by John Brhel and J. Sullivan
Like every other school-age kid in Lestershire, twin brothers Sean and Zack Grady were dreading the end of summer. It was Labor Day, and they only had a few more afternoons of freedom before their first day of the sixth grade. They had already spent their allowance and exhausted every possible avenue of fun at the carnival that weekend. Their parents’ jobs demanded they work the holiday — dad at the gas station, mom at the laundromat — so the two brothers rambled around town, free to do as they pleased.
“Let’s go to the comic shop,” said Sean, the smaller of the two fraternal twins, as he and his brother strode down a quiet street on the town’s south side, far from the annual parade that had just begun. They passed the empty husks of former shoe factories as they walked the weed-infested sidewalk.
“It’s closed,” said Zack.
Sean sighed. “What about the arcade?”
“Everything’s closed. It’s a holiday,” said Zack as he and Sean crossed the train tracks, which divided the north and south sides of town. Half of Lestershire was at the Labor Day Parade, which ran the length of Main Street, then passed down Memorial Drive, through working-class neighborhoods and white-collar sections alike. People came out to watch the award-winning high school marching band and wave at local luminaries as they cruised by in floral-decorated floats.
“How come mom and dad have to work, then?”
Although Zack was the same age as Sean, he had taken on the role of an older brother. Sean had a learning disability and Zack often found himself in the role of protector of his undersized twin. Zack was already becoming aware of the social strata of Lestershire and his family’s place in it. “Cause mom and dad have shitty jobs, that’s why.”
They ventured further into the town’s north side and the houses became larger, the lawns more thoughtfully manicured. They passed the hospital and the town’s old high school and stopped outside Coleman’s Funeral Home. It was an attractive, well-kempt building — a clean shade of white with blue shutters and front doors with copper trim.
“They got real dead bodies in there?” asked Sean, his voice tinged with curiosity, and most certainly, fear.
Zack grinned. “Tons of them. They take them into the basement and suck all the blood out, inject them with a poison, and dress them up like dummies. It’s so weird. I saw a reality show about it once.”
“Sick! Why do they do that?”
“Preservation. It’s all about appearances. Nobody wants to see their loved ones all pale and cut up. Or worse — decapitated!” Zack grabbed his brother by the neck and shook it playfully.
“Stop!” said Sean, pushing his brother away, chortling.
They continued down the walk and turned the corner at a row of tall hedges. When they came to the other side of the funeral home, neither of them could help but notice that the back door was wide open, the screen door gently tapping against the jamb in the breeze.
“How about we pay a visit?” said Zack, grinning. “It’s no arcade, but I’m sure it’d be interesting.”
“Zack, no. What are you doing?”
“Don’t be a pussy. Don’t you want to see what they do with the bodies? The freak show?”
Sean shook his head. “Somebody’s gonna see us.”
“Everyone’s at the parade, man. You think they’re in there primping up bodies while everyone else is out having fun? They probably just stuff ‘em into the freezer and turn up the chiller extra high for the day. C’mon.” Zack laughed to himself.
Sean reluctantly followed Zack, scanning the area around the funeral home, making sure no one was watching.
They went up to the door and peeked through the screen. A long hallway with a rich navy-blue carpet and white satin curtains lay ahead. Several small lamps lined the wall, bathing the hallway in a soft yellow glow. There was no one around, no footsteps, voices, nor sounds of electronics running of any kind.
“Let’s go,” whispered Zack. He slowly pulled open the screen and tiptoed into the hallway. Sean followed close behind.
As they wandered into the funeral parlor, they were surprised to find that it did not reek of rotting flesh, like some kids at school had said, but had a rather benign smell, something more akin to a church. The place was solemn but had an air of class about it. At the end of the hallway was a long, rectangular room that contained rows of chairs, a lectern facing the chair audience, and beside the lectern, raised upon a decorative metal rack lie an elegant closed casket.
“There it is!” Sean gasped.
“Shhh! Quiet!” Zack grabbed his brother by the arm and practically dragged him down the center aisle, pausing before the prayer bench. The twin boys crept onto and perched upon the bench, hovering over the dark mahogany casket lid.
“Does it just come open?” asked Sean, trembling.
“I’m not sure,” replied Zack, feeling the smooth lid of the burial vessel.
