You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.
A grave undertaking
The next day, Joshua made the arrangements with the cemetery. Well, he activated them at least, because they’d set up the plot, marker, and other extras previously. Neither of them had ever planned to have a big to-do, and they certainly never planned to have it so soon, although they had taken the precaution when they decided to go into the ghost-hunting business, just in case.
“Metro Stations can be dangerous,” Simon had advised Jason, who agreed.
Funeral insurance covered the cost, and Simon’s life insurance payout would give Jason a nice donation to make, via the Ada Lovelace Foundation, to Simon’s favorite charities.
“So at least I won’t be completely useless in death,” Simon had half-joked when he had explained those wishes.
Preston and Danny stuck with Joshua the entire time, and he really appreciated having them there. He jokingly referred to them as “My emotional support Rêves,” wondering whether this meant that he could take them into stores everywhere.
“Only if he learns how to materialize clothes,” Danny joked about Preston.
“I think I should just call you Dr. Manhattan,” Joshua said.
“Dude!” they exclaimed simultaneously, and then said in similar words at the same time that Watchmen was their absolute favorite book, and they even liked the movie if it was… different.
Joshua agreed with them, although they had both also read Doomsday Clock, the graphic novel sequel while he had not.
“You know they made a sequel miniseries based on it?” Joshua told them. “It came out four years ago or so.”
“No shit!” Danny gushed.
“Is it any good?” Simon replied.
“Oh, yeah,” Joshua told them. “Hey — we’ve got nowhere else to go until the funeral, and it’s only about nine hours. Want to binge it?”
“Yes!” they both announced excitedly, so Joshua dropped the black-out shades, fired up the big screen, and they all settled back for a marathon.
It had been as good as Joshua remembered from his first three viewings, and it was nice to watch it with someone who’d never experienced it. Danny and Simon were squeeing left and right like total fanboys, shuddering in giddy excitement at every sudden revelation and big plot turn.
The appearance of the teleported squid in Episode 5 really sent them into ecstasy, because this was one of the biggest — and most criticized — changes in the movie version.
Joshua couldn’t help but notice, too, that time apart, so to speak, had let Danny and Preston differentiate a bit. Not that they had started out as the same people, mentally, but their reactions were not absolutely identical, even if physically they were.
The only difference between them were their haircuts, which made sense because Preston had had access to and the means to afford high-end stylists while Danny hadn’t, but the changes were subtle enough that he really had to look for them.
They had started the marathon around eight in the morning and finished it, with an hour break for lunch and slightly longer for dinner (well, for Joshua) just after 7 p.m., at which point he opened the shutters and went onto the balcony with his phone, leaving Danny and Preston to eagerly discuss what they had just seen.
Nerd pornstar. Who knew?
He called Brett and Drew first to let them know the details of the funeral, then had to talk them out of inviting anyone else along.
“We’ve both always wanted this to be very private,” he said. “So I hope that you’d respect Simon’s wishes.”
They insisted on hosting a huge funeral procession, but Joshua explained that the funeral home was on the cemetery grounds, so it would be one hearse bringing the coffin out to the gravesite before the mourners arrived, and there wasn’t going to be any kind of religious service at all.
“A reception. You need a reception!” Brett insisted.
“Yeah, well… maybe an intimate dinner at someplace with great steaks after,” Joshua said. “But that’s it.”
“Done, and on us!” Brett replied.
“Thanks,” Joshua said. “See you there, then.”
His next call was to Brenda, for the same reason, and after she took down the details and agreed to the invite, he said, “Hey, so tell me about your family.”
She explained that there would be five of them — in addition to Brenda, one husband, two children, and one mother, hers. They had one other daughter, but she was off to school, and hadn’t come home for summer break because she was picking up extra units in summer school.
“Oh… I should explain,” Brenda added. “Our youngest is transgender.”
“Oh, cool,” Joshua replied. “What are their pronouns?”
“She, her, and hers, and thank you for asking,” Brenda said.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Joshua replied.
“A lot of people are not understanding and, sorry to say it, that includes gay people as well.”
“Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” he replied. “I’ve met plenty of transphobic gay men, generally the older ones, who can also be total racists. Just because we’re part of a traditionally oppressed group doesn’t mean we can’t be bigoted assholes, too.”
“Amen to that, brother. So, we’ll see you at the funeral, then. Is there a service before, or is that family only…?”
“No service,” Joshua said. “And our friends were and are our family. We’re probably doing dinner or something after though, and you all are absolutely welcome.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Brenda said.
“Thanks. See you there.”
Joshua hung up and realized that he’d probably just added another really close friend to his group, and it had all started with a government official harassing him and his husband while they were doing their job. Who knew?
And that had been only… what? A week and a half ago at most?
At the mortuary, the mortician started his work on Simon the afternoon after he arrived. It was always sad to see someone so young die. Fortunately, his cause of death had left him looking relatively intact.
