Tom Sindler stood motionless, waiting. Looking out
the window, Tom felt as though the rain were pelting his
scalp, the wind tearing at his hair, the thunder and lightning
playing about his ears.
But that wasn‟t it. The rain pelted the roof of the
building, the loony bin, the asylum, the institution, the
nuthouse: Shattuck Mental Hospital, Boston. The wind and
thunder could only be heard through the building‟s walls and
windows, or more precisely, through the window that Tom
looked out. Beyond the parking area, trees moved about,
branches swatting roughly at each other in the surrounding
In the window itself, another Tom looked back at him,
an accusing doppelganger.
Tom turned from the window and faced the twin bed
and food stand. That was it for the room‟s furnishings.
Nothing for patients to harm themselves. No telephone, sink,
cupboard, or drapes. His shoes were neatly placed by the bed.
Tom went to the bed, sat down, and hesitated. He thought of
his wife Sylvia. She couldn‟t be dealing with this very well.
When they talked on the phone, he could hear the
disappointment in her voice.
But he was getting out, and things could be different.
He could get a job, be a better man, and make Sylvia happy.
He didn‟t have to be afraid all the time.
Tom hunched over and began to lace up his shoes. He
was still lacing the second shoe when the nurse entered with a
pill and a cup of water. After Tom swallowed the pill, she
offered him the small clipboard hanging at her waist and
produced a pen from her pocket.
“Sign here,” she said.
Tom signed without bothering to read the form.
The nurse handed Tom a small bottle.
“As the doctor went over with you, take one pill each
day,” she said.
“Sure,” Tom answered.
Tom looked at the bottle and put it in his pocket. “Do
you mind if I call my wife?” he asked.
“Of course,” she answered. “You can use the phone in
The nurse followed Tom out of the room and pointed
to the phone sitting at the nurse‟s station.
Sylvia washed dishes in an industrial-sized double
sink. Steam rose up around her.
“I‟m too damn good-looking to be doing this shit,”
she said to the dishes.
Christ, Bone‟s Restaurant, of all places. Five years
ago she‟d never have imagined taking a job here. Tom had
been so charming. He‟d had a good job and seemed to have it
all together. He‟d promised a bright future.
But then it had all gone to shit.
With considerable effort, Sylvia heaved a huge pot
out of one sink and dumped grayish, soap-tinged water into
the other sink.
A phone rang.
Sylvia wiped her hands on her apron. “I got it,” she
yelled and went to where the phone hung on the wall. “Let
the dishes wait,” she mumbled.
The phone rang again. She picked it up and said,
“Hi, honey, it‟s me,” said Tom.
“Tom?” Sylvia asked.
“Unless you have another honey,” Tom said.
“I‟m working, Tom.”
“I know, but I‟ve got good news. They discharged
“I thought you weren‟t getting out until Friday.”
“You know how these things go,” said Tom. “There‟s
no rhyme or reason to any of it.”
“Do you need a ride?” said Sylvia, annoyed.
“Yeah, baby, can you come get me? I‟ve been dying
to see you.”
“Of course, Tom. I‟m your wife, aren‟t I?”
Before Tom could answer, Sylvia hung up the phone.
Sylvia drove their Civic down Morton Street. She
hated the damn car. They should have had at least an Acura
by now. There was almost no one else on the road. She‟d
made Tom wait until the end of her shift before picking him
up. Someone had to keep the money coming in.
Snow had begun mixing in with the rain so that icy
little angels stuck on the glass even as the wipers tried to push
them aside. She could barely make out the lines on the road,
but she didn‟t care and drove too fast, recklessly.
Tom lit a cigarette and flicked the match out the
window. Even with the window cracked, smoke wafted into
her space. Sylvia crossed the center line when she
maneuvered turns in the road.
“What did the doctor say?” Sylvia asked.
Tom just stared into space.
He was back in that building, his old place of
employment. He thought he‟d be a star there. He had risen up
the company ladder with remarkable speed. His superiors
were grooming him for success, and he was more than happy
to be the “it” boy. Work was just a game, and Tom played it
But there were fears gnawing about the edges. Mostly
they came at night, when more and more Tom‟s dreams had
become dark walls, closing in on him.
Tom stepped into the elevator and pressed the button
for the lobby. The elevator didn't move at first, but then it
jerked violently, startling him. Tom looked up at the ceiling.
The lights flickered. The elevator jerked a few times,
throwing Tom off balance. The lights went out, then on
again, then off a longer time before coming back on. Tom
grabbed the handrail for support. The sound of grating filled
the elevator, machinery clanging and failing, and then the
elevator halted. Tom lost his balance and struck his knees
painfully on the floor.
Tom crawled across the elevator and pressed the
button to open the doors, but nothing happened. He pressed
again and again with the same result. Tom jabbed his thumb
against the red alarm button. He sweated and gasped for
A voice, full of static, came through the speaker.
“May I help you?”
The voice sounded unreal, like a computer, and Tom
hoped it was a real person on the other end.
“I‟m stuck. I gotta get out of here.”
Tom gasped for breath but couldn‟t get any in his
lungs. “Help, please.”
The elevator seemed impossibly small, a little tomb.
“I‟m stuck. I can‟t . . . I can‟t breathe.”
The voice came again, even more choked with static.
“The maintenance personnel are not responding. You‟ll have
to be patient while we attempt to contact them.”
Tom wondered again whether there was even anyone
there. Maybe no one would respond. He‟d been working late.
He might have been the last person in the office. If no one
responded he could be there until morning. But that couldn‟t
happen. He couldn‟t wait that long. The walls would crush
him by then, pressing him with unbearable force until he was
squeezed past the breaking point and all his insides were
squeezed out of him.
“Did you hear me?” Sylvia asked.
Tom was back in the car. Safe.
“No. What?” he said.
Sylvia looked at him, her disgust evident.
“I said, what did the doctor say?”
Tom hesitated, not wanting to think about the doctor
with his questions and his prying. “He said I‟ll be okay with
medication.” Tom took out his pills and showed them to
Sylvia. “I have to take these pills, once a day.”
“Is this an ongoing treatment, or does it end here?”
He knew what she was asking. Was he crazy? Was
there any real fix for him?
Tom looked out the window. “I‟m sorry if I‟m such a
burden to you.”
Tom and Sylvia parked in front of their house on
Milton Avenue. Tom eyed the house wearily, the shabby
chain-link fence surrounding the small colonial home
seeming a measure of his worth, the broken gate swinging
back and forth in the wind, the unread newspapers on the
porch, the abandoned kid‟s cargo truck and toy shovel sitting
in the yard—all seemed to accuse, all evidence of his failings.
And Tom knew the back yard was even worse. He was sure it
would look exactly as he imagined: the barbecue grill rusted
beyond use, the clothesline stretching across the yard,
perhaps even a white sheet draped over it, flapping ghostlike
in the wind. A sheet had been there when he went away,
when it was still warm enough to hang something out, but
Tom wouldn‟t be surprised if it were still there. That
wouldn‟t surprise him at all.
Tom exited his side of the car and heard Sylvia slam
her door as she got out as well. Welcome home, Tom
Tom looked after her as she walked away and slipped
into the house ahead of him. He took the mail out of the box
by the front door.
Tom lit another cigarette. He wanted to put off
reentering his home for a moment, at least. And it felt good to
be out in the night air. It felt good to be out of the institution.
A woman came out of the house, and Tom almost
didn‟t recognize her. But then he did: one of their neighbors.
She must have been watching the kids.
“Hello,” Tom said.
The woman only narrowed her eyes at Tom and
looked down, mumbling something incoherent.
Inside, Tom went immediately for the fridge, his
mouth having gone desert dry. He hoped it was still stocked
with water bottles. Sylvia knew he had to have them.
She was in the kitchen when he entered, and Tom was
thankful to see her spooning salad from a large bowl onto
plates. He was hungry as well as parched. Tom opened the
refrigerator and was thankful to see there were indeed four
water bottles. He stared at them, thinking how familiar the
fridge looked, exactly as he left it, as though he hadn‟t been
gone at all.
“Go into the dining room, Tom,” said Sylvia.
“Okay,” he said, drinking water as he left the room.
He wanted to take her in his arms but she seemed so distant,
so unavailable to him.
Tom stopped short on entering the room. Of course,
his children. Why hadn‟t he rushed to find them? Strange, he
kept not thinking of them, but it wasn‟t deliberate. It couldn‟t
Daniel, eight, and Katie, six, stood side by side,
staring at him without expression.
“Daddy‟s back,” said Katie when it seemed no one
would say anything.
“Hi, sweetie,” said Tom.
“I‟ve been practicing my counting, Daddy,” said
“Let me hear,” said Tom.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,”
reeled off Katie, and seemed stuck for a moment before
“Now that‟s my girl,” said Tom, and squatted down.
Katie went to him and Tom hugged her, closing his eyes. He
felt his son join their embrace.
“I missed you both so much,” said Tom.
“Let‟s get to the table for dinner,” said Sylvia, having
appeared in the room. The kids separated from Tom.
“Daddy, are you here to stay?” asked Daniel.
“Come on,” said Tom. “I haven‟t been gone that
Sylvia brought in two plates and set them in front of
the kids‟ seats. When she moved to leave the room, Tom said,
“Do you need any help?”
“I got it. Just sit,” said Sylvia, and then added, “I‟m
used to doing everything.”
When Sylvia returned, she put two plates of food in
front of her and Tom‟s seats. Tom was stationed at the head
of the table, but it felt uncomfortable, as though he no longer
deserved to be there.
Sylvia disappeared again, and when a minute went by
and she didn‟t return, Tom looked at the kids and said,
“Okay, let‟s eat. I‟m starving.”
The kids began eating and Tom said “I love Chinese”
before putting a forkful of rice and chicken into his mouth.
Sylvia returned holding a stack of letters. She sat at
her place and instead of eating began to sort through the mail.
“This is good,” said Tom. “Did you cook this?”
“Yeah, right,” said Sylvia. “It‟s called „takeout.‟ I
assume you‟ve heard of leftovers.”
“It‟s a lot better than what I‟ve been eating,” said
“Yeah, well, let‟s not talk about that,” said Sylvia
without looking at him. Sylvia squinted at a letter she‟d just
taken from its envelope. “Oh, shit!” she said.
“What?” said Tom. Before he would have made a
cutting remark about her using that language in front of the
children, but he didn‟t now.
“Listen to this,” Sylvia said, and began reading. “Dear
Mr. and Mrs. Sindler, You‟ve missed two months‟ rent, a
total of $2,400. If you fail to respond to this letter or make
arrangements to pay by January 15, you will be evicted. Your
landlord, Scott Williams.”
“He can‟t evict us,” said Tom. “This is complete
Sylvia glared at him.
“What‟s the matter?” asked Tom.
Sylvia dangled the letter in her hand. She spoke
softly, but the irritation was palpable—restrained, but close to
breaking through. “Don‟t you get it? The landlord is
threatening to evict us if we don‟t make these payments.
Hello! This is our frickin‟ home we‟re talking about.” Sylvia
looked away from Tom, as though he were far beneath her
contempt. “He‟ll need to give us more time, that‟s all.” Sylvia
looked up at the children, who‟d been eating quietly and
observing Tom as though he were some strange and
unpredictable guest. “Kids, go to your rooms while Mommy
and Daddy sort things out, okay?”
“But I‟m not done,” said Katie, and Daniel watched
carefully to see what their mother‟s reaction would be.”
“Daniel, Katie, I‟m not in the mood, okay? Go to your
rooms now, or this will be the last meal you ever eat.”
Daniel and Katie left without further comment,
though Katie looked back over her shoulder as she walked.
“He didn‟t give us any options because we‟ve made
so many late payments,” said Sylvia. “I‟m so tired of this
Tom ran his fingers through his hair. “Once I find a
job it‟ll all be better. We‟ll be able to put this behind us.”
“I won‟t hold my breath, Tom. I mean, you did a
bang-up job at your last place of employment, right?”
Sylvia stood up and took her still untouched plate of
food off the table.
“I‟ve got no problem working any job that comes my
way,” said Tom.
“Yeah,” said Sylvia, “then prove it. Do construction,
garbage collecting. Do something for Christ‟s sake. My
salary isn‟t cutting it.”
Tom‟s spoon banged off the wall, and Sylvia looked
as though she wondered how he were suddenly standing.
“I‟m going to get a job, okay? And then everything
will be better.”
Sylvia started to leave the room, but stopped in the
doorway. Tom went behind her and stroked her arms, finding
her rigid, unreceptive. “Come on, honey, just give me a little
Tom turned Sylvia toward him but in his fumbling to
get inside her defenses her plate dropped to the floor,
“Nice, Tom,” Sylvia said, and he could almost hear
the tears in her voice.
“To hell with it,” said Tom, and pulled Sylvia into
him, kissing her on the forehead.
“I‟m just worried, Tom,” Sylvia said, and the tears
that had been threatening escaped her eyes. “What‟s going to
happen to us?”
Tom stood on the curb outside his house. He wore his
best suit and cursed Sylvia for not letting him have the car.
“As long as I‟m working, I‟ve got the car,” she said. But it
wasn‟t like he was going joyriding. He had a job interview.
And taking a taxi to a job interview made him feel like some
kind of low-life. How could he work up his old confidence
when he had to take a taxi to a job interview?
Still, at least he was doing something. And thanks to
his friend Rich he had an “in” at this place. It wasn‟t a job he
would ever have thought about applying for, but if it paid,
then he was there.
The weather wasn‟t exactly encouraging. A gray slate
sky swelled above, expelling mist, threatening deluge at any
moment. Even the sky seemed to press down, wanting to
smother him, press him against the earth, make him flat.
Thankfully the cab appeared, breaking Tom‟s
thoughts, if only for the moment. Tom had feared that it
wouldn‟t arrive, that he‟d have to call for another, that he‟d
miss the interview. God, it had been forever since he‟d sat
through an interview—though in a way, he supposed his
sessions with the doctor might be considered interviews of a
The cab stopped, and as Tom climbed in the back—
maybe he should have gotten in the passenger seat up front;
was it rude to sit in the back?—the obese African-American
driver got his arm up on the seat and half-turned to face him,
though with much difficulty. Sweat streamed down from
under the driver‟s Red Sox hat and the man wore glasses that
looked thick enough for Tom to wonder whether he should
even be driving.
“Where to?” the man said, out of breath but
nevertheless revealing a thick Haitian accent.
Tom gave the address and pulled his door shut. The
man still stared at Tom so they shared an awkward moment
in which Tom wondered whether the man needed more
information. But then the driver finally turned, again with
much effort, and after starting the meter, the driver sent the
Almost immediately, Tom began to feel hemmed in.
The driver overwhelmed the front of the cab and threatened
to spill over into the back as well. Tom shifted around in his
seat, wanting to stretch out his legs but not being able to find
any comfortable position for them. Even his arms felt pressed
to his sides, and with the windows up the vehicle was a tight
little box, getting smaller. Tom wanted a hand on each
window, pushing the walls away before they closed in on
him, and it had gotten unbearably stuffy, as though the driver
had sucked out all the air with massive intakes of breath. Tom
couldn‟t breathe. His heart pounded and the light-headedness
came. He clawed for the window crank, found it, and took the
window down as far as he could, which was still only half-
The driver‟s glasses appeared in the rearview mirror,
impenetrably thick lenses hiding the man‟s eyes. “What
gives?” the driver asked.
Tom couldn‟t make sense of the question. He pushed
his face to the cool flow of air and breathed in.
“You‟re wasting my heat,” said the driver. “Roll that
damn thing up.”
Tom wanted to protest. You‟re sweating, for God‟s
sake, he wanted to shout at the driver, but he complied,
closing his eyes and taking deep breaths as he rolled up the
window and again closed himself off to the big free space
outside the car.
Traffic built up around them, taking away the freedom
of the open air. The cars farted out pollution as they surged
and muscled for rank. The heat within the car stifled, fogging
the windows. Tom looked at his watch.
“I know a good exit,” he said. “It‟ll be quicker.”
“Lot of construction around, pal. Clogging things up.”
The driver gurgled out the words as though drowning. “Trust
me, I know all the routes.”
Tom didn‟t feel as though he could breathe until they
broke into the country and all the traffic left off its unbearable
Trees lined both sides of the street, passing by and by
and by, thwap, thwap, thwap, as Tom tried to catch at the
wooden soldiers with his eyes. Every span of five trees
looked exactly the same, stock footage replayed over and
Tom thrust forward, striking the back of the seat in
front of him. Something black disappeared through the trees.
“We almost hit that fucker,” the driver laughed.
When they passed Oaklawn Cemetery Tom let his
mind drift out of the cab and along the brick wall bordering
the graves, through the iron gate and over row after row of
grave markers. They passed too quickly for the dead to grasp
at him, and it felt pleasant, knowing that he was alive, free.
Tom turned his head, breaking away from the
tranquility of the cemetery in time to see the Oaklawn
Memorial building and the sign so prominently displayed: “A
Life Worth Living Is Worth Remembering.”
Outside the building, the unfinished rock of future
gravestones awaited new deaths, something to give it
purpose. Tom pictured his name carved into stone. He saw
the year, this year, and imagined his finger tracing the
Through more trees, more of that stock scenery, and
the cab pulled up in front of Tom‟s destination.
“Rise Again Funeral Home,” said the driver. A canvas
covering, appropriately black, formed a tunnel leading to the
brick building. Tall shrubs stood between Tom and the first-
floor windows. The bright green absinthe of the lawn made a
moat of sorts around the building. Who would dare trespass
on that perfectly manicured greenery?
Tom approached the entrance to the funeral home.
Inside, Tom found pictures of services past adorning
the walls—all stately elegance, that professional and soothing
dispatch of the dead.
Tom approached a black man pushing a vacuum. The
man‟s high afro intimidated Tom, and the man didn‟t smile as
Tom asked for directions to the management offices. Brock,
said the man‟s name tag.
A name like a clap on the back of the head, Tom
Brock pointed, and Tom let his feet follow the
direction of the man‟s finger.
Down the seemingly endless hallway, Tom passed a
coffin standing upright and leaning against the wall. It had to
be empty, he thought, and misgiving passed through him,
thick and sickening. But he knew he needed this.
At the office door, Tom knocked and poked his head
into the room. Behind a desk, Lolita looked up at him, biting
a pen. She had short, punky hair and a bored expression. The
piercing in her nose seemed inappropriately matched with
this solemn environment.
“May I help you?” she asked, sounding every bit as
bored as she looked.
