by J M Lawrence
Katie was annoyed her husband hadn’t showered again. The acrid tang of formaldehyde burned her nostrils, but she tried hard to bury her frustration. He was slowly opening up, after months of coldness. The last thing she wanted to do was push him away. Not after what happened last time.
She placed the lasagne on the table and smiled. “Your favourite, darling,” she said. He nodded and cupped the curve of her hips in thanks. She sat down and poured the wine. The candlelight flickered. “I thought we could get away this weekend,” she said, now spooning steaming lasagne onto their plates.
“Maybe. I might have to work, you know. This is an on call career.” She squirmed in her seat, disappointment filling her soul. He never seemed to stop working.
“Okay. I know how important your work is to you.” She smiled; he stabbed moodily at his plate, rearranging the contents.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“Just had a long day. This is great, it really is.” He smiled, and to her it was a fake smile, a forced smile – it said that even though the show continued, the audience had left.
Something must have shown on her face because he reached forward and laid a finger on her hand.
“Ah, I’m sorry, baby. I’ve just got a lot on my mind at the moment. Come here.”
He guided her around the table and onto his lap, where she sat, hoping to find answers in his eyes. The smell of formaldehyde was overpowering, but she didn’t care. Being close was all that mattered. With his little finger he stroked the bridge of her nose. She forgot about their problems.
The telephone rang, breaking the spell. Evening phone calls meant only one thing; Jack was needed to collect a body. She stood up, feeling dismissed, and transferred the half-eaten lasagne to the oven as he went to answer the phone. His voice drifted in from the hallway.
“Yeah. Okay, I’ll be there in twenty minutes. See you there.” He came back into the room, wearing his thick coat.
Katie looked up. “Got to go to work?”
“Well, I hope it goes well.”
“Thanks, babe.” He kissed her on the forehead and picked up his keys. As he walked past the table the coat’s thick material momentarily draped the candle and extinguished the flame. Katie stood still until she heard the front door close. Then she turned on the kitchen light and finished clearing up.
She heard Jack’s vehicle pull up outside and him disappear into the outbuilding. The decision to house the business next to their home had not been hers. But it made Jack’s life easier, and so it made her happy, although she still hadn’t grown accustomed to sharing her property with corpses.
He’d be stressing out right now; he always did during a collection. He was the best undertaker in the region, but he had no confidence. She was the only one who saw it, underneath the quiet exterior. That’s why he always came back to her.
She put her coat on and picked up the plate. Outside the air was bitter – the cold autumn had given way to a colder winter. The lights were on in the outbuilding. It was a professional setup, with official signs and wreaths in the glass foyer. Very respectable. Jack had designed it himself.
Katie pushed the door open and walked through the foyer and into the mortuary. She stalled on the threshold, heart winding up and settling somewhere near her throat. That perfume – she’d recognise it anywhere. It had burned into her mind the moment she’d uncovered Jack’s betrayal. He’d said it was just a type of embalming fluid and she’d believed him. So stupid, now that she thought about it. If he was seeing her again, she didn’t know what she’d do.
She walked further into the mortuary and rounded the corner. Her husband was settled over a body – a woman – preparing it for storage. Katie moved closer. It was her! Her body was nubile and feminine, the definition of raw beauty. Jack looked up and drew a breath through gritted teeth.
“Yes, I know, Katie. There’s nothing I can do. Her children were there. She needed to be taken away.”
Katie nodded, unable to speak. She watched his hands move over the body; his movements clinical, professional, but to her they were sexual. They had been sexual once. She shut her eyes and willed the thoughts away.
“I brought you something,” she said, opening her eyes and holding out the plate of biscuits.
“Thanks. Put it on the side table.”
She did so, and glanced across at the youthful, symmetrical face. It made Katie feel sick. Even in death, this woman could make her feel jealous.
“How did she die?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Not now, Katie, please.”
She opened her mouth, but didn’t know what to say. There was nothing to say, really. Half of her wanted to leave, and run far away. The other half hated the idea of leaving them alone, together, intimate. But if she didn’t leave, she’d throw up. She backed out, the image burning into her mind. Then she turned and ran, out of the mortuary, through the foyer and the garden, and back into the house, slamming the door behind her.
