‘It That Decays,’ appearing in CORPSE COLD: NEW AMERICAN FOLKLORE

books, short stories

ItThatDecays_01

Jim Patrick tried to relax during his dental exam, but the severe pain made it hard for him to think of anything else. It had begun as a dull toothache, only a few days prior, and Jim had delayed making an appointment with his dentist, Dr. Godbere. But that morning, he was in such agony that he had pleaded with the office receptionist to be seen immediately.

“Well, Jim, overall your teeth look great, as always. There’s just a small cavity on one of your bottom third molars,” said Dr. Godbere. “Christ, it’s rare that I come across a full set of wisdom teeth that have as much room as yours. You’ve got great genes.”

Jim grabbed his cheek and sighed. “I’ve never had a cavity before. I didn’t know it would hurt this much.”

“The amount of pain you’re experiencing is out of the ordinary. But in the realm of teeth, gums, and nerves, nothing surprises me anymore,” said the dentist. “We’ll drill it and fill it.”

“Go ahead and drill, Doc. I’d never thought I’d be saying that to a dentist.” Jim smiled faintly as the dentist clapped him on the shoulder.

“I’ve known these teeth since the 90s. You’re in good hands.”

Godbere began preparing for the minor dental procedure. Jim tried to distract himself with a daytime talk show on the exam room’s TV, but he was already beginning to sweat. He was neurotic about his dental care, and was disappointed in himself for having to undergo a procedure that was fully preventable.

“Jim, I’m surprised you have a cavity. Has your diet changed since the last time you were in?”

Jim threw up his hands. “That’s the thing, Doc — I’ve been eating healthier! More fruits, smoothies, even drinking this special kombucha — my son said it did wonders for his gut flora.”

“Ah, I see. Fruits and juices are really acidic, eat at the enamel — not to mention the sugar,” said Godbere. “I’ve heard kombucha can really stain the teeth — and that it might be more hocus pocus than digestive aid. But we can talk about your diet later.”

Godbere tested his drill; the whirring of the motor made Jim cringe. The dentist then retrieved a long needle from his assistant and prepared to inject Jim with some novocaine. “You ready?”

Jim nodded, gripping the armrests on the dental chair.

“Then let’s get to work.”

 

Jim returned home later that morning, satisfied that he had dealt with his tooth troubles. It wasn’t until the early afternoon that the novocaine wore off, and he again felt the dull ache in his jaw. Dr. Godbere had told Jim it might take a day or two for the pain to completely fade, and had given him a prescription for Percocet.

By the time Jim was ready for bed that evening, his pain was on par with what he had experienced before visiting the dentist. Jim took the medicine, and still he barely slept that night. He called the dentist during his lunch break the following day, as he had been forced to down multiple painkillers just to get through the morning.

Dr. Godbere managed to get Jim in for a late-afternoon appointment. “Jim, you look good. I can’t believe you’re still in pain — it really was just a surface cavity, which I normally wouldn’t even bother filling. We’ll do some x-rays and figure this thing out.”

After the x-rays were taken, Godbere went over them with Jim in the exam room. “Here. Here’s the filling we just did,” said the dentist, as he pointed at the black-and-white film.

Jim followed along with the dentist, but he also noticed another blemish further down the tooth, and pointed it out. “Doc, what’s this dark blotch here?”

Godbere leaned over Jim to get a closer view of the film. “It’s not a cavity, and it’s probably not on the tooth itself. You sometimes see this sort of thing with wisdom teeth. They tend to pull up extra tissue, since they rarely have enough room to fully irrupt without disturbing the canals. Wisdom teeth are what we call ‘vestigial structures.’ They serve no purpose; they’re evolutionary holdovers from millions of years ago.” Godbere sat back and wrote out a prescription. “I’m prescribing you a rinse that’s meant to treat serious gingivitis. It should alleviate the gum pain itself — if this is a gum issue.”

Jim left the dentist’s office that evening feeling like he had received no real answers. He filled his new prescription, followed the rinse regimen, and popped a Percocet before retiring for the night.

 

To say Jim woke in pain each morning following his visit with Dr. Godbere would be an understatement. He was taking so many pills that he could barely function. He was a zombie at work and slept at all hours when he was at home. Jim was worried about getting hooked on opioids — he had heard the horror stories — and worse, his whole jaw ached when he wasn’t loaded up with Percocet. He called around until he could make an appointment with a new dentist and get a second opinion on his condition. He no longer trusted Godbere’s judgment.

