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Feed the Cat

I could describe to you the events that led to me standing outside my former friends-with-benefits’ apartment at nine in the evening, but that is one humiliation I’ll spare myself. Don’t think me some lovelorn stalker. I had a key, of course. And instructions. Sergio asked me to look after things while he was out of country. I agreed to do it because doing so would prove how little I cared, whereas if I refused it would have indicated that my desire for him was too great to form even a casual friendship.

Such were the mental gymnastics I put myself through as I turned the key in his front door and took off my shoes in the entryway.

The place still smelled like him, felt like him, tasted like him. Those insufferable prints still hung on the walls to either side of the hi-fi (no television, not for him) and air plants clustered every available surface.

The only new thing was winding around my ankles and making an attractive purring sound. Sergio had refused to get a cat while we were together, said they were all the drain of children and twice the mess. Well, it looked like my leaving had rattled him more than he cared to admit. I scratched the agreeable creature between the ears and felt a bit of smug triumph.

First order was the air plants. Sergio was an avid collector; his instructions for their care would have filled a book if he could be bothered to write it down. He would never admit it, but I was the only human being on earth who he could trust with his extensive verbal inventory. The cat slithered around my ankles, making each step perilous.

Of course Sergio had not mentioned his new pet, nor had he left instructions on where the food or his bowl was. I was forced to go through cupboards like a common burglar. I found that he had eschewed plates and bowls for a new shallow trencher that served the purpose of both, that he had finally carved his compressed brick of darjeeling to the last hockey-puck sized lump, and that he had painted the shelves without bothering to put down liner paper. I’m sure you’ll notice the absence in that sentence.

The landline rang, and I nearly tripped into the glass conversation table when the cat darted across my path at the exact wrong time. The caller ID was no one I cared about, and I cursed myself for getting worked up.

The succulents in Sergio’s study were listing in their pots, their sandy soil had been scattered and used as a litter box. No doubt Sergio had some newer, fail-safe system that he hadn’t bothered to implement properly before leaving. That had been our relationship in a nutshell, him leaping ahead and leaving me carrying the luggage.

But I wasn’t bitter.

As I stepped out to fill the watering can, a toppling vase nearly brained me. I looked up to find green eyes winking at me from the depths of Sergio’s tallest shelf of collectibles, ten feet off the ground. The feline was a remarkable acrobat; Sergio himself had to resort to a painter’s ladder to reach that spot.

As the pitcher filled, I searched some more. I found his copper mugs, green patina eating the rims. Beneath the sink his all-natural cleaners with all the scrubbing power of weak tap water. His emergency stash of condoms (expiration date showed last year.)

The cat came musing up to my outstretched hand, turning on the charm. I let it tickle me with its whiskers. It was the friendliest thing I had seen in this apartment since I’d left in in a huff so many months ago.

Damp seeped into my sock.

Somehow the watering can had fallen at an angle, now it overflowed onto the counter and down to the linoleum at my feet. I watched the spreading puddle almost idly until I saw the water nearly touching the still-plugged-in electric kettle. I could have cleared a cyclone fence with my leap as I shut off the water. The cat disappeared once more, and I was left to wring out Sergio’s microfiber mop in the dirty sink.

Something speared into my heel as I stepped from the kitchen. I held my foot and saw the floor now littered with broken trinkets, the upper shelf cleared. I cracked. I texted Sergio, editing and re-editing my message so many times it sounded almost nothing like what I wanted to say.

WHERE IS YOUR CAT’S FOOD was my weak attempt at a missive.

As I pulled glass splinters from my foot, I heard a thumping sound and a muffled mew. I looked up at the window to find the cat blinking benignly at me from the other side of the glass. Sergio lived on the seventh floor.

The air was frigid as I heaved open the window, my hands almost froze to the thin concrete apron that ran the length of the building. The cat sat a comfortable distance away from me, curled into itself. I could just barely graze its paws with my fingertips if I leaned all the way out the window. The cat retreated.

I looked down at the ledge and then up at the cat. Truly, if it wanted to it could walk right back to the window and into the safety of the apartment. But there was frost clinging to the ledge and such a long drop beside me and the cat was so tantalizingly close that I thought I could just grab it up and be done with it.

As I half-clung, half-crawled to the cat, it edged away from me. I found a piece of ornamental brickwork and pulled myself fully onto the ledge. Favoring my injured foot, I gathered in a crouch for one final rush.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. As I glanced down, I felt pressure and four sets of nail spikes driven into my leg as the cat leapt past me. I overbalanced and then I was in the air.

Seven stories for a person is not seven stories for a cat. I lived, barely. I broke my fall (and other things) on the way down to the ground, landing spine-first on a filthy pile of snow. Looking up, I could see the cat peering down at me from the window, curled up picture-perfect like something out of a Christmas card. My phone had survived impact in my pocket. The last thing I saw before I blacked out was the cracked screen and a reply text from Sergio reading, simply: I DON’T HAVE A CAT.

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Archie Smith, Boy Wonder

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

A tiny voice asked, “Is he the one?”

The two spheres of light throbbed in sympathy. Archie slept on as he always did: still and quiet in a sleep-fortress as dense as a neutron star.

“It is he, truly he. After so long, the boy of great destiny.”