Ten minutes later she was in bed, under the covers, trying to block the image from her mind. Perhaps they were laughing at her right this minute. Katie pictured the woman sitting up and pulling Jack closer, grinning with lust, the pale make-up having done its job.
She groaned, hating herself. Why couldn’t she let go? She cried herself to sleep, waking up when Jack crept into the room. As he slid in next to her, and tried to face the other way, she sniffed covertly. Woodspice – Jack’s shower gel. So he’d taken a shower. But had he done it in appeasement, or because he had something to hide? She screwed up her face, refusing to question him, letting the thoughts jumble around her head, angry and unyielding.
They ate breakfast quietly, neither admitting to having hardly slept. It was Saturday morning. Jack was going to play golf; he would meet with the family of the deceased on Sunday. He was stressed, he said, but Katie thought he just wanted to get away from her.
“When will you be back?”
“Not sure.” He stood up and cleared the plates away, refilling his coffee and downing it in one gulp. “Some time in the afternoon. Maybe.”
“What about lunch?”
“I’ll get something there.” He bent down and kissed her on the forehead. Katie stiffened; the kiss felt paternal. Jack picked up his golf clubs from the hall and opened the front door. She turned to watch him go.
“Goodbye.” He slipped out and closed the door. Katie ran upstairs and watched him out the bathroom window as he drove off. She waited several minutes in case he’d forgotten something, then went downstairs and put on her coat.
It was bitter outside – too cold for golf. She walked over to the outbuilding. The foyer was slightly warmer, a pleasant surprise before the chill of the mortuary.
She worked quickly, as if a moment’s hesitation would expose her craziness. Some of the drawers were full, but not all. She opened them systematically; the drone of the rollers echoed around the room, interspaced with body bags being unzipped and closed again. She found the body, tinged blue but face still locked in that perpetual smile. She moved around to the side of the drawer so she was no longer looking at her upside down. She unzipped the bag down to the bottom and studied the body, letting horrible thoughts pierce her brain, making split second comparisons but trying not to be afraid.
She wondered, fleetingly, if Jack had been different around this woman. If she brought him out his shell, filled him with fire and life, made him embrace his masculinity. She imagined them in bed, her body arched, receptive, him aggressive and passionate.
The image sent shockwaves through her body. She tried to stamp it out. She looked down at the body; the smile seemed wider, more knowing.
Katie zipped up the bag and slammed the drawer shut, then ran out the mortuary and out into the garden, where she stood, hugging herself, barely feeling the cold.
She was sitting in the living room when Jack came home. He dumped his golf clubs in the hallway and came in to kiss her.
“What have you been up to?”
He gave a non-committal shrug and went into the kitchen. Katie heard the suck of the fridge being opened. She got up and followed him.
“I thought you were eating there.”
“I would have made you something.”
She watched him butter two slices of bread and tip a can of beans into a saucepan.
“Why’d you sleep with her, Jack?”
He paused, hand above the stove, eyes locked on the gas ring.
“You really want to talk about this now?”
“Not really, no. I just want you to tell me why.”
Jack sighed. “We’ve been through this, Katie. At counselling. There’s nothing else I can tell you.”
Katie nodded and crossed her arms.
“I don’t want her here, Jack. It’s not fair.” Her eyes swam with tears. Jack turned and looked at her, arms folded.
“It’s my job, Katie.”
“Yeah, I know that. How could I not, when it’s more important than your wife?” She wiped her eyes, breathing hard. His face softened and he moved forward, putting his hands on her shoulders.
“Come on. It won’t be for long. The funeral will probably be next Tuesday or Wednesday. I’ll talk to the family and try for Tuesday. Okay?” He smiled at her, and although she didn’t want to, she put her head on his chest and allowed him to hug her tight.
“How about I take you out for dinner? Just you and me.” His eyes were twinkling down at her; she felt overcome and just nodded, then let out a cathartic sigh and pressed harder into his chest, closing her eyes, giving in to him.
The house was quiet when they pulled into the driveway, headlights cutting through the darkness. Katie rested her head on Jack’s shoulder, feeling truly connected to her husband for the first time in months. It had been a wonderful meal.
“We’re home.” She lifted her head and stretched, then unclipped her seatbelt and smiled at her husband. He grinned back and turned off the ignition.