Contrary to popular belief, human beings do not explode like watermelons when dropped from a great height. Most of the damage is internal, and Simon had been no exception. A lot of his bones were broken, and presumably he had suffered major internal organ damage — at least that’s what the attending physician’s report had said.
After the embalming part was done, the mortician, Olam Sharon, took a look to see what he had to work with.
It was going to take a lot of packing of the chest cavity to give it some sort of shape, since the hospital had removed the internal organs in the autopsy and the ribs were too fractured to support anything.
Oh, the organs were all there. They were just sealed in a biohazard bag left in the abdomen, and it wasn’t a mortician’s place to put them back together like an anatomical model. He just left them in there as he filled in the rest of the cavity.
Olam placed an assortment of newspaper, sawdust and florist’s foam in the space, with more florist’s foam on top so he could easily mold the chest into something looking normal. This was made easier by the fact that they hadn’t sewn up the Y-incision that ran from each of the decedent’s armpits to a midline just below his sternum, then all the way down to just above his pubic bone.
Olam preferred to never think of his clients by name for two reasons. One was that it made it much easier for him to think of them as precious objects to be restored for their loved ones. The other was that thinking the name could alert evil spirits to their presence, and should their soul still be hanging around, the evil ones might snatch it instead of letting it be extinguished to leave only their good deeds and life behind.
Okay, he didn’t really believe that last part, but his bubbe Mavet had told him many tales, including why you should never name a child after a living ancestor.
Once he’d filled in the decedent’s chest and abdominal cavities, he folded the skin back in place and then began to sew it shut, from top right all the way down, then from top left likewise, to give double stitching down the abdomen.
He’d learned to sew from his uncle Moishe, who had been a tailor, and at one point his family expected him to go into that business. Olam had wound up taking a different path, though, after his best friend died in a terrible accident just after they both became bar mitzvah.
They’d been playing around the train tracks near where they lived in the West Valley — this was back in the mid-1970s — and given that safety standards were a lot looser back then, the freight trains thundered down the rights-of-way mere feet from the back walls of tract homes, with nary a gate or wall to keep curious kids from wandering onto the dirt sidings next to them.
The only precautions were the flashing lights and guardrails that dropped across some (but not all) at-grade intersections.
Decades later, this line would be converted into the Metro G line, a busway, with huge warning signs saying “Keep Out!” on the sidings at every crossing along with fences blocking pedestrian access.
But Olam and Jakov were free-range children and had been playing near the tracks that summer afternoon, doing their usual shenanigans of putting pennies on the rails. When the penny came flying out flattened, Jakov ran to retrieve it, but misjudged it somehow and got too close to the train. The bottom of a ladder on a boxcar caught a sleeve on his jacket, whipped him around to slam his face into the metal, and then dragged him over a hundred feet before he fell off.
Olam screamed and ran to him, but it was obviously too late, and Jakov’s face was a bloody, unrecognizable mess. Olam ran the two blocks home, his mom called the authorities, and Jakov was buried two days later.
The thing that must struck Olam was that they actually had an open-casket viewing for Jakov (his father was Catholic), and that he looked so… perfect. No sign of the trauma at all. Sure, he had a sort of artificial, overly made-up look, but who knew that such a thing was possible?
So Olam switched from the idea of being a tailor to being a mortician. His parents weren’t happy at first, but once he’d learned that sewing was part of the process, and that it was kind of medicine adjacent, they supported him fully.
He’d been in the business for years, but every time he had a client who had died young and in a terrible accident, he took special care, and this decedent was no different.
Normally, he’d leave the torso a little lumpy, because the inevitable fancy clothes that would be put on them would cover imperfections, but here Olam made sure that everything looked as normal as possible.
He had even used his best, finest but strongest thread that most matched the decedent’s skin-tone so that should anyone happen to look (they wouldn’t) his chest would appear intact. Finally, he put matching foundation over any obvious bruises on the front of the body and blended it.
Next was the face, which he carefully tightened up by pulling back the muscles that had been cut in order to remove the top of the skull and excise the brain. Normally, a mortician would just stuff the mouth and cheeks with couch-packing cotton to keep things from sagging too much, but Olam had an additional trick that he used on decedents he really felt sympathy for, and this was one.
Part of his training involved anatomy, so he brought each facial muscle back to its original bone process to reattach, although he pulled them a little tighter than they normally would have been because they had lost some elasticity in death.
He had several reference photos to work from and only four muscles to put back in place — one on each side, and two in the front, stretching up roughly above either eye.
Obviously, he couldn’t sew muscles to bone and expect them to hold, but that was okay. He had glue. What they used was a generic, but it was similar to and stronger than what civilians knew as Krazy Glue or Super Glue or generically as a cyanoacrylate. It had been used during the Vietnam war to seal up wounds on the battlefield, hence its notorious ability to stick fingers together.