“I‟m Tom Sindler. I have an appointment to see
“Oh, yes,” said Lolita, obviously expecting that that
was exactly why he was there.
Lolita picked up the phone, waited a moment, and
said, “Tom Cylinder is here to see you, Mr. Hearse.”
“Sindler,” Tom mentally corrected.
“I‟ll send him right back,” Lolita said into the phone,
and hung up. “Mr. Hearse will see you now,” she told Tom
and motioned to the door behind and to her right.
The lights burned brighter in Hearse‟s office. Hearse
sat behind an unusually large desk, computer to his left and
phone to his right. Tom felt small, as though he would have
to climb up into the chair in front of Hearse, who twirled a
finger bone, which it took Tom a moment to realize was a
pen. Other finger-bone pens stood in the cup in front of
Hearse. The man himself was dressed all in black: black suit,
black shirt, black tie. Little more than stubble covered
Hearse‟s pate, and he looked as hard and bony—polished,
almost—as the skeleton hung on a stand in the corner of the
room. Behind Hearse, a bookcase stretched across the wall
and Tom caught words from the spines presented there:
death, embalming, science of bereavement.
Tom half leaned into the room, awaiting an invitation
that didn‟t come. Hearse only smiled vaguely. Tom closed
the door behind him and stood in front of Hearse, ready to be
“I‟m sorry I‟m late,” said Tom. “I got caught in
“When someone‟s late for an interview—an important
appointment, you have to admit—it makes one wonder if
lateness is a recurring problem with the person,” Hearse said.
His voice hit a low register that was at once imposing and
somehow soothing, as though it contained thunder rolling in
the far distance.
Tom realized he was reflecting on the texture of
Hearse‟s voice when he should have been answering.
“I‟m usually very punctual, sir,” he said.
Hearse nodded dubiously. “That‟s a relief,” he said
Tom thought that Hearse might even be mocking him.
Hearse looked Tom over unapologetically, from top to
bottom. “Was there a problem with the directions?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” said Tom. “Rich‟s directions were perfect.”
Tom cringed. He hadn‟t meant to mention Rich. He wanted to
stand on his own. He didn‟t want to be beholden to anyone.
“Ah, yes,” said Hearse, smiling knowingly, perhaps
even smugly. “Your friend Rich. He speaks highly of you.”
“I hope you find me qualified on my own merit,” said
Tom, too defensively.
Hearse nodded, eyes bearing into Tom. “I like that.
Have a seat, my friend.” When Tom had taken his chair
Hearse said, “Tell me a little about yourself.”
Tom tried to will the sweat from breaking out all over
his body. He wanted to come clean, put himself on this man‟s
mercy and hope for the best. At least then he wouldn‟t feel
the stain of dishonesty. But lying was his best play. He
needed to land this job—now. He couldn‟t screw around. The
proverbial wolves were at the door and his wife was about to
fly the coop. His life had become a series of clichés, all
“As you can see on my resume,” said Tom, and he
leaned forward to place the folder containing his papers on
Hearse‟s desk, “I worked for an organ bank until a year ago,
technical duty, but I got laid off when they were forced to
downsize. Last in, first out, I suppose.” Tom had practiced
this over and over the night before. “Since then, I‟ve been
doing temp work for a health services company, but I need
“That‟s understandable,” said Hearse. “And
downsizing has put more than a few good men out of work.”
Tom wished he had thought of a better word than
“downsizing.” It made him think of being pressed into
something smaller than he was.
“I imagine, though,” said Hearse, “they‟d give you a
good reference were I to call.”
“Of course,” said Tom, and wondered if Hearse
already knew the truth.
“Of course,” repeated Hearse. He brandished his bone
pen thoughtfully. “There is a position I have in mind, maybe
not exactly what you‟re used to. It‟s that of an embalmer.”
“Sounds interesting,” said Tom.
“It is, believe me,” said Hearse. “And such important
work. Such a privileged role, don‟t you think?”
“I would think so, sir.”
“You‟ll train with a qualified doctor and earn a
paycheck every week. After a month you should be ready to
prepare and dress loved ones for a funeral. We call them
„loved ones,‟ Tom, because of course that‟s what they are.
People want to touch, see, and even feel their loved ones the
same way they did when they were alive. It‟s important to
see, Tom, and embalming makes that happen. Imagine if a
loved one dies and all you have is a wreath to place on the
dirt. You wouldn‟t have the closure of seeing them again.”
Tom thought of coming out of the institution. What if
his wife had gone? His children? What if the house were
empty? Would any of it even have happened? “That would be
terrible,” said Tom.
“There‟s something about you, Tom. I think you
really do see. Are you a religious man?” asked Hearse.
Tom cleared his throat. “Not as such.”
Hearse‟s laughter came shockingly loud. “That‟s okay
with me, Tom. I don‟t think much about what happens with
the soul, if there even is one. Of course I wouldn‟t say that to
the family, but it doesn‟t pay to think of such things.”
Tom had the impression that Hearse had gotten up,
was coming around the desk to put a hand on his shoulder,
but when Tom blinked, Hearse was behind his desk. He
“You might take right to this job, Tom.” One of
Hearse‟s teeth, an incisor, drew to a point, longer than the
rest. It dimpled his lower lip. It could pierce flesh. “Before
you know it, you could be sitting behind this desk.”
Hearse‟s teeth were normal again. Maybe he hadn‟t
said what Tom thought he‟d just heard him say. „Sounds
great,” said Tom. “I want to do well.” That‟s all I‟ve ever
wanted, he almost said.
“I have an application for you, Tom,” said Hearse,
going into a drawer and bringing out a sheet. “But I like what
I see, and I‟m a man who trusts his instincts.”
Again, Tom couldn‟t help but feel he was being
mocked. He tried to shake off the feeling. Don‟t ruin this,
Tom, he thought.
“I appreciate that, sir.”
“My standards are high, Tom. If I hire you, I expect
you to live up to my expectations.” Hearse got up and walked
beyond the bookcase to a window Tom hadn‟t noticed. He
looked through the blinds, apparently seeing something and
nodding. Tom imagined Hearse‟s tongue slipping out, longer
than should be possible, and lapping at the window through
the blinds. Tom stifled a laugh, and Hearse‟s head snapped
“Any questions, Tom?”
Tom wanted to be out of the room, to be outside, able
to breathe freely. The air seemed to have gone out of the
room and Tom could only take the shallowest of breaths.
Still, he knew there were standard questions he should be
“What are the hours?” asked Tom.
“Of course,” said Hearse. “I should have gone over
that. You will work different shifts. You might find yourself
working seven to three, three to eleven, or you could even be
working from eleven to seven for several weeks.”
“What does the eleven-to-seven person do?” Tom
“Graveyard shift speaks for itself, I would think,” said
Hearse. “That person is responsible for answering the phone
and dispatching calls, ensuring that each removal vehicle
arrives at the dispatched location in a timely manner. We
cover a wide area.”
Tom could feel Hearse studying him, and his attempts
to remain absolutely still only resulted in a tapping of his
foot, and when he set his foot flat on the floor his thighs
started squeezing together. He rubbed the back of his
increasingly sweaty neck.
“You‟re not having second thoughts, are you, Tom?”
asked Hearse, smiling.
Why does he smile like that? wondered Tom. Is it all
a game he‟s playing? Does he really have any interest in
“No, no, not at all,” Tom tried to reassure.
Hearse‟s smile opened wider, and Tom remembered
the tooth he thought he saw. “Then let‟s have a look around,”
said Hearse, and walked toward Tom with a suddenness that
made Tom gasp.
The hallway never seemed to end. Tom concentrated
on the patterns beneath his and Hearse‟s feet. Hearse had
nicer shoes, Italian probably, some expensive leather.
When they stopped, Tom looked up and saw they
were at an elevator. It doesn‟t matter, he thought. It will be
Hearse pressed the down button. It lit up, a bright disk
worn by God knows how many fingertips. The doors didn‟t
immediately open, and Tom sensed the box somewhere
below, refusing to budge. He couldn‟t hear the tell-tale sound
of machinery coming to life, of the building trying to bring it
up, as though trying to force out the contents of its stomach.
“The damn thing‟s always 50-50 from this level no
matter how many times we fix it. It always works from
below, though, for whatever reason,” said Hearse. “We might
as well take the stairs.”
“Might as well,” agreed Tom. “I could use the
That odd, almost mocking smile returned to Hearse‟s
face. “You don‟t have an issue with elevators, do you?”
“Um, no, not at all,” said Tom, but his voice cracked.
“You wouldn‟t want to haul a body down the stairs,
“Of course not,” said Tom. “I don‟t need the exercise
that badly.” Tom had meant to be funny, but Hearse seemed
all too serious.
“Come on,” said Hearse. “Let‟s go.”
Further down the hall a sign marked “Stairs” had been
hung next to a door that otherwise could have opened onto a
closet or storage room or even an alleyway. Tom had lost his
bearings. Every hallway looked the same, as if every place in
the building were constructed from old parts at the moment
Tom experienced it.
Tom could make out nothing within when Hearse
opened the door. “Down we go,” Hearse said, and reached
into the darkness to flip a switch. A bare bulb flash-fried dust
from its surface and illuminated the narrow stairway. As they
descended the walls seemed to narrow, so by the time they
reached bottom Tom almost felt as though he needed to turn
sideways to continue on. Leaving the stairs for another
nondescript passage only provided Tom with a small measure
The basement sported none of the elegant trappings of
the floor above. Instead, the walls were simple cinderblock
painted white. In places, paint had chipped away to reveal
islands of gray. As Hearse led Tom down the hallway, around
a bend, then a short distance to another turn, they passed open
doors to which Hearse pointed out various operations.
“That‟s the service room,” said Hearse. “This is the
protective clothing room and chemical storage area. This is
where the bodies are stored. This is the casket room.”
Tom tried to take it all in, but he always had trouble
registering things on the fly. He would have to walk these
halls many times to get it straight.
“This is the preparation room,” said Hearse. “Most of
your time will be spent here. You‟ll have to move the bodies
from the storage room about three hours before prep time. I
suppose that‟s getting a bit ahead of things, though.”
Tom nodded, attempting confidence, but the idea of
working in the basement without any windows disturbed him
Tom and Hearse took a different flight of stairs to
return to the ground floor, and if anything, that stairway
seemed even more narrow. He almost expected to hear a
Champagne-cork pop as the stairs squeezed him along their
length and expelled him into what Hearse explained was the
employee break room. Tom was just thankful that they didn‟t
take the elevator up, since Hearse had said it always worked
The room looked exactly as Tom might have
expected it to look. Tile floor, a few tables topped with
random sections of newspapers and magazines, a refrigerator,
a sink, a microwave, a wall with cubby holes each labeled
with a different name.
“Around noon, you‟ll usually find your coworkers
here. They‟re decent fellows, but mind their talk. You know
how it is when people start talking. The truth gets bent,
“People talk too much,” Tom said, though he wasn‟t
sure what Hearse might mean.
Tom had lost any conception of the building‟s
dimensions. They passed carts piled with clean linen, and
along the walls boxes had been stacked as many as four high.
“I‟d like you to start right away,” Hearse said.
Tom stopped. “Really?”
“So I‟ve got the job?”
“Of course, Tom. Why do you think you‟re here?” He
said it as though it had already been decided, as though the
whole interview were just a play they had to act out.
Tom felt immense relief. He felt it in his knees. In his
gut. “Thank you,” said Tom, and shook Hearse‟s hand. “I‟ll
do my best.”
Hearse looked at Tom with something like a smile.
Tom‟s life could begin now. He could at least start bringing
in some money. He could at least stop feeling ashamed.
“Can I call my wife?” asked Tom.
“Your wife? Your fucking wife?” bellowed Hearse,
his face red and angry.
But that hadn‟t happened. Hearse just said “Of
course” nonchalantly. “You can use the phone in the break
Tom must have looked confused, must have given
away something of his disorientation, because Hearse said,
“I‟ll walk with you.”
As they made their way back to the break room,
Hearse said casually, “Oh, one more thing. Every now and
then you‟ll hear the building settling. It‟s nothing to worry
about, but it spooks some of the men, especially since—well,
you‟re going to hear about it eventually—the land the
building was built on was previously that of a cemetery.”
“Wow,” said Tom.
“It‟s a natural fit, don‟t you think? A place for the
dead built on a place for the dead?”
“Yes,” said Tom.
“It doesn‟t bother you, does it?” said Hearse, again
with his odd smile.
“I suppose not,” said Tom. “I‟ll be working with the
“True enough, and all the old bodies were relocated,
of course, long before we built here.”
“At least we think the bodies were all relocated,”
Hearse laughed. “How could anyone be sure?”
A coffin leaned against the wall on each side of the
door. Yellow hazard stickers on the door welcomed Tom into
the room, where OSHA signs proffered their own warnings.
Wearing the proper protective clothing seemed the main
thrust of the signs.
A curtain bisected the room. On one side stood a large
metal sink and on the other a prep station and examination
tables, as well as two eight-gallon red portable SHARP
Banks of lights ensured every square inch of the room
was brightly illuminated, from the accessory cart to the
rolling instrument stand.
Tom wore a protective gown and gloves, a mask. He
scanned the room, eyebrows down, and took a deep breath.
Someone entered the room behind him. Tom turned
around to face the person he knew must be Dr. Jackson. The
man appeared to be in his sixties. He was short, but stocky.
He wore glasses, small discs obscuring his eyes. Dressed in a
white lab coat, he looked exactly as Tom would have
“Did I scare you?” asked Dr. Jackson.
Tom stretched out his hand. “No, I was just lost in
“I‟m Dr. Jackson. From here on, you‟ll be working
with me.” Tom‟s hand hung in the air. “Sorry, but I don‟t
shake hands—with anyone.”
Tom let his hand drop. “Tom,” he said. “Tom Sindler.
It‟s nice to meet you.”
Dr. Jackson patted Tom on the shoulder, somewhat
softening the rebuke of the unconsummated handshake.
“Are you new to this, Tom?”
“I did . . . something similar in the past, but it wasn‟t
quite the same.”
Dr. Jackson laughed. “Well, then, let‟s just go forward
as though this is all new to you. You‟ll learn a lot about the
human body, that‟s for sure. And feel free to take notes as we
Dr. Jackson went to the wall and opened one of the
square silver doors, or corpse lockers, as Tom thought of
them. The doctor pulled out a drawer on which a naked
woman lay, her eyes sunk in and eczema covering her face.
Tom looked over the body, at its nakedness and the
color of her skin, the unnatural hue of her nipples, of her sex,
the rot that must be settling in beneath the surface.
Tom tried to swallow away the electricity souring his
mouth, and his stomach revolted. He dashed for the sink and
vomited into it, sweat breaking out all over his face and along
the back of his neck. He cupped his hands under the faucet
and rinsed out his mouth, splashed water on his face. He
Dr. Jackson spoke from over his shoulder. “Are you
sure you can do this?”
“I‟ll be fine,” said Tom. “Really. I just need a
“We‟ll chalk it up to first-day jitters, my friend. Come
on. Now that we‟ve gotten that out of the way, let‟s go to
Under Dr. Jackson‟s gentle guidance, Tom began to
wash the body with a solution that was part germicide, part
insecticide, and part olfactant. He clenched the jaw open and
swabbed out the mouth—say ah, he thought—and then used
what looked like a giant Q-tip to swab out the woman‟s
“There‟s a bit of rigor mortis,” said Dr. Jackson, “but
we can relieve that with a little massage therapy.”
Tom and the doctor began to work at the corpse‟s
muscles, loosening them. She might enjoy this if alive,
thought Tom. Women pay a lot of money for this kind of
“If the rigor mortis is bad enough,” said Dr. Jackson,
“or if the limbs are distorted by disease or arthritis, or
something along those lines, then we could cut tendons or
muscles to get the body posed just as we‟d want.”
“God,” said Tom.
“Rest assured, son, we won‟t have to do that for this
one. She‟s supple enough.” The doctor shook his head. “Pity,
though. I would have liked to show you how that‟s done.”
Tom found Dr. Jackson‟s manner soothing. He
couldn‟t even remember when someone had taken him under
his wing. Maybe that‟s what he‟d always needed, a mentor,
someone to guide him. His father sure as hell hadn‟t played
Tom rubbed face and hand cream where applicable.
Those parts would be exposed, after all, and then the doctor
showed him how to stuff the nose with cotton, to position eye
caps below the eyelids, to place the mouth former in the
mouth, and to insert gauze in the throat to absorb purging
“We‟ll secure the mouth with wire,” said Dr. Jackson.
“No one appreciates it popping open at an inopportune
“I suppose not,” said Tom, and laughed.
With the mouth wired shut, Dr. Jackson pointed to the
woman‟s lips. “We‟ll need to glue those shut, and the eyes
too. If she were a man, or a hairier woman, we might go for a
shave. But she certainly doesn‟t need one.”
The arterial and cavity embalming proved to be the
most intensive process. Blood had to be drained and then
almost two gallons of embalming fluid injected into an artery.
“And then we have a few additional injections here
and there,” said Dr. Jackson as he stuck a syringe into various
parts of the body. After setting the syringe down, Dr. Jackson
looked at Tom and said, “Care to do a little vacuuming?”
“I—I suppose so,” said Tom.
Dr. Jackson laughed. “This is the part of the process
called cavity embalming. This metal tube is a trocar, and
notice the suction hose attached to it. We‟re going to insert
this near the navel and puncture the stomach, the bladder, the
intestines. We‟ll go after the lungs. We‟ve got to suck up all
the nasty gases and fluids inside, and then we can inject a
little cavity fluid to keep things just the way we want them.”
Tom watched as the doctor went to work.
“Oh, I have a job for you, Tom.”
“What can I do?”
“Grab plenty of gauze, I‟m going to have you pack
the anus and vagina. You‟d be surprised by the amount of
seepage that can occur.”
By the time they neared the end of the process, Tom
felt exhausted, as drained of energy as the corpse was of its
Tom dusted the woman‟s upper torso with a white
powder, making him think of pastry. He tended to her,
brushing her hair, the soft bristles of the brush stroking it to a
luster. Tom had always heard that hair continued to grow for
days—or could it even be weeks?—after someone died. Why
would that happen? He applied makeup: more powder,
mascara, eye shadow, blush. His wife rarely wore makeup at
all, and he had always preferred it that way. But the corpse
looked better, he had to admit. How good could he make her
look? Almost lifelike, he thought.
“Can I take a minute?” Tom asked.
Outside the room, in the hallway, Tom bent over, his
hands on his knees. The hallway seemed unbearably quiet.
