Dean H. Wild
The June Editor's Pick is Dean H. Wild
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by Dean H. Wild
"What time did they crap out, anyway?” Mike Bledsoe asked as the last rays of the sun splashed the wall in his office.
Ten years in the mortuary business left him with a nice repertoire of appropriate conversational prompts but none of those were called for, not when his brother was the only other person in the room.
Cameron sat in a corner chair, smoking and nervously bouncing his legs up and down. His eyes were red from jet lag. “I was told it was around lunchtime. Both of them out like a light. And at the same time.” He snapped his fingers. “I’m not surprised. Are you?”
“No. What surprises me is that they were taken to Serenity Home instead of here.”
“Don’t look at me. The coroner had everything handled before my plane landed.” Cam snorted, hawked back a mouthful, swallowed.
“Still, two women in their eighties die at the kitchen table before their iced tea has a chance to warm over and nobody thinks to call the nephew who lives in town? The one who incidentally runs a mortuary?”
Cam shrugged. “Maybe they thought you were too close, a family thing, you know? Conflict of interest. When is Ted bringing them over from Serenity, anyway?”
“He’d already gotten a start on Alma, but he said he’d transfer her and Lizzie right over. It’s funny, I want to do this, and yet I don’t.”
“You want me to stay for the whole thing, don’t you?” Cam looked up, his cigarette nearly spent.
Mike switched on the office overheads, bathing them both in harsh light. “If you can still take it, yeah.”
“I remember those two summers, Bro, and I did appreciate the chance to earn the cash.” Cam pulled out a fresh Marlboro from his pocket. “It just wasn’t my cup of tea, dressing up what we become after we’re dead. I’ll stick around tonight as long as I don’t have to do any of the grisly stuff.”
Mike smiled. “I’ll make it as dull as possible for you.”
“Just like any other evening with the Aunties, then.”
Mike fought back a laugh. His Aunt Liz had spoken directly to him only once in his life that he could recall. He had been 10 years old and the family had been paying a courtesy call to the two aunties. The house they shared was small and smelled as if each room had been neatly packed in mothballs until company arrived. He’d wandered outside and pulled a row of stones from a backyard flowerbed, then stacked them one by one into a pail, stopping to check the weight differential each stone brought. It was an act of boredom and he was unaware in the way of small boys he was causing a mess until Liz came across him and descended on him, waggling one of her craggy fingers, cawing “How dare you? That’s not for you to mess with you stinking little pup.”
He ran inside and stuck close to his mother, waiting for Liz to come in and announce his transgression. Instead, she took her place at the table and picked up conversation with the adults, no fuss involved. His Aunt Alma was the only one to give him a second glance and he realized from her expression that she knew exactly what he’d done. Liz had shared what she knew with her sister but never spoke a word. It gave him goosebumps back then and a hint of the same feeling was coursing over him right now.
The back door buzzer sounded. “That will be our delivery.” Mike said and allowed Cam to go ahead of him.
Ted Wilkes opened the back door of the hearse when Cam and Mike came out with their gurneys. “Sorry about the mix-up,” Mike said, “I appreciate you taking the time—”
Ted grunted, “Just get them out of there so I can go home.”
“Would you start, Cam?” Mike glimpsed at the two long black bags in the belly of the hearse, then stepped up to Ted, “Is there a problem?”
Ted did not reply but watched Cam as he loaded one of the bags onto a gurney with marginal grace and success and then reached for the other. “Hey- oh hey. Use just the one gurney. Stack ‘em. Stack those bags together. I mean it.”
Cam shot them a puzzled glance and Mike shrugged back, “Do what he says.”
“How is that supposed to work?” Cam said around his cigarette, scratched his head and sighed into the open tailgate of the hearse. “Ridiculous. Bossing me around as if this was still my summer job, for Christ’s sake.”
“They died in each other’s arms, you know,” Ted said quietly.
Mike nodded without surprise. Stories had rumbled through his family like constant thunder, sometimes playful, sometimes grim, about the two women who would do practically nothing apart from one another.
“And there’s something else.” Ted, tall and gray, tugged his shirt collar down to show a pad of gauze taped to his throat. Blood had soaked through in the center.
Mike blinked, “Ouch. What did you do?”
“Not me. It was Liz. There’s probably some of my meat still under her fingernails. Motor reaction twitch, I suppose, but it left me with a queer feeling like I’d just pissed her off or something. Unprofessional of me, I know, but take my advice, Mike. Don’t follow the regular rules on this one because this isn’t regular. Watch yourself.”
“Watch myself?” Mike laughed but the other man wasn’t smiling.
“You heard me,” Ted said as he climbed behind the wheel of the hearse. “Don’t doubt it.” Then he drove away.
