Imogene Lynch, ex-hairstylist, wants to become a normal mortician. Unfortunately, she has a talent that’s anything but.
A hot wind whipped my hair into my eyes, but even through the black veil I could see the Cavendish School of Mortuary Science wasn’t what I’d expected. The pictures of it on the website showed ivied halls on a grand Victorian-era estate. The registration building in front of me wasn’t that. It was a three-story blue and beige stucco monstrosity, circa 1980.
I pushed open the heavy security-glass door and made my way toward the registrar’s office down a linoleum hallway that smelled of cafeteria lunches. The line wasn’t long, Mortuary Science not being as popular a major as, say, Communications or Business. I retrieved my registration packet and headed out into the blustery heat again.
Despite the Santa Ana winds, famous in Southern California for unseasonal temperatures and seasonal fires, the campus hummed with first-day excitement. Lost students wandered zombie-like along the winding paths. Returning students greeted one another with fist bumps and hugs. The crowd looked much like any other group of college students, albeit a greater percentage preferred dark hair and clothing, but they weren’t. They were here to study death.
Instead of world history, they would study world burial customs. Instead of Psychology 101, Psychology of Grief. Instead of Biology, a hands-on embalming course. Something warm glowed within. I was a good six years older than most of the students milling around, yet they were my people.
I pulled the campus map from the registration packet, and as I did, a glossy four-color flier fluttered to the ground. Before I could retrieve it, the wind snagged it and carried it toward the grass. I jogged after it, but a girl with skin as dark as mine was white darted forward and snatched it from the thieving gust. She glanced at the page in her hand and snorted. “I got one of these.”
I read the heading as I took it from her. Phi Sigma Eta – A Co-ed Fraternity. I laughed and immediately felt guilty. Why shouldn’t there be a fraternity for mortuary students? Hadn’t I spent hours trying to convince Gran that the death industry was a noble one? “Are you going to join?” I asked.
She snorted again. “No way. My mama would kill me. On the way out the door this morning, she says,” the girl adopted an artificially high tone, “Rochelle, watch yourself, girl. There’s gonna be a lot of strange folks at that school. You’re not there for socializing.”
I nodded. I got it. I’d tried to convince Gran that funeral directors were like the pastors of their own ever-changing flocks. I’d thought this was an especially nice touch, since Gran was born again in the 1970s during the Jesus Movement. It didn’t sway her. “Yeah, my Gran isn’t too crazy about my career choice either.”
“Oh, Mama is fine with the career choice. It was hers, not mine.”
I looked Rochelle up and down critically for the first time. She didn’t look like most of the students on campus, and it wasn’t because she was Black. She was too all-American. Too clean cut. Too old, probably only a couple of years younger than me. And above all, too pretty in a TV newscaster kind of way. “Why did you agree? I mean, it’s kind of . . . Well, you gotta be into it.”
“My uncle owns a funeral home and. . . It’s a long story.” She stuck out a hand. “Rochelle.”
I took it and shook. “Imogene.”
We fell into step, meandering through a swirl of leaves in the general direction of what I hoped were the classrooms.
“Where are you headed?” Rochelle asked.
“Anatomy 101. How about you?”
“Same. Do you know where it is?”
I stopped walking. “No. I thought you did.”
Rochelle pulled a campus map from her backpack. “I think it’s behind the registration building.”
We looked at the map together, pivoted, then pushed our way down a narrow wind-tunnel of a path between the registration offices and the library.
“You picked this,” Rochelle waved away a twig that had sailed toward her head, “all by yourself?”
“Yeah.” I said the word slowly, making two syllables of it to give myself more thinking time. I knew what the next question would be, because everybody asked it: Why? Why did I want to go into Mortuary Science?
“Why?” Rochelle said on cue.
There was a long answer. Last year, I’d been asked to do the hair and makeup for a deceased client, and it had turned into a murder investigation. In the process of stumbling onto the killer, I’d also stumbled onto the answers to some of life’s big questions like: Why was I taking up space on the planet? Was there a purpose to my existence? What did I want to be when I grew up?
I gave Rochelle the short answer. “I used to be a beautician, but business was too up and down.”
She shot me a look. “The dead are more reliable?”
“Exactly. How about you? What did you want to do before you got hijacked into the family business?”
“History. I have an undergraduate degree. My goal was to write long, boring books about the Peloponnesian war and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. And, I wanted to teach at the university level.” She sighed heavily. “But it was not to be.”
I was curious. Why would such an intelligent girl allow herself to be coerced into studying for a career she didn’t want? But she sounded so sad, I decided not to pry. When we came to an open green belt flanked by the two buildings that had been featured on the website, I changed the subject. “This must be part of the original estate.”
“It looks old enough,” Rochelle said.
It did. The buildings were less picturesque and more neglected than they’d appeared online. White paint peeled around the window and door frames. Weeds poked through the overgrown rose and hydrangea bushes that only partially hid broken bricks and missing mortar. “Kind of like an archeological site,” I said. “Should make you happy.” She rolled her eyes.
Anatomy 101 was housed on the second floor of Edgar Hall, the building on the right. Rochelle led the way into a dim, cool space that smelled faintly of chemicals. We followed the sound of voices down a hall and up a staircase. The cheerful noise echoing off the walls accentuated how silent the rest of the building was. Could it be empty except for Anatomy 101? That was a disquieting idea, but I couldn’t say why.
The room at the top of the stairs was large. Tables rather than desks stood in three rows: two lining the walls, one down the center. There were two students already seated at most of them.