Back in the room, Dr. Jackson watched as Tom applied
lipstick and eye liner, then smoothed out the makeup with a
“She‟s looking lovely, Tom.”
Tom couldn‟t help but agree. He‟d never indulged in
such care for a woman, such subservience.
Dr. Jackson handed Tom a nail clipper. “This takes a
little practice,” he said.
As Tom clipped at her nails crescent moons flew in
various directions. Tom had never clipped another‟s nails
before and the nails felt different than his own, perhaps
because life had fled the body. The snapping of the nails as
he clicked at them sickened him in some small way.
One of the doors in the wall popped open, revealing a
man‟s head. “Jesus,” gasped Tom.
“Damn latch,” said Dr. Jackson and closed the door
on the body beyond.
Tom had the crazy thought that the corpse might have
pushed the door open.
Tom and Dr. Jackson maneuvered the woman onto a
cart that they could wheel out of the room. All aboard,
thought Tom. They covered her with linen, robbing Tom of
her nakedness. Past his initial disgust, Tom couldn‟t help but
acknowledge that the woman‟s breasts were full, and her
nipples the length and thickness he preferred.
Dr. Jackson went to the door and opened it, using a
door stopper to hold it open. Together they wheeled the body
out of the room and into the hall. Tom thought of suddenly
running with the cart and jumping up on it. He could roll
recklessly forward like a kid with a grocery-store cart. But of
course he didn‟t.
The automatic light burst into life when they wheeled
the body into the Showcase Room. They passed under a sign
over the door that read “Human Artistic Figures.” Tom
stopped short at the room‟s curious display.
All manner of coffins filled the room, some of
obviously historical design. And each one had been equipped
with a glass window in the lid so that, though closed, the
corpse could be seen within the coffin. On the wall above
each coffin a plaque provided the particulars about each
“Impressive,” said Tom.
“Isn‟t it?” answered Dr. Jackson, and the lid next to
the coffin by which he was standing sprang open.
“Christ,” exclaimed Tom.
Dr. Jackson chuckled. “Sorry, Tom. That was my
doing. Just having a little fun at your expense. Come over and
take a closer look.”
Tom‟s heart slowed gradually as he admired the work
on the corpse. “I can see I‟ve got a lot to learn still.”
“You‟ll get there,” said Dr. Jackson.
Hearse entered the room. “Hello, Tom. Dr. Jackson.”
He went to the woman Tom had just worked on. Hearse
looked her over thoroughly. “The face needs a little more
makeup. It‟s a bit splotchy in places. Hmm, the fingernails
look good. Always a potential trouble spot there. The
stomach sags. Not enough sawdust, I suspect. Don‟t be stingy
with it. All in all, not bad. But I expect better the next time.”
“I know I‟ll get better with practice, sir,” said Tom.
“I like your attitude, Tom. You‟re a serious young
man. Getting you on track for a supervisory role is not out of
the question, if that‟s something you‟d like. Too many of
these guys just want a paycheck, and nothing more.”
“I‟d be grateful, sir. That would mean a lot to me.”
Tom imagined telling his wife, how it would feel to show her
what he was capable of.
The television played a mindless sitcom that Tom
only half-watched, his mind turning over other matters. The
house seemed an extension of his brain, as though his gray
matter had been seeded and walls and floor and furniture had
sprung whole from his thoughts. If he concentrated hard
enough, he‟d be able to feel his wife and kids, feel their
movements and their heartbeats, in the world he‟d made
Sylvia entered the room.
“Are the kids asleep?” asked Tom.
“Yeah, they‟re dead asleep,” she answered. Sylvia
looked at the television and her eyes immediately glazed
over, but she didn‟t move to sit next to him or to leave the
“Hey, baby, this job is turning out to be just what we
“Let‟s hope it lasts.”
Tom winced. He wanted Sylvia to at least show some
enthusiasm. “They‟re happy with me. I might even end up
being a supervisor, and that would mean more money.”
“Yeah, well, we need it.”
“Come on, lighten up. This is good. I think we should
celebrate,” said Tom.
“We don‟t exactly have any Champagne on ice,
Tom,” said Sylvia.
“You could put on that nightie I like.”
Sylvia looked away from the TV and over at Tom. “I
guess I know what that means.”
“We haven‟t in so long . . .”
“Yeah, you‟d have to be here for us to do it.” Sylvia
stared, and then shook her head. “Oh, Jesus, Tom, don‟t look
so damn sad. It‟s pathetic. But I guess you deserve something
for landing a job, huh?”
Tom sat forward in his chair, visibly brightening.
Tom lay on the bed in just his boxers. Sylvia exited
the bathroom, light spilling out behind her. She hung in the
doorway, letting Tom see how the light made her semi-
transparent nightie even more see-through. It was white silk
with lace over her breasts and the thinnest of spaghetti straps
over her shoulders. Tom could make out her thighs through
the thin material and could see too the lace of her panties.
Tom didn‟t look at her face as she went to the bed. He
feared her expression and what it might indicate. Instead, he
only looked at her body, and after so long he enjoyed being
able to linger over the sight of it, to stare blatantly, obviously,
at the pressing of her nipples against the cloth. Tom closed
his eyes and found her mouth with his. He kissed her and
moved his hands down her back, over her bottom, up under
the nightie. His fingers slid under her panties and he kissed
her nipples through the lace, tugged them with his teeth.
Keeping his eyes closed he felt adrift in an immense void, her
body not smothering but a perfect complement to his in this
vast, blessed openness.
Sylvia grasped his erection. “That‟s the old Tom,” she
The sound of her voice closed him in a fraction, but it
was okay. It was still okay.
Sylvia shifted and Tom lost her. He reached out for
her and had to open his eyes. She was on her hands and
knees, looking over her shoulder at him.
“Like this, Tom,” she said.
This wasn‟t like Sylvia, not the Sylvia he
remembered. He had always taken the lead. She had always
just lain on her back and let him proceed without instruction.
“Come on, Tom. Get behind me.”
He did as she asked, but his penis was shrinking. This
wasn‟t right at all. What had given her this idea?
The thought of being inside her now seemed
impossible, as though he could never bear the small space,
being pressed inside her, having her all around him, crushing
“Tom?” Sylvia found his penis again and this time it
was small and soft. “Jesus Christ, Tom.” Sylvia stared
directly into his face, accusing. “What the hell‟s wrong with
Sylvia wasted little time fleeing to the bathroom and
returning in the knee-length navy sleepshirt she usually wore
to bed. Slipping between the sheets on the other side of the
bed, she mumbled something Tom couldn‟t understand and
turned her back on him. Within minutes—it seemed like
minutes, anyway, but Tom was losing track of time—she was
asleep, her familiar low rumble needling Tom‟s thoughts.
Tom himself lay awake for what seemed like hours.
He tried to think about his job, to lose himself in all the
details that had to become second nature if he was to succeed.
But he kept seeing Sylvia staring hatefully over her
shoulder and eventually he gave way to thoughts of giving
her what she wanted. He imagined himself thrusting into a
tight, closed space. But she was open inside, as though inside
her was the vastness of outer space. Tom could pull out and
poke his head inside, marvel at the wonders of the universe,
could maybe crawl in and float through infinity.
When Tom looked again at Sylvia‟s face, it wasn‟t
Sylvia looking back him with her hateful gaze; it was the
woman he had dressed on the slab—and she looked at him
The next night Sylvia caught Tom looking at himself
in the mirror. He wore jeans and a dress shirt.
“Are you going somewhere?” asked Sylvia.
“Just to get a beer with Rich,” he answered.
Sylvia looked away from him. “How does Rich like
you guys working in the same place?”
“I‟ve been so busy training I‟ve barely had the time to
talk to him,” Tom said. “It‟s stuffy in here, isn‟t it?”
The doorbell rang at precisely the moment Tom was
opening the window.
“I‟ll get it,” said Sylvia, and rushed out of the room.
Tom walked slowly, almost stealthily after her. He
heard her open the door and then heard a soft murmuring as
Sylvia and Rich exchanged quick words. After a moment, he
heard them speaking more loudly, perhaps intentionally loud.
Tom realized he had stopped, that he was trying to hear
“How‟ve you been?” Tom heard Rich ask.
“Good. It‟s been a long time,” said Sylvia. “I guess
now that Tom‟s back you can start coming over again.”
Sylvia and Rich came toward Tom, and he pretended
he was coming to meet them so they wouldn‟t think he‟d
“Hey, Rich, you ready to head out?” asked Tom.
“In a hurry, buddy?”
“I‟m dying for a beer,” said Tom.
“All right, all right,” said Rich. “Hold your horses.”
It rankled Tom to have Rich take that tone with him in
front of his wife.
“It was good to see you, Sylvia,” said Rich, and he
leaned in and kissed Sylvia‟s cheek, dangerously close to her
“Hey, keep off my wife,” said Tom, trying to make it
“Chill, buddy. We‟re all friends here,” said Rich.
“Yeah, Tom, what are you, defending my honor or
something? It‟s not like you‟re going to kiss me,” said Sylvia.
Tom went to her. “How‟s this then?” He attempted to
kiss her on the lips, imagining that he would plant a good one
on her to show Rich, but Sylvia turned her head, so he only
caught her cheek, not even close to her lips.
Rich drove recklessly.
“Jesus, Rich, slow down, will you?”
“I thought you wanted to get to the bar,” said Rich.
“I‟d like to get there in one piece,” answered Tom.
“And what‟s up with your car? Do you ever clean it?” By the
looks of it, the old Toyota had been ill used. The dash was
torn and the seat covers bore a number of stains from fluids
Tom didn‟t even want to think about. On getting into the car,
Tom had had to throw a number of things from the passenger
seat—a magazine, junk mail, a bandanna, and an empty pack
of cigarettes—into the back and had still had to kick fast-food
cups and wrappers aside to make room for his feet.
“Just a shot in the dark, Tom, but is something
The back window was frosted over and though the
windshield was relatively clear, the frost seemed intent on
attaching to the side windows.
“Nothing to worry about,” said Tom.
Rich shook out a cigarette and tapped it against the
steering wheel. He stuck it in his mouth and flicked his
lighter three times before getting a flame. Rich inhaled deeply
and then blew out smoke that hung in the air of the car. Rich
slapped Tom on the leg and laughed.
“Ready to get fucked up?” asked Rich.
“It‟s good to get out of the house, that‟s for sure,” said
Tom, who had looked down when Rich slapped his leg but
was again staring out the window.
Rich smiled. “Trouble in paradise, buddy?”
“I don‟t want to talk about it,” said Tom.
“I know you‟ve had a tough time, being away and all.
But hey, put the past behind you, right?”
Tom studied Rich—something about the way he‟d
said “put it behind you.” Tom often couldn‟t tell whether
Rich might be mocking him.
“Guess who I saw last week,” said Rich.
“Who?” asked Tom.
“Remember Sophie? The blonde? Remember how she
always wanted to try to get with me and I kept putting her
“Yeah, I never understood that,” said Tom.
“Hey, we can‟t all land a woman like Sylvia, Tom.”
Again, Tom had to wonder whether Rich was
“Anyway, Sophie looks fine. I might have to give her
“Maybe it‟s too late. Maybe you blew your chance,”
“It‟s never too late for me, buddy,” said Rich, flashing
Tom an obscene, wolfish smile.
“Jesus, have you always been this cocky?” asked
“Not cocky, Tom. Confident. There‟s a big
“I don‟t know. Seems like a fine line to me,” said
“You could use some of my confidence, old pal. And
hey, how‟s the job working out? I‟ve barely seen you there.”
“Things are going great.” Tom couldn‟t help but feel
that Rich would be answering to him one day soon. “I think
I‟m going to do well there.”
“Yeah, no surprise after I set the stage for you.”
“I make my own impressions, Rich. I don‟t need
“Now that‟s some appreciation,” said Rich. “You
wouldn‟t even have that job if it wasn‟t for me.”
Tom rolled down his window, wanting to let his mind
wander out into the open night air.
“What the fuck are you doing?” asked Rich in a burst
of smoke. “It‟s freezing.”
“I need to breathe. The car‟s full of smoke.”
“Yeah, well, you‟re full of shit. And since when do
you care anyway? If you need air so bad, you can walk to the
“All right. Jesus,” said Tom, and rolled up the
window, leaving the slightest crack at the top. Tom looked at
Rich sideways, trying to determine if Rich had noticed the
little opening. The thought of putting his lips to it and sucking
in frigid air almost made Tom laugh out loud.
“You know what‟s funny?” asked Tom.
“Our boss‟s name. Hearse Riesen. I mean, it sounds
like something I would have come up with in a dream.”
“His name is pretty damn appropriate, isn‟t it?” said
Rich. “Almost as bad as this guy I knew in the Army. His
name was Sargent and he was a sergeant. Sergeant Sargent.”
“You made that up.”
“I‟m serious. The guy lost credibility every time
someone had to address him. What a nightmare.” Rich
pointed out a neon sign. “There we go, Tom. The Purple
Shamrock. Hopefully there‟ll be some action there tonight.”
Tom and Rich had to press through the crowd to get
to the bar. “It‟s packed,” said Rich over his shoulder.
Music blared. Television sets hanging above the bar
played a football game. A machine spun green and red
slush—margaritas, Tom guessed.
On the dance floor a tall guy in a muscle shirt danced
behind a girl wearing a crop top and a mini skirt. The guy‟s
hands were on her belly.
Tom watched as the guy ground his crotch against the
girl‟s bottom. She had her eyes closed and Tom couldn‟t tell
whether she were enjoying it or not.
“Over there,” pointed Rich to a high table just off the
They approached the table, where a lone black man
was already sitting, his gaze fixed on the football game. It
took Tom a few steps before he realized it was Brock, the
man he‟d met on the day of his interview. Tom felt a
“I didn‟t know you hung out here,” said Rich.
“Until now I thought pretty highly of the clientele,”
It didn‟t look to Tom like Brock was joking, but Rich
threw his head back and laughed loud enough to attract a few
heads at the bar.
“You‟re a real fucking card, Brock,” said Rich, and
patted Brock on the back.
Tom thought that Brock might be considering ripping
Rich‟s arm clean out of its socket.
Brock looked at Tom. “I come around occasionally.”
While Rich had to practically scream over the music, Brock
seemed to talk over it with no trouble at all.
A waitress appeared and Rich ordered a round of
beers for everyone and lit a cigarette. Tom took one from the
pack Rich had laid on the bar table and lit one too, giving his
hands something to do. He kept glancing back at the dance
floor, at the couple, kept expecting the guy to hike the girl‟s
skirt up and violate her right then and there.
Rich shook Tom‟s shoulder, “Tom, my friend Brock.
Brock, my friend Tom. Tom just started work with us, so
you‟ll be running into each other.”
“We‟ve met,” said Brock, and put out his hand.
“Good to see you again,” said Tom, and almost
winced when Brock‟s rock-like hand squeezed his. Tom
could imagine tiny bones in his hand snapping like tinder.
“Hey, check them out,” said Rich. “Ladies,” Rich
addressed Brock and Tom, “observe the master.” Rich moved
toward a trio of women standing at the bar.
Brock took a long draught of his beer. “How long
have you known Rich?”
“Since high school,” answered Tom.
“Long enough to know better. You want some
friendly advice?” asked Brock.
The waitress set their beers on the table.
“Watch out for the guy.”
Tom and Brock both drank. “I got the next round,”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Hey,” said Tom. “How long‟ve you been at Rise
“Long enough to keep my head down and stay out of
people‟s business. There‟s some strange shit happening at
“What kind of strange?” asked Tom.
Before Brock could answer, Rich and one of the
women from the bar appeared at the table. “Fellas, this is my
newest friend, um . . .” Rich raised his eyebrows at the
“Tammy,” she said with slight annoyance. She was
heavily made-up, and Tom thought the makeup might
conceal at least ten years she‟d rather no one knew about.
“Who has a pen?” Rich asked, looking to Tom and
Brock. Without saying anything, Brock slid one from his
breast pocket and pointed it at Rich. Tom had the feeling
Brock would just as soon stab Rich in the eye with it as let
him borrow it.
“Now for that phone number, before I forget,” said
Rich, again looking at Tammy.
“I don‟t know. I just don‟t go around giving it away to
every guy I meet, you know.”
Tom suspected she wasn‟t nearly as discriminating as
she so obviously wanted Rich to think she was.
“Come on, you already promised. And these guys will
stand up for me. Right, fellas?”
Tom produced a half-hearted “sure” and Brock said
“son of a bitch,” but then Tom noticed that Brock had
returned his attention to the game and was paying no heed to
what was transpiring at the table.
“There you have it,” said Rich, smiling broadly.
The woman seemed to sigh from every pore as she
took the pen and the business cards Rich produced.
“One of these is for you,” Rich said.
She wrote her number on the card, handed it to Rich,
and then glanced at the second card he‟d given her.
“You work at a funeral home?” she asked, looking
like she‟d just bitten into something foul.
“Yeah,” said Rich. “We all do.”
Tammy looked from Tom to Brock, lingering on
Brock‟s hard features. “You guys aren‟t a bunch of psychos,
“Hey!” said Rich. “Not at all! It‟s just a job, baby, and
it pays a pretty penny too.”
Tammy nodded and smiled at the mention of pay.
Tom, having gotten up, brushed by Tammy and
whispered in her ear, “It doesn‟t pay that well, believe me,”
before heading to the bar.
Rich looked after Tom none too happily.
When Tom returned he held three bottles of beer by
their necks and a highball glass in the other hand. Tom sensed
that the conversation had stalled since his departure.
“I hope you like Sex on the Beach,” Tom said to
Tammy as he handed her the glass.
“Who doesn‟t?” she said, and giggled.
Tom reclaimed his stool and Rich leaned over to him,
whispering in his ear. “Back off, pal. This ain‟t high school
anymore. I remember what you did back then, you know.”
“Relax,” returned Tom in Rich‟s ear. “I‟ve got a wife
at home. I‟m just trying to be polite.”
“Too polite,” said Rich.
I‟m the one who ought to be pissed off, with the way
you flirt with my wife, thought Tom. He wanted to sting Rich
a bit, but by the end of the evening Brock had left and Rich
and Tammy were enveloped in drunken conversation, Rich‟s
hand disappearing up her skirt, leaving Tom to nurse a beer
and wish he were away from the place.
Tom had had enough to drink that when he crawled
into bed next to Sylvia and closed his eyes he figured it‟d be
one of those nights when he‟d be dead to the world for at
least the next eight hours.
But then he opened his eyes almost immediately, not
sure even if he‟d slept, and saw Dr. Jackson standing at the
foot of his bed.
