Preview: A Strange Love & Relationship-Themed Paranormal Anthology from Cemetery Gates Media

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In February 2018, we (Brhel & Sullivan) will release a book of ten short stories entitled Her Mourning Portrait and Other Paranormal Oddities. With this collection, we aim to present the difficulties of sustaining flesh-and-blood relationships through a novel lens — through the weird and uncanny.

Paranormal themes and plot elements help us explore interpersonal relationships in unique, often amusing, ways; but at their core, these tales are not about ghosts or strange premonitions — they’re about flawed, everyday individuals navigating the complexities of dating, marriage, and loss. If anything, the strange situations that our characters encounter only parallel the seemingly arbitrary, uncertain nature of real-life love and companionship. And while you may not ever communicate with a dead lover or have a preternatural insight into a different time or place, you can likely relate to the tragedy, the euphoria, the insanity that the act of loving often entails.

The stories can be considered romances in the broadest sense. Each tale is built around a central character’s quest for a more secure, fully actualized, and loving intimacy. However, most of the stories would not properly fit within the expectations of the already established, paranormal romance subgenre.

With books like Tales from Valleyview Cemetery and Corpse Cold: New American Folklore our goal was to entertain readers with spook stories, featuring uncomfortable plot elements that approach real-life horrors. And in Carol for a Haunted Man we portrayed a helpful, Dickensian apparition, and a mortal protagonist who was struggling to rebuild his personal and professional lives. While this collection is a mix of both thematic styles, we hope to satisfy readers who’ve enjoyed our campfire oddities, as well as those who’ve preferred our more literary moments.

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Some of the highlights from the new collection include:

  • “Her Mourning Portrait” is the story of an artist who immortalizes his dying wife, and then must face the consequences of aging without her.
  • “Side by Side” is a quirky cemetery tale about a confrontation between a long-deceased man and his widow’s second husband, regarding the final resting place of their beloved-in-common.
  • “Lady of Cayuga Lake” recounts the last hurrah of a separating husband and wife, a final vacation which takes a turn toward the paranormal when they both spy a ghost over the lake. Will they have what it takes to work together, confide in each other, and solve the mysterious disappearance of Mary Gold?
  • “The Lost Cache” tells of the strain an obsessive hobby can have on a marriage. Hillary appears to give Eric every chance to engage her, and work his way back toward an intimate companionship, even going so far as to plan out a special evening of hiking and geocaching in an old cemetery with her husband.
  • “Play It Again, Sam” is a science fiction story regarding the discovery of a technology that can influence recorded memories. Sam is an engineer hoping to alter his ex-wife’s perception of their seminal, shared moments together, enough that she has a more positive view of him in the present.
  • “Her, He, and a Corpse Makes Three” focuses on a love triangle between a living couple who work in a funeral home, and the woman’s recently deceased, yet spiritually returned ex-boyfriend.

Ben Baldwin is once again responsible for the cover art. Ben previously designed the cover for our episodic novel, Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop.

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The following is a complete short story from Her Mourning Portrait and Other Paranormal Oddities, entitled “Beyond a Blood Moon.” It is a brief homage to the chillers of Guy de Maupassant and Edgar A. Poe.

“Beyond a Blood Moon”

I was awoken one night in bed, likely due to the absence of my fiancée. I can only assume that it was this silence past midnight, which a light sleeper can’t help but notice once they’ve become attuned to the constancy of their nightly, bedroom environment. And this absence, was likely what my unconscious found unsettling enough to stir me. Sara’s breathing was often measured, hypnotic, a comforting layer to my night. Her respiration, often the last thing I took hold of in my twilight mind before plunging into the great unknown, and then my first lifeline back to cognizance each morning. But when I stirred that night, due to the silence, and reached for her — I couldn’t help but convulse, in considering a multitude of fears and possibilities.

I left our bedroom and wandered my home. Her sneakers were gone. She enjoyed jogging late, and I hated that she had no fear of the night. As I dressed and put on my shoes, I considered whether I was the reason for her jogging well past midnight. That she wouldn’t want to worry me if I were still awake, while she took the path around the block and through the cemetery. So, since there was no way I was going to fall back to sleep without seeing her safely home, I headed out into the night.