The house was cold, so she turned the heating on as Jack brought in some bags from the trunk. He dumped them in the hallway and closed the door. Katie watched him, yawning.
“Hey now, don’t fall asleep just yet.” He smiled and stepped forward, pulling her towards him, kissing her softly on the lips. They parted slowly, and she moved into him, back to his mouth, remembering how much she liked to kiss him. His deep kiss filled her body with warmth. She relaxed, enjoying the feeling, worries far away.
A face flashed through her mind; a beautiful face, alive and smiling inside a mortuary drawer. Katie pulled away sharply and gasped.
“What is it?” Jack held her shoulders, looking concerned.
“Nothing.” She forced a smile and grabbed his shirt, pulling him towards her, then turning and leading him up the stairs. They would make love, and that was that. There was no way she’d let a dead fragment of the past stop them from coming together.
Jack lit the candles as she peeled off her clothes, and then they were tumbling in bed, reforming connections that had withered long ago. She ran her hands over his chest as he looked into her eyes and smiled; a smile full of truth, this time. She smiled back and he leaned down to kiss her mouth. As their lips touched she once again felt the electric flash of invasion and saw the woman grinning perversely, shrouded in cold, no longer lying in confinement but in the mortuary doorway, stepping out of the body bag. Katie shrieked, hands reaching out and pushing Jack hard in the chest with her palms. He fell backwards, falling onto the bed, then sat up sharply.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“She’s alive, that bitch is alive!”
“Don’t say her name! I saw her, Jack, I saw her, standing in the mortuary. She’s coming here!” She gushed out the words and stared into her husband’s face, unblinking. He looked down at the duvet.
“You’re tired. And stressed. It’s a shock for you, Katie, I understand that.” He moved forward to hug her, arms outstretched. She backed away.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” She jumped off the bed and dressed, throwing on the clothes she’d taken off before.
“Come on, Katie, don’t be like this.”
“Like what? It’s not my fault you don’t believe me!” She pulled on her shoes as Jack looked for his socks. Once they were dressed they walked out the bedroom door and down the stairs, Katie marching in front.
The mortuary door banged against the bare brick and she stood for a second, breathing heavily, getting her bearings, then moved over to a drawer and slid it open. The noise echoed loudly as Jack joined her and ran a hand nervously through his hair.
“This is really unprofessional, Katie.”
“As if that matters now. Look.” She unzipped the bag, expecting to see a bunch of pillows or a beanbag or some other trick, but there was Georgie’s body, still pale and tinged with blue. Katie looked at her mouth, the corners of which seemed to be tipped a little higher.
“Look at her smile, look at it! She’s alive!”
“Katie, this is madness…”
She turned on her husband. “Madness? One day you’d have believed me in a heartbeat. Now you think I’m mad. And it’s her fault!”
Katie pushed the drawer hard; it screamed along the rails and slammed shut. She took off, out the mortuary, through the lobby and into the garden, where she paused. She heard a drawer being opened, and snorted in disgust, then began to sob. She walked up to the front door, fighting the truth in her mind: her husband’s heart belonged to a dead woman.
The living room was dark except for the cold, muted colours of the television. They sat on the sofa, arms folded, the empty distance between them a concrete wall. Katie’s eyes were glazed over, reflecting the moving images on the screen, but she was lost in thought, running through their marriage and the affair. How could she have been so blind?
“So when’s the funeral?” she said, refusing to look at him. He took a swig of beer, the sounds of his lips on the bottle amplified in Katie’s mind as she waited for an answer.
“Tuesday. I have to go.”
“No surprise there.”
“It’s my job, Katie. The family wants me there.”
He brought the bottle to his lips, the action jerky, as if stopping himself from saying something he would regret. But then he lowered it without drinking.
“What’s the matter with you, Katie? She’s dead. Dead! And even if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t matter. It’s over between us, it has been for months. It’s you I want.”
Katie listened, knowing for the first time she hadn’t forgiven him for the affair, because his words made no difference. No difference at all.
He was looking into her eyes.
“It’s you I want,” he repeated. She blinked away his face and looked at the floor, realising the truth.
“It doesn’t matter, Jack. I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
She choked back the first wave of tears, but then they multiplied, and like an avalanche they flowed down her face. Jack looked at her, face white and numb. The beer bottle fell from his hand, rolled off the sofa and clattered against the wooden floor, spilling its contents.
