When my old friend from school, Eric, phoned the house, I was more than shocked. To think he remembered the number. I’d changed my cellphone many times since I last spoke to him.
“Long time no see, Keener,” he said to me.
“You still remember the nickname too,” I replied, smiling down the handset.
“I never forget,” he said, chuckling, “So, I’m going to be in town on the weekend, only for the Saturday, are you about?”
“Sure man, will be good to see you.”
“And you. Is Darren and Gazz still around?”
“No, they went off to University and I kind of lost touch.”
“You’re good at that,” he said referring to the fact I’d not spoken to him in a long time.
“Hey man, it’s a two way street.”
“Just joking, so see you at Charlie’s for seven?”
“Yeah, it’s one of the only places that’s still here. When the world ends, the last thing to go out will probably be that sign.”
We both laughed.
“Look forward to seeing you.”
And that was it. A quick conversation, as if we had never spent a day apart, never mind four years.
It’s amazing how much your home-town changes over time. When you live there, the changes are small and infrequent, it’s like it never changed at all. Yet to Eric, it was going to look so different. The library on the crossroads was now a pile of rubble. The police station was now next door, its original location on the edge of town. And the traffic lights, they were never there before. But now they sparkled and phased like all-season Christmas lights.
I arrived outside Charlie’s. The neon sign defied the years and continued to light the night sky. It flickered and buzzed, advertising itself to patrons, nudging them to enter. Knowing that inside it was going to be warm, and there would be beer on tap.
Stale smoke greeted me as I opened the door. The old fashioned jukebox did its best to pump out the country music it had been forced to play; like an old man reciting a song he’d long forgotten. And there he was, sitting on a stool in front of the bar.
“Hey, Eric, can we call you Doctor yet?”
He blushed, “Not yet Mike, there’s a couple more years before that.”
“Good to see you man,” he said slapping me on my shoulder.
He reeked of alcohol.
“Likewise. How long have you been drinking? Your breath smells like neat vodka!”
“I got in a little early, and there’s no time like the present.”
I stared at him, worried I’d offended my old friend. For what seemed like minutes we stared into each other’s eyes until Eric relented, a smile burst out on his face.
“I’m fucking with you! Just because I went to Medical School, doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of humour.”
Relieved, I smiled back.
“Shall we get a table?” I asked.
“All in good time, let me get you a drink, what you having?”
“Good, at least your taste hasn’t changed. Hey Mike, you remember when Darren drank all your old man’s Miller Light? We found him in a pool of his own vomit in the basement.”
“You know my dad still mentions that when we go down there. The outline of the vomit is still etched into the concrete,” I said laughing.
It was like he never left.
I picked up my beer and we made our way over to a table.
“So, how did University treat you?” I asked.
“Yeah, good, good. Hard work, but worth it.”
“Why didn’t you come back sooner?”
“Uh,” he stuttered.
“It’s okay, you didn’t want to mix with us country-folk, no-one thinks anything less of you,” I responded.
“Oh come on man, it’s not like that.”
“I’m kidding, you’re so uptight.”
“Sorry, I do feel bad about that. You know how it is, in term time I couldn’t and in the holidays, I was working.”
“Where did you work?”
Eric took a large gulp of beer before admitting it, “I’ve been working in the University morgue, you know, helping out.”
“Holy shit, seriously?”
“Yeah, it paid pretty well.”
“What did you do?”
“I had to wash the dead bodies to prepare them for their funerals.”
“Fuck, you couldn’t pay me enough to do that shit. How much did you get?”
“$50 an hour.”
“$50 an hour? Scratch that, I could do it for that much money,” I declared.
“It’s not as easy as you’d think.”
“What? Take a sponge, wipe down some old man and take home the mega bucks?”
“That part is easy. It’s when the body is not in *pristine* condition that you really start earning your money.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, gunshot victims are harder to clean. You have to be careful that you don’t unsettle the body.”
“Yeah, if someone was shot in the face, then you have to be very careful you don’t disturb their head too much. The mortuary technicians do their best to reconstruct it. It’s not like they are going to put metal plates in.
“Similarly, if someone dies in a car crash, the bones are not going to heal. Keeping their remains looking as human as possible is quite hard work. And when you get a moaner… That will scare the shit out of you.”
“A moaner?” I asked, taking another sip of my drink.
“Imagine, you’re working late. It’s been a bad day; sometimes I’d have six bodies to clean. They’re all laying on their respective metal slabs. You try to be as respectful as possible. But each corpse has the same Y-shaped incision from their autopsy. Some are worse due to how much the body has been abused due to forensic tests. You do get desensitised, though you’re usually working alone, and once in a blue-moon you’ll hear a groan.
“You look around to see if anyone is there with you. But you’re alone, the only company being the dead. The moan gets louder before you see one of the bodies sit up. You drop whatever is in your hands and you run the fuck out!”
“Fuck man! Were they alive?”
