By Scott Brendel
Was it West Cedar? West Maple? They should have brought the paper with the address. But no; it sat in the clutter beside the phone at home.
“Hurry,” Amanda said. “We’re late.”
“How hard can it be to find?” Carl muttered.
Then she saw it, knew it by the prickle that crawled up her spine. “There,” she said, pointing.
“It’s a house?” Carl said, surprised.
“Hence funeral home.”
He gave her a look, as if sniffing for sarcasm, but said nothing.
Did someone actually live here? The house sat in the shadows of a tree-shaded corner, as if reluctant to draw attention to itself. It was larger than the ones around it. The burnt-red brick gave it a dark and chiseled look, softened by a large curving arc of stained-glass windows around two sides of the main floor. Rising above the second floor–where the family lived, she figured–were two turrets from which Morticia and Gomez could converse over coffee.
Carl pulled to the curb and threw the van into park with a clank that suggested they might leave the transmission on the road. One more thing they couldn’t afford to fix.
“Is it haunted?” Dylan whispered from his car seat in back.
“Of course not, silly,” Carl growled in his Br’er Bear voice, waggling Dylan’s big toe until the four-year-old laughed.
How could it not be? Amanda wondered.
Carl turned to her, his arm over the back of her seat, so covered in thick brown hair he could have been Br’er Bear. “You sure about this?”
“Of course.” She looked back at the house, trying to hide her anxiety.
“Say the word. We’ll just take off and–“
“We need the money,” she said. “And they offered so much.”
Ten times what she normally made. Nearly half a month’s rent. For a haircut.
When she turned back to collect her things, he was looking down the street, shame coloring his cheeks red. And she felt bad, knowing it was because he couldn’t provide for them, at least right now. But shame–his steadfast willingness to overlook hers–had brought them together in the first place.
She touched his hand. “It’ll be fine. A customer who won’t complain, no matter how it turns out.”
She’d hoped for a laugh, but he couldn’t look at her. Couldn’t even look at the little boy in the rear view mirror. “When should I come back?”
“Give me an hour and a half,” she said, stepping from the van.
“Dylan,” he growled, hiding behind Br’er Bear’s voice. “How ‘bout a Happy Meal?”
Amanda waited on the porch until they drove off, waving to Dylan as the excuse, hoping Carl wouldn’t realize how scared she was. But while Dylan waved with gusto, her husband focused on the road ahead. When they were gone, she turned and stepped through the door.
She expected a chill, a creeping cold that would make her shiver. But the warm spring air ushered her into a quiet foyer filled with the scent of lilacs and roses. She took a deep breath, the smell reassuring.
An older woman in an immaculate suit emerged from the office as if intent on some mission, stopping short when she noticed Amanda. Her steely gray hair was short and artfully streaked with highlights. “May I help you?”
Darcy Teague, her nameplate said.
Amanda straightened her shoulders. “Amanda McCallister. I’m here to see your husband.”
The woman’s brows rose ever so slightly. “One moment. If you’ll wait here.” She disappeared down a dark hallway.
While she waited, Amanda looked around and noticed a set of French doors off to the side of the foyer. Curious, she pushed them open.
The room was small and dimly lit–a quiet, cloistered area where people could grieve in private. Here, she found the stained-glass windows she’d noticed from outside. They rose above a padded bench seat that lined two walls of the room, a soothing, subdued backdrop that transformed the harsh light of day.
At the center of the glass mural, a magnificent sun set behind a rugged range of mountains, illuminating the foreground in a blaze of burnished light. Angels and cherubs capered about, suggesting that all would be well. But off to the side, along a small segment of the work, was a darker area. She stepped closer and squinted.
“The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” came a voice from behind her.
Amanda jumped, startled, and turned. Behind her stood a tall, thin man who could have been no older than thirty. Jeremy Teague, according to his nameplate. The woman’s son, not husband. She looked at his hands, thought of the work they did, wondered if he had a girlfriend or wife, and shuddered at the thought of his touch.
“Not the dark threat that Brendan Fraser faced in those silly Mummy movies,” Teague said. “Rather, funerary texts that explained the path to the afterlife.”
Amanda leaned forward to inspect the mural. “This … creature,” she said. “Who was that?”
“Anubis, who presented the person to the god Osiris for judgment.”
“And the scale?”
“Used to weigh the good they had done versus the bad.”
“What’s with the feather?” Amanda asked.
“The weight of each good deed.”
“But feathers weigh next to nothing.”
“The gods’ expectations were high.” He tilted his head to one side as he studied her, as if wondering how she would fare. “This way,” he said.
Teague led her to the back of the house, then down a narrow staircase to the basement. The closer they got, the sharper the smell–of alcohol, antiseptics, cleaning solutions and somewhere beneath it all, the cloying smell of formaldehyde, odors she associated with high school biology class.
Her hand trembled on the bannister as she imagined dank stone walls in a dimly lit basement, splattered with blood and gore. Chains bolted to the walls from which hung the wasted remains of blond bimbos who always went where they shouldn’t.
Ridiculous, she knew. Dredged from the stupid horror movies Carl made her watch, the ones that kept her awake long after he’d drifted off to sleep.