There were intermittent clouds, but the moon was full and bright, illuminating the areas where the amber-yellow street lamps fell short. As I turned from the sidewalk and into Valleyview Cemetery, I noticed the beginnings of a lunar eclipse. I hadn’t seen one since childhood, and stood in awe as the Earth’s shadow consumed the reddening lunar surface. At the time, I considered how strange and seemingly unimportant such a spectacular astronomical event had been to me. It had been over twenty years since I’d stood in my parents’ front yard and last waited for the moon to vanish.

I rarely consumed local media, there had to have been some mention of it in the newspaper that morning. To think that ancient societies would plan for months, and even years, in advance, to celebrate a full lunar eclipse — and here I was, casually catching one as I searched for my missing companion.

I continued on through Valleyview after the blood moon passed. The lunar disc retained some of its reddish hue, but the street lamps on either end of the cemetery were enough, for me to find my way down the winding paths of the hillside graveyard. I came upon Sara, not far from the central outcropping of mausoleums. I ran to her crumpled form. I knew her instantly by the powder blue sneakers with their pink bands.

I screamed her name as I attempted to revive her. She was lifeless. I could make out the strangulation marks on her neck, her bruised face, as I gave my best effort at resuscitation. She had been murdered. I’m still not sure whether she had even been robbed. I called 911 and the paramedics, fire department, and police drove into the cemetery. It was the last time I saw Sara’s body, as her family wouldn’t allow me at the wake or funeral, since I was awaiting arraignment for homicide.    

I had no choice but to put my hands on her, and attempt my best at reviving her. I had to touch her, feel with my own hands the bruising on her cheek, her broken right orbital bone, the sinewy strangulation marks on her neck. I began to mourn her, long before the first medic arrived on the scene.

There was no one else to charge, imprison, and punish. It really made sense for the police, community, my friends, and family, that I was the one who extinguished a loving, generous, woman — one who I had long imagined as the mother of my children, my lifelong partner. For eight years I went mad in a single cell at Shawangunk Correctional Facility. I had no visitors, no one waiting for me — no one to serve my time for. I wrote letters to Sara’s family, my own family, pleading my innocence and the truth of my unabashed love for her. They went unanswered.

During my eight years I married Sara in my mind, had children with her. We went on family vacations, advanced in our careers, even had spats, and differences which we eventually overcame. She and I advanced into old age, and I was ready to die alongside her when I was granted parole.

The first night I was able to leave the halfway house, I went right to Valleyview and lay upon her ornate altar-tomb. It was a frigid, overcast February night, and I intended to fall asleep and become a part of her monument. A monument to my love for her, the love we had shared the four years we were together, and the eight I had shared with her in dream.

With my finger I traced her name in the granite, then the inscription beneath which read: “Devoted daughter and fiancée, a beautiful soul taken too soon.” I shivered at the mention of ‘fiancée,’ that her parents left her connection to me at her burial site. It surprised me, and gave me some small consolatory pleasure in my waning hours.

The chill had already consumed me, and was now leaving my body along with my life’s energy. It began to snow. A thin white blanket covered me and the altar on which I began to drift into that place between conscious and unconscious. But as I resigned myself to my end, and was preparing to embrace my final sleep, the altar moved beneath me. The shock of the tomb cracking mere inches from my face, gave me the rush of adrenaline I’d need to be fully cognizant of what then occurred.

From the few inches of darkness, revealed by the cracked top piece of the altar, a waxen, partly shriveled, human hand emerged. I pushed myself onto my side, to avoid the ghastly intrusion by my beloved. The aged, embalmed hand proceeded to scratch out the inscription on the tomb. I watched as an eerie incandescent green glow passed from the fingertips to the stone, bright enough that I had to momentarily shield my eyes.

It wasn’t half a minute when the task was complete, and the hand returned to the dark of the tomb, the altar gently scraping back to its settled position. I looked to the inscription, to see what damage had been done, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. I assumed I had experienced some sort of delusion, brought on by my deteriorating condition.

When I lay back on the tomb, resigned to complete my purpose, I looked up into the overcast sky, and the clouds soon parted — revealing the Earth’s colossal umbra as it consumed the moon. I had no prior knowledge of an impending lunar eclipse, and I had to shield my eyes, as I was shaken to my core by the specter of the blood-red disc.

