Another Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge via his amazing blog at Terrible Minds. Here’s the deets on the piece. You can see which of the five seeds I went with. It’s not the best piece I’ve ever written, but it’s the first bit of fiction I’ve done in awhile. Enjoy.
“Where is it?”
“The body. Where is it?”
Tim looked up from the computer screen at his second cousin and longtime co-worker Tony. The pair had worked at the town’s only morgue since they were teenagers, Tim moving up to the rank of mortician and Tony happy to continue doing the behind-the-scenes grunt work. He had never been one for dealing with the public and if it made Tim happy to wear a suit and tie every day, good for him.
“First of all,” Tim said, with a look Tony recognized as the beginning of a patronizing sermon, “’it’ is a she. We do not refer to our client’s remains as ‘it.’ They are to be treated with respect and dignity. How would you react if someone referred to your mom as ‘it’?”
“Well, she’s been dead for more than 20 years now,” said Tony, “so I wouldn’t really get too worked up over it. Second, ‘our client’ has shuffled loose this mortal coil. Nothing that was Shirley Talkington remains behind other than the candy shell. All the good stuff, the gooey, creamy center and the milk chocolate, is gone.”
“God, you’re so weird when you compare the clients to food. And what if one of her relatives heard you talking like that? Her family is enough of a pain in the ass without them overhearing you talk about her like she’s a fucking M&M.”
It was true. Shirley Talkington’s family used to be a big deal in their little town of Hempshire, back when it had a population of more than fifty thousand. After the Korean conflict, however, many of the town’s families, especially the affluent ones, left. Hempshire’s largest employer, Plastco Flowers & Accessories, moved out of the state in 1964, putting the final nail in the coffin of what was once a booming city. Now, without high schoolers being guaranteed a job creating plastic bouquets for funerals and weddings, the metropolis was now a smallish town of around ten thousand mostly lower middle-class people who drove 30 or more miles every day to work in Sappington Springs.
The Talkingtons didn’t get the memo that they were neither rich nor powerful any more, hadn’t been since the early 70s, and probably shouldn’t talk down to the remaining townspeople as though they were pre-Magna Carta serfs. The dearly-departed Shirley was the family matriarch, a vile woman who, in the opinion of nearly everyone who knew her, couldn’t croak soon enough. She finally expired in Hempshire’s only nursing home at the age of 98, suffering a massive heart attack while screaming at one of the nurses about there being too much sugar in her iced tea. Most of the citizens of the town either let them have their way because it was easier than arguing with them, or just ignored them entirely.
Tim knew the Talkingtons had no real power or influence anymore, but he had a reputation as a good man, a fair man who treated everyone equally and he wasn’t about to blow that courtesy of a thankless bitch who died many decades too late and her equally awful family.
He glanced at the table Tony was motioning to and realized with a start Shirley really was gone. In the span of a second, he thought of where she could be. She wasn’t in the viewing room yet and he knew he had taken her out of the cooler first thing this morning. That really didn’t leave anymore else. Curiosity slowly turned into a mild panic; the Talkingtons were broken-down annoyances, but finding out there was a body thief in town would create the kind of bad press and rumors that Tim absolutely did not need. Being the sole funeral home in town didn’t provide the kind of job security one might think. Sappington Springs had two funeral parlors, one of which also provided a crematorium. This was bad.
“Where is she?” Tim asked, his voice slightly shrill.
“Literally just asked you the same question,” Tony said with a sarcastic undertone. “Remember?”
“Shut up. Let me think.”
A quick glance at the television monitors above his desk told Tim the hearse was in front of the building, ready to take Shirley to her eternal resting place at the Holy Gardens cemetery just outside town. The other monitor showed the van they used to pick up the newly-deceased was in its customary place behind the building. Finally, the third screen showed the empty chapel where Shirley’s family would begin arriving in the next hour or so to send her on her way, probably with their customary passive-aggressive snottiness and backbiting disguised as farewell sentiment.