I gazed around the space looking for the professor who’d been listed as R. Dickey in the course catalogue. I had imagined a narrow-shouldered, bespectacled man with a balding pate who wore sweater vests under a lab coat. Wrong. R. Dickey was a woman. And she was neither narrow-shouldered nor bespectacled. She was tall and wide and in bad need of a good haircut. I was tempted to slip her my Harry’s Hair Stop card, but I only worked there when they were in a pinch these days.
“I see you found us out here in the barrens,” she boomed at Rochelle and me in a voice as big as she was. “I think they’re ashamed of me.” She guffawed, a style of laughter I’d only heard one other person in my life employ. In fact, even though she was a woman and Harry a man, and even though he would hate her hair—-he was very fastidious—-she reminded me of him.
“Names?” she asked.
“Rochelle Adams,” Rochelle said.
“Imogene Lynch,” I said.
R. Dickey pointed Rochelle to a table in the front row where a handsome, dark-haired guy already sat. Me, she sent to a far corner of the room next to a fierce-looking girl with a nose ring.
I’m not a fashion prude. Some even call me edgy. My naturally blond hair is dyed deep ebony with burgundy highlights. I have a Rosie the Riveter tat on my right bicep. And I favor black clothing. However, I hate nose rings. Not only are they unsanitary, but they make even the toughest humans appear subservient. It’s like they’ve prepped their nose just so they can be led around by it.
I nodded at the fierce girl and took a seat.
“Listen up,” R. Dickey bellowed over the students’ voices. They quieted. “Take a moment and introduce yourselves to your lab partner. You’re going to be working closely together this semester, so be nice.”
The murmur rose to a din as the students obeyed. I’m a recovering introvert. My natural tendency is to let others take the first step, but I overcame it now and smiled at Nose-ring girl. She didn’t smile back.
I gave it another try, leaned forward, and spoke over the noise. “I’m Imogene.”
“Pnmishy,” she said in a voice that would’ve been hard to hear in a quiet room.
“Sorry?” I said.
“Pnmishy,” she repeated only slightly louder.
Okay, this was starting to get irritating. I’ll be friendly to people who make an effort, but I didn’t have time for this. I folded my arms over my chest and stared out the window.
“Enough.” R. Dickey called class to order. “I have a surprise for you today. It’s a good news, bad news kind of thing. Actually, bad news, good news. Our fetal pigs are on backorder.”
A corporate groan rang through room. I didn’t join in. I wasn’t excited about fetal pig dissection. I’m a little squeamish.
R. Dickey raised a hand like a traffic cop. “Now, now, the bad news is actually good news, because it’s why you’re getting the surprise.” She paused dramatically, then said, “We’re going to visit with Cadaver Mike.”
A happy murmur flowed through some of those gathered. I didn’t join in that either. I’d expected to dissect fetal pigs. I hadn’t expected an actual cadaver.
R. Dickey walked toward a casket-sized stainless steel box in the back of the room. “Gather round.”
“I thought we’d stick to pigs until embalming class,” I said to no one in particular.
To my surprise, Nose-ring girl answered in an audible voice, “Cadaver Mike has been around for a long time. He’s a UCI hand-me-down.”
I must have looked confused, because she continued. “The medical school. They practice surgeries on people who’ve donated their bodies to science. They usually have a funeral afterwards, but once in a while, we get them when they’ve run out of useful parts.”
“Useful parts?” I parroted.
“Appendix, tonsils, livers, hearts; you know, the stuff surgeons take out and put back.” She got up and walked toward the casket.
I followed Nose-ring girl, my stomach doing a jitterbug. I wasn’t worried about seeing human remains. I’d done the hair and makeup for too many funerals now to be upset by the dead’s exterior. It was the interior I was worried about.
My lab partner must have noticed my distress. “He’s not that bad,” she said over her shoulder.
“You’ve seen him?”
“Last year,” she said. “Flunked once. This is my second time around.”
Anatomy was a prerequisite for all the lab science courses at Cavendish. The idea was for students to get the lay of the land before we started vacuuming things out through tubes. It was a good thought, but I’d been hoping to study on smaller real estate, like fetal pigs.
Students jockeyed for position around the metal box. I tried to hang back but somehow got shoved into the first tier.
“This is so exciting,” R. Dickey sang in a deep alto. “Nobody has visited Cadaver Mike in months. I’m sure he’s been lonely.”
Why did I suddenly feel like a kindergartner waiting for the puppet show to start?
R. Dickey pulled an Allen wrench from her sweater pocket, inserted it into the end of the casket, and turned. There was a clunk and clink of metal as something unlatched. She grabbed a handle and hoisted up the lid.
A strangled silence blanketed the room. I squinted, struggling to make sense of what I saw. Something wasn’t right.
There were two faces in the box, one pale gray and sagging, the other a tight, concave profile. There were also four legs and four arms. The shape of Cadaver Mike’s limbs were visible under a sheet, but another, fully dressed man lay on top of the cover next to him. The man had thrown a leg and an arm over Mike in an affectionate embrace. They looked like napping lovers.
A scream, shrill and high, shattered the quiet. A split second later, someone slammed into my spine and catapulted me forward. I reached out to break my fall.
The next two seconds moved slowly, like pregnant elephants wading blindly forward into a hidden pride of hungry lions. I saw my hands descending toward the bodies in the casket. There was nothing I could do to stop them. I yelled, but on they went, inch by terrible inch, until they struck skin and skull and, worse yet, hair.
My fingers clenched completely against my will and entangled themselves into the washed-out brown locks of the fully dressed corpse. I gasped. I had no breath. My mouth opened and shut like the maw of a dying fish. The last thing I saw before I fell to the cold linoleum clutching my chest was the dead man’s hand wrapped around a narrow white object.