I turned away from the dreadful astronomical event — and when I did, I caught sight of the inscription on the tomb, which was now illuminated in a reddish hue from the heavenly body. Where the inscription had once read: “Devoted daughter and fiancée; a beautiful soul taken too soon.” now read, in an ordered (what I can only describe as ‘angelic’) script: “Devoted mother and wife; to be together again, if only in dream.”

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10 Real-Life Locations That Inspired The Stories in ‘Corpse Cold: New American Folklore’

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We often base our tales in actual locations around our home state of New York. It’s fun to take everyday places, locations we’ve visited once, or often, and infuse them with our brand of lore.

Here are some of the illustrations from Corpse Cold: New American Folklore paired with their real-life inspirations!

“Amityville Beach”/Amityville Beach, Long Island

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This popular beach is located in the Long Island village of Amityville, the setting of the infamous Amityville Horror, which is mentioned in our story.

“Friendship: Dead and Buried”/The Last Ride burial simulator

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The character Kevin Morrissey in “Friendship: Dead and Buried” is treated to a “ride” on Six Feet Under, which “simulates” an actual burial. Six Feet Under was inspired by The Last Ride, a traveling amusement park attraction in the Northeast United States that offers a similarly visceral experience.

“The Big ‘M'”/Eagle Bay, N.Y.

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The supermarket featured in the story “The Big ‘M’ was inspired by a now-closed grocery in Eagle Bay, N.Y., in the Adirondacks. This is a picture of the market as it appeared in the 1980s.

“Dracula’s Bride”/Ukranian Catholic Church

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The chapel that the kids in “Dracula’s Bride” chase the elderly Mrs. Ellsic to is actually modeled after a Ukranian Catholic Church in Johnson City, N.Y. Corpse Cold co-author Joe Sullivan grew up in the same neighborhood, where the church still stands.

“Moss Lake Island”/Echo Island

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The small island featured in “Moss Lake Island” is inspired by Echo Island, situated on Big Moose Lake in N.Y. Big Moose Lake is only a short drive from Moss Lake.

“Two Visions, 1984″/Roscoe Diner

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The Roscoe Diner, where journalist Ross Davie picks up the hitchhiker in “Two Visions, 1984,” is a popular diner in Roscoe, N.Y., located on Route 17.

“Woman on the Campus Green”/Wadsworth Auditorium

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The entirety of “Woman on the Campus Green” takes place at SUNY Geneseo, where Joe Sullivan once attended college. A climactic scene in the story takes place in Wadsworth Auditorium, a performing arts venue on campus.

“The Blue Hole”/Peekamoose Blue Hole

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“The Blue Hole” is inspired by a real swimming hole in Grahamsville, N.Y., in the Catskills.

“Jesup”/Tioughnioga River

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This story was inspired by actual alligator sightings during the summer of 2017 on the Tioughnioga River, which runs through Whitney Point and Lisle, N.Y. It was no urban legend, as two alligators were eventually caught.

“Last Train Home”/Buffalo, N.Y.

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The train line featured in “Last Train Home” is based on the Buffalo Metro Rail system in Buffalo, N.Y.

Learn more about Corpse Cold: New American Folklore!

7 Tales From “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” That Freaked Me Out (And Still Do)

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By John Brhel

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was one of my favorite book series when I was younger, despite the fact that many of the stories terrified me to no end. Here I was, 8, 9 years old, reading about beheaded roommates and knife-wielding maniacs. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, this was not.

Most of the tales in Scary Stories that used to scare me when I was a kid just make me laugh now (“The Big Toe,” really?) but there are a handful that still leave me unsettled. Here’s a few of my favorite traumatizing tales!

“The Thing”

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Just look at that nightmarish thing! And that’s what it is, The Thing. Even in gathering photos for this post, I got residual childhood chills from seeing this guy’s face again. The plot here is pretty threadbare: a skeletal-looking man/zombie/ghoul follows two boys home and watches them from across the street. But the combination of this image and the idea of being helpless as some weirdo followed me home (where’s your parents, kids?) made this one stand out for me. I seriously couldn’t look at that drawing, and I don’t enjoy it too much now.

 

“The Window”

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When I first read this story, I lived on a semi-rural road, across from which was an empty field. My bedroom window looked out at the field, and the bottom of the window was really low, so anyone could just walk right up and look in on me while I was sleeping if they wanted to. This story, which tells of a young woman who watches helplessly from her window as a yellow-eyed creature (later discovered to be a vampire) slowly stalks toward her home, freaked me the hell out and only served to make my bedroom window even more terrifying. I probably begged my parents to move me to a different room because of this tale.

