Garrett Rowlan is a retired teacher and Los Angeles resident. He still plays basketball on a creaky knee. His latest publications are all three Fear Forge anthologies. His website is garrettrowlan.com.    


by Garrett Rowlan


The funeral home was dark. Even the dead needed to sleep. Near the cemetery grounds, Hundley hunkered beside the concrete drainage, holding his clawed hammer tightly as he gathered his courage. It was only a month ago he began his new job, and this is what it led to.

After midnight, when the guards changed shifts, he made his decision. He ran up the sloping banks, across a stretch of weeds, and darted over the 4-lane boulevard. The main entrance was to his left.

Hundley came to a side fence and climbed it, finding toeholds as only a 21-year-old could, but turned his ankle in jumping down. The pain made him clap his hand over his mouth to stifle a groan.

Adrenaline spurred him on. Crazy, crazy, each throb of his ankle seemed to shout. He paused, hoping the pain would stop or at least not get worse. He re-tied his shoe to suppress the swelling.

Cursing under his breath, he recalled that day when he had entered these same grounds by the back gate.


Reese McDermott, his employer, was riding in the car beside him on the cemetery road and said, “You will be given something.”

Hundley nodded. It was his first day at a job he needed. He was Reese’s driver and when they got to the cemetery in southeast LA County, Reese gave the high sign to a guard who pressed a button and a back gate opened. A narrow access road led to the rear of the funeral home.

Reese stepped out of the car and spoke briefly to a man who handed him a cardboard box. The man looked in Hundley’s direction and then re-entered the office, the part where the corpses were preserved for viewing.

Reese set the box in the trunk of Hundley’s car. Hundley turned the car around and left the way he came.

Hundley wasn’t told what was in the box until he returned to the apartment where he had his job interview an hour earlier. “The box contains human brains,” Reese said.

It sounded so absurd that Hundley laughed. “What’s really in the box?”

“Human brains,” Reese repeated.


That was Hundley’s first day. This was his last.

Creeping along the fence, his ankle throbbing, he carried a flashlight and a bricklayer’s hammer, its beveled end meant to pry his way into the Place of Remembrance and the mallet end to smash the vending machine.

Hundley paused. Footsteps passed. The ankle sent out a continual tocsin of pain, telling him he should leave while he had the chance. He knew he couldn’t climb anything but stairs and none were about, so how could he leave?

He leaned on the fence and looked back. Through the main entrance, he saw the street and the culvert beyond. A homeless man had lived there. His brains were now hung with other brains of dead people in the vending machine.

The homeless man was murdered. He was murdered because he suffered. And suffered more than those who died under the umbrella of pain relievers. Pain unrelieved made the vending machine’s wares even more potent than before.

A dog barked somewhere, shrill as a whistle.

What am I doing here? Hundley thought. But there was an answer for that.


The sign was on the bulletin board of a supermarket. Near to where they put the discounted goods, the posted 3 x 5 card had simple job requirements. “Help wanted. Must possess a valid driver’s license and own a car. Must not be squeamish.”

The phone rang for a minute before it was answered in a man’s raspy voice. “Yes.”

“I’m calling about the job. What does it entail? Why the squeamish part?”

“Some people don’t like working with funeral homes.”

“It’s not a problem.” Hundley had the license and a car. As for the squeamish part, he had spent the last six months caring for an 89-year-old man with physical problems including incontinence and bleeding. The man had died choking on his own vomit. Hundley could handle squeamish.

As he spoke, Hundley felt that some quality of his voice was being tested like the audible equivalent of a swab or blood sample.

“You might do,” the man said on the phone. He didn’t provide job details. He only gave Hundley an address in El Sereno. It was a nondescript place of peeling stucco. Reaching #15 brought him a view of a man sitting inside, beyond the door Hundley opened.

“Come in,” the man said. It was the phone’s raspy voice. Hundley hesitated.

“My name,” the man said, “is Reese McDermott—of the McDermott Funeral Home—but I’m not here in any official capacity.”

