Authors: Nic Widhalm
Copyright © 2013 by Nic Widhalm
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is purely coincidental.
The Tenth Order
by Nic Widhalm
For my father, who saw it first,
and my wife who wouldn’t let me quit.
He was having trouble with the corpse again.
It’s the lipstick
, Hunter thought.
It’s too bright
. He leaned close, the acrid stench of embalming fluid burning his nose.
Definitely the red
. The corpse looked more hooker than Sunday School teacher.
Hunter stretched back, letting his arms fan toward the ceiling, and yawned.
It might be better if she looked like a hooker, at least she’d have known some excitement
. Hunter smiled, picturing the elderly lady standing on a corner in front of a Waffle House, trolling for Johns. Without realizing it he started humming “Whistle While you Work,” as he searched for a softer shade of red.
Hunter still wasn’t sure how he had ended up in this line of work, doing makeup on dead housewives. It wasn’t something he imagined as a kid, building toy airplanes and dreaming about walking on the moon. Hunter had never known makeup existed until the age of seven, when he’d found his mom crying in the bathroom one morning, black tears streaming down her face.
His mother hadn’t seen him at first, and continued to silently weep as she applied her blush. They weren’t crocodile tears; not the kind that Hunter shed when he stubbed his toe or bruised his shin. They were the sort where the eyes glassed over and one single drop would trickle down the chin, pooling in the sink.
“Mom,” Hunter had entered the room quietly, trying not to disturb her work. “Mommy, did you get a scrape?”
She had turned to him and smiled through the dark channels on her face. “No honey, it’s just this goddamn blush. It’s not right.” Hunter had nightmares for the next two weeks, and had remained fascinated with cosmetics since.
“And that, Mrs. Sunday School Teacher, is why you’re so lucky to have me,” Hunter said, bending down to fix her lips.
“Hunter,” a voice floated down the stairs. He straightened, his hands falling dead at his sides. “Hunter,” the voice cried again, ghostly and muffled through five feet of insulation.
He sighed. “Coming,” he muttered, knowing Mr. Makovich couldn’t hear him through the ceiling insulation.
As Hunter opened the heavy metal door that lead upstairs from the prep room, he felt a warm rush of air whiff past his face. This was one of his favorite moments, when he crossed from the cold, frigid world of the dead into the glare of the living. Hunter liked to imagine he was actually returning from the dead, like Odysseus clawing his way out of Hades.
The door led from the basement into the floral hub of the funeral home. The door, masked by a heavy screen crossing into the foyer, led to a gaudy lobby that doubled as a sales floor. He wasn’t sure how Mr. Makovich slept at night, because if Hunter had to flash that plastic smile and mutter words of sorrow while pushing for the most expensive coffin in the place, he would have killed himself long ago. Fortunately, Hunter just had to make them pretty.
There weren’t any clients today, and Mr. Makovich was leaning his considerable bulk against one of the padded arm chairs in the center of the room. Fake flowers filled each corner, garish reds and greens that burned Hunter’s eyes after coming from the sterile prep room.
“Thanks for taking your time,” Makovich said as Hunter entered the room. “I have nothing else to do today.”
“Sorry,” Hunter said, stopping at the closest couch. He looked despairingly between Makovich and the overly padded furniture. Hunter had been working for the last six hours on a hard plastic chair and longed for the soft embrace of the couch, but he wouldn’t sit, not unless Makovich did. Hunter had never been good with the living and he didn’t want to set off Makovich unless he had to. And sitting before the boss was just the kind of passive aggressive power-play that would rouse the man.
“How’s the Munse project?”
Makovich sat down, finally, and Hunter breathed a sigh of relief as he followed.
“Fine? Wanna be more cryptic? Her husband’s breathing down my neck. Are we going to be ready in time?”
Hunter grimaced. “I’m working as fast as I can; I told you we shouldn’t have scheduled anything for at least twenty-four hours. What does he expect?”
“He expects what I guaranteed him: Make her look like the picture, make sure she doesn’t smell, and make sure she stays in one piece for eight hours. The rest, I couldn’t give two shits.”
Hunter didn’t reply. Makovich’s rants were regular as clockwork, the quickest way to get to the end was to shut-up and let him finish. In fact, he’d had a similar one just yesterday where Makovich railed at him for forgetting to tie a particular ribbon in the client’s hair—a ribbon the widower had been adamant about. Hunter had never seen or heard anything about the ribbon prior to the fight, but he had nodded, apologized, and told Makovich it would never happen again.
The entire time Hunter had dreamed of snapping his fat neck.
Makovich finally ran out of wind and leaned back into his chair, catching his breath. Beads of sweat had formed in the crevice of his second chin, and the stench of salt and unwashed flesh assaulted Hunter’s nose.
