Sometimes the smell of embalming chemicals emanating from the bodies of Don’s customers sneaks upstairs through the floor vents. Rachel normally opens a window, but in the winter she patiently suffers through the suffocation. She can’t stand the way the chemicals seem to seep into the peanut butter on her breakfast toast. But Rachel is a patient woman and black coffee helps to mask the flavor of formaldehyde, so she always eats it anyway. Sometimes she wonders how much biohazard toast she must consume before she develops cancer. Sometimes she thinks her husband wouldn’t mind if she did. Maybe if she died he would offer her a second glance.
Don is a mortician and has a peculiar appreciation for the deceased. When he was 10 years old he went to his first funeral. As he stood on his tiptoes, leaned over the casket, and scanned the corpse of his aunt, he was entirely composed. In fact, he felt inclined to reach over and peel open her sealed eyelids to see what dead-people eyes look like. He resisted, knowing his uncle probably did not share his curiosity. Now, with years of embalming experience, he has become quite familiar with the peepers of the perished and he wants to see himself in them. He wants his reflection to dance in the confines of their baby blues. He searches for his reflection in them, but like frosted windows, they only tease him with a silhouette of himself. He always waits till the end of his cosmetic process to glue them shut.
“The Sunday Funnies, please.” Rachel reaches her hand across the small kitchen table where the couple usually shares a quiet breakfast.
“Ernest Crumbler. April 17, 1913 – June 5, 1998. Died just yesterday. Fresh,” he mumbles to himself, ignoring Rachel’s request. “Anyone call lookin’ for services?”
“No, Don. It’s Sunday. Would you give me the Funnies?”
“People don’t stop dying on Sundays.”
“Yes, but I stop answerin’ the phone.” She pulls the comic section of the newspaper out from under the obituaries.
Rachel’s mother was a doormat and her husband dragged his heavy mudded boots all over her. When Rachel was younger, she would watch as her mother gracefully accepted beatings and stood still, instead of flinching, while her father held his switchblade to her neck. It was strangely admirable. “Remember, Rach,” her mother would say, “it is a wife’s duty to sacrifice, serve, and submit.” When it came time for Rachel to receive the beatings, she never screamed and she tried her best not to cry. She wanted to be like her mother. She wanted to reach that level of acceptance and patience. She wanted to be a good wife someday. And today, in her eyes, she is.
Her husband is the only person she’s ever worked for. She has tried to become a writer, but publishing companies can’t seem to comprehend her far-fetched attempts at erotic novels and Don thinks being an author is a lousy profession. So, for the past forty years she has been a housewife and an unpaid receptionist for Don’s business. She’s cooked for Don, cleaned up after Don, suppressed her emotions for Don, and never asked Don to stop inviting dead people to his body shop in the basement. How could she ask him to stop? He pays the bills. She only asks him to love her, to kiss her good morning, and to look at her with the same adoration as he did years ago.
However, as his business picked up, his attention seemed to drift from her to the corpses. He used to hesitate releasing her from a morning kiss and would sometimes, in a spur of passion, carry the kiss down her neck and to the divot of her collarbone. Then one morning he decided a peck on the lips was good enough, then just the cheek, forehead, and now nothing at all. He used to look into her eyes from across the kitchen table and squint, so he could watch their corners turn upward as she smiled. But now, he just sits at the table and reads the obituaries while scraping underneath his nails to remove the skin glue that he uses to seal dead-people eyes shut. Rachel has tried to accept his disinterest in her. She knows she can’t expect him to feel the same after so many years. She must sacrifice.
“I should open an ad in the paper. Business has been slow. Did you drop off my cards?”
“Yes,” Rachel replies without looking up from her comics. Yesterday she volunteered at the senior living center with the secret intention of helping keep Don’s potential clients alive for as long as possible, so he might spend more time with her. He had handed her a stack of his business cards and requested that she leave them on the front desk. She wanted to toss them in the dumpster before walking inside, but she hesitated. She must serve.
The comics don’t amuse her today. She puts them down and swishes her dark roast coffee around her tongue before swallowing. Her stare jumps back and forth between her husband and her cancer toast.
“Would it please you if I died?”
“Honestly Don, is that what you want?”
“No,” he responds promptly, but inside he’s always thought she’d make a beautiful dead woman.
“I won’t be upset.”
“Rachel, you’re being absurd.”
“No Don, I’ve been thinking about this.” She stands up and begins clearing the table, as though hesitating to release the thoughts she has pent up. After wiping down the counter and taking her seat again, Don watches as her hands tug the table cloth to straighten it before folding them and resting her palms on the edge. She hasn’t clipped her finger nails in over a week.
“I love you, Don. And I can’t think of another way to please you,” Rachel says, emotionless, as if rehearsed. “I want you to prepare me, just like your corpses.” She must submit.
The couple stares at each other. Rachel searches his expression and waits for some sign of body language that might indicate an answer to her request. Don studies her skin, deciding which concealer would best match her pale tones.
“I can’t embalm you,” he says.
He stands up and she follows him to the basement.
The table is cold and the fluorescent light does very little to warm her. Feeling her husband’s bare hands against her skin distracts Rachel from the frigid metal. Don likes to work without gloves. He disinfects and massages her body with a light moisturizer. This would usually help to prevent his corpses from stiffening, but, since his wife is still alive, he only does this to stay true to his procedure. Rachel doesn’t mind and neither does he. He only wishes her eyes would stop blinking.
He clips her fingernails and then begins to numb her lips with an ice pack he brought down from the kitchen freezer. This is an added step, as he doesn’t want to cause her too much pain while he sews her mouth shut. As the needle pierces his wife’s chapped lip, her left eye only offers a single, heavy tear. Don hasn’t looked at her lips with such intimate attention in so long. Each time he pulls the suture string to set her mouth, her lips tighten and purse as if begging to be kissed. He cuts the end and tucks the excess into the corner of her mouth, caressing her face with his free hand. Rachel strains to form a smile as memories take her back to the first time his hand had so delicately embraced her cheek. On a school night in his father’s truck, when making love was new and exciting and her young heart could manage the rapid beating. Don turns away to switch on the radio, but the pounding of her heart is an inescapable distraction.
At this point he would normally begin the embalming process. Inserting a small tube into her right arm and another into the femoral artery of her left thigh then turn on his machine and watch as the blood is sucked from her body and is replaced with a formaldehyde solution. But this would kill her, so he cracks his neck and pulls out a silver case of cosmetic supplies instead. As he begins ruffling through the lip colors and face powders, Rachel’s eyes flutter to a peaceful close as the pain from her lips finally causes her to faint. He doesn’t notice at first, so involved in choosing the perfect colors. His favorite step, turning the bodies into art.
He turns back to face his wife and notices she has gone limp, her head tilted towards the opposite wall. Don walks over to the table and looks down at Rachel, his living corpse. He reaches over to reopen her eyes. Not like the dead-people eyes, but like glossy mirrors. He leans in close and stares directly into the left one only horrified to find his own two staring back.
Emily Dempsey is a sophomore Creative Writing major who won Best Short Story and was a runner-up this year and winner last year in the Academy of American Poets Prize. She works as both a Theatre Technician and Stage Manager for the Mukund S. Kulkarni Theatre. She is involved in the Capital Players Theatre Club on campus, enjoys drawing and journaling, and used to swim competitively but has now probably forgotten how.