Tom looked at Sylvia, who slept on, unaware.
“Hello, Tom,” said Dr. Jackson.
“Hello, Doctor,” said answered, terrified. This
couldn‟t be real.
“I worry about you, Tom,” said Dr. Jackson.
Tom‟s mouth hung open.
“I don‟t know what I can do for you, Tom.”
“What do you mean?” asked Tom. He glanced again
at Sylvia, but she hadn‟t stirred.
“I didn‟t shake your hand because I didn‟t want to get
attached. I don‟t think I can help you look alive again,” said
But I‟m not dead, thought Tom. He didn‟t speak those
words out loud, though, and when he opened his eyes, it was
Tom sat in his car outside the Saint Egelston School.
The building appeared so quiet, and the schoolyard so
deserted, Tom could almost believe the building empty of any
life at all. Tom started at the sound of the bell. He
couldn‟t have dozed off, could he have? Buses and cars,
presumably belonging to other parents, had arrived. Kids
poured from the school, streaming into buses. Tom hadn‟t
told Daniel and Katie he was going to pick them up. He had
wanted to surprise them. But now they might already be on
the bus, and he couldn‟t remember the number of their bus
either. He wouldn‟t have boarded it to get them anyway. He
wouldn‟t be able to bear the suspicious bus driver or all the
kids looking at him as if he didn‟t belong.
Tom saw them, Daniel holding Katie‟s hand and
leading her. Thankfully he hadn‟t missed his chance. Tom
inadvertently struck the horn getting out of the car, the action
robbing him of his pleasure in calling out to them—the blare
of the horn instead of his voice caused their heads to turn. For
a moment, they stared at him blankly, but then they
recognized him and ran. Katie‟s dress bounced around her
skinny legs and Sam‟s tennis shoes slapped the pavement.
Tom went to one knee to embrace the kids. “Hey,
pumpkins, how was school?”
“Great, Daddy,” said Daniel.
“We didn‟t know you were going to pick us up,” said
“Well, my new job has me working funny hours,”
“Want to see what I made at school?” asked Katie,
with a child‟s penchant for unconsciously changing topic on a
dime. She started rooting around in her bag.
Suddenly aware of all the kids, the cars that he might
be blocking, the thought of leaving his car unattended, door
open, Tom felt the pressing need to be on the move.
“Not now, pumpkin. We‟ve got to get going.”
“Please, Daddy?” pleaded Katie. Her bag looked in
the act of swallowing her arm.
Tom rose, pulling them toward the car. “Come on.”
Tom‟s mind raced.
“It‟s okay,” said Daniel to Katie.
Tom rested his head on the steering wheel. He hadn‟t
started the car. He was sweating badly.
“Daddy, what‟s wrong?” asked Daniel.
Tom looked left and right without moving his head.
“Nothing,” he said. “We just need to get home.”
Tom put the car in gear and pressed the accelerator. It
jumped violently forward and stalled. A car honked and slid
“It‟s okay,” said Tom. “It‟s okay.”
Daniel and Katie stared at Tom, and he glanced at
them occasionally in the rearview mirror. The houses slipped
past on either side of the street.
Home. Tom stepped over the bags the kids had
dropped in the hall when they ran into the house. He heard
the kids shout greetings to their mother, and there seemed
something in that relationship that had slipped away from
him. Those months he was away had changed things, had
made him a lesser part of their lives, and he didn‟t know if he
could ever reclaim what had been lost.
Tom disappeared into his room, wanting to study up
on embalming practices. It‟s so easy to let the time get away,
but he couldn‟t afford to let that happen with the job. He
needed to prove that he belonged there.
In the kitchen Tom couldn‟t be sure that the preceding
two hours did him any good. He looked through the books.
He turned the pages, but he kept reading and rereading and
nothing seemed to stick. And then it was almost dinner time
and the world had just seemed to spin past him.
Tom tried to kiss Sylvia but she brushed him off.
“Everything‟s almost ready, Tom. You‟ve got to give
me a little space here.”
She did seem a flurry of activity, pulling this from the
microwave, turning the stove off, throwing something
clattering in the sink.
“How about I set the table?” asked Tom.
“Great,” said Sylvia.
“It smells fantastic,” said Tom.
The doorbell rang.
“I‟ll get it,” said Sylvia, leaving the kitchen to fend
for itself. Tom looked around helplessly.
“It‟s Rich,” Sylvia shouted.
“What‟s he doing here?” Tom muttered to himself.
Before Tom could even think how to steer the evening
in the right direction, Sylvia was telling Rich that he just had
to stay for dinner—she insisted. And that‟s just what he did.
“Funny how you show up when food‟s about to hit the
table,” said Tom.
“I‟m lucky that way,” said Rich. “So when‟s your
Tom looked blankly at Rich. “In three weeks, on
“You excited?” asked Rich.
“I think I‟ve got it covered,” said Tom.
“You spend enough time locked up in your room
pouring over those books,” said Sylvia.
Rich laughed. “Jesus, Tom. You take everything so
seriously. I didn‟t worry about any of that shit.”
“Maybe because all you do is haul around lumber.
I‟ve got to study for an embalming position. It‟s a little more
Rich looked at Sylvia. “See this. I get the guy a job
and now he thinks he‟s better than me. Maybe I should just
go.” Rich put his napkin next to his plate, all too
Tom shook his head.
“That wasn‟t very kind, Tom,” said Sylvia.
Rich and Sylvia looked at Tom accusingly. Even the
kids were looking at him.
“All I‟m saying is that it‟s a different test.”
“I know it‟s a different test, Tom. I‟ve wanted that
embalming position for a long time, and now you walk in off
the street and they just hand it to you. How do you think that
makes me feel?”
Sylvia leaned over and put her hand on Rich‟s arm.
“Oh come on, when did you get so sensitive?”
Sylvia stared hard at Tom. “You could learn a little
something about being sensitive, Tom.”
Rich smiled at Tom and winked, but of course Sylvia
didn‟t see that.
“All right, I‟ve got the late shift tonight,” said Sylvia.
“Sorry to run, Rich, but I‟ve got to get to work.”
“No problem,” said Rich. “It‟ll give Tom and I some
more time to catch up.”
Tom just wished he would leave, but that didn‟t look
like it would happen any time soon.
Sylvia didn‟t mind working evenings, but she hated
missing out on the juicy tips you could get for the dinner
shift. She was taking a breather, staring blankly, when the
other waitress on shift, Thelma, touched her arm.
“Everything okay, Sylvia? You look a million miles
“How are things with Tom?”
“Okay. He‟s excited about his new job,” said Sylvia.
“I bet you are too. It‟ll be good to get things back to
“I‟m not sure what normal is anymore,” said Sylvia.
She‟d always thought Thelma to be one of the dimmest bulbs
she‟d ever met.
“Yeah, but it must be good to have a man in the house
“If you want to call him that.”
Thelma looked appalled.
“Look, Thelma, the further we get in our marriage, it
seems like the farther we drift apart. And it‟s not like there
aren‟t other fish in the sea.”
“You wouldn‟t cheat on him, would you?” asked
Thelma, all innocence.
“Who says I haven‟t already?” said Sylvia with a
wicked smile. Take that, she thought.
“I don‟t think you‟d do that,” said Thelma.
“Maybe you don‟t know me that well.” When Thelma
looked like she was about to cry, Sylvia added, “I‟m just
letting off steam, Thelma. Sometimes it helps.”
When Sylvia walked out the door later that evening,
Rich was sitting in his car waiting for her. Rich rolled down
his window as Sylvia walked to the car.
“Hey, baby,” said Rich. “You got two nipples for a
Sylvia laughed. “Pure class, Rich. What are you doing
“I just left your hubby and figured I‟d swing by, make
sure your car starts.”
“How thoughtful, Rich.”
“I‟m a thoughtful guy,” he said.
“I‟m sure it‟ll be fine. Look, Tom knows what time I
get off. I‟ve got to get home.”
“Suit yourself. I thought you might like a drink.”
“I could use one,” said Sylvia. “But I can‟t. Not
“Well, hurry home, then, sweetheart. And button up.
It‟s a cold world.”
Don‟t I know it, thought Sylvia.
Tom and Rich expelled plumes of frosted breath
inside the freezer room. Rich stood over a body lying face up
on a stainless steel table.
“Come give me a hand with this, Tom.”
Tom had surprised himself by how quickly he‟d
become accustomed to handling dead bodies. After a while, it
didn‟t feel any different than hauling furniture.
Tom and Rich prepared to lift the body, but something
startled Tom and he went completely still. “Did you hear
“What?” said Rich.
“That shuffling.” It had sounded like someone was in
the room with them, and now Tom heard a slight dragging in
the wall, as if someone was walking just beyond the plaster.
“I don‟t hear a damn thing. You‟re losing it, buddy,”
“Yeah, you may be right,” Tom said and laughed.
“But look at this guy. He‟d give anybody the creeps.”
The corpse‟s face had been mashed in and looked
roughly the color of rotting fruit—and the consistency too.
“What‟d he do, jump face first off a building or
something?” asked Tom.
With some effort they got the corpse on the gurney
they‟d pulled up alongside the table. “That guy‟s heavier than
he looks,” said Tom.
“They always are,” said Rich. “Hey, wait here a
minute, okay? I forgot the keys for the fluid case.”
“No problem,” said Tom. Truth be told, he didn‟t like
being alone down here. It was okay with someone else, but
when alone his mind began to work at itself. Tom tried
looking at the clock on the wall, watching the second hand
move from twelve to twelve until he realized that Rich
shouldn‟t be taking so long.
He looked at the door and drew back. A corpse stood
in front of it, completely naked, its skin drained white, a gash
across its belly. Its chest sagged and a shriveled penis hung
uselessly. Something slammed hard against the ceiling and
Tom winced. Backing up he lost his feet and struck the hard
floor with his bottom. “Rich,” he said, and then screamed the
The lights flickered. The room was so small. Even all
the way across the room the corpse seemed like it could touch
him if it just reached out. “Rich!” Tom screamed again. The
lights went completely off and the walls closed in on Tom.
There wasn‟t enough air to breathe. His lungs burned. He
The lights flickered back on, but so dimly that large
portions of the room were cast in shadow. The corpse moved
forward, smiled, and then lurched into a dark corner of the
room so Tom lost sight of it.
Tom bolted for the door. He turned the handle, but it
was locked and his sweaty hand kept slipping on it. “Rich!
Somebody! Get me the fuck out of here!”
Tom felt close to blacking out. He couldn‟t breathe.
The shuffling sound was just behind him. Something brushed
against his shoulder. “Help!” he screamed at the top of his
Using his shirt he got a better hold on the knob, and it
turned. Impossible. It had been locked a moment before, but
it turned nonetheless.
Tom pulled the door toward him just wide enough to
throw himself through and then he went sprawling in the
Rich and three other employees stood over him,
laughing and pointing.
“You assholes,” said Tom. “There was something in
The four laughed louder. “What‟d you see, Tom? The
bogeyman?” said one of the employees. Tom stared hard at
him. He couldn‟t remember the guy‟s name but he wasn‟t
going to forget his face.
Tom got to his feet and stumbled down the hallway to
the stairs. He brushed past Brock, who was standing a ways
away from the other men and looking like he disapproved of
it all. When Tom got into the stairwell he took a seat on the
first step and concentrated on breathing.
In a moment the door opened and Rich joined him,
taking a seat next to him.
“That shit wasn‟t funny,” Tom said.
“It‟s just a little initiation ritual, Tom,” said Rich. “I
told you, you take all this stuff too seriously.”
Tom took out a vial of pills from his pocket and shook
one out, then swallowed it dry.
“What‟s that, Tom?”
“Just something for my nerves. How‟d you manage
that thing with the corpse in there, anyway?”
“What thing?” Rich looked genuinely surprised.
“The thing with the corpse. Making me think it was
going to attack me.”
“Tom, old buddy,” said Rich. “All we did was lock
you in the room.”
“Bullshit,” said Tom.
“Like I said before, you‟re losing it.”
The graveyard shift was a lot harder than Tom
thought it‟d be. The hours stretched out and out, and even the
most innocuous trappings of the place took on ominous tones
in the late hours of night.
As Tom walked down one of the endless hallways, he
rubbed his eyes, trying to blink away the hazy sheen blurring
Noise filled the hallway, a rumbling like a runaway
train barreling down on him from behind. Tom ignored it.
He‟d learned not to let the tricks his mind played on him get
Tom entered the store room and ignored the vibration
of the walls. The one good thing about the graveyard shift
was that it let him practice his art in peace. He pulled a body
from the freezer and got it on the table.
When Tom had worked through all his other
preparations on the body, he used a scalpel to puncture a hole
in the wrist. Perfect he thought, using his other hand to
squeeze open the hole and in the process cutting his hand
with the scalpel.
“Christ,” he said, and drew up his hand. A bright
splash of blood landed on the floor. The corpse‟s hand balled
into a fist as blood poured from the cut. “Shit,” said Tom.
I‟ve got to hold it together, he thought.
Taking slow, deep breaths, Tom went to the sink and
let water wash over his wound. He bandaged the wound,
hearing a door slam somewhere in the building. But he knew
he was the only one on the premises.
He drew air into lungs that didn‟t want to open for
him. “I can do this,” he said to the empty room. “Right, Mr.
Johnson?” he said to the corpse, and then wished he hadn‟t.
What if the thing‟s eyes opened?
We‟ll take care of you, he thought, and began slicing
down the center of the body. The corpse felt too warm. The
cadaver‟s face looked all too familiar. We‟re going to bring
what‟s inside out, he thought. So many sweetmeats inside,
but they‟re all coming out.
Steam rose from out of the wound, and the edges of
the wound drew wider of their own accord. Tom peeped
inside the hole, seeing the curls of intestines and the bars of
the man‟s ribcage. The intestines bubbled, releasing a terrible
smell. Juices seemed to be boiling inside, cooking, bloating,
swelling out of the hole. Tom used both hands to press the
intestines back inside, but his hands slipped in too deep, and
the intestines snaked around his wrists. He was up to his
elbows in gore and was getting pulled in, his face drawn
down almost to the corpse‟s chest. The man‟s eyes opened
and rotten breath was expelled into Tom‟s face.
Beneath his feet the floor split open and a searing heat
blasted up at him from below. A hand closed around his
ankle. Tom shook his foot, trying to dislodge the hand while
still fighting to be free of the man‟s intestines. “Fuck!” he
screamed, the room going black around him and the hand
threatening to crush his ankle, shattering the bones there.
When Tom opened his eyes all was as it should be.
There was no hole in the floor, no hand, no quicksand of guts
trying to swallow him whole.
“Don‟t do this, Tom,” he said to himself. “You‟ve
come too far.”
A voice spoke from behind him. “What‟s going on?”
Tom turned to see Hearse and Dr. Jackson.
“Something tried to pull me under,” said Tom before
he could stop himself.
Hearse looked at Tom severely. “Are you out of your
“You can‟t question the integrity of the job I‟m
doing,” said Tom, unable to stop himself, feeling as though
someone were speaking for him.
“Your job is on the line every time you open up a
body, Tom,” said Hearse.
“I put my heart and soul into this,” said Tom, and
laughed, knowing he sounded insane.
“Sometimes your heart and soul aren‟t enough, Tom.”
“Let‟s not be so hasty,” said Dr. Jackson kindly. “The
stresses of the job often manifest themselves in unusual
Tom wiped his face with his hand. “I‟m sorry. I guess
this place gets to me at night more than any other time.”
It was a while before Hearse spoke. “It gets to
everyone at first, Tom. Let‟s say you take a little break, get a
cup of coffee.”
“That‟s a good idea.”
“I stop by every so often to check up on things. You‟ll
have to keep that in mind.”
“Which is good,” said Dr. Jackson, “because I‟m
going on a little trip. I won‟t be here to help you anymore, but
I think you‟re ready.”
Tom wanted to plead with him to stay. He couldn‟t
just abandon him like this, not when he had so much still to
But all Tom said was, “I‟ll be okay, really.”
“Good,” said Hearse. “Now I have to get home and
get some sleep. Call me if there‟s any more trouble.”
“I will, sir.”
“See to it you do,” and with that, Hearse and Dr.
Jackson left the room, disappearing as if they‟d never been
there. Tom stared around the empty room, wondering if in
fact they really had been there.
I don‟t need coffee, thought Tom. I just have to get
back to work.
Tom did his best to ignore the sound of wood
splintering, of coffins being torn apart by angry hands. He
glanced up from the corpse to a black coffin leaning against
the wall in the corner of the room. He looked from corner to
empty corner, one, two, three, four, and then the fifth corner,
the one with the black coffin. A room can‟t have five corners,
he thought. Tom found a bone-cutting saw and approached
the coffin. You shouldn‟t be here, he thought.
Standing before the coffin, Tom took a deep breath.
He put his ear to the coffin‟s lid and could swear that
something scratched lightly at the inside. He placed his hand
to the lid and felt the slightest of vibrations.
Now or never. Tom braced himself and tried to swing
the lid open. It wouldn‟t budge. He slid his saw in the crack
along its edge and moved it up and down the length, prying
gently. “No reason you shouldn‟t open,” he said out loud.
Tom got his fingers in the crack and pulled, straining. “Open,
The muscles on Tom‟s arm ached as he pulled. Was
something holding it closed from inside? Tom groaned with
effort and the lid flew open, causing Tom to stumble back.
Darkness gaped within, and even when Tom should have
been falling on his rear a great vacuum opened and he flew
forward, smacking hard inside the coffin. The lid slammed
closed behind him and everything went back. He spun and
pushed with all his might, losing all composure and beating
with all his might at the lid, screaming.
Time stretched on and on and Tom felt he was falling,
falling forever inside his mind and this time he might never
see the light of day again. He began to weep.
Light assaulted him. The lid was open, a bright
doorway for him to step through, and beyond the doorway,
Tom stepped out, trying to compose himself, and Rich
stepped back, smiling his mean smile.
“What the hell are you doing in there?” said Rich.
“What the hell am I doing in there? What the hell are
you doing here?” Tom balled up his fists, wanting to smash
Rich in his smug face. “You did this. I know you did.”
First Hearse, now Rich, and Tom was supposed to be
all alone here.
“Hey, pal, I just walked in and heard the noise. You
ought to be glad I did, too. You would‟ve been stuck in there
The thought made Tom shudder.
“That doesn‟t explain why you‟re here, though.”
It was Rich‟s turn to look angry. “You‟re
unbelievable, you know that? You should be thanking me and
all you can do is accuse me of this shit. I ought to throw your
ass back in the coffin. And you know what? It‟s none of your
damn business why I‟m here. I come and go as I please, pal.”