They nervously felt around for a latch or grip to open the top portion of the lid. After some tinkering, Zack managed to pop it open an inch, pausing to take in his brother’s expression.
“On three…” said Zack.
“One…” began Sean.
“Two… Three!” the boys said in unison. They flipped the lid open and revealed…an empty casket.
“Goddamnit!” exclaimed Zack, immediately cupping his own mouth at his outburst.
“It sure is a nice one, though,” replied Sean, quietly content that corpses lay elsewhere. He leaned over the casket and fingered the silk interior and patted the velvet pillow. “This one must be for someone really rich.”
Sean shuddered when he felt a hand on his shoulder abruptly shove him into the open casket, legs dangling over the side. “Ahhh!” He closed his eyes and grit his teeth, willing to accept whatever his punishment would be for trespassing.
He was relieved to hear Zack’s loud, obnoxious guffaw in his ear. “Get the hell out of there, dummy.” Zack pulled Sean from the casket and they got down off the prayer bench.
“Well, if anyone’s here they definitely would’ve heard you scream like a little bitch, dude.”
“Dick move, Zack…”
Zack slapped his brother on the shoulder and told him it was just a joke. “Come on, no one’s here — let’s have a look around.”
Zack and Sean wandered through another parlor, this one sans casket. They peeked into an office and a meeting room, then found the casket room, admiring the variety of coffin.
“What do you think these are for?” asked Sean as he knocked two metal urns together. The lid slipped off one and a small plume of dust wafted into the air.
“What are you doing?!” said Zack, giggling and coughing from the dust. “Those are urns. You just dumped a bit of someone’s cremated body onto the rug.”
Sean looked down at the streak of dust on the rug. He picked up the lid and gently placed it back on the urn and put it back where he got it. “Gross. What’d it taste like?” asked Sean, looking at his brother rubbing his mouth.
“Dirt,” replied Zack, smirking. “Listen, we probably should get out of here. I don’t think they have any bodies today.”
The boys were about to return to the hallway when they heard the screen door open and close. “Shit! Someone’s here!” whispered Zack. They hurried into a few different rooms and hallways, looking for a way out, or at least a good hiding place.
“Look!” said Zack, pointing to an open door. Let’s just go downstairs and wait for him to leave.”
They hurried down into the basement and were surprised by the clinical nature of the room that they found. Gone were the warm lights and soft shades of blue of the first floor and in their place was a cold, white room, brightly lit, that looked like it belonged in a hospital. In the center of the room was a flat, metallic table, on which lay the body of an elderly woman dressed in a prim blue dress.
Zack quickly cupped his hand over Sean’s mouth before he could scream. They both recognized the woman as Joy Petcosky, the mayor’s wife. Her pale, expressionless face, bereft of its normally heavy layer of makeup, chilled the pair, as they were used to seeing her wide smile at town gatherings.
“Mrs. Petcosky is dead?!” whispered Zack, as he grasped his brother’s shoulder for support.
Sean, in shock from their discovery, made to run back upstairs, but froze at the sound of heavy footsteps hitting the first few steps.
“Oh, shit!” Zack looked around the room and considered their predicament. He quickly recognized a hiding spot and yanked his brother over to a small alcove beneath the stairs. They crouched down behind a filing cabinet and a pair of red 55-gallon drums.
A man in a long, blue smock hurried down the stairs and over to the metal table which held the woman. “Okay, Mrs. Petcosky, I’ve retrieved the correct-sized siphon pump, and we’ll finish up here and have you ready to face your friends and family.”
Zack and Sean watched with unsettling curiosity as the undertaker turned on the pump and attached it to a hose, which fed into a clear, glass cylinder. The machine broke the still quiet of the room with its heavy vrooming sound. Sean gasped as the man unceremoniously lodged the pointed end of the tube into the side of Mrs. Petcosky’s neck.
“Is he sucking out her blood?” whispered Sean
“No, that’s not blood. It’s some sort of pink goo,” replied Zack. The pump made such a racket that they had no trouble conversing in low whispers.
“Oh, nasty. It looks like her face is turning into a prune,” said Sean. He laughed to himself as Sean grabbed his own mouth, gagging at the grotesque scene before them.