“Hey,” Cam stood under the thin light of the receiving area, the two black bags piled precariously on a single gurney, his hands on his hips. “Do I get a little help with the door here, or what?”
“Stacking up bodies like old duffel bags,” Cam grumbled as they steered the stretcher toward the embalming room. “That Ted guy’s not all there, is he?”
Mike cut in front to open the door and switch on the work room lights, “Something about our aunties got him spooked.”
“Join the club, I say.”
“Bring them in here, please.”
Cam parked the gurney next to the single embalming table and Mike went to a cabinet on the other side of the work area to prepare the implements he needed for the job ahead. Silence filled the room. The mutter of a body bag zipper came to him as he sorted his tools. “I’ll help you in a minute, Cam.” He said not looking around. “If you wait for me we can lift—”
“Mike,” Cam’s rasping voice came from directly behind him.
He turned, bumped into his brother. The zipper sound was coming from the gurney behind them. It became slow, slower. Stopped.
“I didn’t uh . . .do that.” Cam said. A sick type of alarm passed over his face.
Mike glared at the stretcher. The top bag was open a few inches at the head end, gaping like a black mouth.
“They’re dead, right?” Cam cast a wary glance toward the heaped bags. His breath sounded small and tight, the way it had sounded when he got scared as a child. “Auntie Alma? Aunt Liz?”
“Knock off that crap,” Mike gave his brother a gentle shove and crossed over to the stretcher. He pulled the zipper as far as it would go, his heart slamming in his chest, his thoughts circling around and around—what if the occupant, whichever one is was, sits up, looks at me, waves an old lady finger in my face?—and then he spread the bag completely open. Liz was there. The frailer of the two sisters, she seemed wasted and shrunken in the confines of the bag. She wore the floral dress in which she’d sat down to lunch. Pink beads were clipped to her earlobes. Her tiny hands, delicate and splayed like the claws of a sparrow, were at her sides. He let one of his palms float just above the partially open mouth and sensed no movement of air. Then he set his fingers on the pulse point of the folded neck.
“Nothing,” he said. “Help me get her off of there. I want to check Alma, too.”
Cam took the foot end of the bag and helped Mike set the small load onto the stainless steel embalming table. Then he stood back and took more of those small breaths. Color had begun to drain from his cheeks.
Alma had been undressed and disinfected at Serenity Home. Her hair, dyed a shade of red that reminded Mike of the sunsets that streaked through his office shades, was wet and tangled, plastered to the doughy face like garish seaweed. The bare chest showed no signs of breath or heartbeat. A droplet of water, cloudy with soap, dribbled down the mound of one sagging breast.
“Motor reaction,” Mike concluded. “Liz’s hand twitched against the side of the bag. The zipper wasn’t caught and it slid open. Same kind of deal that got Ted his trophy scratches.”
“Maybe,” Cam said and inched closer.
Mike followed his brother’s doubtful gaze to Liz’s hands. They rested in repose on the floor of the bag, unstrained, undisturbed, limp. He reached out and broke the bags down around both sisters. “Let’s switch them around. I want Alma on the table so I can finish what Ted started.”
Alma and Liz had gone from adorable childhood sisters eternally hand holding and snuggling with one another to quiet, moody young women (“touched” is how Mike’s mother had put it) to cackling old ladies who never married and were continually finishing one another’s sentences. He vividly remembered watching them pass looks across a room, never curling a lip or blinking an eye, and yet simultaneously nodding in agreement or bursting into gales of grating laughter—some grim observation or catty old lady joke that had traveled along invisible tethers between them—something the family called The Bond. And he had not merely seen it happen. On a sunny April day of his fifteenth year, while in the aunties’ presence, he had felt it happen. He had gotten in the way of it, stood in just the right place between them so that one of their wordless exchanges coursed over him like an eddy of murky water. It threatened to engulf him with a sort of dark electricity, something that seemed intent of flinging him off to the side and at the same time holding onto him eternally. Once he was free of it he felt his way to the sofa and sat there until the awful shaky sensations in his joints dissipated, all the while watching them finish their conversation in smug silence. The family spoke of The Bond often, but he wasn’t sure any of them had ever had it surge over them in such a way.
“Are you dealing with this okay?” he asked his brother once they had the bodies switched. His hands did their work, it seemed, by themselves, manipulating trochar and cannula, checking the pumps that stood sentinel near the work table.
“To be honest, those summers were a lot longer ago than I thought,” Cam said as he gazed at the pallid form of Alma laid out in front of him. He held an unlit cigarette as if it were a talisman to ward off all that he was seeing, “I don’t know if . . .uh-”
“Go in the back office and make us some coffee,” Mike told him with a knowing smile. “I’ll be there in a little while.”
