TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of Suicide
The patient was a 26-year-old Vietnamese American woman with no significant past medical history. She died via asphyxiation of the carotid arteries after a suicide by hanging. Her mother, after returning from a vacation, discovered her at approximately 4:07 p.m. and called EMS shortly after. There was no attempt made to resuscitate the patient. By the time she was found, she had already been dead for nearly three days.
Now the mother, the father, and Claufflin sat at Mr. Clauffin’s Funeral Home. The mother and father were next to each other, facing the mortician. Their daughter was in his basement. Claufflin’s heart was heavy for them, but he was already running through the script for this interaction in his head.
“We appreciate —” her mother said, sniffling, “—what you’re doing for us.”
He nodded. “It’s my pleasure. I will do whatever I can to make sure that she rests in peace.”
The woman broke down into tears again, blotting her face with a white hanky from her dress pocket. When she pulled it away from her red, puffy face, it was covered with tears, lipstick smears, and creamy marks the same color as her skin, like she had gotten clumps of herself on it.
“It came as a surprise to us,” the father sighed. “She was always such a sweet girl… We never—we never expected her to… not something like this.” His face was thin and dry, but hung with the burden of every hour without his daughter, and Claufflin knew he laid awake and stared at his bedroom ceiling at night. The father twiddled his fingers, then turned to look at the aged mortician.
“So… how often have you been doing this work?”
He thinly smiled. “A long time. 45 some odd years, I would think.”
45 years, but maybe even longer than that depending on what you considered real “work” as a mortician. He worked as an apprentice for George Van Ikental, his hometown’s one and only mortician, when he was 14. Once he turned 18, he shook Mr. Van Ikental’s hand, swore to only call him ‘“George” from that point on, then left town, bummed around for a bit, and started his own work a year later.
He thought he’d seen everything that there was to see. This poor couple’s daughter’s neck wasn’t the first one that he’d seen. Nor the second. Or the third. Or tenth. Or twentieth. Or even fiftieth. He’d worked on someone whose head was detached from their body (a freak workplace accident). He’d made glass eyes for a little Italian man who’d had his original ones plucked out— before or after death, he wasn’t sure.
The father forced a grin in a show of politeness. “That’s great,” he said, having lost the effort to push the conversation any further. Then, suddenly, he lost his focus and stared at the coffee table between them.
“Can I get you anything, Mr. Nguyen?” Claufflin asked.
He shook his head like he was leaving a trance. “Sorry, I was just noticing the cookies that you had on the table.”
Claufflin had set out a bowl of Highland Cattle Cookies, one of his favorites and a great Scottish treat. They were regular shortbread cookies, but in the shape of highland cattle with little indents of fur, eyes, and a mouth. He couldn’t remember when he first had one, but it must have been a long time ago. One day, he put them out in a bowl and kept doing it ever since.
“Are you a fan of them?” he asked.
Mr. Nguyen looked over at his wife. She pursed her lips and gently touched the top of his hand.
“No, our daughter was,” he said. “She found them in the supermarket one day and insisted we buy them just because they looked like cows, and wouldn’t you believe it, she ended up becoming obsessed with them. I think we—” he paused, pushing a breath out of his nose. “I think we still have a box of them in our cabinets.”
People always seemed to obsess over the smallest details about their family members, and Claufflin was positive that they would find any and every reason to think about their daughter in the coming months. Then he thought about Mr. Van Ikental, and his mom and dad, and remembered how he bought a black bowler hat to match Mr. Van Ikental’s, only to never wear it, and how he told himself that he would visit his parents’ graves every month on the 19th, the date of their wedding anniversary, and he did. He knew all about obsession, even if the pain was a part of him now.
“You’ll do a good job, won’t you?” Mrs. Nguyen asked suddenly, looking up from her knees. “You can make her look like she did… before?”
He pulled his eyes away from the cookies and smiled.
“I’ll do everything I can.”
That night, Claufflin brushed his teeth, combed his thick gray hair, and stripped down to his undershirt and blue boxer shorts. He took off his trousers first, laid them over his mom’s flower-patterned armchair, then carefully undid his buttoned white shirt and black vest. He reached inside his closet, filled with nine more variations of the same outfit (one of the vests was spotted with patterns of Santa Claus, all cheering “Ho ho ho!”), and pulled out the tenth variation’s empty hanger. It had been a couple of days since he had started wearing the outfit. He thought he ought to get it cleaned again soon.
With a glass of water resting on his nightstand and his reading glasses on his face, Claufflin turned off his bedroom light, flicked on his lamp, and began to read. It was a nightly tradition, and one that he cherished deeply. He’d never missed it for the world, because it felt like the one chance to think about something other than the work that he did— work that he knew was undeniably important. But what was wrong with wanting an escape now and then?
So he went about reading. This week, he’d started H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, and found himself enjoying it a great deal. War stories and biographies filled his bookshelves, but he decided to give himself a taste of something different, something outside of his regular routine, something unexpected. A look of astonishment crossed his face as he read the next section.
“You don’t understand,” he said, “who I am or what I am. I’ll show you. By Heaven! I’ll show you.” Then he put his open palm over his face and withdrew it. The centre of his face became a black cavity.
He kept reading for half an hour more, until he decided to save the rest of the book for the next night, not burn through the entire thing in one session. He placed the book down on his nightstand and took a deep breath. The light on the lamp went off, a drink of water went down his throat, and he nestled deep under his covers. His eyes shut and he fell asleep.