“So, you say you’ve had a cavity filled and now your jaw hurts?” asked Dr. Robinson, as he examined Jim at his private practice.

“Just look at the x-ray I brought, Doc. I don’t think Dr. Godbere got all of the cavity or something.”

Dr. Robinson picked up the film and looked it over briefly before setting it down. “We can get the filling out and take a look, clean up anything that needs to be corrected.” The dentist was all too eager to replace the filling and collect an easy $800. He knew Godbere was an experienced dentist and considered the possibility that he was dealing with a hypochondriac.  

Robinson’s office was built above a remodeled garage adjacent to his home. Jim certainly preferred the clean, modern, and professional setting of Dr. Godbere’s office, but he was desperate. The dentist employed one receptionist/hygienist, an older woman named Mary, who had greeted Jim earlier while chainsmoking in the driveway.

Mary entered the room, turned on a monitor, and laid out the tools of the dental trade on a pan over Jim’s lap, before telling Robinson that she was headed out for another cigarette.

“Okay, Mr. Patrick, I’m going to give you a shot to numb the area; then we’ll get the filling out and see what’s going on with my new camera.” Robinson lifted the long, thin camera and flicked its light on and off before attaching it to the drill. He placed the drill in Jim’s mouth and turned it on. “I can move the monitor if you don’t want to watch.”

“Oh, it’s fine, Doc. Do what you have to do.”

The dentist nodded and went to work. He soon had the filling out and was prodding around in the depression. “Jim, I think I’m going to have to drill more. There’s still some discoloration. I can see how Dr. Godbere may have missed this if he didn’t have a camera to really get in there.”

“Yeah, I don’t think he went down far enough,” said Jim, after the dentist had removed his tools. “Drill, baby drill!”

Robinson chuckled. “Okay, okay. I’m going to place this O-guard in your mouth, just to be safe.”

Soon enough, the drill was back in Jim’s mouth, the two men viewing its progress on the monitor. Jim watched as the drill slipped through the small hole, suddenly, and Robinson unceremoniously yanked it back out of his mouth.

“Shit!” said Robinson. “There may be some serious basal decay. The drill went all the way through and into the gum — as if the bottom of the tooth was hollow.”

“Wha’ now?” mumbled Jim, throatily, the guard in his mouth obstructing his speech.

“Well, let’s take a look,” said Robinson as he put the drill with its attached camera back into the man’s mouth.

They could see some blood pooling around the tooth and gum as the camera approached the rear of Jim’s mouth. When the device was placed into the opening in the tooth, the dentist gasped. Jim couldn’t quite make out what Dr. Robinson was seeing on the monitor. From Jim’s point of view, it looked like a dark, hairy patch in his tooth.

“This is unbelievable. Let me increase the magnification.” When Robinson magnified the hairy patch, Jim could make out a sickening mass of tiny, black worms living within his tooth and jaw!

Both men revolted, and the camera and monitor lost the image. Jim tried to say something, but he could only wrench out a shrill series of gasps.

“Bone worms?!” exclaimed Robinson, now incredibly curious. He maneuvered the drill back into place so they could again examine the issue. “Relax a minute, Jim. Let’s take another look.”

But before Robinson could get the drill into the tooth itself, both men spotted the worms emerging from the hole, snake-haired. The wriggling abominations had made a home of Jim’s mandible and seemed to be erupting, their hideout exposed. Jim panicked and grabbed the dentist’s hand and drill, and the drill whirred to life.

“No, Jim, don’t!”

It was too late. Jim had already jammed the drill toward the bewormed wisdom tooth. First missing and scraping a jagged line across the dentin of another molar, then adjusting and finding the mark — all while watching on the monitor above. It happened so fast; Robinson was powerless to stop the frenzied man from drilling into the tooth, then through the gum tissue, and eventually into the jaw, each of which had been hollowed as the worms progressed toward the surface. There was the whirr of the machine and the hideous crackle of broken bone and severed tissue. The drill easily broke through the passage made by the parasitic creatures, and Jim only ceased drilling when he had punctured through the flesh of his jaw.

“Mary! Get the hell in here, now!” screamed Dr. Robinson, as he finally unplugged the drill and restrained Jim from further injury.

Jim writhed madly and kicked the pan of tools set on the table hovering across his lap. Mary ran in, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and helped the dentist keep Jim in the chair. Blood was running from the drill emerging from Jim’s jaw, dripping down his neck, even spurting when he turned his head too far.

