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Fare Thee Well
By Cathy Clamp, Goñi Montes
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Cathy Clamp
All rights reserved.
His hand was cool and damp, with the limp, rubbery texture of a corpse. I don't know what it is about people who work with the dead, but every one I'd met in my fifteen years came to resemble their clients after a few years on the job. I didn't shudder as I shook hands, didn't pull back in revulsion. I kept smiling, and I think it surprised him. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Morgan. I'm Lia Thantos, the new summer intern."
Bright green eyes behind thick glasses sparkled with something approaching amazement. He pulled back his hand and crossed his arms over his white lab coat. "Please, call me Mike since we'll be working together. I have to admit, we don't get a lot of applications for internships here at the morgue. You're sure this is what you want to spend your summer doing?"
I shrugged. "I'm the fourth generation of a family of morticians. Dad decided it would be good for me to learn this side of the business. Thought it would look good on my college application. Frankly, it's no big. When I go home tonight, there'll be dead bodies there too."
His eyebrows raised and then lowered in confusion. Everyone's did when they found out. It was a little weird. And a lot creepy. Or so say the few friends I can claim. I inhaled deeply as he considered what to say. The antiseptic smell permeating the room couldn't completely cover the sweet, cloying odor of decaying flesh. It wasn't a bad smell, precisely. But it takes getting used to. He looked me over, from purple-streaked hair to black-and-gray camo pants and leather Frankenstein boots in size five. When he finally spoke, he tried for humor. But the underlying question was disturbing by implication. "So, are the therapy bills racking up in your family? Coffins and kids are ... Well, they don't usually mix."
I gave a thin, tight smile. Even among the death workers, as I called them, I'd learned not to reveal how often I'd played in the coffins when I was little. No, they hadn't influenced who I became. They're part of who I am. The padding's so soft and smooth, and when the lid shuts, there's utter silence. Peace. I'd sit in the visitation rooms too, before anyone arrived. Same reason. Just me and the dearly departed and peace. Dad's the same way. Frankly, I think my mom is squicked out by both of us. "Well, other than the fact I haven't been able to get the smell of embalming fluid completely out of my nose since I was six, it isn't bad. After all, death is just another part of life."
Ding, ding, ding. His whole body relaxed when I spoke the proper phrase. All death workers say it. It's the secret handshake, the whispered password at the darkened doorway. It's the mantra that justifies their existence, and probably what keeps them sane. And it had the advantage of being true. He nodded. "Okay then, Lia. Let me show you around."
He handed me a clipboard and white jacket from a hook on the wall, and we walked through the swinging doors. It wasn't a big place. Rolling up the sleeves of the oversized coat took longer than the tour. I already knew what exam tables looked like and recognized most of the equipment used for autopsies. My dad and granddad collected tools from different eras as a hobby. I pointed toward the refrigerated drawers lining both sides of the cold room. There were twenty. Ten on each side of the room. "You have a lot of drawers for a county this size. Is there a high mortality rate?"
He leaned against one of said drawers, comfortable in gum-soled shoes and elastic-waisted hospital pants. "There was a long time ago, when the building was built. The Spanish flu hit this area hard a century ago. There used to be a crematorium right next door, where the parking lot is now. One-stop shopping for the doctors. We've updated the drawers, but most of the room is just the same as it was then. And, oddly enough, we're full up at the moment." His hand reached out to pat one of the doors. "Let's talk about the drawers for a second. The county coroner has very particular guidelines about how bodies are accepted into the facility." So, my boss's boss. I knew the coroner was an elected position in Brazer County but didn't know much about what he did. Dad said the coroner was really good at his job and I was supposed to pay close attention to anything he told me.
Mike pointed toward the clipboard. "You'll need to write this down." I already had my pen raised. He gestured with an arm toward the doorway we'd entered. "Bodies are delivered there by the hospital, EMTs, or police. For now, you won't have to worry about handling bodies on your own, though I'll want your help with one later. You'll mostly be answering phones and doing the paperwork to file with the state."
"No big," I commented as I jotted notes. It really wasn't. "I've hefted corpses before with Dad. I can't lift one alone, but I'm stronger than I look." I flexed a bicep to prove my point. I might only be 115 sopping wet, but most of it's muscle. "Just let me have the head. Dead people's feet reek. Never have figured out why."
He smiled and looked impressed as he nodded his head. "No argument. Okay then. Maybe you can take on some additional responsibilities during your time here. It'd help us out a lot. So, the bodies come in there. We inspect them and check the tag against the report. That's very important."
An abrupt laugh escaped me. "Oh yeah. I so know about that. We had a funeral once where the lid of the coffin was opened and people who expected to see their sweet old Uncle Bob found some derelict from under a bridge instead. It wasn't our fault, but it was still an ugly scene at the dinner table that night."