Eric scoffs, “No. When you reach the top of the stairs and see a caretaker waxing the floor, the fluorescent light of the hospital wakes you up. You walk back down the stairs, a little embarrassed, and return to the mortuary.
“You see the body that now lays on the floor having fallen off its metal slab. You berate yourself for allowing it to freak you out so much.
“The most embarrassing thing is, you then need to phone for help to get that cadaver back in its place!
“I tried to move one on my own once and I must have ruptured the stitching, as the intestines poured out over the floor like snakes.”
“So what causes that?”
“Gas build up. It happens, more often than you’d think. The smell it leaves behind is horrific. I go through Vicks Vapour Rub like it’s malt liquor.”
“I take that back; $50 an hour ain’t enough!” I said sheepishly, “I think we need more drink.”
I signalled to the waitress, who came over and took our orders.
“It’s my round,” I said, handing my wallet to Eric.
He took out a twenty, “Get yourself something nice, pretty,” he said to the waitress, before slapping her on her ass. She giggled. I didn’t know if she was being polite or into it.
“Jesus, man, have you got any more stories?” I asked, intrigued.
“Yeah, this has happened a couple of times but the first time was fucking scary. When you are washing the bodies, you wear gloves and you sponge it down. You have to lift the arms and make sure you cover all of it. Every now and again, the cadaver’s hand will grip yours as rigour mortis sets in. It never get any easier, every time you double-take. You stare at the body, looking for any sort of movement, and when you don’t, you pry the fingers off one at a time.
“Sometimes you hear a snap as the pressure gets too much. The newbies always freak out and you can’t help but laugh. You have to find humour in that job, you know what I mean?”
“Fucking shit man,” I said, “You leave for a couple of years and comes back a morbid motherfucker!
“So, do you smell like formaldehyde all the time and shit?”
“Well, it does mean showers take longer and I have to clean my nostrils thoroughly. If I don’t, the smell of death lingers for days.”
“That’s rank man. Why do you do it?”
He rubbed his fingers, miming money, “$50 an hour my friend.”
I finished off my first drink and started on the new one.
“So, what you two been up to?” Eric asked.
“Nothing much, same old – same old, working construction.”
“What’s that like?”
“Not a patch on what you’ve been up to. I get to be outside a lot. It’s not too bad to be fair. Could be a lot worse, we could be washing some old guy’s balls. But that’s more your speed.”
He smiled. I was happy to be with my friend I had spent so much of my life with. It’s amazing how when you have true friends, you can fall back into your old groove. It was with that thought I felt a touch of guilt.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t stay in touch,” I said.
“Looks like the beer has gone straight to your head.”
“It’s not that, but I should have.”
“Hey, I didn’t too. But we’re here now. So just enjoy it.”
“So what’s the worst thing that’s happened.”
“What, in my job?” Eric asked, confused.
“Anything, creep me the fuck out.”
He cocked his head and gazed into the distance. A smile played on the corners of his mouth, his eyes flicked side to side, as if remembering something. He took his drink in one hand and lifted it to his mouth.
“If I tell you this, you promise never to tell anyone else? And I mean seriously.”
“Well I don’t know what it is, yet.”
He put the beer down.
Somber now and his voice hushed, “I can trust you, can’t I Mike?”
“Sure,” I said, leaning over, intrigued.
“I do know where you live remember.”
I sat back up.
“That’s a little sinister.”
He laughed, “I’m not joking, not a soul.”
He sighed, as if getting up the courage to relay this story. His eyes blanked over again and he started.
“It was summer, I was sixteen. You were off visiting family. I remember how I was alone a lot, so my dad took me to work at the station. As you know, he was a cop. I’d been to work with him before. But when I was younger, he’d stick me with the secretary, and then pick me up when he went home in the evening. But that day was different.
He told me I was a young man now, that if I wanted, I could come with him. He was arranging a search party for a missing girl from our school.”
“Oh shit, I remember that,” I said.
Eric was irritated at my interruption, “Do you want me to tell you the story or not?”
“Sorry, man. Carry on.”
“We drove in silence for a couple of blocks, before turning off road and into Mayberry Forest. As we approached the gravel carpark, I could see lots of cars parked up. I recognised some of the people, family members and neighbours. My dad was happy, he said it was a great turn out. The more people the better. That every minute counted when trying to find someone alive.
“We got out of the car and he began gathering everyone together. He gave them instructions. They were to split up into teams and walk in straight lines through the forest. To cover as large an area as possible.
“I stood in the crowd of people, fascinated by how everyone listened and obeyed my father. Someone handed out whistles. My dad explained to use them when they find something of interest. By the time he’d finished, everyone was already spreading out and going about their jobs. Being a teenager, I lagged behind, kicking rocks, my hands shoved into my pockets. After around fifteen minutes, boredom kicked in.
“I didn’t notice how far I had wondered away from the group. I shouted and heard nothing. I began to get nervous. I’d been in these woods many times before, but now I was on my own. In every direction there were trees, disorientation came on fast and before I knew it, I had no idea where I’d come from.