Archie did not stir, did not wake with eyelids fluttering to exclaim at the sight of two stray stars in his room. He dreamed of ships in cold water. He dreamed of eternal July and endless ball games. His dreams were as flat and thinly etched as the wallpaper in the hallway, never changing, never varying.

 

The next morning Archie ate a square meal and trotted off to school. He was neither late nor early. As he walked, he tossed a ball that hit the sides of the buildings he passed. Ka-thunk. The greengrocer’s. Ka-thunk. The hardware store. Ka-thunk. The boutique.

A sudden light caught his eye. It was light very much like the first stab of sun over the horizon, only it stayed, circling around Archie’s head.

“Archie,” it whispered.

He grunted.

“Archie,” the sphere said, “be not afraid. You are a boy of great destiny.”

Archie said, “okay,” and kept on with his ball. Ka-thunk.

“It may seem a terrible weight at first, but you must be brave. The whole world is counting on you.”

“Yeah,” Archie said, “no thanks.”

The sphere bobbed along as if caught in an eddy. “No thanks?”

“I don’t want no destiny.” Archie swiped at his nose with a crusty sleeve. “Go ahead and take it somewhere else.”

The sphere whizzed to a point very near his face. “I don’t understand. You’re refusing destiny?”

“Yup.”

“You can’t!”

“Why not?”

“It’s—it’s destiny!”

Archie underhanded the ball, bouncing it off the front of the florist and rattling the big bay window. “Never asked for it, don’t want it, won’t take it.”

“You don’t want to do great things?”

“Nah.”

“You don’t want to see things no one else has seen? Go places no one else has traveled? Reach beyond the unknown to grasp your fate?”

“Eh.” Archie shrugged. “I don’t care.”

Tinting to a disturbed shade of yellow, the sphere sped off.

Archie shook his head and sighed.

 

“Schneider, Marcus?”

“Here.”

“Smith, Archibald?”

“Here,” Archie said without looking up from his exercise book. The margins were clean and un-doodled. He wrote down some last-minute problems as the teacher rounded out the roll call. A stray bit of light caught his eye. Was it the sun reflected off Teddy Crandall’s wristwatch? No, the sphere was back again.

“I must apologize for being so short with you earlier,” it said in a voice only he could hear, “I have been away from mortals so long I cannot remember all the old niceties. You were in shock this morning, unable to accept the call.”

Archie shook his head.

“Fear, then. Panic.”

“I’m not afraid,” Archie whispered, “I just don’t want any part of it.”

“Archie, were you saying something?” The teacher paused in the middle of an equation.

Archie shook his head. With one hand he took up his trusty ticonderoga pencil and scribbled out: I don’t want any destiny.

“But Archie, it’s not all responsibility and judgement. There are nicer aspects to it. You’ll be able to live more than any other child in your grade, or even the whole country.”

I live enough already, thanks.

“Think of it Archie, you may never find total fulfillment if you don’t answer the call. Imagine if you realize, many years down the line, what you have missed out on by declining.”

I can think of worse things.

“You don’t have any adventure in your spirit? No thirst for exploration?”

I get enough of that in comic books.

The sphere pulsed. “I see. I must think on this. I will return another time.”

While collecting fraction worksheets, the teacher spotted the writing on his scratch paper with a frown.

“Poetry,” Archie said.

 

Archie said goodbye to Billy and Teddy and Mark and Jim and walked home, baseball in his hand, coat pulled snugly around him. He resumed his game of tossing the ball, ka-thunk, into the side of every building he passed. The mullioned windows of the antique store caught his eye with a sharp sliver of light. No, it was the sphere again.

“I watched you today, Archie,” it said in a voice that was like the rubbing of a wet fingertip against glass. “I watched you do your schoolwork and play with your friends and eat your food. I have never seen a boy as average as you, Archie. You’re really telling me all this is enough for you?”

“Sure,” Archie said. Ka-thunk. The barbershop. “Always has been.”

“Ah, but will it always be?” The sphere wheedled into the first opening it saw.

“Who cares? My mom would say ‘that’s a future question.’” Ka-thunk. Patty’s Diner.

The sphere looped around his head like a miniature orbiting sun. “No one’s ever refused the call, Archie. There’s no telling what will happen to you once you step outside the circle of its prediction. You may face a decline for the rest of your life.”

“Hey, if it happens, it happens.”

“You don’t expect great things for yourself?”

“I expect to get as much as I put in.”

The sphere’s light dimmed and brightened slowly, pulsing with a rolling heat. It took a very long time to speak.

“Tell me,” it said, “If, many years from now, you were homeless and living life hand-to-mouth, would that be equal in your eyes to a life lived successfully?”

“Sure.” Archie shrugged. Ka-thunk. The tavern. He was nearly home. There was a stiff breeze rolling off the wharf that ruffled his auburn hair.

“I’m afraid I don’t see how you’ve come to that conclusion.”

Archie caught the ball. “You don’t get it. Once I say yes to you, I stop getting a say in anything I do. Doesn’t matter how you snazz it up, a cage is a cage. If I’m lying in a ditch fifty years from now, at least I’ll know I put myself there.”

The sphere dimmed until it was nearly out. “I see. You sadden me, but I finally understand. Goodbye, Archibald Smith. We will not meet again.”

“Bye,” Archie said curtly. As the light strobed out a final time, Archie tucked his baseball under one arm and shook his head.

“Worse than those fairies from last week,” he muttered.

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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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