Yesterday we got the body of a boy my age. Bradley Townsend, the sweet, quiet kid who sat next to me in biology class, died in a car accident. My family runs the Wisnicki Funeral Home, and I work in the prep room after school and on weekends, helping to dress and groom the deceased. Poor Brad had just become our customer. He came to us in pretty good shape, not too banged-up considering what happened—his friend’s car speeding off the road, hitting a tree. He had seemed like such a good guy—polite and respectful—not like some of the jerks he hung out with. I felt really bad for him, dying so young. I thought, why him?
He had already been washed and embalmed. His parents had sent over a suit and tie, a crisp white cotton shirt. My father dressed him; he doesn’t like me doing the men or boys. But that outfit wasn’t right for Brad. He probably wouldn’t have wanted to stay formally dressed forever. I imagined he’d rather be in a soft, comfortable t-shirt and his favorite jeans—the stuff he probably had on when they got in the accident. Now he looked like he was dressed for the prom, and oh, God, the thought hit me that he’d never get to go. My heart broke for him, so I took extra good care of his body.
I knew exactly where to part his hair, not too far to the right. I gently combed through it, then cupped my hand over his eyes and sprayed it in place. He didn’t need a lot of make-up, since his face wasn’t bruised; a thin coating of base paint on his face, neck, and hands, to give him some natural color, and a tiny bit of pink on his cheeks. I stood over him, and I couldn’t believe how handsome he was, even dead—his dark, shiny hair, clean complexion, full lips. Lips that drew me in. I leaned over him and stopped. Don’t be crazy now, he’s a stiff, I told myself and straightened up. But still, those lips. I added a little bit of gloss on them to make them look moist, and patted them slowly, lightly, feeling their softness. The gloss made them so smooth. What a shame that those lips wouldn’t kiss anyone anymore. I wondered who kissed them last, what lucky girl stood in front of him as he slowly bent down, his face so close that she could feel the heat of his breath.
I had to stop thinking about it, but the thing was, I had just celebrated my sweet sixteen, and I still hadn’t had my very first kiss. I knew I should treat him like any other body, but I heard myself whisper, “He’s not.” Brad was special, a really nice guy who wasn’t all full of himself. He was the guy I would have liked to kiss.
None of the guys at my high school want to date the mortician’s daughter, especially since we live in the apartment above the funeral home. I had been more popular in middle school, when the boys either freaked out or became too preoccupied with the family business. In seventh grade, Sammy Thomas came over and turned cold as a cadaver when my father came upstairs for lunch with a red stain on his shirt. Most likely the ketchup that Pop had with his eggs that morning, but Sammy must have thought it was blood.
“Are there really dead people, right downstairs?” he asked me before he left.
And in eighth grade, I couldn’t get rid of Bobby Corbett. He kept interrupting our video game. “Can we go down there? Can we go see them? Can we go down and see the dead people, pleeeeeeeeese?”
Even Emma, my best friend since third grade, still gets a little sweaty if the hearse pulls in with a delivery when she’s over. She’ll grab her purse and want to leave. I don’t mind. Some people just can’t take it. They must watch too many zombie movies.
Anyway, I really like my job. I think it’s important to treat the dead with care and respect, and when I’ve done good work, I can tell that the bereaved family is grateful. And my clients never complain. Not like some of the ladies at the salon, who ask for a discount just because the stylist cut their hair a little short in the back. I prefer my silent friends. I’m used to being around the bodies, having had a funeral director for a dad—a man who believed, even before I was tall enough to reach the embalming table, that every day was Take Your Daughter to Work Day. It was dad’s bright idea to name me Ashley, because I was born the same year they opened the crematorium around the block.
I usually ask for a recent picture of the dearly departed and gather their personal items, jewelry, whatever, to adorn them. If not, I improvise with stock suits, gowns, and accessories, but my favorite pieces are things I’ve found at the flea market: a tennis racket for the old man who used to love to play, colorful baubles for the grandma who spent all her money on her grandchildren. I search their names online; read their obituaries.
I also try to assess them by how they look once they’ve been cleaned up, as to their particular personality. I want them to look like themselves but at their very best. Some people actually take pictures of them, you know. Of course, the deceased look like they’re just sleeping when I’m through with them—serenely resting on silk pillows with their eyes softly closed. I even give them soft, warm blankets if it’s cold outside. Families like to see their loved ones nestled in for the hereafter.
I stared at Brad’s angelic face and tried to think of a special memento to leave with him. I had a copy of last year’s high school yearbook, and I thought everyone from school might want to sign it for him. A lot of kids had already left him messages and tweets online: #RIPBradTownsend. We were all going to miss him; I knew I really would. He was so shy, and I had never been able to work up enough nerve to talk to him, except one day when I found a hallway pass with his name on it. I stopped him after class and said “Here,” and he said “Thanks.” We smiled at each other at the same time, but then I saw him holding hands with Lexie Saunders. Sexy Lexie. Ugh. I didn’t think she was his type; she’s so bossy and full of herself. I was right. It didn’t last.
As I looked at dead Brad in his prom suit, I realized that I probably wouldn’t get to go to the prom either. I’d have to switch schools, go someplace where nobody knows me. I don’t want to go to mortician’s school, or study mortuary science, like Pop is hoping. I dream of a faraway college. With lots of guys. Live ones.
I have been watching everyone else hook up and break up, and I want in on it, all of it, even the tears in the girls’ bathroom. I see what I’m missing every minute of every day, and I want to scream “It’s my turn!” or maybe walk around in a T-shirt with a big arrow that says “She’s a bitch! Pick me!” Why can’t guys see me for who I am—a really nice girl with a talent for hair, make-up, and clothes, who just happens to work with dead people?