The twins remained hidden as the undertaker filled the cylinder with the pink sludge and poked and prodded at different veins and arteries of the old woman’s body. When he turned the pump off he removed the glass container and replaced it with a full cylinder. Zack and Sean were speechless at the specter of the withered woman, who now looked utterly unfamiliar to their eyes. Her skin was taut to her skull and bones.
The man changed his latex gloves, placed a different hose on the new cylinder, and again jammed it into Mrs. Petcosky’s neck. When he turned on the pump, something wasn’t quite right. The crimson liquid began spurting out onto Mrs. Petcosky’s face and even onto the undertaker’s mask and glasses. He rushed to correct his error, then wiped his brow, relieved to see the liquid being returned to the body.
“My apologies, Mrs. Petcosky,” said the man.
“Is that blood?” asked Sean. “Aren’t they supposed to be sucking it out and not putting it back in?”
“Yeah, that looks like blood,” replied Zack. “This doesn’t make sense.”
Next the undertaker pulled out a long, slim wire from a spool beside the table. He ran it through the woman’s nose and throughout the different cavities of her face.
“I can’t watch. Tell me when it’s over,” said Sean, covering his eyes and turning his head.
When the undertaker had finished wiring Mrs. Petcosky and pumping the red liquid back into her, he cleaned up his work area and retrieved a mask connected to a gas tank. He straightened the elderly woman’s blue dress, snapping back up various buttons, and placed the mask over her face. The undertaker then turned the release on the gas tank.
Zack nudged his brother so he’d look. Sean reluctantly uncovered his face and watched the undertaker pump Mrs. Petcosky full of some sort of gas. When the corpse abruptly sat up the boys both gasped, but the undertaker seemed not to hear as he was busy trying to wrangle Mrs. Petcosky back down onto the table.
Zack covered Sean’s mouth, as he knew his brother was about to scream. Sean bit down on his brother’s hand as they watched the man wrangle and press the elderly woman back down to the table.
“Mrs. Petcosky, your treatment is over. You are coming to,” stated the undertaker, calmly, to the flailing octanagerian.
Eventually the woman was subdued and sat up of her own accord. The boys were astonished as they had witnessed Mrs. Petcosky go from pale and corpselike, to a withered, empty husk, and now looked to be her normal, everyday self.
As if he were seeing out a client at a beauty salon, the undertaker handed the old woman her heavy blazer and a hand mirror. She examined herself in the mirror. “Well, I do feel much better now, Robert. Yesterday I looked like death itself.”
“Yes, madam. I’m not just patting my own back,” replied Robert. “You already look twenty years younger.”
“Hand me my pocketbook, Robert. I’ll have to write you a check this month,” said Mrs. Petcosky. She wrote out his exorbitant check while he retrieved her shoes. “Are we still set for my special annual treatment next month, dear?”
“Yes, ma’am. I will receive my Guatemalan shipment mid-month.”
Mrs. Petcosky stood with assistance from the undertaker, still wobbly from the aftereffects of her treatment. “Robert, how often have you been seeing Julia Wheeler? She has been looking more supple than normal. You aren’t giving her my special treatment, are you?”
“Oh, no, no, Mrs. Petcosky. You are my best client and my first priority.”
“I’m sure, Robert. Thank you very much.” The undertaker assisted the old woman to the stairs and past the hidden twin boys.
“There are so many new advancements in mortuary science, but we here at Coleman Funerary Services are on the cutting edge,” stated Robert as they walked up the stairs. “It is a very experimental science, and therefore expensive — but we feel that serving the mayor’s wife, giving her the best treatments we have to offer — is very much our civic duty.”
Zack and Sean heard the door close and listened for the footsteps to fade into another part of the house before they came out from their hiding spot.
“What the hell was that?!” exclaimed Sean.
Zack shrugged. “Let’s get out of here while he’s taking her to her car.”
The pair crept up the stairs, listening for footsteps. “You think what they’re doing is illegal, Zack?”
“Probably. Sounds like an underground, black market type of thing.”
When they reached the landing they slowly opened the door. Seeing that the hallway was clear they hurried toward the rear of the house. Zack threw open the screen door and the brothers ran like their hair was on fire. As they headed for the safety of home, they passed by dozens of familiar faces leaving the parade and wondered how many other of Lestershire’s upper crust were partaking in Coleman Funeral Home’s special treatments.