Tom‟s shirt was soaked with sweat. He and Rich
stared at each other, and when Tom spoke, his tone softened.
“Something pushed me in there.”
“Maybe you need a break. Just don‟t take it out on
me. I‟m not the bad guy here, Tom. You‟ve got issues,
Sylvia sat on the couch with Daniel and Katie on
either side of her. A cartoon played on the television and Tom
could tell that Sylvia wasn‟t really watching, just staring
blankly with a bowl of popcorn on her lap as the kids‟ hands
went in and out of the bowl, spilling popcorn and messily
stuffing it into their mouths.
None of them saw that Tom was watching from the
doorway. More and more he felt like a ghost in his own
Katie looked away from the TV and up at Sylvia.
“Mommy, will Daddy bring dead people home?”
Daniel spoke up before Sylvia could snap back to
reality. “Daddy only works with dead people.”
“Stop it,” said Sylvia. “Daddy does office work.”
Tom hated her lying, always trying to protect the kids
from the truth.
“He says no one talks to him at his job,” said Katie.
“No, sweetie, there are other people there. He just
works alone a lot.”
“Are they alive?” asked Katie.
“Of course they are,” said Sylvia.
“Will they follow him home and scare us when we‟re
asleep?” said Katie.
“Stop it, Katie. Dead people can‟t do anything to
“So he does work with dead people, Mommy?”
“Yes, Katie,” said Daniel.
Sylvia looked frustrated.
“How come in the movies they come alive?” said
“What are you talking about?” asked Sylvia.
“We watched a horror movie at Aunt Laura‟s house.
The people came alive and scared everybody,” said Daniel.
“I‟ll have to talk to your aunt about that,” said Sylvia.
“But that‟s only in the movies. It‟s not real.”
“I‟m still closing my door real tight at night so the
dead people don‟t get in,” said Katie.
“I‟m not afraid,” said Daniel.
“There‟s nothing to be afraid of,” said Tom, startling
them all and making him feel like more of an outsider.
Rich sat in his car outside Tom‟s house, smoking a
cigarette and flicking his ashes out the window. He was
parked just far enough away to be inconspicuous, but he still
slumped down in his seat. The radio played a heavy-metal
song he didn‟t recognize. Time was he knew all the new
Rich took a long drag on his cigarette as he watched
Tom‟s car pull up to the house. Tom sat in his car for a good
five minutes before he got out. Rich was pretty sure Tom was
talking to himself. “You‟re definitely losing it, my friend,”
said Rich to himself, and when Tom finally got out of the car
and walked with slumped shoulders into his home, Rich
started his car and took off down the street.
Tom found Sylvia leafing through their bills. He was
happy enough to let her take care of those matters, even if it
did make him feel slight pangs of guilt. Shouldn‟t that be
something he took care of?
Tom walked to the window and opened it. “Was that
Rich‟s car pulling away?”
“Rich?” Sylvia asked, looking surprised—or at least
feigning surprise, Tom thought. “Why would he be out
“I don‟t know,” said Tom. He reached into his pocket
and took out the paycheck he‟d folded and stuffed there.
“Take a look at this. I told you things would be all right.”
Tom went to Sylvia and leaned over her, trying to kiss
her. Sylvia leaned back away from him. “Money isn‟t
Tom drew back. “It can‟t hurt, though, right?” He
picked up the cordless phone sitting on the table in front of
Sylvia. “I‟m going to enjoy this,” said Tom. He dialed their
landlord‟s number, and Mr. Williams picked up after three
rings. “Hey, it‟s Tom Sindler.”
“I hope you have good news,” said the voice on the
“As a matter of fact I do,” said Tom, feeling better
than he‟d felt in a long, long time.
Tom looked at his room with growing annoyance. The
bed was unmade, the sheets rumpled. One pillow was half
visible under the bedspread and the other pillow was nowhere
to be seen, presumably having fallen off onto the floor on the
other side of the bed. Toys were scattered about the carpet,
perfect for stepping on, always some sharp edge to make you
pull up your foot in pain. The hamper of clothes flowed over
its edges, teeming with dirty laundry.
Tom threw himself on the bed, trying not to think
about the mess. The odd hours were taking a toll on him.
Even if he were working midnight shift consistently he might
be able to establish some kind of sleep cycle, but his hours
kept shifting so even when he laid his head to the pillow—
dog tired—he often couldn‟t sleep. And too often the only
time his body would allow him to sleep was just before his
alarm was to go off and send him forward on another work
shift. But laying his head to the pillow always had its charms,
and all he wanted was a little quiet time so his mind could
drift on a quiet, slowly swelling sea.
“Aren‟t you going to shower?” Sylvia said.
“I took one before I left work,” Tom answered.
“Apparently you bathe in the chemicals then,” Sylvia
Tom could feel Sylvia‟s stare, but he squeezed his
eyes tighter and tried to ignore it. He didn‟t have the energy
to get up and shower, and Sylvia wasn‟t going to win this
battle. She waited him out longer than he expected, though,
but eventually she gave up with an exaggerated sigh and
crawled into the vacant side of the bed.
Tom peeped at her through squinted eyes. She had her
back to him, so he let his eyes open all the way, watching her.
He always thought she had a lovely back and wished she
weren‟t wearing a T-shirt. With the way she was breathing,
her body cavity swelling with each inhale, he‟d love to see
how her shoulder blades moved under her skin. He‟d like to
run a finger along the sea-serpent skeleton of her spine. He‟d
like to kiss the mole on her right shoulder blade.
She used to love his massages. He‟d warm a little
baby oil and she‟d strip naked for him, let him straddle her
bottom and drip oil on her back. The sight of all the skin,
glistening, always aroused him beyond end, and by the time
the massage ended they were both slick, slippery, skin hot,
breathing heavy, ready to make love.
Tom reached out a hand for her, hesitated, let it hover
over her back close enough that his fingertips could absorb
the warmth emanating from her even through the cotton of
But when he touched her, she flinched. She drew
away. She didn‟t have to say Get your hands off me.
Tom lay on his back. When he grew tired of staring at
the ceiling he closed his eyes. He tried counting backwards
from one hundred. He tried just letting his mind drift. He
tried imagining a white landscape with nothing but pure
whiteness stretching out for all of infinity. But nothing
worked. His mind wouldn‟t release its hold on wakefulness.
He couldn‟t even get to that point where he was half asleep,
and only half dreaming he was awake. He turned on his side.
He put the pillow under the crook of his arm and tried lying
on his stomach. Sylvia began to snore, blissfully asleep
moments after her head hit the pillow.
The elevator jerked. The lights went out.
Tom opened his eyes, gasping. He wasn‟t in the
elevator. He looked at his clock, only minutes past the last
time he checked. He had gotten to sleep, finally, only to have
a nightmare intrude before he could even enjoy it.
“Damn it,” he said out loud and immediately looked
over at Sylvia. She didn‟t alter her breathing, just continued
basking in her blessed dreamland. Tom swung his legs over
the side of the bed. He struggled to draw breath, but nothing
came. He slapped his chest with his hand, and then slapped it
again. Still nothing. His heart beat in his ears. It felt as though
his skin were shrinking, stretching tight over his skull,
threatening to split. His eyes bugged out. He could feel them
protruding from their sockets. He was going to explode. He
had to have breath, had to . . .
Scream. For help. Help. No, there was no help.
“Fuck!” The word rang in the room and Tom sucked wind
into his lungs. Had he really screamed? He gasped for breath,
drawing in more and more air after feeling close to passing
out from lack of it.
He clenched the carpet under his toes. It felt good,
relaxing. He continued to stroke it with his toes, and
something squeezed his foot with unbearable pressure. A
Tom looked over the edge of the bed at his feet. It was
no spasm. A hand had reached out from under the bed and
closed over his foot.
Tom tried to pull his foot free and the hand let it slide
through its grasp before closing on Tom‟s toe. The hand
wiggled the toe back and forth—this little piggy—and then
twisted with a cruel force. The toe snapped clean off. No
blood. It just snapped off like one of the Lego pieces his kids
The hand held the toe up, presumably for Tom to see,
to take a good long look, and then flicked the toe across the
room. The toe began to crawl, caterpillar-like, across the
carpet, and when it reached one of Tom‟s discarded shoes, it
slipped inside, and disappeared from sight.
“No!” Tom yelled. “Leave me alone! Leave me
Hands closed on his shoulders, so close to his neck.
“Leave me alone!” Tom screamed and twisted away
from the hands.
Sylvia drew back. “What‟s wrong with you?”
“Under the bed.”
Tom drew his feet up and pointed under the bed.
“There‟s someone under there.”
Sylvia looked up at the ceiling. “Jesus, Tom.”
“No, no, listen,” said Tom. “It took my . . .” Tom
looked at his foot, and his toes were all there. Somehow they
were all there.
Tom swiped a hand down his face and found he was
drenched in sweat.
“It . . .” Before Tom could finish his thought the lamp
on the nightstand by Sylvia‟s side of the bed began to rise. He
pointed at it.
She looked at the lamp as though nothing were
unusual about it hovering a foot over its usual perch.
“Grab it, Sylvia. Bring it down,” he said.
She looked from him to the lamp. She put both her
hands up as though trying to be reasonable. “Tom, you‟re
having a bad dream. You‟ve got to fucking chill.”
Morning eventually came. Tom sat in the kitchen,
smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. He had
always been the one insisting that they never smoke in the
house, but he knew Sylvia wouldn‟t care, and the kids were
still asleep. The smoke felt good, drawn deep into his lungs,
and the coffee was rich, creamy, just sweet enough. He didn‟t
want to think about what had happened last night. Would
Sylvia question his sanity? Would she think he ought to be
The refrigerator rumbled. Sometimes machinery made
strange noises. It could have been its internal ice maker, or
the cooling mechanism, or whatever the hell made up its
inner workings. He hated the damn thing. Sylvia had wanted
it, had insisted they buy the one hundreds of dollars beyond
what they could afford.
Tom stared at the fridge so long that it seemed to be
It had gotten closer. It usually only projected an inch
or so beyond the counter but it was sticking out into the room
at least a foot.
Tom heard it scraping against the floor. He thought
about the tile that Sylvia cared so much about and how the
fridge was scraping it, ruining it.
Someone shrieked in terror, and the shriek went on
and on. Tom looked over at the kettle spouting steam. So not
a shriek, just the kettle. He hadn‟t remembered turning it on.
“Sylvia,” Tom called.
As if on cue, she entered the kitchen, a towel wrapped
around her and another towel wrapped swami-like around her
Tom pointed toward the refrigerator, but it was
exactly where it should be. Sylvia looked at the fridge, took a
deep breath, and went to the stove to turn off the kettle.
“What‟s going on, Tom?” she asked, fixing him with
one of her severe, I-don‟t-want-any-shit-from-you-now
“The refrigerator moved,” said Tom.
Sylvia took another deep breath. “Honey, baby,”—she
wasn‟t using the words kindly—“the refrigerator‟s been
exactly where it‟s sitting ever since it was delivered to the
Tom tried to compose himself and speak in his most
reasonable tone. “I‟m telling you, I just saw it move. It was
moving right for me.”
“Maybe you‟re just really hungry, Tom,” said Sylvia,
crossing her arms over her chest and seeming quite proud of
“It‟s not funny,” said Tom. “It happened.”
“No, Tom, it isn‟t funny. It isn‟t funny at all. Like last
night wasn‟t funny.” Sylvia let the words sink in. “How much
of this shit am I supposed to put up with? You aren‟t right.
You just aren‟t.”
Tom felt the need to pull it together. He felt shamed,
not that he hadn‟t seen what he saw, but Sylvia wouldn‟t
believe him and he didn‟t want her to think he was crazy.
“Have you been taking your medication?” she asked.
Daniel and Katie entered the room. Tom and Sylvia
made eye contact and held it for a moment before Sylvia
broke off. “How about some milk?”
The children nodded but said nothing. They looked
worried, too old.
Tom took a last drag from his cigarette and stubbed it
out in the bowl he‟d grabbed for an ashtray.
“Call it quits,” he said.
Sylvia stopped, one hand holding milk and the other
hand holding open the refrigerator door. “What do you mean,
„call it quits‟?” she said.
“Quit your job,” said Tom. “Consider yesterday your
Sylvia stared at Tom for what seemed like a minute
“Tom, you‟ve barely started your new job.”
Anger built quickly inside him. Why did she have to
question him? Always make it out like he was about to fail
and everything about to fall apart? But he swallowed it. What
else was she supposed to think, after all? He‟d let her down
more than enough already. So he had to prove himself. And
“I know things have been tough,” he said. “But
everything‟s turning around now. I‟m going to take care of
“Yeah, I remember you saying that once before.”
“It‟s different this time, I swear. I‟m going to take
care of you. Hearse offered me a supervisory position.”
Sylvia looked down. She might actually be
considering what Tom had said. At least he had that little
glimmer of hope. But she wasn‟t ready to let it go just yet.
“Shouldn‟t we hold out a little?”
“I know what‟s best for us, baby. What‟s best for the
kids. Don‟t you want that?”
“Of course I do, Tom. But things aren‟t that clear
cut.” She squeezed one of her hands with the other. “I don‟t
like the idea.”
“You can spend more time with the kids,” said Tom.
“Like I don‟t now?” Sylvia asked. She turned her
back on Tom and began to scrub dishes that had accumulated
in the sink.
I‟m trying, thought Tom. For fuck‟s sake I‟m trying.
But he bit down on his anger. It wouldn‟t do any good. Not
with Sylvia. They were a long way from what they once had.
All the memories that came splashing back brought
out sweat on Tom‟s brow. He could feel it making his shirt
stick to his back. He got up and went to the fridge, which no
longer seemed imposing at all. Had it really moved? He
thought it had. He would have sworn it had. But he‟d been
Tom went to the refrigerator and only hesitated for a
moment in front of it. He didn‟t want Sylvia to think
anything. But still he almost flinched when he went to grab
the handle and pull the door open. The handle didn‟t burn.
The refrigerator didn‟t topple over on him or open up and
suck him inside. It just opened, revealing its contents.
Tom took a bottle out of the refrigerator. He turned it
upside down and let the clear, crisp, pure liquid pour into his
mouth. He swallowed and swallowed, trying to keep up with
the flow before his throat closed and he coughed it out.
When he drained the bottle he set it down on the
counter and got his coffee cup. Sylvia had busied herself
getting the kids cereal. Tom had tipped the coffee pot to refill
his cup when the phone rang. He looked at the phone and
then back at his cup and saw that his cup was full. But he
hadn‟t poured any. Steam rose arrogantly into the air.
“This is what I‟m talking about,” said Tom. “The cup
was empty and now it‟s full. I can‟t be dreaming everything.”
The phone rang. Sylvia sort of spasmed.
“I got it,” she said.
“Okay,” said Tom.
Sylvia picked up the phone. “Hello.”
Tom stared at her. She looked back at him with wide
“Hello,” she repeated.
Tom continued to stare at her as nothing was said.
The time stretched out too long. Who was on the other end?
Sylvia‟s eyes closed slightly. “Oh, Thelma. That was
fun. I hope we can do it again.” Her voice shook.
“Look, that sounds great. I‟ll call you later, okay?”
said Sylvia, and hung up the phone.
Sylvia turned away from Tom but he wouldn‟t release
her that easily.
“Isn‟t Thelma out of town?” Tom asked.
“She came back yesterday. She wants to go
shopping,” said Sylvia.
Tom nodded and got up, then left the kitchen.
Everything in the hospital was some shade of white,
from the walls to the clothing to the plates they served food
on to the glare of the teeth of the attendants. Tom had
remembered reading about Arctic explorers who went
snowblind, the sun glaring, glinting off all that terrible
whiteness. And the name: Shadduck Mental Hospital. It made
him think of shad. Weren‟t those fish eggs?
Doors shut and shut, always slamming shut. Those
loud bangs, startling. It always made one jump. Could almost
induce a heart attack. Wouldn‟t they like that?
Tom paced the room, and when he looked over and
saw Sylvia there he realized he‟d forgotten she was there.
Hold it together, he thought. Jesus, he was so close to getting
The door to the small room opened and the
psychiatrist walked in. She was of Russian descent. Just like
something I would have imagined, Tom thought. She was
tall, slim. Dressed all in white. She wore a lab coat over a
white skirt and blouse. Tom looked at her legs.
“You seem to have a problem with enclosed places,”
she said to Tom.
Tom watched as she sat and crossed her legs, her long
legs. The sound of her stockings brushing together drew him
in, fascinated, so he had to look up again quickly to avoid
“You‟re thirty-five years old, Tom,” she said.
He wanted to refute it, but then he realized she was
right—though he didn‟t feel that age. Tom drank from the tall
glass of water sitting next to him. He looked over at Sylvia
again. What would she have thought if she‟d seen him tearing
off down one of the corridors, screaming his lungs out. It
seemed like a different person, the memory like a movie he
watched. The three security guards had come rushing at him,
all muscle and no-nonsense stares. He tried to kick at one of
them and swing at another, but there were too many of them
and Tom was out of control. He remembered squirming on
the floor, held tight, their weight crushing him.
Sweat broke out all over him. Sylvia and the
psychiatrist gazed at him accusingly. Had they asked him a
“Tell us again about what makes you so afraid, Tom,”
said the psychiatrist.
“We‟ve been through this,” said Tom.
“It‟s important that you examine it from every
possible angle, Tom,” said the psychiatrist.
Tom took a deep breath, not wanting to begin but
doing so anyway. “I have a fear of elevators, small places,
enclosed areas. Even in the car, I feel like I have to drive with
the windows open. And it‟s the same at home.”
“We‟ve got the electric bills to prove it,” said Sylvia.
“And why do you think this is, Tom?” asked the
“I‟ve told you about the time I was trapped in an
elevator,” said Tom.
“And did you ever feel this way before the incident?”
asked the psychiatrist.
“No, I . . .” started Tom, but he realized it wasn‟t true.
“Wait, I think I did have some of those feelings, but they
weren‟t as bad.” Tom no longer saw the room around him.
He hadn‟t realized it before, but he had had those feelings. He
had buried them, refused to acknowledge they were there,
and the realization shocked him.
“Is it possible that the incident you remember wasn‟t
the first incident, Tom, that something similar happened in
your past, perhaps even as far back as your childhood?”