I sorted through my collection to see what other special items I might have for Brad, and I came across a dress that I had found at the consignment shop down the street—a used gown, soft pink, with a little shimmer in the bodice and long layers of taffeta for the skirt. I thought it looked a little small for me, but after seeing Brad all dressed up, I wanted to try it on. It glided easily over my hips, and I pulled it up and pranced over to the mirror, doing a quick spin to test out the skirt, watching the wavy layers of silk float and land gently behind me. I felt so feminine and pretty in that dress that I didn’t want to take it off, and that’s when I hatched my plan. I hunted through the closet for heels and found a pair of satin pumps, size eight, and I’m a size seven, so I stuffed a little tissue in the toes and slid them on. Then I had to do my makeup, because I usually don’t wear any when I’m working, and my hair looked stringy, so I decided to put it in an updo. I heated the curling iron and got busy fixing myself up while Brad lay patiently in the other room. You couldn’t have stopped me. It was the right thing to do, for me and for Brad. We were going to have a prom.
I had another three hours before the p.m. showing and didn’t have time to waste. My heels clicked on the tile floor as I made my way to the parlor to borrow some flowers for corsages, and then I was going to get a speaker for some tunes. I thought we could listen to some music together, maybe even hold hands, but I came to a stop just as Lexie and her mother walked in. They looked me over with puzzled expressions, and I was just as surprised to see them.
“Um. Can I help you?” I wanted to crawl into a coffin.
“We’re here to express our condolences to Bradley’s family,” Mrs. Saunders said. “But it looks like we’re too early?” She looked around the empty parlor.
“Yeah. The showing isn’t for a few hours.” I bounced my head up and down, over and over, hoping they would just turn around and leave.
“What a gorgeous dress,” Mrs. Saunders said, not moving. Lexie rolled her eyes and started texting someone. She’d probably want a selfie with Brad.
“Yeah. Uh.” I looked down at the dress for inspiration and looked up with a bright idea. “Family wedding,” I lied, and I realized I’d have to keep her away from my parents, but good save.
“Well, have fun,” Mrs. Saunders said with a fake twinkle.
I hate fake twinklers. Lexie barely said goodbye, giving me a bored look, and they left.
I marched back to Brad with a handful of flowers, feeling ridiculous. He didn’t pick me; he’d never pick me. What a stupid idea anyway, a funeral-parlor prom with a corpse. He didn’t argue; he just laid there peacefully in his uncomfortable suit—which he looked amazing in, by the way. I stood back and admired him for a while.
And then I thought, oh, what the heck, it wouldn’t hurt. I mean, of all the guys at school, he would be the one that I would pick. So I sashayed over in my pretty pink dress and pinned a single white rose to his lapel. Then I leaned in close and with a hint of a smile, kissed his beautiful, dead mouth. Softly, quickly, reverently.
By showing time, the mourning line stretched from the parking lot, around the building, through the lobby and into our little viewing room swarmed with high school kids and their parents. Brad’s parents stood by his casket, dazed, as if they had been in the wreck with him. It’s always tough to watch the families; a loved one’s passing is such a hard thing to accept. No wonder people believe in an afterlife. Death is so final—no do-overs—you’re done here. Gone. See you in the next life. Brad’s younger sister, who looked to be about middle-school age, sat quietly by the casket, watching over her dead brother. I wanted to say something to her, talk to her about Brad, but my friend Emma had been standing in the line and pulled me by the arm as I walked by.
“Ash, are you OK?”
I nodded my head yes.
“But he was your crush.”
“Shut. Up.” I dragged Emma outside and down the sidewalk, away from the rest of the group, scanning the crowd for Lexie and her mother, but I didn’t see them. The last thing I wanted was for Lexie to know that I had a thing for Brad, and I still had to make sure Lexie’s mother didn’t talk to my parents about the “family wedding” that afternoon. What was I thinking, getting all dressed up?
I pulled Emma around to face me, holding her by the shoulders. “I kissed him.”
“What? When? Did you go out with him? Oh my God, were you out with him that night?” Her voice rose, getting louder with every word.
“Shhhh. No. Today. I kissed him today.”
“Ew, no. Please tell me you just made that up.” She took a step back.
“What’s the big deal?”
“Oh, you’ve hit bottom, Ash. Seriously, are you so desperate that you have to kiss a dead guy?”
“I didn’t do it out of desperation. More like—anticipation. Or finalization. Or, I don’t know, does it matter why? I like him. A lot. So I kissed him. I kissed Brad Townsend. He was my first.” I wanted her to be happy for me, but I sensed she wasn’t seeing the silver lining.
“Nice.” She flipped her long hair back and folded her arms. “So what’s next, you’re going out?”
“You’re funny.” I didn’t laugh, and I kept my voice down. “I’m going to talk to his sister.”
“You’re not going to tell her, are you?”
Duh. “Of course not.”
I made my way back through the crowd and into the viewing room, politely cutting through the line, and squatted next to Brad’s sister.
“He was the nicest guy in our school,” I said.
She studied my face. “Are you Lexie?”
I felt a stab in my heart. “No, I’m Ashley. Brad sat next to me in biology.”
“Oh. Hi, Ashley. Brad told me about you.” She patted the chair next to her.
“He did?” I sat down beside her, my heart healed and glowing, warming me up to my cheeks.
“Yep. He said you were nice.”
“Wow.” I nodded, trying not to cry, and held her hand. “What a sweetheart,” I managed.
I stayed with her and Brad until the end of the showing, me all smiley and tearful; Brad all cozy and peaceful. When no one was looking, I stepped over and whispered in his ear, “Thank you.”
Jan Ramming of Geneva, Illinois, was a freelance journalist until she decided to write her own stories. Her flash fiction, “Red,” was featured in Bohemia Journal (April 2014).