Gabe swung his feet from his perch on the second table and watched his father apply the foundation first, dabbing softly with a plush pad and then brushing finishing powder and blush over her still cheeks. Next, he used a piece of fine foam shaped like a cat tongue to apply the subtle, shimmery eye shadow, and then he coated her eyelashes with mascara. Lastly, the lipstick – a soft, rosy hue her daughter Lois had passed along, insisting it was her favorite.
His father used a Kleenex to dab the excess lipstick from her mouth and stood back assessing a job well done. Their neighbor Mrs. Amos glowed. Her skin was soft and smooth – her lips plump and full thanks to the foam inserts his father had carefully placed over her front teeth before sticking her lips together with tack. She hadn’t looked so well in the years Gabe had known her, but his father, who used to bring in her firewood as a child and who up until this past winter, shoveled her driveway for her, smiled and said softly, “Yes. Just as she would have wanted.”
Gabe nodded and shifted his gaze away from the body. It made his pulse race to see how comfortable his father was with the dead. All soft touches and hushed words, as if she might wake up and wonder why she was in a strange basement dressed in her Sunday best.
Often Gabe wished his dad was a pharmacist or a mechanic, maybe even a garbage man, instead of a mortician. He could never escape the funeral home’s shadow – from the grocery store to the local diner, Gabe was known as the “undertaker’s kid.” His schoolmates all avoided him as if he was haunted. Last week, his class had dissected frogs, and Gabe was paired with Billy Meadows, a wiry, hard-edged boy who always looked dirty. Before they could even begin the dissection, Billy held their frog up by one limp leg and swung it high, like a lasso, for all to see. Droplets of formaldehyde showered all at his lab bench, including Gabe, and as the three girls nearby shrieked and ran for cover, Billy had smiled and stared straight into Gabe’s eyes. “Smells just like home, doesn’t it?” and then he laughed and the teacher, Mrs. S, put down the papers she was grading and shouted over the girls’ shrieks, “Meadows, that’s a lunch detention.”
Gabe didn’t tell his dad about that. No, he just spent the rest of the day smelling sour like dead frog and then came home, showered, and ate a dinner of leftovers while his dad dealt with the next day’s dead downstairs. That night, he had looked out his bedroom window, as he often did, over the quiet road outside and into the softly lit rooms of his neighbors. He wasn’t being a creep – or at least he didn’t intend to be, but on nights like those when he couldn’t sleep, he’d sit in the dark and watch the lives around him continue on in their own normal, completely mundane way.
“Gabe, help me with her feet, won’t you?” His father asked. Mrs. Amos had huge, knobby feet, swollen by diabetes. Her toes were curled upward, crowned by thick, yellow toenails that stuck out at odd angles. At the moment, his father was trying to wedge them into the violet heels her daughter had sent over, which Gabe guessed hadn’t been worn since the 90’s. Whenever he saw her, Mrs. Amos was shuffling around in raggedy, fleece-lined moccasins. Gabe hopped off the table and grabbed Mrs. Amos’s cold ankle, holding it in place so his dad could get the shoe on. He managed to trap her toes in it, but there was no way the rest of her foot would fit. His dad tried the other foot, grunting with effort as he twisted and pushed, but no matter how they tried it, the shoes weren’t going on.
“The bottom half’ll be closed anyway, right?” Gabe said. Sometimes the family preferred that, as if the deceased were tucked in, their top half peeking out while the rest of them nestled beneath a walnut and plush-lined comforter.
His father scratched his head. “Lois hasn’t decided yet.”
Gabe shrugged and headed for the door. “I’m hitting the hay,” He paused, regretting the slip – that was a phrase his mom used to say a lot. “Goodnight.”
“Night,” his dad mumbled, seemingly unperturbed. He continued to stare at Mrs. Amos’s feet and the violet heels.
Gabe walked up one floor to the funeral home, and then up another to their actual home. After stopping in the kitchen for the bag of Doritos, he ventured up once more to the third floor, a converted attic which included his bedroom and what used to be his mom’s art studio before she split two years back. His dad never talked about her reasons for leaving, but Gabe knew enough – she was in Massachusetts the last time she wrote, still living with the lobsterman she met online. She was the reason why there were no more computers in their home. If Gabe needed a computer, he had to walk down to the basement and use the old Gateway in his dad’s chilly back office. Usually he just went to the library.
Gabe sat in the dark by his window, watched the neighbors, and ate his Doritos. There weren’t many left and soon his fingers were pinching the crumbs at the bottom corners of the bag. He watched the Ellis family across the road to his right recline on their couch with their dog, their faces blue in the tv light. Their daughter was in his grade but they didn’t talk much. The dog, a terrier mix, had his head in her lap. Gabe wanted a dog, but his dad said they made too much noise. “No one wants to hear barking while they’re grieving their loved one.” Gabe tipped the bag back and dumped the rest of the crumbs into his mouth.