Hundley knew the establishment; everyone did. He entered the room. It was a small apartment and minimally furnished. Hundley had to stand which was okay if he had to flee. “What is this about?”

“A vending machine,” Reese said. “And what we’re vending from it.”

He was a walleyed man with wide shoulders, a slight hunchback, and hair that was black, thick, and fell straight back; the impression was simian. “I used to be in the business. I bought my first vending machine when I was twenty-five. For years it was location, location, location. Motel corners, locker rooms, under bleachers. Stock it and lock it. I bought one vending machine after another. Are you with me so far?”

“Not really. I never heard of any vending machines at funeral homes.”

“It’s one I bought for my brother, Alexander. We’re working on a new marketing approach.” Reese’s walleye gave him a disinterested aspect as he added, “There are things that will be happening that I’m not currently at liberty to share. My brother runs the funeral home and together we’re developing the potentialities of the machine. I’m looking for an assistant. You’ll be my driver and later help with food preparation, presentation, and restocking.”

That was it. Hundley didn’t press for details. He had slept for the last week in his car. Before that it was the couch of a techie friend. He had washed up in a gas station bathroom for this interview. Desperation was his motivation.

“Well,” Reese said. “Do you want the job? It’s easy—only a single stop. The pay is one-hundred dollars a day in cash to begin right now. There will be raises.”

Reese smiled, though he had thick-looking teeth like some arboreal chimp capable of masticating leaves or flesh. And that walleye disconcerted Hundley, especially the way Reese didn’t look directly at him. Yet Hundley’s desperation was equaled by curiosity. This would be different from the shit jobs he’d had since high school.

The cardboard box contained brains in plastic bowls. Reese McDermott told him this when they returned to the apartment. Hundley laughed, then looked inside of the plastic containers and saw the sloshing material and thought he would be sick. He went inside the bathroom and stood over the toilet for five minutes until the spasm passed.

He should have left but didn’t. He rationalized to himself that there must be a valid reason behind all of this. Perhaps the brains were meant for some sort of autopsy, or the previous owners had some sort of weird medical condition that needed to be studied postmortem.

The refrigerator in which the brains had been put hummed loudly as if carrying the thoughts of its two new occupants.


Regaining his courage, Hundley crept forward in the dark down the narrow back driveway.  He stopped. Another dog barked, closer than the first. It was a throaty woof of muscle and sharp teeth. The barking ended with a man’s angry shout.

Hundley ignored the ankle’s pulsating pain as he crept along the service path. He heard footsteps and froze. He huddled behind a bush. He raised the clawed hammer defensively. With the other hand he pressed the top of his chest as if to quell the pounding of his heart.

A guard with a flashlight passed close by. “Nope,” the man said, “not a thing.” He started to text someone.

After a minute, Hundley crept around a corner. And there it was in the distance: the main building of McDermott Funeral Home and Gardens.

Hundley crept forward a few feet. He was hopping more than walking now. He made a slight turn and saw the Place of Remembrance. No larger than a couple of cars parked end to end and three wide, it was set a hundred yards away from the main building.

Inside the Place of Remembrance, as Reese had suggested they call it, was where the vending machine sat. Hundley had to do this. He gripped the hammer.


Hundley didn’t quit the job. He returned two days later to pick up three more brains. This time he went on his own. At the funeral home he went in the back gate and met the same contact as before, a Mr. Whey, a man with a small face furrowed like a combination lock. Whey gave him the box.

“We stand on the verge of a significant breakthrough,” Whey said, back at the apartment. “The first thing you have to understand is that all this is legal. The brains we’ve taken from the clients were done so with the prior consent of the patient and at least one surviving family member, both signing off on the procedure.”

“The procedure? You mean removing the brains from the body?”

“We discovered a formula that, once a person is dead, enhances the hippocampus, you know, the memory part of the brain. We want to transfer significant bits of memory to a living person.”