Once he was alone, he stripped Liz’s body down and worked the bag out from under her. Covertly spoken family stories played inside his head. “Probably sit on top of one another all day long,” the uncles would snort in their randiest voices over beers, “And what do you think happens at night?” They would all have a loud laugh then, passing naughty winks to their wives who traded tight, unsmiling looks that held a randiness all their own.
He opened the cooler and brought Liz’s gurney around. A moth-like flutter passed by his ear. He stopped just short of putting her in the refrigerated room with his hands on the stretcher frame, waiting, weighing. All he could gather unto himself was the hum of the fluorescents and the smell of brewed coffee drifting from the other end of the basement. He searched Liz’s pale face. Another flutter grazed the back of his neck. He was between them, he thought, with Liz in front and Alma behind. He was blocking the path, the frequency.
“The Bond,” he grunted and then turned around.
Alma rested on the table a few paces away, ready for his invading tubes and hoses, her horny toes pointing up, ancient and uncompromised nipples almost devoid of color. That put Liz behind him. How could he be sure her bird-like hands weren’t ready to drift up and latch onto his shoulders- How dare you get between us, stinking little pup! He turned again.
Liz rested undisturbed, dry and white. This isn’t regular, Ted had said. No it isn’t, he thought, it’s The Bond and I’m stuck in the middle of it like some damned conductor.
Cam knocked on the door. He nearly screamed.
“It’s freaking you out, isn’t it?” Cam asked him.
They were in the small basement office and the air was becoming rank with Cam’s cigarette smoke.
“Maybe Ted should have finished the whole damn thing.”
“Ted didn’t want them, as I recall,” Cam drained his coffee cup and then refilled it from the pot on the corner of the desk. “Probably something to do with The Bond, I’m guessing.”
Mike thought of Liz’s hands and tried to fight the suspicion that they might fly out if he got between the sisters again. He shook his head. “You’re not making this any easier.”
“Just telling it like it is. Don’t think I’m going to bring up stuff like this in the bowels of a funeral home for fun.”
Mike watched him drain his second cup. Cam’s hands trembled and that made what he was about to ask seem more difficult, but he said it anyway. “You’re still going to stick around, right? At least within shouting distance?” He attempted a half smile, “This isn’t quite my cup of tea, either. Not this. Not tonight.”
Cam took one of his small, tight breaths and nodded. “I’ll stay close, Bro.”
“Why in the hell is it so cold in here?” Cam said as they stepped into the embalming room.
Mike didn’t answer. Instead he said, “I left Liz by the cooler. I know I did.”
The fluorescents above the work table were stuttering on, off, on, off. The aunties were parked side by side, Liz’z gurney situated next to the work table beneath the strobing light. Their hands—Alma’s left, Lizzie’s right—were tangled in a loose clasp. Cam let out a frantic wheeze, “No fucking way.”
Mike moved into the room with small, measured steps, barely aware he was speaking under his breath. “There is probably no one else on earth who could be ready for this.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Finish it,” he told his brother. “I’ve got to. Would you mind going upstairs and ordering the caskets? There are forms and catalogs on my desk. I don’t care what you get but you better make damn sure they match.”
“Yeah, upstairs,” Cam moved away, staring at the colorless hands that bridged the two bodies. “They’ll match. Thanks, Mike.”
“Don’t mention it.” He stepped into the flickering light. He wanted to be sure the aunties were gone, really gone. That was the first order of business.
He went to the cabinet against the wall and brought back a small scalpel. Heart hammering, he set the arc of the blade against the inside of Alma’s wrist and pressed the sharp edge into her skin. When he pulled it away a dark droplet welled, almost black in the stuttering light, but it did not ooze or trickle. Then he gripped the aunties’ intertwined hands and turned them to expose Liz’s wrist. He made a similar cut there. A gash opened but yielded no fluid at all.
“Well then,” he tossed the scalpel aside, “let’s get busy dressing up what we become when we’re dead.”
He grasped the women’s hands, more confidently now, and pulled. The fingers resisted, their jerky release reminded him of pulling thick roots out of the dirt. And there was something else, an almost magnetic pull in the air even after the hands were apart. He parked Liz’s gurney near the refrigerated drawers in the back of the room and tossed a fresh sheet over her. The flickering pool of light around Alma was blinding and disorienting, but he plunged into it and began to work quickly, making his incisions and rude insertions and then sheeted her up to the neck. It was regular work for him now, even if the place was lit like a damned dance club, and once the familiar hum of the pumps began to fill the room, he felt himself relax. He sat down in a chair next to the embalming table and wondered how Cam was progressing, how many cigarettes—
Behind him, the wheels of a gurney squeaked.