“Harold”

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This story features one of the most disturbing final scenes in anything I’ve watched or read to this day, for which it wins the “How The Hell Did This End Up In My Elementary School Library? Award.” In this tale two farmers, Thomas and Arnold, make a scarecrow to pass the time in their boring cow-milking lives. They name it after another farmer they dislike and proceed to treat it like dirt, taunting the dummy, smearing food in its face. When Harold begins to grunt and scurry around the roof of their hut at night, Thomas and Arnold flee. In their haste, they forget their all-important milking stools (hate it when that happens). Thomas has to go back to get the stools. But when Alfred looks back at the hut for Thomas, all he sees is Harold stretching out his buddy’s bloody skin on the rooftop. WTF! There’s a reason why this tale always comes up in discussions of Scary Stories. It’s straight-up insane.

 

“One Sunday Morning”

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I was raised Roman Catholic, so I spent many a dull hour at Sunday morning Mass. This story, which tells of a man who unknowingly stumbles upon a church service open only to a parish of the undead, struck a chord with me. I think it was mainly the idea of feeling like you’re in a safe place — I mean, what’s more peaceful and non-threatening than a church? — and finding out that not only is it unsafe, but that the people in there want you dead. This is probably why I don’t go to church anymore. Yeah, that’s the reason.

 

“The Bride”

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Every kid knows what it’s like to play hide-and-seek, so every kid can relate to the terrifying prospect of being trapped in a hiding spot, never to be found. I was probably playing a lot more Nintendo Entertainment System than hide-and-seek when I first read this story, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying.

 

“Maybe You Will Remember”

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You can blame probably this story, the “waking up in a bathtub with your kidney removed” urban legend and the movie Hostel for me never wanting to travel abroad. In this story, a young woman’s mother mysteriously disappears while they are vacationing  together in Paris. The daughter insists that she and her mother were renting out room 505, but it’s revealed that the room was nothing like she remembers, and no one can recall ever meeting her mother (spoiler alert: her mother had died from some virus and authorities were trying to quell any public hysteria). The idea of losing one’s mother is terrifying, especially when you have no idea of her actual fate. I’m fine never leaving North America, really.

 

“Faster and Faster”

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This story doesn’t come up in a lot of discussions about Scary Stories, but I think it’s worth a mention. In it, two cousins find an old, blood-stained (yeah, that’s normal) drum. For some reason, when they play the drum, phantoms on horseback come and shoot an arrow at one of them, killing him. I couldn’t believe what I was reading back then — some kid actually getting killed by a ghost! Most children’s books wouldn’t have more than a ghost simply saying “Boo!” but Alvin Schwartz was down with murder. You’re the boss, Alvin.

John Brhel is the co-author of Corpse Cold: New American Folklore, a 20-story illustrated collection greatly inspired by the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Learn more about Corpse Cold. 

 

New Holiday Novella: Carol for a Haunted Man

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Available at Amazon!

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CAROL FOR A HAUNTED MAN is the tale of a daunted man’s will to succeed in the face of despair. It is a novella inspired by, and in homage to, the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens.

As some authors dream into the history of their town or city, Jacob Martin sought to reestablish the comforts of his childhood by moving back to the street where he grew up. Lost in life, newly divorced, and separated from his three young kids, Jacob is driven to write a book worth remembering, as a way of giving his life a new lasting purpose and meaning.

Finding himself at a standstill on the novel, a lonely recluse during the holidays, Jacob manages to connect with an attractive woman, and befriend an older man from his distant past, an author like himself. As Jacob soon discovers, nostalgia can be a healthy distraction, or it can be the noose by which one hangs.

AT THE CEMETERY GATES: YEAR ONE now available for pre-order!

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cemeterygatesone_final_coverOur new short story collection, AT THE CEMETERY GATES: YEAR ONE, is now available to pre-order. We’re really proud of this collection, which brings together 14 of our best stories from our first year of writing together. Killer clowns. Jilted lovers. Urban legends, haunted cabins, and time travel. We think it’s a good, fun mix of stories, and we can’t wait for you to check it out.

You can pre-order a copy over at Amazon. Thanks for your support!

New story: Delaying Decay

short stories

Delaying Decay

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.

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