“What the hell is that?” asked Mary, as worms as thin as human hair began finding their way out of Jim’s jaw, slinking down the drill itself and falling onto his shirt and into his lap.

 

When Jim passed out, Dr. Robinson and his assistant quickly contacted an ambulance. The ER doctors were able to remove the drill, Jim’s injuries were treated, and he was given a regimen of medications to kill off the parasitic worms.

The write-up on Jim Patrick’s diagnosis and treatment became a well-known case-study. It took time and effort on the part of the medical researchers, but they were able to determine that the worms had originated from a natural kombucha which Jim had purchased online from the Philippines, only weeks prior to his first symptoms.  

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Every Creepy Illustration Featured in ‘Corpse Cold: New American Folklore’

Art, books

Chad Wehrle‘s macabre, black-and-white illustrations truly bring the stories in our anthology Corpse Cold: New American Folklore to life. Here’s a look at all of the major pieces found in Corpse Cold, including front matter and other incidental art, in the order they appear.

Cover

CoverFront_01

Content section

TableContents_01

Story section

Stories_01

“Switches”

Switches_01

“Black Dog”

BlackDog_01

“Czarny Lud”

CzarnyLud_01

CzarnyLud_02

“Corpse Cold”

CorpseCold_01

“Amityville Beach”

AmityvilleBeach_01AmityvilleBeach_02

“A Morning Fog”

MorningFog_01

“Friendship: Dead and Buried”

FriendshipDeadBuried_01

“Autoplay ‘On'”

AutoplayOn_01

“The Big ‘M'”

BigM_01

“Dracula’s Bride”

DraculasBride_01DraculasBride_02

“Moss Lake Island”

MossLakeIsland_01MossLakeIsland_02

“It That Decays”

ItThatDecays_01

“Two Visions, 1984”

TwoVisions_01TwoVisions_02TwoVisions_03

“Woman on the Campus Green”

WomanCampusGreen_01

“The Blue Hole”

BlueHole_01BlueHole_02

“Jesup”

Jesup_01

“Model Citizens”

ModelCitizens_01

“Last Train Home”

LastTrainHome_01LastTrainHome_02

“A Casket for My Mother”

CasketMother_01

“Echo’s Reflection”

EchosReflection_01EchosReflection_02

Notes section

Additional_01

 

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A Look Back at the 1999-2000 Reboot of ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’

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Most fans who remember the Are You Afraid of the Dark? Nickelodeon TV series think fondly of the early Nineties Midnight Society. Gary, Frank, Kiki, Betty Ann, and an ever-changing crew of friends sitting around a campfire telling memorable tales like “Old Man Corcoran,” “Watcher’s Woods,” “Laughing in the Dark,” and “Crimson Clown.” There are at least half-a-dozen stories from the original run of the series (1992-1996) that I would argue as ‘the best’ episode, while there is perhaps one story from the 1999-2000 run which I might consider in my personal top ten.

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Are You Afraid of the Dark?: The New Class

The series was revived with an original member of the Midnight Society, Tucker, taking his brother’s place as leader of a new group of kids. Andy, Megan, Vange, Quinn are, most often, pale imitations of the original Midnight Society (Frank, Kristen, Kiki, Betty Ann?), with Quinn perhaps being the only new archetype, although he seems to fill Betty Ann’s role of quiet peacekeeper nicely. Frank really felt like an over-the-top asshole, but it still made sense that he was friends with these people and really enjoyed telling stories; Sam was a tomboyish heartthrob for both Gary and young, male viewer alike. The New Midnight Society had little to offer regarding the stories of the storytellers themselves.

There are a number of good episodes from seasons 6 and 7, episodes that meet the standard set by the original run. There are even a few exceptional episodes that any serious fan of the original series should not miss out on. Unfortunately, many episodes attempted to draw interest by focusing on trends like Giga Pets, lazer tag, computer games, sports, and one even made an Olympic champion figure skater into a pregnant alien. It’s really about what the later seasons seem to be missing. Seasons 1-5 built their success on retelling timeless stories and re-purposing urban legends – the kinds of tales which would’ve appealed to both our parents and grandparents when they were kids.

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Cause virtual pets are scary AF.

The following are my recommendations for revival episodes of AYAOTD? that one should watch, if they enjoyed the original series and don’t want to sort through the chaff that is the majority of the 1999-2000 series. There are certainly episodes worth watching in addition to these six, but these are the stories I believe will feel most similar to the original run of the series.