The suitcase hung open like a diseased gape.
Katie sat on the edge of the bed, clutching her wedding dress tight to her chest. Twenty years of her life. Over. But had it been over as soon as her husband started sleeping with another woman? Had she been kidding herself all along?
She folded the wedding dress and put it on the bed, then ran her fingers through her hair. She zipped up the suitcase and went downstairs. Jack stood in the darkened kitchen, leaning on the counter.
“You really have to go? Today?” He turned. Katie was shocked by the realness of the pain on his face.
“Yes, Jack. It’s the right thing to do.”
“We’ve been married for twenty years. Surely that counts for something?”
“Don’t try and guilt-trip me. This isn’t my fault.”
“Well, I’m not making you go.”
She sighed and shook her head.
“Sure you aren’t, Jack.”
She turned to leave, but his hand caught her wrist. He felt good, warm and strong, and she hated herself for not pulling away.
“Stay. Just tonight.” Katie looked into his eyes and knew the decision had been made for her. Although his grip was soft, she felt powerless to escape it. She opened her mouth to speak, but her throat tightened. She nodded, weakly, then moved forward. He pulled her into his chest.
Katie sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee. It had been two days since she’d agreed to stay for one more night. Why was she still at the house? It was hard to tell. Part of her thought that whatever her head told her, she wasn’t ready to leave her husband. But then there was the funeral. Jack would be attending, just like he had said. And did she really want him to be there alone? Well, she didn’t want him to be there at all, but at least if she attended, she could…could what? Stop him from crying his eyes out?
Katie bit her lip. She’d go to the funeral. Maybe it was some kind of test. To see where his loyalties lie. After it was over, she’d make a decision. Once and for all.
The morning was dull and biting, and Katie felt chilled to her bones as she dressed silently in black. Jack was downstairs, getting the car ready. The church was a few miles away.
She looked at herself in the mirror; like a corpse, dull and lifeless, and second best. She walked downstairs. Jack was back inside, putting on his coat.
“Okay, let’s go.”
They left the house and climbed into the car. Jack fumbled with the key, struggling to get it into the ignition. He smiled nervously.
“Fingers are cold.”
The church was busy when they arrived. Georgie had been popular in life and was now so in death. Only a few seats were empty. They found two, near the back, and sat down. Minutes later the hushed funeral talk wound down and the vicar appeared.
“Welcome, friends, family and loved ones, who have come today…”
Katie half-listened, wondering why she had come. Jack’s face was stoic and deadpan, as if he were under duress to show no emotion. She tried not to look at him.
The service seemed to go on forever. Readings from the family. From friends. A slideshow of images showing that damn beautiful smile.
Katie gripped her bag more tightly. Everyone was filing out the back door. Jack stood up and she joined him; they followed the procession and were soon in the cemetery. The sky threatened rain – in fact, a few drops were already falling. They took their places in the tight-knit circle that surrounded the freshly-dug hole.
The vicar arrived. Katie watched the coffin behind him, carried and then placed into the hole. It all happened slowly, like they were underwater.
She couldn’t fight the urge to look at her husband. Tears leaked down his face, slowly, as if each were ashamed of its appearance. Then they fell like a flood, and he turned his head from her. She was dimly aware of the vicar’s voice in the background as she forced herself, now faced with the truth, to make a decision.
Her husband had loved another woman – that much was clear. But that woman was now dead, and could cause no more pain.
The first moundful of earth fell onto the coffin’s polished top. Then the next. Each delivered a healthy dose of catharsis, and each made her want to cling onto life, and her husband.
Could she trust him again? Could she love him truly, knowing that his heart had belonged to someone else? She looked sideways at him; his face was twisted and full of suffering. He had certainly suffered. And he had been unfaithful. He had broken his marriage vows.
But even when this woman was alive, he had forsaken the affair for his wife. He had come back to her. Chosen her above all others. And that made all the difference, didn’t it?
As the last of the earth fell, burying the past, Katie reached a hand out and touched her husband’s side, thinking only of the future. Several feet below, she sensed a smile falter, like a dying arc of electricity.
© 2012 J M Lawrence
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.