Tom hadn‟t thought about his childhood in a long,
long time. And when he did think about it, it was like
thinking of someone else‟s life. “I‟m not sure,” said Tom, but
there was something there, some hazy area that had opened in
his mind. He tried to see into it, to remember, but it eluded
“It would make sense, Tom, that you experienced
something equally, or maybe even more dramatic in your
childhood, and that the incident you remember reinforced
fears that you‟ve been carrying around with you all your life.
These fears could have lain dormant, just waiting for the
chance to surface.”
“My God,” said Tom. She could be right. He believed
she was right, even if he couldn‟t yet remember what had
happened. The floor seemed to have opened up into a great
yawning abyss into which he might plummet and plummet. “I
don‟t know how I could have forgotten …”
“It‟s very common, Tom,” said the psychiatrist. “This
could be a big breakthrough. As difficult as it‟s been for you,
we might actually have a chance to deal with this thing and
help you lead a normal life.”
“How long will it take to cure me?” asked Tom.
“There aren‟t any timetables for these things. It‟s
impossible to tell, but the important thing is that we continue
to make progress.”
Tom had only meant to enter the break room for a
quick soda and short breather, but once he sat down in one of
the chairs and put his head back, resting it against the wall,
his exhaustion and lack of sleep caught up with him. So
without meaning to, Tom quickly fell into a light doze.
Tom grasped at his neck. He couldn‟t breathe.
Something was caught in his throat. He had to expel it. Still
half asleep he panicked, realizing he could die choking right
there. His chest heaved once, twice, and then he spat the
obstruction from his mouth onto the table. He looked at it
dumbly for a few moments before realizing it was a piece of
ice. How had that gotten in his mouth?
Rich shook a cup of ice and laughed. “Sorry, Tom.
You just looked so ridiculous taking a nap there with your
mouth hanging open, I thought a little ice would cool you
“You stuck that in my mouth?” said Tom.
“Relax, buddy. It was just a little joke.”
“I almost choked on the damn thing,” said Tom.
“No way. I know the Heimlich, buddy. I would never
let that happen.”
Rich picked up a section of newspaper lying on the
table in front of Tom and crumpled up a sheet into a tight
ball. He shot it basketball-style toward a trash can at the other
end of the room, exclaiming “Jordan!” as it left his hand.
He missed badly.
“Not even in your dreams,” said Tom.
“Oh, yeah,” said Rich, crumpling up another ball.
“Check this out.” Rich juked left and right. “Three, two, one .
. .” He pulled up and shot. “Jordan!”
Tom watched the arc of the newspaper ball,
disappointed to see it strike its target.
“You see, Tom. I never miss,” said Rich. “How much
break time you got left?”
“I‟ll get back to work as soon as I get some rest in
fucking peace,” said Tom.
“No, no,” said Rich. “Resting in peace is for the dead.
Hard work is what you came here to do.”
“Like you know anything about that,” Tom muttered.
Rich just smiled.
“You know what I can‟t understand?” asked Tom.
“Women. It doesn‟t matter what you do. You can‟t
“It‟s a fact of life, Tom. They always want more.”
“You know,” said Tom, “before I got laid off, I
worked a ton of overtime, fifteen, twenty extra hours a week,
and my paycheck showed it. Not that I saw much of it. Sylvia
did the best she could to spend every cent. Movies, shopping,
dinners out. It was like she hated the idea of saving anything,
like that idea offended her somehow. But I went along with
whatever she wanted so I could make her happy.”
“That‟s the way it works, buddy. You ain‟t the first
guy singing this tune.”
“Yeah, but, you know what, now I can‟t even get sex
from her. She‟s complaining that she‟s stressed out because
of our financial situation and everything else and that I can
get some when I bring home some money.”
“That‟s just women for you. They‟re all the same.”
Tom hated saying anything to Rich, but he had to get
it off his chest.
“Just think how good it will feel after not getting it for
a while,” said Rich. “It‟ll be like the first time all over again.”
“Yeah, well, my first time was nothing to write home
about,” said Tom.
“Speak for yourself, pal,” said Rich. “I have to meet
with Hearse. See you in a few.”
Rich entered Hearse‟s office, slightly afraid that he
might be getting fired. Hearse never had much use for him
and didn‟t seem likely to be calling him in for a promotion. It
doesn‟t matter, though, thought Rich. Worse comes to worse,
I can land a job as good or better than this before anybody
can say boo.
“I want to thank you for referring Tom,” said Hearse.
“He‟s doing an excellent job.”
Rich smiled. Fucking great, he thought.
“I‟m considering giving him the supervisor position,”
continued Hearse. “What do you think about that?”
Rich‟s smile felt more and more forced. Easy, buddy,
he thought. Be cool. You‟ve got to play this right. “I don‟t
know,” he said thoughtfully, as though weighing something
heavy. “I work just as hard as Tom and I‟ve been here
“Tom has certain intangible qualities. I like his style.”
Rich wanted to spit his resentment right in Hearse‟s
face. “I‟m just not sure what he offers that I don‟t.”
“I didn‟t call you in here to argue, Rich. I thought
you‟d be happy for your friend. You both do excellent work,
but I think Tom shows more initiative. Take it as a learning
“I‟ll do that,” said Rich.
“Excellent,” said Hearse. “Now do me a favor. Tell
Tom to embalm number nine, okay?”
“You got it,” said Rich.
The lights flickered when Tom entered the room. The
electrical system here stinks, Tom said to himself, mostly to
calm his nerves. He had pushed the door to the wall, where it
usually caught and stayed open, but he heard it close behind
him and twitched with apprehension. Tom quickly reopened
the door and got it to stay open. As Rich sped into the room,
they came face to face, almost colliding.
“There you are,” said Rich. “I‟ve got a message from
“What‟s that?” asked Tom.
“He said to embalm number six for the showcase.”
“Got it,” said Tom.
“Between you and me?” said Rich.
“Sure,” said Tom.
“I‟m not sure he‟s all that happy with your
“Why do you say that?” asked Tom defensively.
“It‟s just a feeling I got, but it could be nothing. It‟s
probably no big deal.”
Tom walked over to the sink and pulled the pill bottle
from his pocket. He shook out two pills and popped them in
his mouth, then turned on the faucet, cupped his hands, and
brought enough water to his mouth to swallow the pills.
Rich smiled triumphantly behind him. “Don‟t sweat
it, pal. Seriously, I probably imagined the whole thing.”
“Yeah,” said Tom, his back still to Rich.
“Well, buddy, it‟s hammer time. Got to do some of
that manual labor you hate so much.”
Tom heard Rich leave the room, but he didn‟t so
much as look after him. I can‟t worry about anything Rich
says, thought Tom. I‟ve got a job to do.
Tom opened door number six and pulled a corpse
from the wall. The sound of rhythmic pounding seemed to
match Tom‟s heartbeat. Rich and his damn hammer, thought
Tom. That‟s about all he‟s good for: pounding nails.
Tom got the corpse onto the cart and began work. He
didn‟t like working on the men—not that he enjoyed working
on the women, exactly, but the men made him more uneasy
with their sad, shriveled penises. They seemed so exposed,
and Tom always had the same thought: That‟ll be me
The body‟s stomach felt bloated as Tom ran his hand
over it. He passed a finger along the incision bisecting the
stomach, and his thoughts went fuzzy. The room seemed
completely without air and Tom caught himself just before
passing out, but not before slipping forward and causing his
hand to slide into the pocket made in the man‟s belly.
“Shit,” said Tom.
He pulled his hand, but found it stuck. It was warm
inside the body, warmer than it should be. And it felt almost
like the man‟s insides were bubbling, fermenting. Some
stench rose from the wound. Tom pulled harder, not wanting
to tear the man completely open, but getting desperate. It felt
almost as though the man‟s belly had pulled back at him. This
time Tom yanked with all his strength, uncaring what he did
to the man. His hand slipped out with no resistance
whatsoever, and Tom went spilling backwards, pinwheeling
his arms to keep balance and backpedaling all the way to the
Tom didn‟t move. What had just happened?
He approached the corpse. The wound puckered out,
looking vaguely like a woman‟s sex organ, like the edges of
the wound were lips puffing out with infection.
Tom looked at the man‟s face and drew back. At first
he thought the man to be winking at him, but then he realized
one of the eyes had gone missing, leaving an empty crater.
Tom stepped back.
The corpse rolled onto its side and reached out for
Tom. The remaining eye seemed to fix him, though it was
glazed over with cataracts, and something glinted in the
other, ruined socket.
The body continued to roll, coming off the edge of the
cart, and Tom, despite his fear, stepped forward as though he
might try to catch it, to prevent it from spilling onto the floor.
But he couldn‟t. He wouldn‟t touch that abomination. Not
When it hit the cold, hard floor the thing made a
sickening plop, as though something had burst within it and
spilled out syrupy, rotting fluids.
“No,” said Tom.
The pounding continued, louder, beating through the
walls, louder and louder. Tom could feel the vibrations of the
pounding in his chest, like bass at a heavy-metal show,
thumping, thumping. Powder drifted down from the ceiling.
If that pounding continued the whole place was going to
shake apart, thought Tom.
The corpse reached out one arm, then the other. In
something like a swimming motion, it began to crawl toward
Tom, its head held up at an awkward angle so the cloudy eye
could keep Tom in its sights.
Tom felt the wall behind him move, and he had to
step forward, toward the corpse.
All the other walls moved too, closing in. The floor
rose. The ceiling came pressing down. Tom imagined the
room reduced to a little cube and he and the corpse pressed
into a gory dripping puzzle box at its center.
Tom rushed for the door. Closed. Fucking Rich. He
pulled and twisted at the handle, his sweaty hands slipping
over it. “Open!” Tom looked back and the corpse was on
him. Its hand closed on his ankle. It squeezed with unbearable
pressure, close to snapping bone.
The door flew open and Tom was out of the room,
running, furious, blaming Rich and scared out of his mind.
Before he could think better of it he burst into
Hearse‟s office, stopping short, looking anything but
Hearse had the phone to his ear and looked up, not the
least startled. He held up a finger as if to say, Just a moment.
Tom struggled to catch his breath, to slow his
thoughts. He wished he hadn‟t come here. What was he going
“One case of formaldehyde fluid and one case of
sawdust. That‟s right. Thanks,” said Hearse. He hung up the
“You‟ve looked better, Tom,” said Hearse.
“Something bad happened . . .” Tom couldn‟t stop
himself. He knew he should make up something, some
excuse for being there. The one thing he couldn‟t do was tell
Hearse some insane story, but it swept back over him. It had
happened. He hadn‟t imagined it.
“What happened, Tom? Take your time. Catch your
breath.” Hearse smiled that knowing, mocking smile.
Tom rode the wave of insanity. He had that feeling of
letting it all ride, of just going with the tide and letting
matters take their course. “I was in the embalming room. The
body wasn‟t dead. It came for me. It did. I saw it move. It
rolled onto the floor and came for me. And then the walls
started to close in. Not like it felt that way; they were actually
closing in. I just got out in time. Something happened down
there, I‟m telling you.”
“Tom, I have to assume this is some elaborate joke,”
“I wish it was.”
“Tom, let‟s be reasonable. I know you‟ve been
working hard and these hours can take their toll on anyone.
It‟s just a matter of being overwhelmed. It happens to the best
“You don‟t understand,” said Tom. “You have to talk
to Rich. He‟s the one who keeps pulling these pranks on me.
First he locked me in a coffin and now this. I don‟t know how
he did it but . . .”
Hearse put up his hands in a conciliatory gesture.
“Tom, I don‟t want you to throw away all your hard work on
one flight of fancy. Have a seat.”
Tom didn‟t move.
“I mean it, have a seat,” said Hearse.
Tom sat in the chair in front of Hearse‟s desk. Hearse
got up and went to the window, turning his back on Tom.
Tom felt relief. Without Hearse‟s eyes on him he
could let his thoughts settle. Tom took long, slow breaths.
“Should we go down and take a look?” asked Hearse.
Tom wasn‟t sure he ever wanted to go into the
basement again, but he knew he must. He braced himself.
“I‟d like it if we could,” he said.
Tom stood up. Hearse turned from the window and
came around the desk, putting his hand on Tom‟s shoulder.
“Let‟s go take a look and then put this whole thing behind us.
Everyone should get at least one mulligan.”
Tom smiled. “I appreciate it, sir.”
In the embalming room, the corpse lay on the table,
two eyes intact, and everything else in the room appeared as
Hearse and Tom looked around the room, not saying
anything. Tom realized Hearse was giving him the chance to
“I guess maybe I do need more rest, sir. I haven‟t
been sleeping well.”
“Everybody has trouble adjusting, Tom. You just
need to take care of yourself. I still believe in you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Hearse walked over to the body. “My more pressing
concern is that Rich has been preventing you from doing your
job. A little hazing is natural with new employees, but if he
continues to cross a line, let me know immediately. We can‟t
have that in the workplace.”
“I will,” said Tom.
Hearse pulled up the tag attached to the corpse‟s big
toe and squinted at the tag. “What‟s this?” he asked.
“Rich told me that you said to embalm number six,”
“I need number nine. I guess Rich made a mistake.”
From his tone, Tom knew that Hearse suspected Rich
of deliberately giving Tom bad information. Tom smiled. He
wasn‟t going to let Rich screw up everything for him.
After Hearse left, Tom got back to work—this time on
the right body.
Tom realized he had come close to throwing
everything he‟d worked for right in the Dumpster. And he‟d
almost let Rich push him into it. But it wasn‟t Rich‟s fault.
He was just being Rich. Tom had to take care of his own
business. He had to stay focused.
At last the day came to an end. Tom went into the
changing room and peeled off his protective garments. He
threw them into the laundry bin and showered, taking extra
care to scrub thoroughly. He rubbed the soap over his body
with the force of embarrassment because Sylvia claimed he
came back stinking of chemicals. Maybe he couldn‟t wash it
all away, or maybe Sylvia only imagined that he smelled of
the chemicals. Maybe there was nothing he could really do.
But still he scrubbed and scrubbed. He wanted everything to
be good between them.
Tom sat on the couch in the living room. He stared at
the television, though it wasn‟t on. He was enjoying the quiet.
Tom could hear the sound of the refrigerator humming in the
next room. It cut on and off occasionally. The sound of it
soothed him. Each time he was about to drift off it either cut
on or shut off, but not in a jarring way, more like it gently
stroked his thoughts, relaxing him.
Thunder sounded within the house. The ceiling
cracked. But no, not thunder, the refrigerator. It had only
been pretending to be operating, and it had fooled him, all
right. The thing had to be fixed.
Tom went into the kitchen and faced off with the
fridge. All the damn thing had to do was stay cold, keep the
food from rotting. Let that happen inside our bodies, he
thought. Everything that goes in subjected to the same acids,
the same chemicals, breaking everything down. Food in our
bodies just like our bodies in the grave. Everything breaking
Tom‟s head snapped up to the ceiling. Something
upstairs. He climbed the stairs and as his head met floor level
he saw a mouse scurry down the hall and disappear.
Something else I have to take care of, Tom thought.
Tom walked down the hall, attempting silence. He
placed his foot before him lightly and only gradually shifted
his weight onto it. Still, the floorboard screamed under his
foot. And the scream turned into a moan as he brought his
other foot forward. And that foot too was met by a scream
and a moan.
The walls seemed to vibrate.
A door slammed shut, and the sound of wood on
wood echoed through the hall.
Tom blinked. Had the door really banged shut, or was
it already closed?
Tom heard wind chimes tinkling from somewhere
outside, the sound like filthy-faced faeries laughing, laughing.
Tom went to the door and grasped the handle. It
wouldn‟t turn. The sound of laughter grew louder, and some
other sound came through the door. He knew the sound. Tom
He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he still
“The lights,” said Tom. He felt his way downstairs.
There was no storm, and he didn‟t remember seeing
construction in the area, nothing to cut a line, but it didn‟t
matter. He just had to take care of this like all the other
problems. One foot in front of the other.
He got downstairs and found the utility closet. He
tried to picture where the flashlight was, but he couldn‟t
dredge the image from memory. He remembered the lighter
in his pocket, though. “There‟s always a way,” he said.
Tom hesitated, afraid the flame would reveal a face
staring back at him.
He flicked the lighter and drew back. It wasn‟t a head
stuck on a stake. It was just a mop propped up in the closet.
Tom had to reach past it to get the flashlight, and he switched
it on just as the metal of the lighter began to burn his fingers.
In the basement, bugs scattered from the glare of the
flashlight beam as Tom made his way to the circuit breaker.
This is it, he thought, the nerve center of the house. Why was
Two days passed with no other problems with the
electricity. Tom wanted nothing more than to get to bed. He
barely knew whether it was day or night.
Night, he thought, remembering the sweep of his
headlights over the road.
Rich and Sylvia sat on the couch in the living room,
sharing some joke.
“Hey, Tom, why don‟t you grab a brew and join us?”
said Rich, brandishing a beer—one of Tom‟s beers.
“It‟s awful late to be visiting,” said Tom.
“Is it?” said Rich, looking at his watch. “I guess I lost
track of time.”
“I bet you did,” said Tom.
“Let me guess,” said Rich. “You‟re pissed off about
work. You think I‟m out to get you.”
“Every time there‟s a mishap, you‟re right there.”
“What happened in the embalming room, Tom?”
Tom had anticipated that Rich would try to turn things
around on him. “I was trying to prepare a body when the
walls started closing in. I had to fight my way out. If I‟d
stayed a minute longer, I‟d be dead.”
“You sure it wasn‟t your imagination?” said Rich.
“You know how crazy that sounds?” said Sylvia.
“I know what happened,” said Tom. “The room went
like this.” Tom held his hands apart and brought them slowly
together, watching them with great concentration.
Rich took a long pull on his beer.
Sylvia made eye contact with Rich.
Tom went to the window and opened it, breathing in
the chill night air. He could feel the two of them staring at his
No cars passed on the street, but a shadow crossed the
lawn. Tom looked up out the window at the sky, thinking it a
Tom turned and put a hand to his chest. His shirt was
drenched in sweat. The room was suddenly unbearable,
“Aren‟t you hot?” Tom asked in the direction of Rich
and Sylvia. They looked cool and collected, as though they
existed in a different reality.
“Try turning the heat down if you‟re so hot,” said
“Oh, please,” Sylvia complained. “Tom fools with the
damn thermostat enough as it is.”
Tom pinched his shirt and drew the material away
from his skin, flapping the shirt to alleviate the heat built up
there. Tom shook his head and fled to the kitchen, where he
grabbed a water bottle. Not wanting to leave Rich and Sylvia
alone, he strode back into the living room and only then
shook out a pill. He popped it in his mouth and guzzled
“Anything I can do?” asked Rich.