Season 6

forevergame1

Like Jumanji, but spooky.

“The Tale of the Forever Game” is a good restart to the series. Tucker tells the story about two friends, Mark and Peter, and Peter’s little sister, Monica, who get lost in the woods while biking. It has the feeling and tone of a story like “Whispering Walls,” while full of moral dilemma for Peter. The trio is hopelessly stuck, and the kids are being hunted down by a beast, while Peter plays a game reminiscent of Jumanji with a boy, Nathaniel, who occupies a tree.

 

hunted

Hunting = bad apparently.

“The Tale of the Hunted” deals with the moral debate over hunting. It’s well-done for a kid’s show, and doesn’t really pick sides at the end. The female protagonist hunts with her father, and one morning she wakes up and discovers what it’s like to be the one who is hunted.

 

vampiretown

This hip dude liked vampires way before “Twilight.”

“The Tale of Vampire Town” is wacky, a callback to the richness of character from a Season 1 tale. A boy, Adder, believes himself to be a great vampire hunter and convinces his parents to take him on vacation to a town with history and lore tied to vampires, specifically a series of catacombs which lie underneath the inn where the family is staying.

 

bigfoot

Featuring a pre-Star Wars Hayden Christiansen.

“The Tale of Bigfoot Ridge” is the tale I teased as a ‘Top Ten’ AYAOTD? episode. It would fit nicely in seasons 1-4. A boy and his sister are trying to get over the disappearance of their friend, who went off the backside of a mountain while snowboarding. The brother and sister end up searching for her, and get lost themselves during a snowstorm. They find an abandoned cabin and attempt to survive the night, while the storm is the least of their worries. Many of the other episodes focus too heavily on the trendy sport, activity, or product of the time. This episode has snowboarding in it, but, thankfully, doesn’t try to tell a story about snowboarding.

Season 7

“The Tale of Highway 13” is the story of a repetitive haunting, where a truck races a haunted car, driven by two friends who rebuilt the car, to a one-lane bridge. The boys must continually race the truck until they either die trying to win, or solve the mystery and take a different action. This is a timeless tale, really well done.

highway13

Don’t try this at home.

 

“The Tale of the Reanimator” is perhaps only the second time that zombies were done well by AYAOTD?, the first being “Water Demons.” It has some of the flavor of the Reanimator movies, but it feels more like the mad-scientist experiments of Goosebumps: Stay Out of the Basement.

reanimatortale

Like “The Reanimator,” minus the decapitations.

So, if you’re a fan of the original AYAOTD? series and have never seen an episode of the two revival seasons, I believe you’ll enjoy queuing up these six episodes and watching them back to back. Perhaps you’ll even delve deeper into seasons 6 and 7, and catch me up on a gem I overlooked.

Addendum:

I can’t imagine I’ll ever write an episode guide for the first five seasons of AYAOTD? since so much has been written and said about it already. So, I’ll just give my picks for best episodes – in no particular order: “Midnight Madness,” “Old Man Corcoran,” “Dead Man’s Float,” “Laughing in the Dark,” “Water Demons,” “Silent Servant,” “Crimson Clown,” “Dark Music,” “Super Specs,” and “Lonely Ghost.”

Joe Sullivan is the author of spook books, available on Amazon, and a fully illustrated book of horror tales inspired by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, currently live on Kickstarter.

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

Blog, Uncategorized

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. 

 

Cover reveal for AT THE CEMETERY GATES: YEAR ONE!

Cover Reveals, Uncategorized

cemeterygatesone_final_cover

Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you the cover for our upcoming short story collection, AT THE CEMETERY GATES: YEAR ONE.

You might be wondering, “Year One? What the heck does that mean?” Valid question. Well, we’ve been writing stories for about a year now. A lot of those stories have been published in our two books (TALES FROM VALLEYVIEW CEMETERY and MARVELRY’S CURIOSITY SHOP), but we have plenty of stand-alone tales that need a proper home. Enter ATCG:Y1. From Poe-inspired unreliable narrators to masked killers to time-travel-meets-urban-legend yarns, our upcoming book has it all (minus sparkly vampires).

Chad Wehrle, the great artist who created the cover design for TFVVC, has returned to create the evocative, eerie image for ATCG:Y1. What does it all mean? The tree? The ghoul. Well, you’ll find out when our book comes out in October!

 

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.