He looked over to Mr. Fieldman’s house, or Ray, as his dad called him. The grumpy old man had been there as long as Gabe remembered and as far as he knew, Mr. Fieldman’s vocabulary was limited to “Harrumph” and “Yup.” This night, the man sat at his usual place by the dining room table beyond the sliding glass doors and pored over what looked like a puzzle of hot air balloons.
The house directly across from him, Mrs. Amos’, was dark – its windows two black, gaping holes where light once shone in soft yellows. Gabe tried not to watch Mrs. Amos. She was a family friend, he knew, and deserved her privacy. Still, when the Ellis’s went to bed and Mr. Fieldman clicked off his dining room light, Mrs. Amos was always there – crocheting in the living room or folding laundry in her bedroom. She smoked cigarettes secretively – he knew because she hid the pack in her top drawer and never smoked when her daughter came to visit. She wore a long, flannel nightgown to bed, and she often looked in the mirror, touching the bags under her eyes and the jowls below her chin before shutting off the lights for the night.
Gabe licked the orange dust from his fingers and tried not to think about the last time he saw Mrs. Amos – the last time I saw her alive, he revised, thinking of the body in the basement. It was nothing, he told himself. Nothing happened. He peered into the Doritos bag and then crumpled it and threw it in the direction of his wastebasket. But, if he was going to be completely honest, something had happened, and after seeing Mrs. Amos tonight, all dressed up and lipstick-ed, he was nauseous with guilt. Not just guilt, but also anger and blame for himself and for Mrs. Amos. She should have known to draw the curtains, Gabe thought. Why hadn’t she invested in one of those fall-detection systems they always advertise on TV?
That night, his dad had work again, so Gabe had been eating little logs of bologna rolled with American cheese. They were salty and delicious, and he wondered what they would taste like dipped in ranch dressing. He read a book until he grew bored, shut off the light, and then turned his attention to the window. The houses were dark except for old Mrs. Amos, who was shuffling around her bedroom in the meager light of her bedside lamp. She was putting clothes away – underwear and socks in the top drawer, shirts below, pants below that. He watched her and nibbled a bit of bologna and wondered how bored she must be, just crocheting and smoking and doing laundry. He never understood how one woman could have to do that much laundry that frequently.
When he was about to give up for the night and head to bed, he saw Mrs. Amos jerk, and then steady herself on the wardrobe. She rubbed her chest and moved toward the bed, but then she jerked again – a jolt of motion as if she’d been struck by lightning. This time she fell. As she fell, she looked out the window and into his eyes and in the split second before her face left his view, he saw it twisted in fear and pain and confusion. He waited, turning only to deposit his plate on his desk, and then when he turned back around, the light in her room had gone out and all was still.
The next day his father received a call and greeted Gabe with the sad news when he got home from school. Mrs. Amos had died.
“A heart attack, they think,” his dad said, rubbing tears from his eyes. He never got emotional about the dead like this, and it made Gabe sour even more with guilt. He put a hand on his dad’s shoulder, patted once, and let it fall – it felt like such a small and useless gesture.
His dad took a breath and wiped away more tears. “She must have fought it the best she could – she knocked over her lamp. They think she was trying to reach the phone.” Gabe stopped breathing, thinking of the dark room. She never did make the call. His father said her daughter Lois, who arrived that morning to bring her to a doctor’s appointment, found her.
“So sad,” his dad said. “That woman’s been there since I was a kid.” Gabe knew this of course but nodded his sympathy all the same. He didn’t tell his dad what he saw – his mind raced with all of the could’ves and should’ves. I could’ve called for her. I should’ve ran over to check. I could’ve said something this morning before Lois found her. I should’ve never been watching. He could have sworn she saw him as she fell. He still wasn’t sure whether that look of confusion, pain, and fear was caused by the heart attack or the realization that Gabe had been watching her.
Alone in his room, Gabe stared at the dark windows of Mrs. Amos’s house and got up to use the bathroom. He was heading back to bed when he heard a clatter of metal somewhere in the house below. It was not like his dad to make noise like that – he was always so carefully quiet. Gabe walked down the stairs in bare feet to find the kitchen and living room were empty, and his father’s bedroom door was shut. The metal clanged again, and this time, Gabe could hear it was coming from the basement. There was a dumbwaiter in their kitchen, which his dad would use to bring food and supplies down to the basement. It was easier and less noisy than operating the mechanical lift for the bodies. He could hear the clanging echoing up through the hollow shaft and slid open the wooden door to call down into the darkness.
“Dad, all good?” He could see light peeking through the opening below but received no response. He heard the metal clang again.