As if you care, thought Tom. Always mocking. But
maybe Tom was being unfair. He always thought people were
mocking him. Were the pills making him paranoid? The thing
with the room closing in on him—Tom thought maybe he had
only imagined telling Sylvia and Rich about that just now. He
enjoyed rehearsing scenarios in his mind, and sometimes his
memory played tricks on him even as those memories were
“I‟m fine, I‟m fine,” Tom reassured. “You know
when Hearse said the place had unsettling sounds? He wasn‟t
“I‟ve been in and out of those rooms a thousand times
and never experienced anything strange,” said Rich, and
looked at Sylvia as though he couldn‟t for the life of him
imagine what Tom might be talking about.
“See you tomorrow, Rich,” said Tom.
Tom hated the freezer room. It was as though he were
a stick of butter stuck in his fridge at home. That‟s a strange
thought, thought Tom.
In full gear, Tom entered the room. He struggled to
get the body on the stretcher. Some were moved easier than
others. Some he could swear stiffened up and shifted their
weight just to thwart his efforts, while others seemed almost
to throw themselves onto the stretcher for him.
Tom felt a blast of cold air through his protective suit
and looked around helplessly as the walls shook.
Don‟t let it get to you, he thought. Just do your job.
Do what comes next.
Tom wheeled the body into the hall, passing the coffin
room. There he saw Rich lining a coffin. Rich closed the lid
and hammered a cross in place on top of it. Rich looked up
and smiled, taking a rag and shining the cross.
In the prep room, Tom stared blankly at the body as
the minutes passed. He breathed in and out, concentrating on
nothing but the feel of air passing into and out of his lungs.
Tom set himself in motion. He held the scalpel in
front of him, admiring the glint of light on the blade. Tom
began to slice.
The organs slipped out, each no longer useful, but
once so vital. Some bloated. Some leaking. Tom sprayed the
organs. Such marvelous chemicals to treat and disinfect. Tom
thought of his pills, his very own chemical treatment. As Tom
placed the organs in the canopic jars he wondered whether
there was a place for him. It didn‟t seem that way anymore.
Tom jammed the bronze rod up the corpse‟s nostril
and through the ethmoid bone in the cranium. He extracted
the brain, feeling a pang of sympathy. Just as well, though, he
thought, never to be bothered by nightmares again.
Tom held the needle, a hose trailing from it to the
preservative machine, ready to inject formaldehyde. He
closed his eyes and patted the corpse‟s stomach. He brought
the needle to bear, sliding it in. Tom grimaced. He could feel
the pain of it, even if the corpse was beyond it. Tom was
almost jealous—if he could have preserved himself as a
younger man, everything could have been different.
The machine switched on, pumping fluid. Tom‟s eyes
sprung open as pain spread from his hand up his arm and
throughout his body. Tom could almost disbelieve the sight
of the needle sticking out of his hand. What had he done?
A purple circle appeared around the silver needle. The
skin ballooned up around the needle and looked as though it
would burst in a blistery spray of pus, but the fluid pushed up
his arm, leaving a map-like highway line behind it.
Tom could feel it traveling in him, to his neck, up into
his brain—and then down into his chest. It settled in his gut
and he clenched his ass cheeks together. The sudden need to
release the fluid in a hot spray of diarrhea had Tom bent
The fluid shriveled every cell it contacted, the
chemicals eliminating everything he was. The lights above
him burned brightly, driving away every other color and even
the very thought of color.
Hearse walked into the break room. At one of the
tables Brock worked on a crossword puzzle.
Hearse approached Brock and waited for him to look
Without taking his eyes off the puzzle, Brock said,
“Seven-letter word for „A stiff.‟”
Hearse thought for a moment. “Try cadaver,” he said.
Brock frowned and nodded. “Very nice. I guess that‟s
why you‟re the boss-man.”
Hearse smiled. Despite their respective positions,
even Hearse was aware that Brock doled out compliments
only on the rarest of occasions. “Brock, you know what goes
on around here as well as anyone.”
“I keep my ears open and my mouth shut,” said
“I know you do. Let me get right to the point. There‟s
been some tension between Tom and Rich. Do you think it‟s
anything to worry about?”
Brock pushed his puzzle away slowly enough to make
it clear that Hearse was consuming some of the man‟s
valuable time. “Rich likes to haze the new guys, you know.
But he‟s been harder than usual on Tom. Some might say
he‟s taken it too far.”
“What about outside of work? I‟ve heard that Rich is
friendly with both Tom and, um, Tom‟s wife?”
Brock smiled. “Are you trying to suggest something,
“Let‟s just say I‟m wondering out loud. Do you think
that‟s something I should be wondering about?”
An explosion startled Hearse into snapping his head
around and exclaiming, “What the?”
Brock looked toward the break-room door. “Tom.”
“Come on,” said Hearse. “We better see what the hell
Brock entered the room ahead of Hearse. A corpse
that appeared to have been sitting up fell back to a prone
position on the cart. Brock stepped closer. The stitches in the
corpse popped open, one by one by one.
Hearse moved past Brock to where Tom lay on the
“Tom, Tom?” said Hearse.
Hearse shook Tom, but there was no response. Hearse
pulled Tom‟s mask off and put a hand to his cheek. “He‟s
Tom‟s lips twitched, looking dry, ready to split.
Hearse leaned in closer.
“I‟ll call for help from the hall,” said Brock.
“Hurry,” said Hearse. “I don‟t think he‟s breathing.”
The emergency medical technician fixed the brace
around Tom‟s neck and placed a ventilator over his mouth.
Even when Hearse followed the man and woman
carrying Tom to the ambulance Hearse still couldn‟t see any
response from Tom, not a flutter of the eye—even when Tom
was loaded into the ambulance.
Medical personnel flew down the corridors of the
At the nurse‟s station, one of the nurses tried to
organize the papers scattered about, but she stopped and
looked around helplessly, overwhelmed by the chaos. What
have I gotten myself into? she thought.
A short distance from the desk, looking much calmer,
oblivious even, a nursing technician folded sheets and towels
onto a cart.
A young guy who most of the female nurses thought
was cute—but would never date—rolled a supply cart down
“Hello, Dr. Silver,” said the frazzled girl at the nurse‟s
station. Despite their age difference—Sarah was twenty-five
and the doctor was obviously in his forties, with gray flecks
in his hair and goatee—and despite the doctor‟s ridiculous
dress—he wore camouflage pants and a blue-and-white
striped shirt—Sarah felt something for the man. He always
seemed so in control, so unflappable.
The Med-Control phone burst into life, startling
Sarah, even amongst all the confusion. Dr. Silver raised an
eyebrow and listened.
“This is Fallon ambulance. We‟re five minutes away
with a thirty-five-year-old white male—pulse fifty, heartbeat
irregular, blood pressure one-twelve over fifty-four.
Temperature one-oh-five. Copy.”
Sarah picked up the C-Med phone. She hated this
part. She always felt like a fraud. “Fallon, we copy. We‟re
awaiting your arrival.”
Dr. Silver made eye contact with Sarah for the briefest
of moments as she put down the phone. “Page respiratory,
ASAP,” he said.
The technicians wheeled Tom into the hospital, still
working feverishly on him.
Tom‟s cart entered the trauma room and the hospital
staff converged on him, cutting at his clothes.
“Oxygen,” shouted Dr. Silver. “Philip, take over on
Philip moved into position. He knew what people
thought when they saw his large frame. Just the day before he
had heard someone say “fatass” as he passed on the street—
but he moved with a kind of grace and did his job well.
“We‟ve got to open an airway,” said Dr. Silver, a
finger on Tom‟s throat.
The EKG machine was attached to Tom‟s chest.
Tom‟s heartbeat showed up as too straight a line on the
“Get his blood to the lab STAT!” someone shouted.
“It‟s a coded patient!”
Philip slammed a fist against Tom‟s chest.
A nurse sprayed lubricant over Tom‟s upper body.
Dr. Silver raised two paddles into the air.
Tom‟s chest looked vulnerable, too exposed.
“All clear,” yelled Dr. Silver. In truth, he loved this
moment, the drama, the point where life and death hung in
the balance. And he literally held that power in his hands, Dr.
Frankenstein channeling the fire of heaven into mere flesh
“One,” said Dr. Silver.
One of the nurses, a redhead, lifted her eyes from the
patient and looked at, no, beheld, Dr. Silver.
Dr. Silver could hear the intake of breath around him.
“Three,” said Dr. Silver. He placed the paddles on
Tom‟s chest. Tom‟s body leaped off the cart.
A flat line showed on the EKG.
Dr. Silver looked at the machine as though offended
by its arrogance.
“Let‟s hit him again,” he said.
This was the point that Dr. Silver really savored,
when it was the force of his will more than anything else that
brought a patient back.
The paddles were again pressed to Tom‟s chest, the
lubricant squishing out beneath them.
Tom‟s back arched to a spine-snapping degree.
Every head but Tom‟s turned toward the machine.
The line jumped, dipped, and jumped again.
“We‟ve got a pulse. We‟ve got a pulse,” said Dr.
Silver, looking at every face but the patient‟s.
Tom‟s chest rose and fell.
“Just give me five minutes,” Sylvia snapped at the
kids. I just need a second to think, she thought. “Where the
hell is Tom?” she said, not caring if the kids heard. She
couldn‟t take this much longer. Things had been bad enough,
but for Tom to not even show was beyond all. He‟d have hell
to pay for this.
The phone rang.
Sylvia picked it up. “Hello,” she said, hoping it was
Tom, hoping she could unload on him.
Sylvia‟s lips curled and her head tilted to the side as
“Oh my God,” Sylvia said, deflating. “Is he all right?”
She listened but was too shocked to understand what
was being told to her.
“I‟ll be right there,” she said.
Sylvia hung up the phone and dialed again. She
listened and hung up.
“Shit, I don‟t have any choice.”
Sylvia dialed again.
She pursed her lips, and when she opened her mouth
she spoke quickly. “Rich, Thelma is out of town. And the
hospital called. Something happened to Tom. I need a ride.
Sylvia heard Rich let himself in. She stood in the
kitchen. The counter bit into her back.
Rich entered the room and started to go to her, arms
opening, but her look froze him.
“Is he okay?” Rich asked. “Are you all right?”
“Were you there when it happened?”
They stared across the linoleum at each other, trying
to read each‟s intentions. Sylvia dropped her head, relenting.
Rich went to her as though whatever force had held
him at bay had evaporated and allowed him to spill forward
and break all over her.
He took her in his arms. “I had to take care of some
business,” he said.
Rich rubbed Sylvia‟s back, her lungs expanding and
shrinking under his hand.
“If something happens to Tom,” said Sylvia into his
shoulder, “I don‟t know what will happen to me . . . and the
“I‟m here for you,” said Rich. “For you and the kids.
Don‟t worry. I always take care of everything.”
Rich touched her chin, directing her gaze up into his.
He moved his lips into the path of her breath and kissed her.
On his wrist, his watch could be heard ticking.
“We better get going,” said Rich, and kissed her
Sylvia shook her head as she looked down at Tom.
The hospital sheet pulled halfway up him, Tom looked almost
insubstantial, almost as though his body had been disposed of
and only the head and shoulders left to placate the family. A
tube ran out of Tom‟s nose, and a monitor was taped to his
finger, an IV stuck in his arm.
Tom‟s eyes opened. For a moment he stared at the
ceiling, focusing. His eyes moved to Sylvia and they went a
little glazed, as though remembering the very first time he
ever laid eyes on her. The he looked past her at Rich, and his
eyes lost that glaze.
“Am I dead?” he asked. I don‟t even have a will, he
Sylvia looked at Rich and then back at Tom.
“You‟re in the hospital, Tom.”
Tom blinked, either confused or not fully awake. “I
don‟t know what happened,” he said. “I remember reaching
for the injection needle, and that‟s it.”
Rich stepped forward. “I‟m here if you need anything,
“You can stop trying to take my life away.”
“Hey, I wasn‟t anywhere near you when this
Tom‟s eyes grew larger, seeming to draw Rich‟s eyes
into them. “I don‟t buy it,” said Tom. “I felt your hand.”
Rich smiled. “I don‟t know what‟s going on inside
that head of yours, Tom, but I wasn‟t there.”
“Why didn‟t Thelma bring you?” Tom asked Sylvia
without unlocking eyes with Rich.
Sylvia squeezed Tom‟s hand. “It‟s not the time, Tom.
The only thing that matters is that you get better.”
Dr. Silver entered the room. “I see the patient is
“Did you get the fluid out of me?” Tom asked. The
memory came of the horrid stuff filling him, how it burned
“The fluid . . .” said the doctor.
“The embalming fluid,” said Tom. “I don‟t know how
much got pumped into me, but it was a lot.”
Dr. Silver drew a breath and raised a hand, as if
reassuring. “You weren‟t injected with any embalming fluid,
Tom. It looks as though somehow you did stab yourself with
the needle, but you didn‟t inject yourself with anything. You
had a panic attack. You shut down, but in a sense, Tom, it
was your own mind that caused the trauma.”
Rich winked at Lolita without breaking stride. “The
boss is waiting for me,” he said with what he hoped was a
Hearse didn‟t look up when Rich entered. He typed
something into his computer, and when satisfied, he
“Have you talked to Tom?” asked Hearse.
“Not since I saw him at the hospital. I gave his wife a
ride there.” The last thing Rich wanted to do was talk about
Tom. “I understand he‟s off for a few days.”
“That‟s right,” said Hearse.
Rich smiled, irritated.
“Before this incident, Tom intimated that you‟d been
interfering with his work.”
“Other men have confirmed it, Rich.”
Rich smiled again and bobbed his head. “We always
haze the new guys a bit. It‟s part of the initiation. I guess you
could say it helps us bond and form a close team. No one‟s
ever had a problem with it before. Maybe Tom is just a little
too skittish for this work.”
“I hear you‟ve been harder on him than on anyone
else who‟s come through here.”
Rich looked at the ceiling as if thinking. “No, I
wouldn‟t say that.”
“It stops now, Rich. If I even suspect you‟re
interfering with his work, I‟ll suspend you without giving it a
Rich‟s smile evaporated.
“Are we clear?” asked Hearse.
“Yes, sir,” said Rich, bitterness‟s undo emphasis
making the word “sir” stretch out like the whine of a buzz
saw. “So Tom just comes back to work as though nothing
“I haven‟t decided what to do about Tom,” said
Two days passed in which Tom did little. He had
trouble concentrating, and when he looked at Sylvia or the
kids, it was as though they took a moment to recognize him—
and sometimes they looked right through him like he wasn‟t
even there. He felt like a ghost in his own home. He needed
to get back to work.
Tom stood outside the door to Hearse‟s office. He
could hear a faint murmuring inside. He turned his head to
hear better, tempted to press his ear to the door.
“Are you going to go in?” asked Lolita. Tom winced
at the condescension in her voice. Did her tone indicate
“Just go in already,” said Lolita.
Tom swallowed and opened the door. Hearse manned
his usual place behind his desk. Tom saw the back of Rich‟s
and Brock‟s heads, but neither turned to acknowledge him.
“Sit down, Tom.”
Tom sat between Rich and Brock.
“It‟s all about teamwork and success, gentlemen,”
said Hearse. “And sometimes, it‟s all about housekeeping.
The stock room needs to be organized at all times. A place
for everything, everything in its place. Canopic jars must be
sealed and marked with corpse‟s name, number, date, and
time. Waste baskets are now located at every station,
including the show room. If you‟re not sure of any of the
processes, use my library to refresh your memory. The fall
schedule is complete and copies are going out with pay stubs
Friday. Things are going to run like clockwork around here.
There‟s no other option.”
The way Hearse talked reminded Tom strongly of his
father. The old man, always lecturing, would never let up.
He‟d build high walls of words that would come tumbling
down around Tom and still he‟d keep piling on lecture after
lecture. In fact, Hearse looked like Tom‟s father, just like
Tom rubbed his chin. That wasn‟t true. Hearse and his
father looked nothing alike. Tom began to suspect that Rick
and Brock were eyeing him, but every time he looked more in
one direction than the other, he suspected the man in his blind
spot took the opportunity to stare unashamedly.
“But don‟t let me do nothing but rain doom and
gloom. Business is booming, so let‟s keep it that way.”
Hearse looked at each man in turn. “Is there anything else?”
“I brought my medical papers,” said Tom.
“Just a moment, Tom. Rich, Brock, that will be all.”
Rich and Brock stood up. “Thank you, sir,” said Rich.
Brock looked at Rich as though about to swallow him whole
and motioned impatiently for Rich to move toward the door.
When the door closed behind them, Tom imagined
that they hovered outside the door, spying.
Tom produced his papers.
Hearse held up his hand. “I won‟t need them, Tom.”
“This isn‟t easy, Tom.”
Tom thought he heard snickering behind the door, but
he refused to turn his head, not an iota.
“Because of your health situation, Tom, it‟s unsafe for
me to keep you employed here. The insurance risk alone is
Tom remembered how small he felt before his father‟s
withering gaze. He‟d shrink and shrink and shrink until he
felt he would tumble out of existence entirely.
And why the hell had Hearse made him sit through
that “success” speech?
No, Tom had worked too hard. He wouldn‟t allow
himself to be dismissed so easily.
“I have a family to think about,” pleaded Tom. “I
have a wife and kids who count on me. I‟ll do anything to
keep my job.”
“You‟re not well, Tom. I‟m sorry to say it, but I can‟t
just sit idly by and wait for another accident to happen.”
Tom stood up and turned his back to Hearse. I‟ve
always disappointed everyone, he thought. Dad. Mom.
Sylvia. Probably even the kids.
“Mr. Hearse,” said Tom, speaking to the floor through
a clenched jaw. “I respect you as a boss and I want you to
think about what you‟re doing.” Tom made a fist and held it
close to his belly. “My rent is due. If I don‟t keep up with my
payments, my family will be out on the street.”
Tom waited for Hearse to respond, and when the
silence stretched out, Tom stepped forward and put his hand
on the knob.
“Wait,” said Hearse.
Tom didn‟t turn around, even when Hearse put a hand
on his shoulder.
“This is more difficult for me than you know, Tom.
Look, Rich vouched for you when you came to work here,
and no matter what‟s happened between you, he knows you
better than anyone here. And he thinks you‟re unstable, Tom.
I‟ve got to weigh that.”
“You‟re siding with Rich,” Tom said, somewhere
between questioning and resignation.
“It‟s not a matter of taking sides, Tom. For what it‟s
worth, I wish you luck.”