Crickets chirped outside. A gentle mist of rain coated the grass. The moon hung like a saucer of warm milk.
But unlike every other night, he left the basement door open.
In the middle of the night, a long sound echoed from downstairs. Claufflin awoke and rubbed his eyes furiously, trying to adjust to the darkness of the room. He sat in bed and listened. There was nothing, and he almost thought about going back to sleep, but then he heard it again.
One of the cabinets opened downstairs. It was a distant sound, but a sound all the same. He recognized that distinct creak that it gave, the one that he thought sounded just a little bit like a meow.
His bedroom door was open. Beyond that was the stairwell — the bottom of which was only a few steps away from the kitchen. He let his eyelids pull down on his face. He wasn’t going to let any home intruders, mice or raccoons, or whoever was messing around in his kitchen, ruin his night. He had to think about the funeral in a few days. With one swift, decisive motion, he pushed his blanket aside, stuffed his feet into his slippers, and grabbed a baseball bat from his closet. He made his way downstairs.
Each step down made a painfully loud squeak that seemed to permeate through the walls of the house, but he didn’t give it much attention. He took each step like it was a normal one. He carried the baseball bat at his side, nearly dragging the end of it on the steps, as though it was just something that he had decided to bring with him on a spur of the moment decision. When he got to the kitchen, he slowed down a bit, and looked in from the edge of the doorway.
All of the cabinets were open and all his foodstuff was spread around his countertops. None of them were opened, but they had been hastily thrown aside or placed down, and Claufflin knew that he hadn’t been the one to do that. He squinted a bit harder, wishing he’d brought a flashlight instead of a useless bat.
Then, suddenly, he heard another sound. A miniscule one, but one that he heard clearly and prominently: chewing. Something was chewing. He took a step forward and as the floorboards creaked underneath him, the sound stopped. A jarring silence filled the room for a few moments. At this point, he decided that he had had enough of the shenanigans. Raccoon, mice, whatever. He reached around to the kitchen wall, felt around the vertical wooden panels, until his fingers finally came upon the white lightswitch. He flicked it up and the kitchen dimly illuminated.
A woman sat at his table.
His heart jumped at the suddenness of her presence and he gasped.
“Who are you?” he spoke, a second too late.
By the time the words got out of his mouth, he saw the gray blanket that wrapped around her naked, pasty, glue-like skin. He saw her dollish black hair that ran like strands of decaying flesh tendrils down her back. He saw her skeletal fingers that crept over the edges of a bowl on the table. He saw her broken neck, and the way her spine jutted at the edges of her skin, like it was going to break at any second and greet the moldy air around them. He saw her sitting at his table.
The baseball bat fell out of his hand and clattered to the floor. The woman turned to look at him with eyes that had been glued shut — his work. The crusty residue was still stuck around the edges. She opened her mouth and a raspy moan slipped away from her cut-up lips. It sounded like she couldn’t breathe, and wanted to, so desperately.
He felt his breathing grow harsh and rapid.
“Please, don’t hurt me,” he begged. “I— I don’t want to die.”
Her feet stamped in place as the moans coming out of her mouth became louder and louder.
“Please!” he cried. “Please, don’t hurt me.”
The woman’s dark, disgusting skeleton hand began to move. She moved it up from the edge of the bowl, brought it slightly up in the air, and it jutted straight out, certainly to strike and kill the old man. He shut his eyes.
But nothing happened.
Instead, her hand went back into the bowl. It dug around in there for a second— clatter, clatter, clatter— until she grabbed something and pulled it out. She held a Highland Cattle Cookie in her hand.
Claufflin voluntarily blinked.
She moved the cookie away from the bowl and slowly, very slowly, brought it up to her mouth. Her lips didn’t move much, but she put the treat into her mouth. With a concentrated effort, she chewed. Her teeth worked away, breaking it down and crunching it down into little pieces, longer than any human would chew something, and then she finally swallowed it down as though she was dry swallowing a pill. It moved through her throat slowly. Then she reached back into the bowl for another one.
Claufflin stared and watched the woman eat. He thought of a thousand questions to ask–:
Are you dead?
You’re the daughter of the Nguyens, aren’t you?
Are you mad at me for what I’ve done to you?
But in the end, he settled on what seemed like the most logical one.
“Do you… want any milk with that?”
The woman turned her head toward him, her black mouth gaped open and covered with crumbs. She moved her head back and forth just slightly, almost missable, to say no.
“Right,” he murmured.
When she finished the last cookie, she pushed the bowl away and stood up slowly and deliberately, as though she had no energy to waste. She pulled up the gray blanket that had started to fall past her shoulders and wrapped herself up haphazardly. Her bony feet tapped against the kitchen floor as she made her way over to the basement door, which, Claufflin cursed himself as he realized, was still open. She took a step into the impenetrable darkness downstairs, but not before turning back to look at the old man for a second.
She stared for a long time, then nodded at him. He nodded back.
And with that, she stepped down into the basement, softly shutting the door behind her until it clicked in its lock.
Mr. Claufflin stood alone in the kitchen of his home and found himself unsure of what to say or what to think. On the brink of a total mental collapse or a total change in career paths, he looked over at the empty bowl of the table. That was the moment when he realized the worst, most horrific thing of all.
She had eaten his last package of cookies.