One good way to make sure you never get laid again is to move into an apartment on the top floor of a funeral parlor. Don’t believe me? Give it a try. Meet a nice-looking guy online, let him take you out for an expensive dinner, invite him back to your place, then watch his face as he rolls up to the Mortibella Funeral Home and the GPS lady says, “You have arrived at your destination.” Maybe make a lame joke about it being his “final destination,” just to really kill the mood.
I didn’t anticipate this problem when I moved into the place. To me, it was just another apartment. The fact that it was above a funeral parlor was a bonus—the rent was twenty percent cheaper than anywhere else in town, mainly because people were freaked out by the idea of having a bunch of corpses chilling downstairs in a freezer while they slept. It didn’t bother me though. I was just happy to have a roof over my head.
The building was owned by the funeral director, a lumbering giant by the name of Nicholas Mortibella. He had been the funeral director for as long as I could remember. I can still picture him at my grandmother’s funeral, standing by the parlor doors in his neat black suit, his hands clasped loosely in front of his belt as he nodded sympathetically to the mourners entering the building. I was only eight years old, but I never forgot him or the gentle baritone of his voice as he ushered me and my parents in to view my grandmother’s body. It was the same voice that answered the phone the day I called about the apartment. He invited me to come to see it in person, and within an hour I was sitting in his office, signing the lease.
Nicholas wasn’t your stereotypical funeral director. You’d expect someone tall and bone-thin, an Ichabod Crane type with pale skin and a stooped back. Nicholas, on the other hand, was downright jolly-looking, with ruddy cheeks and a prodigious belly that strained at the buttons of his powder-white shirt. Far from pale, his skin was deeply tanned, as if he had just returned from a week in Miami Beach. With his slicked black hair and chunky gold pinkie ring, he looked more like an extra from Goodfellas than a man who powdered dead ladies’ cheeks for a living.
Once the paperwork for the apartment was finished, Nicholas stood and offered me his hand. I expected his skin to be cool to the touch, but once again, he defied expectations. His hand was warm and soft, like a fleece-lined glove.
“Welcome,” he said. “I’m glad to have you.”
“Thanks.” I picked up the apartment keys from the desk, then dug into my purse and pulled out my tape measure. “Do you mind if I run up real quick and do some measuring?”
“Of course. Right this way.”
Nicholas exited his office and pushed through a swinging door into a brightly lit room at the end of the hall. After a brief hesitation, I followed. It wasn’t until I was a couple of steps inside that I noticed the stainless steel tables, the glass-faced cabinets full of medical implements, and most noticeably, the smell. It was a sharp antiseptic odor, a combination of bleach and what I guessed must have been formaldehyde. Thankfully, there were no bodies.
For a moment, I imagined my grandmother laying there on one of the tables, her body cold and stiff, her eyelids stitched shut, her tissue-thin skin pulled taut over her jutting cheekbones. Nicholas had done that, I realized, right in the room where I was standing. He had dressed her. Smeared lipstick on her bloodless mouth. Applied rogue to her sunken cheeks. He was the last person to touch her before her casket was closed. In fact, he probably knew her more intimately than anybody except my grandfather.
“We did my Nana’s funeral here,” I blurted out, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Yes, I remember.” He traced his fingers along the smooth metal surface of the embalming table as he passed. “Lovely woman. You must miss her.”
My throat tightened. “Every day.”
My grandmother and I had been close, especially toward the end. When she became too weak to care for herself, I was the one who looked after her while my parents were at work. I brushed her hair, decorating it with her favorite comb—a golden butterfly with emerald-green wings—so she would still feel pretty despite her declining health. And when she couldn’t feed herself anymore, I helped with that too.
Whenever I took care of her, she insisted on rewarding me with a butterscotch candy wrapped in sparkling gold foil, supplies which she kept in small dishes distributed throughout her apartment. They were her favorite candies—she always seemed to have one rolling around on her tongue or tucked into the side of her cheek when I was growing up. I didn’t know why she liked them so much. They always tasted oddly bitter to me, more like medicine than candy. The only time I liked them was when they came from her. It was like her touch transformed them from something bitter to something sweet and delicious. Something special.
Nicholas pulled open another door and ushered me into a small foyer at the back of the building. “Here we are.”
Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the sheer curtain adorning an exterior door on the opposite side of the room. I pulled the curtain aside, peeking out into the small parking lot behind the building. “Ah,” I mumbled to myself, recognizing the entrance I had used when I first viewed the apartment the week before.
I turned and looked up the wide staircase leading to my new place, then indicated the door we had just passed through.
“Will this be locked?” I asked. Anyone coming through the funeral parlor door into the foyer would have unfettered access to my apartment. There was no door upstairs.
“From both sides.” Nicholas pointed to the dual deadbolts. Each lock required a key, so nobody could pass through unless a person on each side allowed it. I relaxed. It seemed safe enough.
“All right, then,” I said with a smile. “No need to wait. I can lock up.” I dangled the key from my fingertips.
“Take your time.” He backed into the embalming room. “And tell her I said hi.”
“Will do,” I replied reflexively. He closed the door, then shot the top deadbolt with a heavy clunk. I inserted my key into the bottom one, locked it, then started up the stairs. It wasn’t until I was halfway up that I realized what he had said. I crinkled my brow.
Tell who he said hi?
The stairs creak.
I hadn’t noticed the sound when I was touring the place. It was only afterward, when I had been living there for a few days, that I first heard it.
I was laying in bed after a long shift at the vet’s office, trying to forget the whimpers of the doe-eyed Border Collie I had to put down that day. My eyes were just drifting shut when I heard the distinctive squeal of old wood against rusty nails.
At first, I ignored it. I was too tired to care what it might be. But a few seconds later, it happened again. That was when I realized: someone was coming up the stairs.
I sat up quickly, fumbling my glasses onto my face. “Hello?” I called. There was no reply.
I immediately felt silly. There couldn’t be anyone in the house. I had locked the door when I came home. I was sure of it.
I climbed out of bed and tip-toed out of my room. A splash of moonlight filtering through the window cast a soft glow into the living room. My heart stuttered.
A woman was sitting on the couch, her back to me. Her steel-gray hair was decorated with an ornate comb—a golden butterfly with emerald wings.
“Nana?” I whispered.
The woman didn’t answer.
I stepped silently into the living room, then circled the couch until I could see the woman’s face. It was my grandmother. She looked exactly as I remembered her before she got sick, when her cheeks were full and her eyes were bright.
She looked up at me and smiled. “Ellen, sweetie,” she said, then patted the couch next to her. “Come. Sit.”
I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. Instead, I felt hopeful. Joyful. Grateful for the chance to see her again.
As I sat down, she reached for my hand and took it in hers, then pressed something into my palm. I looked down to see what it was.
When I looked up again, she was gone.
I woke up a few hours later, my neck stiff from lying awkwardly on the arm of the couch. I was confused about why I wasn’t in my bed. Had I been sleepwalking? I sat up and looked back toward the stairs with a vague sense of unease. I remembered that something had disturbed my sleep. A creaking stair, and then…
As I raised my arm to shield my eyes against the bright morning sun, I realized I had something clutched in my hand. I uncurled my cramped fingers and looked at what I held in my palm.
It was a butterscotch candy.
I unwrapped the golden foil wrapper and popped the candy into my mouth, savoring the taste as it dissolved on my tongue.
It was delicious.
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