He looked up and saw Elizabeth Stanton standing in the door. She was the 20-year-old niece of Tim’s best friend from college who wanted to get into the mortuary business. Elizabeth had worked for them just more than a year and had the perfect temperament for the job. She could console the most grieving mother with a kind word and a simple hand on the shoulder and take the brutal tongue lashings from an angry son, too heartbroken to understand Elizabeth didn’t create the cancer that took his beloved mother.
“Jenny Talkington is here.”
“Fuck,” Tim said, the word slipping from his lips unintended.
“Oops, sorry about that.”
Elizabeth tried to hide a smile. “That’s OK. She wants to talk to you about seeing Mrs. Talkington before the rest of the family gets here. She’s waiting in the viewing room. Should I bring her in?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” Tim said with a sigh. “How’s her mood?”
This time, there was no hiding the smile on Elizabeth’s mahogany face. “About usual.”
Jenny Talkington graduated high school with Tim. She was a cunty know it all then and she remained true to her roots as an adult. “Usual” meant he was about to be talked to like he was the help and that she wanted to avoid paying the funeral bill for as long as possible, if at all.
“Awesome. Yes, go get her, please.”
Still standing by the table, Tony was smirking.
“Something funny?” Tim asked, annoyed.
“Nope,” Tony said, smug grin still on his face. “You have fun with her. That’s why you get the big check and your own parking space. Now you get to earn it. I’ll go track down the corpse.”
Tim was about to once again reprimand his cousin, but decided it was a bad cause and he had much bigger problems to deal with. And as if on cue, bereaved granddaughter Jenny Talkington walked through the door. She, like Tim, was nearly 40, but looked closer to 60. A steady diet of Marlboro Light 100s, Diet Coke, and pure hate had emaciated her to the point of looking positively mummy-esque. The fact no one could quite recall the last time they had seen her smile played no small part in her witch-like appearance.
Her voice was nicotine-coated gravel. In their youth, she had a beautiful singing voice and was a soloist who sang at churches all over the county and state. Now, she sounded like Leonard Cohen after a hard weekend.
“Hey, Jenny,” Tim said, standing up and walking to her with his hand out to shake hers. She ignored the gesture entirely.
“We would like to see Grandma before the service and before those money-grubbing moochers show up to pretend they’re devastated,” she said. Tim knew full well Jenny was the lead mooching money grubber and had already scoured Shirley’s will for anything and everything she could possibly get her hands on. The lack of any liquid assets in her grandmother’s last directives had put Jenny in an even more foul mood than her regularly-vitriolic demeanor. Tim’s face betrayed none of these thoughts as he put his hand in his pocket, trying to act as though he had intended to do that all along.
“Of course. Can you give us about an hour for us to prepare her?”
Jenny rolled her eyes, but said, “That’s fine. Also, I would like to think our credit is good here.”
It wasn’t a question, but a statement. Here we go, thought Tim.
“Well, Jenny,” he started, “we normally don’t provide credit and as a rule, request the family make a good-will gesture at least 15 percent down—“
Jenny cut him off. “Wow. You’re really talking money right now? Grandma Shirley isn’t even in the ground and you’re demanding money? I really thought better of you, Tim. I really did.”
She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, leaving Tim to stare at her as she turned the corner leading to the exit. Tony walked past him and plopped down in Tim’s chair and once seated, stared at the floor, unblinking.
“What’s up?” Tim asked.
Tony continued to stare at the floor saying nothing.
“Tony,” Tim said, becoming alarmed, “what’s going on?”
“She’s gone, man.”
“Yeah,” Tim said. “I know. That’s not in question.”
“No, I mean she left. On her own.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” Tim asked. “That’s impossible. I watched the autopsy being done. She’s dead.”
“Yes, she’s dead, but she left on her own. I swear, Tim. She’s out there.”
Tim looked at Tony for a long time. It was impossible to even consider that what his cousin was saying was true, but was there another option? Was Shirley Talkington a—Tim could barely even think the word without feeling ridiculous—a zombie?
“Tony. Seriously. Is she…undead?”
Tony finally looked up at Tim, his face still a mask of solemnity.
“Nah, I’m fuckin’ with you. She’s in the other room getting her hair done.