He stood up and turned toward the back corner of the room. Liz’s gurney moved across the smooth floor. A thin arm jutted from beneath the sheet like a mottled prow in the half light. The arm wavered, the index finger rose and searched the air. Next to him Alma’s hand flopped out from its coverlet, the knuckles brushing his pants leg. He let out a small gagging cry and whirled to face her. Her expression was dull and still, as empty as a clay pot, and yet her ashen fingers creaked open. He felt The Bond well up around him—not a flutter but something swift and sudden like a surging river. It sluiced around him, sifted through him, rose and fell like cries of anguish on the air. His clothes shifted and dragged against his skin. Amid it all he could feel their longing. Death had blinded these bonded women, he thought, had deafened them and made them mute. All they had now was touch, all they craved was one another. Their bond was a broken tether, and they flailed their respective ends of it like bullwhips searching for entanglement, seeking a conduit through which they could find the solace of union— seeking, perhaps unaware of their objective, for him.
A cart holding metal tubes and small surgical tools toppled over, its contents chimed across the floor like broken bells. Liz’s gurney drifted closer, sheet fluttering with ghostly silence. Mike’s breath became a plume of white. The thick door of the cooler clanked and swept open. The door to the upstairs slammed.
He found himself taking a stance in the path of Liz’s approaching gurney, holding his hands out like a half-back during a Sunday afternoon game. Bottles fell from a shelf across the room and smashed on the floor. He reached out to latch onto the gurney’s side rail but Liz’s leading hand swayed suddenly and the thick yellow nail of her index finger sliced a neat gap into his wrist. He leapt backward, stunned. Alma’s fingers raked the back of his left hand, the side of her thumbnail tearing his skin.
Liz’s gurney veered as if to circle him, the peaks and mounds of her face and shoulders joggled beneath the sheet like so much cargo. He was still between them. The Bond gushed through him in uninvited waves and Liz’s avian fingers curled toward him- how dare you.
Alma’s body joggled, too. Her fingers splayed open, perhaps sensing the closeness of her sister. Liz’s sheet tangled in her gurney’s wheels and was swept down and away, her wasted body exposed in the jittery light. Here it was, he decided. Here is what sisters with The Bond become when they are dead. It was something desperate and hungry. Not for you to mess with, stinking pup.
“Yes it is,” he shouted into in the stuttering light. “It’s my job to get you ready to go into the ground, you and your goddamned bond!”
Liz’s gurney continued to circle. A fluorescent tube exploded above him in a cough of glass shards. He fell into a crouch at the foot of the work table, covering his head, and he realized he was in a perfect position for the gurney wheels to grind over him. Instead it slipped past him, bumped against the side of the work table and came to a halt. The Bond flowed over him in a dark wake, tugged at his cuffs and his hair, slid around his neck like an icy sling and then relaxed. Searching strands had found their counterparts and began to quiet. Alma’s sheet drifted to the floor next to him. Hard, cold flesh squeaked against a polished metal surface. A pressing sound came from above him, skin on skin.
Cam yelled from the stairwell, threw open the workroom door, stumbled in. “Did you slam the door? What the hell happened in here?”
Mike got to his feet. On the work table the sisters were nestled, arms around each other, bathed in the steady glow of cold fluorescents.
“The Bond,” he told his brother. “That’s what happened.”
“Holy Christ,” Cam puffed as he glared at the entwined forms. “Did you—”
“No.” he said as he dug the car keys from his pocket. “Can you do one more thing for me? Please.”
Attendance at the wake was sparse, and he supposed the closed caskets had kept some people away. They had an uncle who likened closed casket funerals to building a model ship inside a crockery jug instead of a bottle. “Sure you can tell folks it’s in there, but whose going to knock down the door to see it?” It was the only way around this, he thought as he glared at the identical coffins. He was managing quite nicely to maintain his perfect and polished funeral director’s face.
“Tell me once more,” Cam said from behind him, keeping it low, “We did the right thing, didn’t we?”
Mike checked his fingernails and wished he’d had time to clean them better. There were moons of dirt under them, garden dirt that came off of the stones from the aunties’ flower bed. Those stones now rested inside one of the coffins, spread out to make the weight even. The other coffin held two women stacked face to face, bonded forever in contented, peaceful rest. If he stood next to it long enough he could sense the delicate ebb and flow that worked inside, no longer something that flailed desperately but a coursing, restored cycle that moved endlessly, one heart to the other. A family thing. He wondered if anyone else would notice.
“No doubt in my mind at all,” he said, patted Cam’s shoulder, and went over to shake a few hands.
Dean H. Wild has been writing for over twenty years, and most of his work is in the horror and dark fantasy genre. Some of Dean’s work in print include “The Laughing Place,” published in Brian Hopkins’ Extremes 5: Fantasy and Horror from the Ends of the Earth, and “The Kid,” included in William Simmons’ Vivisections.
Dean H. Wild is the assistant editor for The Horror Zine anthology books.