by Corey Farrenkopf
Lake hid beside the body-part sink. At least that’s what they called it. They didn’t know the specific term for the sink coroners employed to dispose of innards not destined for the casket. They didn’t even know if that’s what the sink was truly for. It had an opening in its basin large enough to stick two twelve-year-old arms down. What else could it be?
Lake knew this, testing the sink’s depths with Cashel and Mark one day after school.
“It hasn’t been used in years,” Cashel promised. “Just do it. Totally sterile.”
So Lake did, groping for whatever lay below, the cold cast-iron like a tunnel of ice.
“Wouldn’t they do something different with their hearts? Or their kidneys? Or whatever they put down here?” Lake asked.
“Probably now, yeah, but this place has been around since the 1800s. Who knows what weird shit they did with the leftovers.”
Lake tucked his sneakers in tighter to his body, trying to shrink himself as much as possible.
Lake and Cashel and Mark were playing hide and seek in the old funeral home Cashel’s mother was converting into condominiums. They usually avoided the embalming room, but Lake had a desire to actually see something, to not live strictly through second-hand stories.
When Cashel’s mother bought the historic structure, much of its previous life was left intact. There were coffins in the attic above the garage. Metal coffins for burials at sea. Wicker coffins woven into odd, pill-like shapes. Baby coffins, two feet long and inhumanly narrow.
Cashel’s mom sold them on eBay.
Each went surprisingly quick.
The first floor was a winding labyrinth of connected rooms, some with wide windows looking over Route 28, others with no windows at all. Most were carpeted in dull yellow swatches smelling of two-hundred-years of dust and the fresh paint recently applied to the ceiling. Electric candelabra stuck from the walls, an attempt at ambiance for grieving families. They’d been disconnected for some time, the wiring a fire hazard according to Cashel’s mother.
The sound of footsteps passed through the hall outside the embalming room. Lake held his breath, forcing limbs to still. The steps passed into the garage, across the cement floor, climbing the stairs to where the coffins once sheltered.
The coffin maker’s workshop lay between the garage and what was now Cashel’s bedroom on the second floor. That’s where Lake’s friends heard most of the noises, saw most of the figures wavering between one life and the next.
It always happened at night, they said. The hammering. The sound of a saw shearing boards. Mark had seen globes of light hovering above his sleeping bag, a dozen tiny eyes gazing down at him. Cashel had seen army medics carrying stretchers across the room, translucent bodies suspended between, fingers grazing the floor only to vanish through walls. They had dozens of stories, of sights and sounds divorced from reality.
But Lake had no stories.
His parents didn’t allow sleepovers.
He’d missed so much. The ghosts, yes, but they were only one item on a long list. There was the bonding time, the comic books, the video games played on a tiny tube television. Secrets shared. First crushes. Awkward, pre-pubescent moments. Shared dread. Shared joy.
Lake missed all of it once the sun went down. Maybe today he’d get a glimpse, he told himself, something to align what his best friends experienced, but he lacked. It would almost be like they hadn’t been apart, hadn’t had an extra degree of separation driven into their friendship.
The steps continued overhead, then there was the sound of a slap, skin on skin. Cashel had a habit of smacking whoever he found during the game, as if it was some unalterable rule.
“You dick, you don’t need to do that,” he heard Mark say above, his voice muffled by the floor.
“It’s the game buddy. If you’re going to play, you’re going to get slapped,” Cashel replied.
“That’s why it’s better when Lake searches. He doesn’t smack me.”
“I still haven’t found him.”
“I bet he’s outside in the bushes. He loves it back there.”
Then their footsteps drifted away, towards the second story deck and the outdoor staircase beyond.
The boundaries of their game weren’t limited to the house’s innards. The grounds were fair territory. A screen door slammed, then there was silence. Lake let out his breath, shaking his feet that had fallen asleep, pins and needles drifting through ankles. He’d won the game, but he wouldn’t show himself. There was a twinge of pride in outlasting his friends, but there was also the desire to regain something he’d lost.
He held his breath again, searching for the hammering, the saw, the sound of sandpaper over rough wood. Only stillness echoed back. Lake’s eyes darted around the room, searching for movement in the dim blue light filtering through the pulled curtains. Before him was the metal dissection table, the glass fronted cabinet that once held chemicals. There was a chair, a bookcase, a pile of paint cans and foam rollers ready for the next step of renovation. No figure reclined in the chair. No thin man wandered about his duties, slicing and stitching whomever lay upon the table.
Lake could imagine each flicker of translucent skin, each flash of the unseen, but they refused to playout before him. He would never get to know what his friends had seen, to know if they were being honest or messing with him. It’s what he feared, an inside joke he could only view from a distance, through closed windows and locked doors.
Tears climbed his throat, nudging his sinuses. He couldn’t let them come, not when Cashel and Mark would find him soon, all red eyed and puffy. He swallowed hard and swore, accepting his lack, accepting the distance.
Another door slammed out front. Footsteps tracked towards the embalming room, cutting through halls and viewing rooms as if all other hiding spots had been exhausted. Lake stood from his cavity besides the body-sink as Mark and Cashel pushed into the room, dull blue light washing over their faces.
“I thought we promised not to…” Cashel dropped off.
Mark said nothing.
Lake traced their wide eyes to the sink at his elbow, to the silhouette of a man standing over the wash basin, back to them, the flush of water reverberating in the pipes, something seething beneath their feet.
They were together, frozen in place, a moment shared, a question peeled back, the punchline of a joke never spoken.
“Finally,” Lake said as the man shut off the sink and turned to the friends, arms outstretched, something beating clenched in his hand.