I leaned over the corpse, makeup brush in hand. With swift, gentle strokes, I applied the concealer to the slightly graying flesh.
The young woman didn’t move – she couldn’t. She’d been dead for four days.
“At least you get to sleep for the rest of your life,” I muttered to her as I rammed the makeup brush further into my tub of concealer. I needed a new one, but I couldn’t be bothered grabbing one from the compartment under the steel bench to my side.
I applied more, really getting into the cracks around her nose and eyes – the places where her graying flesh had started to decay.
I bit my lip. I chuckled. “Me,” I continued the one-sided conversation, “I’ve barely been able to sleep my whole life. I guess that’s what happens when your only friends are corpses just like you.”
I scooted back in my chair. I reached the sink and dumped the makeup brush into a little bowl of alcohol I’d already prepared.
Looking up, I caught the sound of a procession through the half-open window above the sink. Carlson’s Funeral Home was located right up against the largest graveyard in the city. Pushing up and leaning a hand on the glimmering stainless steel, I inclined my head until I could see the hill of the graveyard. I watched as the gates were opened and a long black Hurst, glinting under the midmorning sunshine, wound its way into the mazelike cemetery. It was one of the oldest pieces of infrastructure in town. It had been there for 250 years. Carlson’s Funeral Home, in some fashion, had been here that entire time, too.
I spent too long watching the procession. My eyes darted back and forth as if I was looking for something – something other than the mourners in black carrying white lilies, their somber faces turned to the ground. Something other than the autumn leaves scattering over the long winding pathway that led up to the graveyard. Something other than the granite headstones and concrete angels with open hands.
Sighing, I leaned back and scratched my head. It didn’t matter that I was wearing latex gloves and I’d just been touching a corpse. “Pull yourself together.” I turned. I faced the woman. She was standing.
I thought nothing of this.
She looked at me. She stared down at her dress. It was white. It appeared to be some kind of debutante gown. I was sure I’d seen one or two like it in one of the dress shops on Eastside.
She smiled at me, touched her makeup, then turned.
I got up and followed.
She walked through the winding back halls of Carlson’s. She reached the open door that led out into the staff car park and wandered through. The whole while, I was behind her. I’d grabbed up the makeup brush again. It was dangling in my hand, dripping alcohol and chunks of concealer onto my black shoes.
She walked across the road that led up to the graveyard.
I was behind her for every step as a great big wind gust scattered its way through the elms and oaks that lined the road. Autumn leaves were ripped off. They flew around me, catching the ends of my short hair, alighting on my shoulders, and crunching under my feet.
As the woman walked, I watched blood drip down from a wound in the back of her head. She’d been killed by slipping over when drunk.
She turned to me as we reached the gates. She smiled, her lips cracking ever so slightly around the move. With no circulation left to her skin, her body was no longer capable of the movements of the living.
I stopped at the gates. I stared up at the graveyard. It seemed darker. I thought I saw crows descending on it – they were all through it, too. They were landing on the outstretched arms of those angels. They were up on the tall wall that separated the cemetery and the land of the living from everyone else. They were even descending on the cars parked all around me. They made no noise, no caws, no chattering. They didn’t even scratch their claws up and down or flap their wings. They just watched.
The young woman stopped at the gates, one foot in, one foot out. She turned to me, more blood oozing down from the wound in the back of her head. She smiled and flicked a hand forward, beckoning me onward into the graveyard.
I took a step toward her, but something held me to the spot.
I wasn’t dead. Not yet. And that, that was a fact I’d had to remind myself of every damn day since I’d been born.
I, Penelope Hope, had to hold on to the fact I was still breathing. For now.