And right about…
Hunter thought, looking for the change in Makovich’s eyes.
. The fat man’s mouth tightened, and his brows lowered. He stared at Hunter with disgust, his nostrils flaring.
There it is. Right on cue.
“Just get it done,” Makovich finally said, looking away from Hunter. The fat man’s lips were trembling. Hunter recognized the signs. He had stayed too long.
“I always do,” Hunter said.
And here’s the next part. This is where I get fucked.
“We’ve had to change our insurance carrier, the old one cost us a fortune. So for the next six months you’re on your own for medical. I’ll see what I can do after that, but no guarantees.”
Hunter stared at Makovich. If he was surprised it was only because he expected it earlier. Last month Makovich cut his vacation. Two months prior he switched Hunter to salary and stopped paying overtime. A month before that he cut holiday pay. This was business as usual.
“Sorry,” Makovich finally added.
“Can I get back to work? I mean, if you want this done by tomorrow…”
“Yeah, fine. Go.”
Hunter stood and made his way to the door. He was sure Makovich was smiling behind him. He’d expected the cut because he knew what his boss thought of him. Most people thought the same:
Hunter was weird
There was something…
. He rubbed them the wrong way no matter how hard he tried to please.
They hated him.
It wasn’t anything Hunter did, at least not on purpose. After years of trying to figure out why people didn’t like him, Hunter had finally convinced himself it didn’t stem from any of his actions. It was just something about him, and it made keeping a job next to impossible.
He had been a beautician for over ten years, and had never worked the same place for more than eight months. Right after school Hunter had started in a big salon. He’d been hired, he was told, because he was easy on the eyes. And despite his other insecurities, Hunter knew that part was true. Standing six-foot-three, with shoulder-length wavy brown hair, piercing gray eyes, and strong, angular cheek-bones, Hunter had always known he was good-looking. He was fit, muscled, religious about keeping in shape…
But he still couldn’t get laid.
He tried. God, he tried. At the first beauty salon he had flirted with every customer who came his way. Male or female, back then it had been about the money. But the smiles and flirtatious looks only lasted a few minutes before turning to frowns, and later, glares. It had been like that his entire life. Even in a world of beauty, there was no place for Hunter.
He lasted two months at the salon before he was fired. Forced to quit really, but it amounted to the same thing. And the next job had been the same, and the one after that, and the one after that. Finally, after striking out with every beauty shop in town, Hunter found his way to the funeral circuit, and had been surprised at how well it worked. Corpses didn’t mind if he put their teeth on edge.
Hunter descended the stairs with thoughts of failed dates and rejection prickling the back of his mind. He tried to ignore the memories, but as he returned to his table to stare down at the body of Mrs. Munse, a worm of pain slowly slid from his forehead and nested behind his eyes.
The headache was back.
Hunter closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind. Sometimes if he let his thoughts wander the pain would go away. He tried to distract himself, to hum “Whistle While You Work” again, to drum his hands against the cold steel table in some nonsense rhythm, but the pain refused to go. The worm—a bright, throbbing red in Hunter’s mind—stretched across his forehead and began to squeeze. This was the real reason Hunter’s clients had taken so long recently. It wasn’t Makovich; as tempting as it was to blame him, the fat man was no different today than a month ago. The headaches were the reason Hunter couldn’t focus on his work. The headaches, and what they brought with them.
Don’t think about that. They’re not real. Focus on your work and forget about the rest.
It was easy to tell himself to ignore the pain, but Hunter had a poor poker face and those around him were starting to notice. Just the other night, lying in a cheap motel bed, watching plaster peel off the walls while a spotted, clammy arm lay over his chest, he’d almost cried out from the pain. The prostitute—Molly, or was it Jasmine?—had propped herself on a knobby elbow and glared down at him.
“You’d better not be sick, asshole. If I get any fucking sores…”
He’d ignored her and tried to rub the pain away. Tried to ignore the shrill, angry voice of the whore who was only supposed to cost a hundred, but charged Hunter three times that. For the fifteen minutes it’d taken him to mount the matronly woman it had been worth it; precious minutes of human contact where he could forget his job, his asshole of a boss, his wife, who even now was probably at home fucking her co-worker, Ron. It was worth every second.
But then the headaches came, and the darkness in the corners of the room took on a deep, endless black that made Hunter’s blood burn. He couldn’t have said how long he stared at the darkness, hearing the clang and crash of steel, the sounds of some distant war. But by the end he had to pay the girl another hundred so she wouldn’t complain to her pimp and get Hunter banned. Between the headaches, the dreams, and his job, the escort service was the only thing keeping him sane at the moment.