“I quickened my pace, first in one direction, then stopping and going in another. I remember feeling sick as my heart thumped in my chest and I ran. I ducked under branches and jumped over roots. Before I knew it, I was flat of my face. I had no idea what happened. I looked up and the trees spun as I did my best to get my bearings. Little white lights danced in my vision.
“When I turned to get up I froze. There, staring back at me from the undergrowth was a face. A pale white face, it almost looked like a ghost. I shuffled back in a panic and got to my feet. Standing I could see all of her. Leaves covered most of her naked body and she laid there motionless.
“I wanted to scream out, to say I’d found her. But I couldn’t. All I could do was stare. Her eyes glinted in the late summer sun, as if there was still light behind them. I’d not seen a body before, it was incredible. She appeared so peaceful. I remember smiling then, thinking how death wasn’t that bad. Especially if you could look that good in it.
“I broke my gaze when I heard a whistle echo through the forest. I don’t know how long it was before someone found me and I don’t know what I did for that time. They said it’s time to go, that they found her.”
“Shit. That’s intense.”
Eric didn’t say a word, he downed his drink.
“Another?” I asked, shaking the empty glass in front of him.
He nodded. I beckoned over the waitress again and decided to orders some shots to go with our beers.
“I can’t believe you never told me that story before.”
“I’ve not finished,” he said in a tone that implied the fun had been drained from the conversation.
“When we arrived home my dad told my mom how well I’d done. Later that evening, we sat around the TV to watch the local news. My dad beamed, seeing his past self interviewed. A photo of the missing girl took up most of the screen and a feeling of dread chilled me. It was the colour of her skin – a pale brown. I didn’t understand how the skin would lose colour in death, and it shocked me.
“My dad told me again what a great job I’d done. He told me I looked pale and asked if I was okay. I nodded and tried to forget the image of the porcelain white body I had seen earlier that day.”
“So, was it her you saw?” I asked.
“Two days later, dad came home in a mood, he muttered something about negligence and suspension to my mom. I saw it on the news later, a second body. She had crawled through the forest naked and collapsed on the edge of the trail. A park ranger found her, but she had died before the ambulance arrived. It was her, the pale white girl I’d seen in the forest days before. She was alive and I could have got her help. But I didn’t, I was too scared.”
“You didn’t know.”
“I’ve not told anyone that before. That’s a weight off my shoulders. Thank you. That does feel good.”
“Do you think that’s why you got into Medicine?”
“You know what, I never thought of it like that,” he said, nodding his head. “Hey, tell me, do you know the Waitress’s name?”
“No, the turn over here is quite high. Not seen her before tonight.”
“I’ll order some more beers, see if I can get her number.”
“I need a piss. I’ll pass on this round,” I said getting up from my seat.
I stumbled a bit, the alcohol and the revelation I’d heard keeping me off balance. I stood in front of the urinal and thought about my friend. How he had carried that with him for all those years. It made me realise how little I knew about him. But the fact he told me it, made me feel closer than ever to him.
I returned to our table, to empty seats. A small scrap of paper lay under my beer. I picked it up, the wet ring from the glass smudged the writing on the written note.
*Mike, the waitress was game. Sorry to leave you hanging. Remember, I know where you live ;)*
There was a twenty dollar bill on the table. I sunk down into my seat and finished my beer. I didn’t know him that well after all. I paid our bill at the bar and sat on a stool, finishing my drink.
A few hours later, I walked the short journey home. My parents were already asleep. I took a beer out of the fridge and promised myself it would be the last one. I slunk down into the couch and turned on the TV. I fell asleep to some late night infomercial selling the benefits of an all in one gym device.
I roused early in the morning. The bright screen of the TV hurt my eyes and I squinted. I dragged myself into the kitchen and took a bottle of OJ out of the fridge. I downed as much as I could, gasping for air as I finished. The answerphone flashed. In a zombie-like state I shuffled over and clicked the button.
Hey Mike, thanks for last night. Sorry I had to leave in a rush. Yeah, shit, I still have your wallet. I’ll mail it back to you or something, don’t worry, I know where you live. Great catching up.
I slapped my hands to my pockets. *Fuck*, it was missing. I returned to the living room and searched the couch for my wallet. I reached down into a gap between the cushions when I heard the police bulletin on the TV.
In the early hours of this morning, the body of Daniela Smith…
I turned to watch. A photo appeared on screen. I recognised her but didn’t know from where.
Employee of Charlie’s bar and grill, remains found off I58. Police are seeking this man, whose driving licence was found on the body.
I felt faint and fell to the floor. It was me. A blown up image from my driver’s licence took up the screen. I know it’s only a matter of time before they come here. And I know it will be Eric’s dad that knocks on my door. I phoned the University today, they’ve not heard of Eric. They put me in touch with the Morgue. The person I spoke to recognised my description. They said he was sacked after inappropriate conduct with the corpses years ago. I asked for more information, my request was declined.
So now I wait. It’s evening in a small town. The police will be here soon and they won’t believe me.