and Tucker drew apart. The cadaver on the table was rolled onto his side, displaying the s-curve of the spine. Agee touched up a few strands that had fallen from his shiny pate.

“It’s the damndest thing, Mr. Naylor. We were all set to tap him, but…”

Naylor looked past their plump shoulders to the cadaver. It showed no signs of liver mortis, at least the visible portions didn’t. How odd.

“Mr. Abraham,” Naylor said, “his widow is in right now. Did you want me to tell her you haven’t yet started preservation procedure on her husband?”

Tucker looked off to the side. He was always the quieter of the two.

Agee ground his toe into the floor. “It’s just…me’n Al here, we left him by the window awhile. Damndest thing.”

“So you think cooking Mr. Abraham is proper procedure?”

Tucker shook his head. “No, sir. It’s…well, you better come look.”

They heaved the body onto its back. Abraham was grizzled and grey. His frame was stretched and thin so that his tendons stood out, even in the state of death. His skin was the translucent white of ivory soap.

Tucker brought his right wrist up for inspection. The hand, from fingertips to elbow, was striped red. Sunlight streamed in through the slats of the blinds, leaving matching stripes on the concrete floor.

Naylor clicked his teeth together. “How long did you leave him there?”

“No more’n a minute, Mr. Naylor.”

Naylor frowned down at the body.

 

Jessica Abraham was waiting in the showroom. Save for the sparse strands of white in her blonde hair, she looked young enough to be Abraham’s daughter. Her black mourning dress, though of a modest neckline, was tight.

Naylor had to restrain himself from smoothing back his hair. “My apologies. An administrative matter.”

“Not at all.” Her voice had the hollow tone he heard all too often. “Are you a family establishment?”

Naylor cleared his throat. “No, though I like to think of my technicians as family.”

Jessica wasn’t listening. She was pacing down the line of wooden boxes, seeing but not seeing.

“I don’t have much family,” she said, “Hank was my world. A lot of people think, with me so young and him so old, that it was about money.”

Naylor tactfully looked elsewhere.

“You don’t have to worry, if that’s the case. I brought my own money into the marriage. I’m going to give my husband the best send-off I possibly can.”

Naylor saw his opening and rushed to fill it. “We strive to work with every client to give them the best possible experience, no matter their budget.”

He tactfully guided her past the bargain models towards what the receptionist dubbed “the hall of eternity.” Mahogany and brass gleamed. Satin and velvet glowed.

“This model is guaranteed for fifty years after burial. Floods, insects, even seismic tremors.”

Jessica looked down at the box, the red comma of her mouth curling into a frown. Naylor intercepted her with his most sincere look.

“It is the finest wood we have,” he said, “rainforest teak. So strong that some emperors had their royal tombs carved from the wood.”

He was particularly proud of that last touch. The young widow bent over the box. Her blonde eyelashes made her eyes look misty.

Naylor, glancing discreetly up at the clock, caught sight of Tucker standing in the doorway. At an angle that she couldn’t see, Naylor frowned at the funerary tech.

Tucker thumbed behind himself. His face was subtly terrified. Naylor looked from him to the widow, and back again. He sighed inaudibly.

“I’m very sorry,” he said, “I’m afraid I must excuse myself again.”

Jessica looked up. Her pencil-thin eyebrows arched. “Not a problem with my husband, I hope?”

“Most certainly not,” he hastily lied. “We’ve had problems, with…a buyer. A simple paperwork matter. Shouldn’t be more than three minutes.”

She did not look entirely satisfied, but nodded him on his way.

 

“What did you DO?” Naylor gaped at the scene.

“Well, me’n Al got to talkin’, see, and we thought the daylight thing kinda funny. And you know, when we went to tap him, the old boy was complet’ly dry. So Al, he says maybe we should wheel him to that big ol’ chapel cross and, well…”

Abraham’s body now had a violet cruciform discoloration down the face and neck.

Naylor got to his knees, moaning. “You know I was just showing her the Emperor, don’t you? Goddamn, clients like her don’t just drop in every day in this hick town!”

“Sorry, boss.” Tucker at least had the good graces to look ashamed.

“Yeah, sorry.”

Naylor covered his face with a hand and waved it away. “We can fix the face. But there’re deeper matters in play here, now.”

“What matters, boss?”

Naylor lowered his hand. Tucker shuffled his feet and looked down again.

“You want I should get the priest?”

“Just like that? Would you just snag anyone to perform a wedding ceremony, Al? No.” Naylor straightened up. “You’ve got to have tact. I can still fix this.”

 

Jessica was looking out the stained glass window with a slightly puzzled look on her face. The scene he’d chosen was non-denominational. In a town so small he couldn’t afford to alienate any creed.

“Mrs. Abraham,” he said in his most cultured, soothing voice. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”

Jessica shrugged. Grief struck in all sorts of ways. Some fell wailing before the oncoming tide, some weathered it like shoal.

Some, Naylor reflected, ran back up to their beachfront mansion.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve had enough of the hall for now,” he said, tactfully steering her towards a little-used door, “I have something else to show you.”

Jessica let herself be led.

“Many people do not like to think of the minutiae of a funeral,” Naylor continued as he guided her through the door. “There are many aspects of a funeral that go largely unremarked. We pride ourselves on thinking of such, so that others do not have to. So, when the time comes, you can make the most informed decision you can.”

Jessica frowned slightly at the boxes lining the wall. Some were plain wood, some stone, some cut glass. The biggest would only have held a cat at most.

“I don’t understand.”

Naylor took off his glasses and rubbed an eye with his fingertip. “Sometimes there are… additional preparations to make. We handle it discreetly as possible, but we cannot make decisions for the client.”

He fetched a wooden box from the wall. It was carven with a hunting scene. Dogs with long tongues ran baying before a man with a flintlock.

Naylor bore it over to the widow reverently. He set it on the viewing table and opened it. Jessica gave a little gasp.

“It is the finest wood we have,” Naylor said, stroking the stake with the fingertips of his right hand.

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