He winced, as I expected him too. I still did when I thought about it. "Did you ever find Uncle Bob?"
I nodded. "Luckily. He was still at the hospital in the basement with the wrong toe tag. So yeah. Verify identity. Check."
"Good. Now, this next part is really, really important, so circle, star, and underline it." He spoke slowly and carefully. His finger bobbed in the air with each word as though it were a bouncing ball without the music soundtrack. "When the body is wheeled in this room, we remove a body from one of these ten drawers and put the new body in. Then we take the removed body and put it in the bank of drawers behind you. No exceptions."
My pen paused, and I felt my eyebrows drop until the hair tickled my eyelashes. I moved my pen until the clicker pointed at the door to his right. "But you told me during the tour that all of these drawers are full and all of the ones behind me are empty. Why not just put the new bodies in the empty drawers until they're all full? Don't they refrigerate completely?"
He shook his head firmly. "That's not the way it works. Breaking that rule will get you fired and possibly me as well. So ... no. Just do it the way I tell you and everything'll be fine."
Stupidest rule I'd ever heard in my life. No wonder people burned out of government jobs. "Okaaay. Got it. What's ne —" My cell phone cheeped to tell me I had a text message. I automatically reached for it, but then it occurred to me personal calls might not be allowed. I froze and looked at Mike.
He lifted his wrist and peered at his watch, then shrugged. "It's lunchtime anyway, so go ahead and take it. But normally you'll need to turn it off during work hours. I'm actually surprised you have a signal. I hardly ever get one down here." The phone cheeped again as he pushed away from the wall. "We take an hour lunch, so I'll meet you back here at one. The hospital called earlier and said a new delivery was coming in. We'll do a walk-through of accepting a new body, and then I'll show you how to do the forms to the state to order death certificates. How does that sound?"
"Sounds great and also sounds like this is going to be a pretty easy summer job."
The chuckle that escaped him had dark undertones, which surprised me. "You might not say that by the end of the day. But I do like optimism."
* * *
"Well, I suppose I'd better get back downstairs. Thanks for having lunch with me, Dani." I wiped the last bit of ketchup from my lips and stood up.
My best friend flipped her wrist to peer at a neon pink watch that was probably visible from space. Hurts my eyes to stare at it too long. "You've still got ten minutes. Are you really that excited to get back to a sunless concrete bunker filled with corpses?"
I knew I shouldn't be. Really. But the smile escaped me anyway. "Yeah. I am. So sue me for thinking this summer is going to seriously rock."
Dani rolled her big brown eyes. She'd known me since first grade when I snuck an embalmed hand from dad's collection into school for show-and-tell. She'd been the only one not to scream or throw up ... including the teacher. We were destined to be BFFs. "You are so weird, Lia. You're really determined to take over the mortuary when your dad retires? You want to do this for your whole life? No traveling to Monte Carlo to lie on the beach or singing for your supper on a cruise ship? You could, you know. You've got a really good voice." She stood with me because I didn't sit back down.
I let out an abrupt laugh before picking up the burger wrappings and crumpling them to put them in the trash. "Could you really see me singing in some sappy musical on a Disney cruise? I love you, but you're completely brain damaged. I'd do to Rogers and Hammerstein what Tim Burton would do to Sesame Street." I grabbed my white jacket from the booth behind us and slid into it. Dani had complained the lingering smell of antiseptic was making her queasy.
"And besides," I continued as we walked out of the beating sun to the cool shade of the building overhang, "Peaceful Grove Funeral Home is an institution around here. We get clients from three counties and overflow from the city. Why would I want to go out into the world and struggle to find the very same thing my dad and granddad have worked their whole lives for and are ready to hand to me for the asking? I mean, if I'd wanted to be a lawyer or a musician, that would be one thing. But I want to be a mortician."
Same old argument, different day. She didn't think I understood what I wanted. I knew I did and also knew she would never get where my head was. We stared at each other for long moments with raised brows and wide, unblinking eyes until we finally burst out laughing. She bumped my hip with her purse like she did every time we agreed to disagree. "Girlfriend, you are a nut. Go play in the morgue. But I swear, if you start wearing goth makeup and walking like your freaky uncle Theo, I'm calling your sister to put you in a rubber room."
My sister Sophie was a doctor at the hospital in the psych ward. Gee, I wonder how she gravitated toward that career after growing up in our family? Because, yeah ... my uncle Theo, also an undertaker, was seriously freaky and did walk a lot like Lurch on The Addams Family.
"If I start walking like that ... please lock me away."
I gave her a hug as she laughed, and we strolled back across the grass to the low-slung concrete building arm in arm. Moments later, I was alone in the cool shade, watching her walk toward her bright red sports car. She turned when she reached it and raised an arm, her skin the color of rich cocoa, to wave good-bye. I returned the wave and then looked out over the parking lot. I didn't see Mike's car yet in the space he'd said was his — he drove a big, bruising sedan that'd been made at least a decade before I was born. Frankly, it surprised me. It was straight up one o'clock, and Dad had said he was a really punctual guy. But hey, what do I know?