That was exactly what Olam needed, so he misted the skull and muscle with water and while wearing gloves that the glue would not affect, held the muscle with his right hand while slathering the skull with a generous coating of the glue.
When he was done, he pulled the muscle and put it in place, adjusting it and watching the decedent’s face tighten until he was happy with the results, then pressed his palm down and held it while he counted to one hundred.
He repeated the procedure for the other frontal muscle, then gently turned the decedent onto his left side, placed a block behind his shoulder to keep him in place, and did likewise for one side muscle. Lather, rinse, repeat for the other before he was flat on his back again.
While he’d been doing this, he noticed that someone at the County Morgue also knew their trick for putting the skull cap back on after it had been sawn off — denture adhesive — and they had aligned it perfectly.
He was also amazed to see that the decedent had managed to not fracture his skull at all, but that made sense then, because he’d read in the coroner’s report that he’d been brought to the hospital alive after a fifteen-story fall.
“Okay,” Olam thought. “That all looks good,” so he then went to work on making up the face.
Normally, this would just involve slapping on enough base to hide the pallor of death — maybe a little eyeshadow and lipstick if it was a woman, pale lipstick and rouge if it was a man.
Oh, he referred to the “make-up” as that, but you’d never find this kind in a fancy department store or a woman’s boudoir. It was made special for the industry because it had to stick to dead skin. It was more like very waxy paint, and designed to conceal.
Despite his injuries, this decedent didn’t look as bad as a lot of them. Quite often, there were bruises to cover up, or discolorations due to lack of oxygen or gangrene or dozens of other things.
They even had a trick for people who died due to liver conditions and came in incredibly jaundiced — just run a tank of condensed milk through the veins before the embalming fluid, which was Olam’s preferred method. He also knew of morticians who plopped four Alka-Seltzer into the pre-injection chemicals, added a gallon of water, pumped it in without letting it drain and let it sit for fifteen to thirty minutes before flushing it out.
This one didn’t need any of that, but got the full-on beauty treatment. Base first, and then a Hollywood studio-worthy process of blended layers that made him look about as life-like as possible and match him to the pictures his husband had provided.
When Olam was happy with that, he slathered the still exposed skull with a ton of the glue, then pulled the scalp flap up and over, being sure to yank it taut before bringing it back down in place. Fortunately, the decedent’s shaggy hair style would cover the incision, although he of course camouflaged it himself.
When he was done, he stepped back and looked at his work, before giving himself the chef’s “finger-kiss” salute. The finishing touches involved washing and manicuring the hands, which probably made total sense to people.
But the last bit before he dressed the corpse was one that was necessary and, probably, unknown to most civilians. He placed a rigid plastic plug up the decedent’s anus, making sure it was in tight. No need to have sudden anal leakage ruin the festivities, after all.
The last step was to put on the clothes that the husband, Joshua, had brought, and Olam couldn’t help but wonder what kind of interesting people these two were. Well, one was, one is. The outfit is a long brown duster, with a brass gauntlet on the left hand, a ridiculously dark black ruffled silk shirt, tan suede trouser and elaborate oxblood boots, engraved in paisley, with contrasting tan areas.
Olam is thankful that the accident made it easier to get the boots on, because if not, he would have had to shatter the decedent’s ankles. Otherwise, everything has been slit down the back and put in place in rather the same way that one would put a fitted sheet on a mattress.
The final touches were attaching his cellphone to his left hand, and placing a low top hat, in the same tan suede as his trousers but with an oxblood band, in the crook of his right elbow. No crossed arms for this one, and he didn’t have to strap down the hands because the arms weren’t “floating” as they often wanted to do.
When Olam is done, he steps back and gasps. This one has got to be his masterpiece and, although it is ridiculously against the rules, he cannot help himself but take several photos of the results.
At least he’s smart enough to never share them on social media, or with anyone. But he does make a mental note: “Drop by this funeral. It’s got to be spectacular.”
There was a witness to his transgression. However, she could not have cared less. As soon as Simon’s corpse had been delivered, she had felt something, but couldn’t name it.
Ironically, what had finally drawn her in was Olam’s deep concern over this one, even though he’d neither known nor met Simon in life.
But that kind of emotional attachment to a dead person was like firing off a signal flare to the
Rêves, so she had hurried over to the mortuary to keep tabs.
To Olam’s credit, she had no idea who he was working on until he had completed his amazing job on Simon’s face, and the clothes had just cinched it.
“Holy shit,” Anabel muttered under her breath. “He’s going to be on our side now?”
She wasn’t sure what to think or do, but if this one was here and the other one wasn’t, then she just might have acquired the dual generals who would win this war.
Against her better judgement, she summoned Pearl. The Hadas had to know about this one. It was news too big to keep quiet.