“To a living person? How?” Then it hit Hundley. This time when he arrived at the apartment there was a hotplate and various liquid-containing or solid-matter jars that weren’t there before. There was a blender and mixing bowl and beater. “By someone eating dead, doctored brains?”

“That’s a simple way of saying it,” Alexander McDermott said. The owner and operator of McDermott Funeral Home and Gardens was a large man with small, pebble-like eyes and a flat jawline turning fleshy. He spoke like someone used to being listened to, obeyed. “The doctoring you speak of is only to release the spirit trapped within certain cells—dead, you call them, but we think only dormant. The results of our experiments have been encouraging.”

He struck Hundley as someone used to taking credit for someone else’s work. “We’ve been making progress. What we hope to do is have family members participate in a loved one’s memories even after they have passed on. It will make for a true intimacy.”

“And a good profit,” Whey said. He lit a cigarette. “No overhead and light maintenance. You know the FDA doesn’t regulate dietary supplements. The vending machine will pay for itself. It’s pure Capitalism.”

“People won’t want anyone else to know they are eating brains,” Alexander McDermott said. “This way, with a vending machine, they can do it anonymously. Once a family member gives consent, they are provided with a number. That is the number they will choose on the vending machine. Once they receive the packet out of the machine, they will be given a new way to experience their loved one’s thoughts without the social difficulty of that person being alive.”

“Social difficulty?” Hundley said. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard it put that way.”

“Well,” Reese said. “Why don’t we get started?”

Hundley watched, not knowing why he was here, but feeling like a witness to something between a séance, an old horror movie, and a cooking show. They scooped the first brain into a pan. “Heat but do not boil,” Mr. Whey said as he whipped lard as a fixative. Reese rolled the oats that the brains would be poured into. A jelly-like substance congealed.

“I still don’t understand the purpose of this,” Hundley said.

“You’re about to,” Whey said. He scooped a spoonful of the jelly-like brains and extended it to Hundley. Nearby, Alexander McDermott’s eyes locked into his. “Must not be squeamish,” Whey said, repeating the note written on a 3 x 5 card.

“Why am I going first?”

“You’ve done well,” Reese said. “And you’re due for a raise, but only if you earn it. Remember the squeamish part of the job description? Well?”

“What’re the side effects of eating a brain?”

“That’s what we want to know.”

They all three looked at him. Whey brought the spoonful of brain matter closer. “Come on now,” he said. “What do you have to lose? Your home, family, money? You have none of those. You can change your life by opening your mouth. You’d be getting in on the ground floor.”

“And if I die?”

“You won’t die, and if the side effects are bad we’ll call 911.”

Hundley didn’t fully believe that, but he’d gone too far. This was the job, the real job: a brain taster. Experience not required, and maybe not survived, he thought as he swallowed.

He halfway expected to be in the hospital soon or tossed dead in a ditch. What happened instead, a minute after he swallowed the mixture, with its taste alternately chalky and sweet/sour, he saw in his mind’s eye a beach ball roll across sand. The image was dim and flickered as if rabbit ears above an old TV were receiving the transmission.

He reported what he saw. They consulted a file that contained biographical information associated with the deceased but unknown to Hundley, a blind taster.

“—grew up in Huntington Beach,” Reese muttered. He seemed agitated in a good way.

Hundley never needed a hospital, but the transmission of memory wasn't as strong as they wanted.

Two brains later they got it right. Hundley knew it first. It happened in his head, a montage of a life he never knew. He felt someone else’s first kiss and the wedding-night bliss. He saw a baby born, afterbirth and all. It wasn’t only that the images were stronger than before, he felt as if he were inside another’s skin. He pinched himself and felt the pinch spliced from his own nervous system to a dead person whose name he didn’t know.

It was a breakthrough. Hundley couldn’t deny that the moment was a heady one. He hadn’t known his parents, only a series of foster homes. The only community he knew was those where he had to watch his back.