“Luck won‟t feed my family,” said Tom.
Hearse breathed out, sounding genuinely troubled.
“Turn around, Tom.”
Tom turned and faced his boss. Hearse handed him an
“This is two weeks‟ pay and a little extra. I really am
Instead of leaving the building, Tom headed into the
basement, taking the stairs. At least he‟d never have to brave
the elevator again.
It didn‟t take him long to find Rich, who was hauling
Rich smiled at the sight of Tom. “Hey, give me a
hand here. Oh, I‟m sorry, I forgot. This is too manly, right?
You can only do that sissy embalming shit.”
Somewhere deep in the building a generator whined,
then made an excruciating grinding noise and let out a low
rumble that seemed to vibrate in the very foundations of the
building. Tom sensed cracks spreading in the walls around
“I‟ve had it, Rich.”
“Hey, I‟m just screwing with you, buddy.”
“You shouldn‟t be screwing with anybody.”
Sylvia seemed to materialize in the air between them.
“What do you mean, Tom?” Rich smiled his most
arrogant smile, and his lips moved, as though there were
something he wanted to say. So bold. So smug.
Tom knew the truth. He knew it. He could see Rich
on top of Sylvia. He could see Rich smiling as Sylvia went
down on him.
Tom ploughed into Rich, a cry of rage pouring out of
him. The planks clattered to the floor. Rich waved his arms
but couldn‟t keep from landing on his bottom. Tom kept his
feet, grabbing a two-by-four before Rich could recover.
“You fucking bastard,” Tom screamed and went at
Rich. Tom slashed at Rich‟s face with the board. Rich threw
his arms up, blocking the board before it smashed into his
“Christ, Tom. That fucking hurt.”
Rich backed into the room Tom had caught him
coming out of.
“You‟re going to hurt a lot worse than that, buddy.”
Tom rushed at Rich again. They tumbled to the
ground and the board flew out of Tom‟s grasp and slid across
the floor. Rich‟s back struck a barrel and toppled it, spilling
fluid at their feet.
“I‟ve tried to be nice about this, Tom, but now you‟ve
gone and really pissed me off.”
Rich punched Tom in the gut and pushed him against
a rack of supplies. A box of embalming powder struck the
floor and a white cloud rose up around Tom and Rich.
Tom sucked in air and swung at Rich, connecting with
Rich went down.
“You‟ve always been jealous, Rich. I was always
smarter, better at everything, and you hated it. You‟ve waited
your whole life to knock my feet out from under me.”
“You‟re delusional, pal. I‟ve got nothing to be jealous
“You hate the fact that I‟ve got a wife and kids and
you‟ve got nothing. You‟re lucky if some old slut agrees to
go home with you at the end of the night. And then I came in
here and got on the fast track while you‟re going nowhere.
You thought you‟d be the big man when I got here but it
didn‟t work out that way, and you couldn‟t handle it.”
“Don‟t forget, Tom,” said Rich, getting to his feet, “I
got you this fucking job, you ungrateful piece of shit.”
Tom felt the blood pulsing in his temples, and he still
felt a little sick from Rich‟s punch to his gut.
“The only thing you did was talk to Hearse. He hired
me because he liked what he saw.”
The lights flickered and then failed.
“What the—” said Rich.
The room turned as black as the deepest cavern.
Tom moved toward the sound of Rich‟s voice. He felt
calmer in the dark. He couldn‟t see the walls, the floor, the
ceiling. Couldn‟t see them closing in. The darkness spread
out forever on all points, and Tom existed at the center of
Tom drifted toward Rich. Tom was powerful,
immense, potent. Strength surged inside.
“Tom?” called Rich into the darkness.
Rich was close, and Tom drifted even closer. He
stretched out his hands, prepared to take Rich‟s head and
squeeze it to the breaking point. He wanted to see Rich smile
with Tom‟s fingers penetrating his skull and tearing at his
“Tom?” called Rich again, this time his voice shaky
with what might be fear.
“Rich,” answered Tom, and the lights glared, casting
away the darkness, searing Tom‟s and Rich‟s eyes.
Tom‟s face floated not a foot from Rich‟s. A line of
blood bisected Tom‟s chin, leaking from where he had
unconsciously bitten his lip.
Rich struck Tom on his left eye socket. Rich‟s other
fist connected with Tom‟s cheek, and Rich thrust his fist
forward again, busting Tom‟s lips against his gums and teeth.
“Rich!” bellowed Hearse from the doorway.
Rich looked toward Hearse. Tom wavered, dazed.
“Jesus,” said Hearse. “What the hell is going on here?
Damn it, Tom. Why didn‟t you just go home?”
Tom drew shallow breaths. He spat blood on the floor
and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Blood ran
down his nose.
“Rich, come here. Tom, wash yourself up, okay?”
Tom went to the sink and a face that couldn‟t be his
stared back from the mirror. He saw anger, perhaps even
derangement. What had happened to him?
Tom splashed water on his face. In the mirror, he
could see Rich and Hearse talking, but he couldn‟t hear them
beyond a low murmuring.
Outside Rise Again, snow fell on silent streets. Icicles
dangled from trees and power lines. A cold hand had spread
glitter over the earth. The sky lit up for a moment as though
lightning flashed in the impenetrable heavens.
Tom slammed the car into gear and jammed his foot
down on the accelerator. The tires spun and the car began
sliding to the left before the rubber caught and the vehicle
thrust forward over treacherous streets. Tom drove through a
Past the intersection, Tom jammed on the brakes. I
almost ran that red light, he thought, but looking up he saw
nothing. In the rear-view mirror he absorbed the glow of the
“Shit,” he said.
The car had cut out. Tom wondered how long he‟d
been sitting there. He shouldn‟t be driving. No one else
seemed to be braving the roads.
But that too was strange. It didn‟t matter the storm;
around Boston, people didn‟t get skittish about driving in
conditions like these.
The car took three times to start. Tom didn‟t realize
how foggy the windshield had gone until he turned onto a
ramp and lost sight of everything. He could be driving
through a void—and that comforted him.
When Tom hit the brick wall, he banged his chest
hard against the steering wheel. He must not have been going
very fast, or else he might have gone through the glass or
maybe even have driven through the wall onto the person‟s
property. His front end looked like it had crumpled in toward
him, but the car still ran.
Cracks in the windshield made it even more difficult
Tom laughed. “Not so easy as that. I‟m getting there,
The car backed onto the street. Tom continued his
odyssey, committed, it seemed, to making it home even in the
vehicle‟s death throes.
Tom drove through a narrow lane with cars parked on
both sides of the street. For periods everything went black.
Tom sat in his driveway for a long time before
realizing he was home. The house looked unfamiliar, and
Tom tried to recall purchasing it, living there, bringing babies
home for the first time. None of it seemed real.
Tom tried again and again to get a key in the lock. His
fingers, half frozen, could barely manipulate the keys, and
when he did get one in the lock the door would inevitably fail
to open. He wasn‟t sure how many times he had tried the
“You didn‟t change the locks on me, did you?”
A shadow passed by the window to his left. Tom
wanted to break down the door, but he restrained himself. He
couldn‟t have a neighbor calling the cops. He was smarter
Tom crept like a spider. Making his way around the
house, he felt at one with the snow and ice. His fingers trailed
over the siding as though caressing Sylvia‟s outermost layer
Around back, stairs to the basement entrance led into
Tom went down slowly, careful not to slip for fear of
cracking open his skull on the concrete steps.
At the bottom of the stairs, in total darkness, Tom‟s
hand found the door. He leaned into it as he turned the knob.
The entrance gave too easily and Tom tumbled forward. He
crashed to the ground in a tangle, limbs twisted. He shouted
out in pain.
Something growled in the darkness ahead, an angry,
aggressive sound. The whole house shook.
The furnace, he thought, not some beast chained in
the basement. Still, it hissed like a snake, ready to attack.
Fireflies hovered in the air, sparks from the fire fueling the
Tom pictured the layout of the basement as he
navigated to the interior stairs. His eyes grew accustomed to
A pounding erupted, a ferocious sound, that of
someone hammering mightily. Tom passed old furniture, a
baby‟s car seat, a lawnmower, cardboard boxes packed with
God-knows-what. Somewhere on his way to the stairs a
shovel had appeared in his hand.
He climbed the stairs, tapping each one with the
shovel‟s metal blade. The pounding continued.
The door at the top of the stairs was locked.
Tom smiled in the dark. He took the shovel in both
hands and stabbed it at the doorknob. Again and again. Wood
splintered, and Tom almost lost his balance and went
The door wouldn‟t open, though the wood around the
knob was all but obliterated. Tom shifted the shovel to his left
hand and punched at the door.
Pain seared his arm. He could feel blood oozing from
his fist. He brought his hand up to his face and sucked at his
Tom let the shovel fall from his grasp. It clattered
down the stairs. I won‟t be denied, he thought. Tom braced
his arms against the walls and kicked at the door with
everything he had.
Inside the house, Tom scanned the place. Nothing
looked familiar. Everything seemed just a bit off.
Tom went through the kitchen, the living room, the
dining room. He walked through the ghosts of his and
Sylvia‟s and the kids‟ past selves.
“Sylvia,” he called.
Nothing stirred in his home.
Upstairs, in the kids‟ room, nothing. The house was a
“Honey?” he called.
Tom looked up at the ceiling. Of course, he thought.
Boxes were stacked haphazardly about the attic.
Sylvia had labeled them with such designations as “dishes”
and “ornaments” and even “miscellaneous.”
“Sylvia,” he called. The pounding of nails began
anew. Sweat and blood ran down Tom‟s face. Tom walked to
the door in the attic and turned the knob. He saw the bed, the
rumpled sheets. The bedsprings cried out as though people sat
up in it, surprised.
But no one was there.
Tom took out a cigarette and lit it. He didn‟t care
about not smoking in the house.
The walls began to shake and an intense rattling
overtook his thoughts. The floor seemed to tip and Tom went
Tom flew down from the attic and stormed into the
kids‟ rooms. He threw their closet doors open—but saw
“I always come up short,” he said.
Tom could imagine Sylvia and Rich making love in
Rich‟s apartment. She‟d be on top, rocking her hips,
moaning. What would they say to each other?
“I care for you so much. Why do you stay with
someone you have no feelings for?” said Rich.
“Shhh . . .” shushed Sylvia. Her bottom did slow
circles over Rich‟s crotch. Rich‟s mouth opened soundlessly,
his eyes glazed.
Sylvia leaned forward, bracing herself on her hands
and dangling her breasts over Rich‟s face. He stuck his
tongue out, touching her nipple. She pulled it away, teasing.
Rich strained forward. He closed his mouth over her nipple
and sucked, his hands on her lower back.
“Come live with me,” said Rich.
Sylvia pulled her nipple from his mouth. “When I
married Tom, I wanted a husband, not a son, not someone I
had to take care of. I‟ve only ever wanted someone to meet
me half way.”
“Take me up on my offer,” said Rich. He pulled
Sylvia down closer. “He doesn‟t love you. He doesn‟t care
about you, Sylvia.” Rich shook his head. “Why are you
putting the kids and yourself through this? I love you too.”
Sylvia stared blankly, then shrugged.
“What happens to us next?” asked Rich.
“The only thing that can happen,” said Sylvia, but
refused to say anything more.
The phone rang and rang. Eventually, Tom picked it
“May I speak to Tom?”
“Speaking,” said Tom.
“It‟s Hearse, Tom. Some things have come to light
and it‟s apparent I may have judged you too harshly. I‟m not
ready to give up on you just yet. I‟ve reconsidered, Tom. I
want to give you a second chance.”
Tom thought that this must be a joke. It sounded like
Hearse, but there was a strange static on the line, and it
sounded almost as though other voices were speaking far, far
away. Still, he couldn‟t play this any other way. “Thank you,”
said Tom, and he realized he was sincere. “Thank you so
“Just don‟t make me regret it,” said Hearse. “I‟ll see
you tomorrow for the test.”
Two bodies lay on stretchers, each covered with a
white sheet. Embalming equipment and supplies stood at the
Hearse checked off an itemized list of equipment.
“Everything appears to be in order,” he said.
Tom entered the room dressed in a white gown.
Hearse stood between the corpses. He took hold of a
sheet in either hand and ripped the sheets off the bodies.
The cadavers were badly battered, making Tom think
of automobiles after particularly bad wrecks. These were
probably pulled from just such twisted metal, Tom thought.
“This will qualify you as an embalmer,” said Hearse.
“You have until six o‟clock.”
Tom set to work. He cut and powdered, treated,
trimmed, the flesh clay for him to mold.
Cutting into a stomach the corpse‟s eyes opened. Tom
had seen it happen before. He brushed his hand over them,
closing them again.
Tom pulled at the liver, and the body squirmed. The
more Tom‟s hand delved inside, the more the thing wriggled,
the more its arms came to life.
Tom continued to work, undeterred. The thing could
beat at him with its fists, could gnaw at his throat with its
teeth, and still Tom was going to push forward. Today, he
would not fail.
Tom stood outside the door. He wiped sweat off his
The clock ticked to forty-five past the hour, then to
fifty-five. “Might as well get cleaned up,” Tom said.
Tom left the bathroom door open as he showered. The
enclosure of the shower stall was bad, but knowing the door
was open made it bearable. Tom hung soap-on-a-rope around
his neck and stepped into the hot spray.
Tom closed his eyes as he ran the soap over his body.
He used the soap to ease the tension from his tired muscles,
the stress from his taxed physique.
Tom opened his eyes with the spray beating on his
face. He saw only red and tasted copper. He looked down at
his feet. Blood swirled in the drain.
A cockroach appeared from a crack in a corner of the
stall, and then another, and another, until a steady stream
poured into the bloody water at his ankles. The rope tightened
around his neck, choking. When Tom grabbed at it and
pulled, his hand closed around a leathery, constricting tube.
The door to the bathroom slammed shut.
Tom half fell as he launched himself from the shower,
hitting the ground. Everything exploded in white-hot pain.
The door wouldn‟t open, and the walls began to close
in. Not like this, thought Tom. Not while I‟m naked.
Tom strode down the hall, wearing nothing but a
towel that kept threatening to come loose. He meant to find
Rich and settle things once and for all.
Instead, he almost ran directly into Hearse.
Hearse looked him up and down. “What are you—?”
Hearse started, sounding utterly defeated.
“Rich just ran by here,” said Tom, out of breath. “He
sabotaged my shower.”
Hearse‟s face went an angry red. “I‟m tired of this
Rich shit. Rich left earlier today.”
“No,” said Tom. “He dumped blood and cockroaches
on me in the shower.”
Hearse grabbed Tom‟s arm. “Come on,” he said.
“Let‟s settle this.”
Hearse all but dragged Tom down the hall.
Now he‟ll see, Tom thought.
The shower was wet, but there was no blood. There
were no roaches. Hearse turned on the water and a crystal-
clear spray hit the tiles.
Tom struggled to keep from vomiting.
“Get dressed and meet me in my office,” said Hearse.
Tom dried himself slowly. All his cares, all his hopes,
seemed to have evaporated. He dressed and walked toward
the door, but stopped. Rich‟s locker was slightly ajar.
Tom entered the assembly room, a jumbled mess of
lumber and tools. He heard murmuring, voices droning on
Footsteps sounded beyond a coffin, but Tom could
see no one there.
A shadow passed quickly across the floor to Tom‟s
Tom turned in a complete circle, stopping short at the
sight of a corpse sitting upright, staring at him. The corpse
had big, full breasts, its head cocked as though studying him.
The area between the corpse‟s thighs looked ravaged, as
though something had eaten its way inside.
“You don‟t scare me,” said Tom, pointing. “Not
anymore.” He stepped forward and jabbed his finger over the
Its head tipped to the side and fell off, striking the
floor and rolling.
“No, no, no,” said Tom, and grabbed the head by its
hair. He shoved the body back to a prone position and put the
head up by the shoulders. Tom covered the body with a cloth
and wheeled the corpse out of the room.
In the hallway, Tom sensed someone behind him and
“Hey, Tom,” Rich called.
Tom turned. “I thought you were gone for the day.”
“No such luck,” said Rich. “Today was your big test,
“That‟s right,” said Tom.
They moved closer to each other.
“Look, Tom, let‟s put all this shit behind us, okay?”
“You‟re the one who‟s been fucking with me, not the
other way around,” said Tom.
“That‟s what I‟m talking about, Tom. I don‟t want to
get into a pissing match with you.”
Tom began to push the body down the hall and Rich
kept pace. “I guess it doesn‟t matter anymore,” said Tom.
They stopped in front of the elevators.
“I‟m probably through here,” said Tom.
“You don‟t know that,” said Rich.
“I basically do,” said Tom. “And maybe I need to
move on anyway.”
“What are you thinking?” asked Rich.
Tom tried to look thoughtful. In his pocket he had the
journal he found in Rich‟s locker. Rich was stupid enough to
leave his locker open, and he was stupid enough to put in
writing all the shit he‟d done to Tom. The guy just couldn‟t
help himself. He had to boast. And now Tom had him. You
better believe Hearse would find this interesting.
“I guess the past is past. I‟m ready to move on if you
“Definitely,” said Rich, and stuck out his hand.
Tom shook it and pushed the button on the elevator.
Rich nodded at Tom, then jerked his thumb at the
elevator. “You hate these things, don‟t you?”
“I could do without them,” Tom admitted.
The elevator doors slid open.
“Tell you what,” said Rich. “I‟ll take this up for you
and you take the stairs.”
“All right,” said Tom. “But let‟s make this interesting.
I‟ll race you.”
Rich laughed and pushed the body into the elevator.
“What‟ll we race for?” asked Rich.
“How about my wife?” said Tom as the doors began
to close. Rich looked as if slapped. He‟d reached his hand out
to stop the doors from closing, but he withdrew it, and the
doors closed off the hateful stare Tom directed at him.
Inside the elevator, Rich recovered himself. “I already
have her, pal.” Rich smiled. He relished the thought of giving
it to Sylvia again. He relished the thought of rubbing Tom‟s
face in it.
“Time to pay the piper, Rich,” said Tom. He heard the
engine clank and clang, knew Rich would have been thrown
off balance, perhaps toppling over the corpse. Rich would
begin to panic when the lights went out, when he could hear
something moving in the dark. Tom could almost see the
corpse sitting up, wrapping its fingers in its own hair and
swinging the severed head at Rich, over and over, bone
crunching against bone. Don‟t finish him too soon, Tom
thought. The screams hadn‟t begun yet, but Tom was patient.
Tom smiled, thinking he‟d just taken the first real step