The British couple had hanged themselves by the neck on the curtain racks in front of double windows, one pane for each, with the lights on and the thin drapes drawn six days before Halloween. Their silhouettes were taken for distasteful decorations, and one neighbor, Thomas Greene, even knocked to ask the residents to remove them. He resigned himself once his calls were ignored.
The bulbs stayed burning hot and the bodies remained, her in purple night shorts and he in jeans, her in a low-cut tank top and he shirtless. Their faces bent by the rope that dug into their chins, while their ankles and feet swelled a nearly-black crimson. Mold rose in sprigs from their pupils. The couple hung for three weeks, stretching till their toes kissed the carpet, until Thomas called the police. His daughter had come in crying because she had seen the figures swinging wildly, as if by puppet strings.
“Shit,” said Thomas at the news. “Wish I called earlier. My kid’s been looking at those for a month.”
“A month,” said the officer. “That’s really sick.”
Thomas laced his thumbs through the loops in his jeans and looked up at the window, which had finally gone dark. “It was hard to miss ‘em at night. They really looked like decorations. In the day you could sorta see the outlines in the curtains though. Didn’t think much of it. I’d never think the old woman could miss two bodies in her own home.”
“Woman—you mean the dog?”
“No, the lady leasing the room to them. Mrs. Goris.”
“They didn’t live alone?”
“Nope. Why? Isn’t she in there?”
The officer jogged to his car and soon it became apparent that Mrs. Goris was nowhere to be found and though everyone who had gathered outside knew Mrs. Goris—about 85 years old, demented, once a Catholic Girl’s School teacher—no evidence of her existence was found in the kitchen or the bedrooms, which the couple had stripped clean. Finally, she was discovered in the crawlspace of a laundry chute, wrapped in her own half-knitted blanket, dry and shriveled as a cornhusk doll.
“Reminds me of Lucy’s hamster,” Thomas muttered to his wife. “When we forgot to feed her she went looking in the walls.”
“Can’t believe those were real bodies.”
I was Glenrio’s mortician; I could believe it. I received the bodies the next day. The couple would be buried in England, so would be embalmed and then transported to their families. The old woman had requested a natural burial so all I needed to do for her was a simple cosmetic. I would be keeping her dog. It didn’t like to be touched but scored major loyalty points for not eating the carcasses.
I wired Mrs. Goris’ jaw into a regal frown, massaged the limbs, and gave her a careful shave. Meanwhile, I had a machine pumping the couple with formaldehyde behind me. The exit bag grew heavy with black blood. The lovers regained their color but stayed stretched. Nothing to do about that. I wasn’t really cut out for funeral work but there weren’t many jobs to take in Glenrio.
The officer who’d delivered the corpses, Kyle, was a childhood friend. He’d convinced me to keep Mrs. Goris’ dog after telling me to mark down anything strange. He had an odd feeling about this set of deaths. “Three dead people in one house, two unrelated instances?” But coincidences happen. Mrs. Goris’ wrinkled body didn’t have a single mark. As the brits finished their arterial process, I realized how thin they too had been. Nearly as emaciated as their starved hostess, and no feces in their trousers. They hadn’t eaten for weeks before they died.
I began the cavity embalming. Punctured their bloated bellies with the trocar. It began to slurp away the gas with its anteater tube. I held the point steady as abdomens deflated like moon bounces. I was avoiding staring at the pairs of moldy eyes—feathery spores broke through the lids—when something scurried out from between the woman’s teeth. Several somethings. Bugs? Did bugs travel in packs? Whatever they were, they left little dots of mold where they ran, right across her cheek to the edge of the table.
The trocar made a milkshake-sipping sound. It had caught a solid. I eased it from the puncture to examine the block. Lodged in the tube was a tiny set of shoes no bigger than half a fingernail with ornate carvings on their wooden soles. Disturbed, I had no choice but to continue the cavity job, mining a pill-sized satchel, a fishhook-like tool, and a spool of thread. If I hadn’t seen tiny beings sprint from her teeth, I might have assumed she just ate children’s toys. I was paranoid, shaking my shoes for sprites or sentient spiders.
Then Mrs. Goris yawned behind me. Slipping with a shriek I spun, and sure enough her wire had snapped as her jaw fell wide. Her limbs had bent up at the joints, and her glue caps had sprung away, leaving her eyes cocked wide. Sets of mold tracks ran down her neck and legs. Time to go.
I called Kyle on the way home. I had the tiny items in a Ziploc. He never got to see them. When I opened my front door, my new pet hadn’t touched his food bowl. “Dog? Come’ere!” I yelled. “Dog!” I found his moldy corpse kicking on the kitchen table, split wide and hollow. Within his spine, I saw a system of pulleys, levers, and bedrooms, sinews weaved into ramps and bones carved into little benches. No wonder he hadn’t eaten his owners—whatever parasite got them got him too. Dots of fungus led up my stairs. And I decided to leave Glenrio.
James Cato writes in the daytime surrounded by people. Find more of his work in Montana Mouthful, Chrome Baby, and Brilliant Fiction magazines.