For the first time in his life, he felt he belonged to a family, even if it was another’s.

Until he didn’t.

The next night they stocked it with brains in chewable form, fifteen packets from fifteen deceased people, the snack-sized treats in colorful paper with foil inside. They loaded the machine, closed it. They didn’t make their selections, however, until the next day. They wanted to duplicate as far as possible the actual experience.

But next day they found something wrong. The brains that made memories sparkle in Hundley’s heads two nights ago now didn’t work so well. Impressions lingered, but they were weak like the initial brains Hundley had sipped, before the formula was tweaked.

“Damn!” Alexander said. “That potency, that level of decline isn’t acceptable. At this rate, the packets might be useless by the time people are here.”

“It is as I feared,” Whey said. “There is something missing.”

“What?” Reese asked.

“Suffering,” Whey said. He pointed to the packets inside the vending machine. “You recruited patients from the critical and cancer wards, yes? You spoke to people who knew they were dying. These were people who I expect lived a comfortable, maybe not perfect but comfortable life. And as they died they had a deluxe version of suffering. They had doctors and drugs and insurance and, even better, you came to them and offer reduced if not waved funeral expenses just to sign off on your research. I’m not saying they died happy but suffering, real suffering, isn’t like that. Real suffering isn’t buffered by morphine.”

“And what is it like?” Reese asked. He seemed genuinely interested, as if they were one who knew.

“True suffering brings depth,” Whey said. “It sticks to the soul. Pain lingers. It goes away only slowly, like the way they used to bury ice to preserve it. That’s what we need to do, bring the brains of a real sufferer into the mix as a preservative.”

“And you know this how?”

Whey looked at the vending machine, as if he took his orders from it. “We’ve been by the book until now,” he said. “But it might be time to try something not legal, to say the least. We need the brain of a real sufferer to test. And we have to be quiet about it.”

“It might be worth a try,” Alexander said. “We can get rid of a nuisance. That awful homeless person down by the wash—you know, the one with one leg and the crutch and the bad skin condition. I see him all the time. A total eyesore for our customers. I even offered him money to leave. Refused, too stupid to see what was good for him. I bet he’s lived a rough life, I bet he’s suffered. His brains might be worth a try.”

Two days later, the homeless man vanished.


Hundley dragged himself to the Place of Remembrance. The lights were on inside. The vending machine glowed against the opposite wall. He remembered when they transported it here, and how when he pushed against it, he felt as if it pushed back, even as they dollied it out of the storage facility and drove it here, rolling it right through the back door that Hundley saw as he crept around the building.

Gathering his courage, Hundley used the claw end of the hammer to pry at the door to the Place of Remembrance. After a couple of attempts, the beveled end of the bricklayer’s hammer gained a hold. He pulled, forcing the door outward. It was a flimsy door and Alexander had intended to replace it when the vending machine business was steady. People paid for class.

He strained himself and with a gasp of effort the door’s bolt flew out. An alarm sounded.

The door opened. Hundley was so full of adrenaline and rage as he approached the vending machine that he didn’t notice the movement behind him until he felt something crack across the back of his skull. He tumbled to the ground. His hammer skidded as he dropped it.

Dim in consciousness but not passing out, he felt something slam into his injured ankle and he screamed.

“Suffering,” he heard Alexander’s voice above him, “that’s what we want.”

Hundley lay on his side, groaning, not only the pain in his ankle, but from his head where the hammer had made contact with his skull.

In front of him, the vending machine loomed, its inside festooned by yellow packets with the pictures of dead people in front. The machine had a smug look about it, as if it knew its contents were enhanced by the brain of a dead, homeless man and another on its way.

“A young person suffering,” Whey said. “We’ll blend you into the next round of brains. We look forward to the results.”

“Yep,” Alexander said, “always looking to improve, and there are always plenty of young, homeless, and miserable people like Hundley whom no one would report as missing.”

A day later, as a young man’s body was found in the wash near the funeral home, another vending machine was ready for delivery.