Thirty minutes later, I realized I didn't know much. Still no boss and a locked door. If this was some sort of test to see if I had staying power ... well, I didn't have a ride home until Dad came to get me, so I was here for the long haul. Dani was six months older than me, and every time I saw her behind the wheel, I started counting down the days until I could get my permanent driver's license. Of course, my family still didn't have the sort of money as the Underhills, so I probably wouldn't see a car other than my parent's until I bought my own.
I was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the locked door when squeaking wheels made me look up to see a guy in uniform walking down the hall. I recognized the symbol on the jacket pocket as the same hospital where Sophie worked. The gurney he was pushing was covered with a blanket, the body underneath tied down with thick leather straps. I didn't bother to get up when he looked down at me. In fact, I patted the tile next to my leg. He wasn't all that cute but seemed like he would be good to talk with to kill time. "Hi. I'm Lia. Might as well pull up a piece of floor. Nobody's here and I don't have a key."
He reached into his pocket and extracted a ring of keys. He selected one and turned toward the doorknob. "I'm Larry, and I know who you are. You're Sophie's sister. We got the memo you'd be working here." He opened the door.
"They give you guys keys to the morgue?"
He laughed, and it made him look younger. Not young enough, mind you. But probably in his twenties instead of his thirties. "Hardly. I barely have keys to my own locker. No, these are Mike's keys, and they come with a message."
I pushed myself to my feet, using the wall as a brace, then followed the gurney inside. I held open the door so it didn't hit the deceased and then let it close behind me. Larry dangled the key ring until I took it, then spoke. "Your boss was hit by a bus over lunch."
My mouth opened wide. Whoa. I mean, people always say that jokingly when they talk about burial plans and making a will, but how often does it really happen? "Oh my God. Is he dead?"
He shook his head, making strands of curly red hair fall over his eyes. "No, but he's pretty banged up. Broken ribs, a fractured jaw, and a shattered femur. He's in surgery right now, having pins put in the ribs so they don't puncture his lungs."
Ouch. See, this is why I don't work in a hospital. Other than for the death certificate and any police investigation, what damage there is to the corpse is irrelevant. And they're not in pain. I don't like pain. I think my sister is just as weird as she thinks I am, for wanting to be surrounded by people who hurt. "So what now? Am I supposed to go home and wait for someone to call me?"
He pulled the blanket off the dead body. Well, actually it wasn't a body. Not per se. It was a not-quite-clear zippered bag, and the scent that wafted up from the movement of air told me why it was in a bag. Eww ... it was a floater. There's no worse smell in the world than flesh that's ripened underwater. "Not that anyone told me. We've got a call into the coroner to tell him what happened. He should be here shortly. But no, we can't close the county morgue. It messes up the whole process, and there's no way I'm putting this thing back in my van. It's all yours. Give me a hand here and we'll get him onto a cart. I've got to get back."
Bodies have their own momentum when being moved. I've gotten the hang of lifting and swinging a corpse so the body does part of the work. But the bag ... the center of gravity was all wrong, like there was a big ball of pus located dead center that rolled and shook like jelly when moved. I was terrified that if I swung it like a regular body, it would move faster than I could control and rip right through the bag. Yeah, they're strong bags, but fear isn't logical.
Larry seemed to have a similar fear, because he lifted the plastic gingerly and we sort of slid it from Larry's gurney to one of the morgue's. I couldn't help but shudder. We seldom got floaters at home. They were either cremated or handled with a closed casket. Dad had never actually let me see a floater. Said it would give even me nightmares.
I believed him.
Larry handed me the clipboard, and I matched the name on the bag tag to the report, then signed and initialed where he told me. "Any chance you can help me get him into a drawer? Apparently, I have to move one of the bodies in those drawers and replace it with this guy."
He shook his head and almost looked sad about it. "No can do. I've got this job because the guy before me did just that. I know it sounds stupid, but I have to presume there's a reason. The rule goes back better than a hundred years."
Wow. Multiple generations of stupid. Not much to be done about it, then. "Okay. I'll deal with it. Thanks for the keys."
He waved as he left, and then it was time to earn my pay. Oh wait. I wasn't being paid. Lucky me.
I reached for the handle for the nearest drawer and pulled.
I tried again, but the latch remained against the door as though welded. It was locked?
The next handle was the same. No amount of tugging or prying could move the handle. I did try prying, with the metal push broom handle. But no such luck.
Excerpted from Fare Thee Well by Cathy Clamp, Goñi Montes. Copyright © 2015 Cathy Clamp. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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