But the basement was nothing like that. It was a large, brightly lit space with immaculate white walls, the air filled with the soft tones of jazz. Where was the organ music, she wanted to ask, and the Phantom to be unmasked? But she didn’t, her relief fleeting, because the body she’d come to attend to lay stretched on a stainless steel table beneath a bank of lights.
From her position at the base of the stairs, she saw the crown of a head and, beyond it, a white sheet draped over the body that tented over the toes. A man, she thought, realizing she’d been so flustered when Teague called that she’d forgotten to ask.
The man’s thick gray hair was stuck to his head in some spots and wildly awry in others. Like he’d recently rolled out of bed after a bender.
“How did he die?” she asked. As if somehow it mattered.
“Did he suffer?”
Teague looked at her, then shrugged. “Apparently, it was quick. Beyond that, I couldn’t say.”
As if he’d know. Or care. “Don’t you wonder?”
Again, the surprised look. “My concern begins after that particular moment.”
Amanda thought about how well she knew her clients, especially the little old ladies who had been coming to her for years. No repeat business in the funeral industry.
“I was surprised to get your call,” she said, to delay the inevitable.
“I figured you guys took care of hair, too.”
“We do.” The annoyance on his face gave way to surprise then concern, as if he’d said something he shouldn’t have.
Teague fiddled with his glasses, his gaze fixed somewhere over her shoulder. “Our mortician … called in sick. And the service is this afternoon.”
He was lying. But why?
“You’ll want these,” he said before she could ask, handing her latex gloves, which she quickly put on. “Everything else you need should be here. Running water. Towels. Just leave them at the end of the table and I’ll take care of them. Will there be anything else?”
“Just one thing,” she said as she approached the side of the table.
It was important to know your clients. Something she’d learned long ago. “His name,” she said.
“Aaron Marsh,” Teague told her as she saw the man’s face.
Amanda felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her lightheaded and woozy.
“Ms. McCallister?” Teague took her arm and steadied her. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
She shook herself free, repulsed by his touch. Steeled herself and stepped back to the table to study the dead man’s face. “I’m fine. I’ll take it from here.”
He backed away, as if confused by the ice in her voice or perhaps simply relieved to return to whatever it was that occupied his day. Video games, maybe, or porn. The shopping network. She didn’t know; didn’t care.
“Certainly,” he said. He turned and left.
When Teague was gone, Amanda leaned on the edge of the table and closed her eyes until she was able to regain her poise. Then she rolled two towels together and slipped them gently beneath the man’s neck, to raise his head so she could wash his hair. She turned on the sprayer that Teague used to wash the bodies of the dead and adjusted the temperature until it was warm but not hot.
Just the way Aaron had always liked it.
A lump formed in her throat, but she swallowed to force it away. She’d been on her own back then, alone and lonely, still technically a teenager when her father had kicked her out of the house. Working a chair in someone else’s shop, lucky just to have a job. Then one day, he had walked in.
Amanda peeled the gloves off her hands and brushed the side of his face with her fingers, missing the warmth of his skin, the embrace of his smile. Then she wet Aaron’s hair, careful to keep the water from his eyes, poured shampoo into her hand and gently rubbed it in until his gray hair turned white with lather.
Although he’d never said so, this was the part he always liked best. Under the ministrations of her fingers, she would feel him relax, his eyes closed as they were now so she could study his face.
It looked much the same, if you overlooked the gray pallor of his skin. The wrinkles were cut a little deeper than she remembered, but it had been several years since she’d seen him. Since the time he’d opened his eyes and looked past her defenses, into her very soul.
She shivered, thinking of his ice blue eyes, a shade she’d never seen before, so pale and translucent.
She rinsed his hair slowly and carefully, then toweled it dry. Setting aside the towels where Teague had instructed, she combed out Aaron’s hair, then picked up her shears and began.
After she finished, she went looking for Teague. She found the man’s mother instead, in the front hall talking with a strikingly attractive woman in her late fifties or early sixties.
Through the window at the end of the hall just beyond the two women, Amanda saw Carl outside on the front lawn, peering from behind a tree with his Br’er Bear face on; he was playing hide and seek with Dylan. Dylan raced around the azalea bush, then, when he still couldn’t find Carl, dashed through the open door in a breathless rush, peering at all of the possible hiding places in the foyer.
“What are you doing here, little boy?” The woman–the one who’d asked the Teagues to hire her, Amanda suddenly realized–knelt before Dylan, studying him with piercing intensity.
Dylan regarded her soberly, then turned to Amanda with those ice blue eyes–the eyes of Aaron Marsh. “Is Daddy here?” he asked.
The woman–the wife–turned to look at Amanda as well, the same question obviously on her mind.
“Yes,” Amanda said, pride–an unexpected visitor–and love driving the shame from her heart.
Scott Brendel is the author of “The Seventh Green at Lost Lakes,” which was published in Read by Dawn, Volume 1. “The House Beneath Delgany Street” appeared in Subtle Edens, an anthology nominated for a 2009 British Fantasy Award. “Ataraxia” was published in Day Terrors, and “Groundswell of Love” appeared in the September 2011 issue of Something Wicked and their print anthology entitled Something Wicked, Volume 1. Scott lives along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, where he is at work on a novel.