Gabe padded down the stairs, through the silent, dark rooms of the funeral home and below, into the basement. His father must have his headphones on, but there was no reason Mrs. Amos should be taking this long. Gabe sighed and felt sorry for himself. He did not know any other twelve-year-olds who had to parent their parents. Then again, he barely knew the other kids at school. He wasn’t exactly popular.
He entered the lab expecting to find his father bobbing his head to music and sweeping up some mess. Instead, he found Mrs. Amos. Her head had rolled to the side and her eyes were open. His dad must have not glued them tight enough – he tended to go light on the glue so the appearance remained natural. Reclined on the table, Mrs. Amos watched him enter. With a quick glimpse, Gabe surveyed the room. A tray full of instruments and applicators had been knocked off the table – its contents strewn across the floor. He avoided her gaze and walked back to his dad’s office. “Dad?”
It was empty and dark – the computer was off, an unfinished cup of coffee had grown cold, and there was no sign of what could have caused the noise.
When Gabe turned back around to the mort room, Mrs. Amos was sitting up and watching him with wet, milky eyes. The air left Gabe’s lungs.
Mrs. Amos struggled to part her lips. He could see her tongue pressing over her top dentures and pushing her lip out farther and farther, until in one painful rip, her mouth opened to a smile and she spit the foam pads on the floor. Her eyes stayed on Gabe.
“You were naughty,” she said in her wavering old lady voice. Gabe swallowed and blinked hard, hoping he was dreaming. Mrs. Amos lifted a well-manicured hand and pointed at him.
“You were naughty spying on me like that.” Mrs. Amos said, her smile shifted to a scowl. “You saw me fall. You did nothing, young man. Why?”
Gabe backed up – there was no way this was real. He was dreaming. She is dead, he told himself. She is dead. She is dead.
“I asked you a question,” Mrs. Amos said.
When his back hit the cement wall, he jolted stiff. No escape.
“I-I-I didn’t mean it,” he stuttered. “I saw your light out. I thought you were okay.”
She broke into a smile again. “Oh Gabe, my boy,” she said. “You know better than to lie to Mrs. Amos.”
Gabe’s heart beat painfully in his chest. He could hear the echoes of it course through his limbs. “I-I’m sorry.” Those two words sounded so pitiful, so useless, that Mrs. Amos began to laugh. It was a phlegmy chuckle that started soft and slow until it resonated in her chest louder than any noise Gabe had ever heard before. As it grew, her smile spread and she laughed a wide-mouthed hacking cackle. Her lips continued to open wider, and her top dentures wobbled out and clattered to the floor. As her laughter turned into a gurgle, a shadow emerged from the black cavity of her mouth. It was the slick head and body of a frog, followed by its gangly, limp legs. Mrs. Amos spit up what looked like murky pond water as the frog slid loosely from between her lips – its eyes milky like hers. It landed sloppily on the curve of her chest and then tumbled down onto the table where she sat. With jerky movements, its legs twitched to fold beneath itself. Its head rose to look at Gabe.
Gabe crumpled back against the wall and screamed as Mrs. Amos’s laughter continued on. Her milky eyes rolled wildly behind feathered lashes and the frog hopped off the table and onto the floor with a wet splat. She kicked her ugly feet in glee and laughed in croupy cough-like exhales that reeked of cigarettes.
Gabe closed his eyes and cried into his hands, wailing and moaning and wishing he could burn this from his mind. Wishing his dad was here, wishing he never had spied on the neighbors, and wishing his mom hadn’t used a computer to meet the lobsterman. In some other reality, he could spend his nights gaming with the rest of the boys from school instead of hiding in his dark bedroom watching angry men complete puzzles and pretty girls pet their dogs and old women fight off loneliness.
Between the web of his fingers, Gabe saw Mrs. Amos’s feet drop to the floor. He moaned as she slowly shuffled over to him. When her wet lips met the tight, soft skin of his temple, he pressed as hard as he could into the wall and screamed until his throat ran dry.
By the time his father got to him, Gabe was silent but still trembling. His dad hugged him close to calm him down, but there was nothing – just a knocked over metal instrument tray at Gabe’s feet and Mrs. Amos, resting peacefully, her eyes closed and face serene. Warm arms, Gabe thought. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had hugged him. His father held him tightly until he stopped shaking. Kissing the top of his head, he breathed in his son’s scent and was surprised to smell a faint hint of cigarette smoke and something he couldn’t quite place but Gabe knew to be pond water.
Mackenzie Hurlbert is a Connecticut-based writer with previous publications in Hofstra’s Windmill, We Walk Invisible, Five:2:One’s The Sideshow, and The Caravel Journal. She also received honorable mention in Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards for her horror story “Milk Teeth,” and has twice been the featured reader at New Haven’s Local Lit at LOTTA writers series.