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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Last Rites in Beckham County by Stuart R. West



     Country living can be peculiar; dying is worse...
*** 
     The summer afternoon had been a bright one, hotter than a three-alarm fire. Hardly a proper send-off for Mrs. Sauers, town witch and killer of cats. At least those were the stories around these parts. And around these parts, the stories grew taller than well-tended stalks of corn, gossip fattening the tales until they were good and plump and ripe enough to scare.

     Pa made sure I didn’t buy into such nonsense. It was hard enough growing up in a funeral home without all the campfire tales burning a path into my nightmares.

     But the day Harry (“Harry’s Hearses: Going out in Style”) rolled Mrs. Sauers in through the back door proved to be anything but ordinary. The cluster of cats gathered at the back door should’ve been enough to tip me off. They mewed and hummed the way cats do, rubbin’ up against one another, their tails swattin’ at the flies that had gathered.

     A feline clowder of mourners; or maybe well-wishers.

     From my upstairs bedroom window, I watched. Pa’s red scalp peeked through the long spider legs of hair he combed over, fooling absolutely no one except maybe himself. He conferred with Harry, grown-up talk with down-turned faces. Harry helped usher Mrs. Sauers down through the cellar steps into Pa’s work area. An area Pa only let me visit if invited. Not that it was a nifty place to hang out, mind you (although I’ve had more than several passing acquaintances—around here, my friends don’t tend to last—beg me to take them down there), but sometimes I got the feeling Pa kept secrets from me. Even though as a man of mountain-tall pride, he claimed he was an open book, as honest as ol’ stovetop Abe.

     But Mrs. Sauers held a special fascination for me. In life, she was a peculiar person; death only cast more mystery upon her. The legacy she’d left behind had been built on stories most people only reckoned to be true. But true or not, the tales were enough to keep me out of her pasture, off her front porch at Halloween, and dodging her at the general store.

     Suzette (a rightly beast of a different kind, expensive braces hiding her fangs) swears to the fact that one night, while bicycling by Mrs. Sauers’ house, she saw the body of Tommy Talipin swinging from the ol’ elm tree in the front yard. Most folks say Tommy—a handsome teen of a movie star fashion, but troubled by wander-lust—just took off, tired of the country way. I might’ve believed it, too, if Tommy’s folks hadn’t done got Sherriff Landry involved, sniffing out the less-travelled woods. I can’t imagine a soul just up and leavin’ one night without letting his folks know his whereabouts.

     Other stories meandered on at great lengths about her practice of witchcraft, the details muddier than a country road after a rain. Take, for instance, the tale about ol’ Sy Norton. Everyone knew Sy liked to tip at the bottle, no secret there. But rumor had it he made the mistake of sayin’ some mighty disparaging words about Mrs. Sauers down at his favorite tipping hole. Once word got back to Mrs. Sauers (and ‘round here, word travels faster than electricity), ol’ Sy found his foot rotting away, the end shriveled up like a sun-baked walnut. Course, Pa brought me up to believe in science, explained Sy’s leg away with an educated diagnosis. It sounded good to me, science being much more preferable than witchcraft.

     It was hard to know what to believe.

     But the stories that remained constant about Mrs. Sauers, the ones that rarely changed, all had to do with the cats. Now, a missing cat in the country isn’t an unusual occurrence. Like Tommy, cats are prone to wander, following lust of a different sort. And in Beckham County, cats are mighty plentiful. You can’t swing a, well, a cat without hitting another. But story has it, every time Mrs. Sauers fancied dropping a spell on somebody, she’d sacrifice a cat to her god, who I assure you was a far cry from my God.

     Guess what I’m sayin’ is even Job himself would surely have his patience tested by having Beckham County’s biggest mystery lying flat on her back in his basement.

     So, that night, after Pa’d tucked himself in with a nightcap, I stole downstairs, quiet as a whisper. Two flights down and I entered Pa’s workshop. The cold air struck me first. Pa never said it, but I imagined he kept it that way to preserve the mortal remains for as long as possible. I flipped on the light switch, hoping to chase away a chill of a different sort.

     Clak, chak, chak

     Like dominoes of lightning, the overhead fluorescents clacked on, one after the other, painting the room in a moon-glow of white.

     For what I imagined to be one of the messiest jobs in Beckham County, Pa always kept his work space cleaner than fresh laundry. His tools were lined up, biggest to smallest, orderly like soldiers, on his cart: all manners of scalpels, something he called a trocar, various ointments and disinfectants (both for him and his projects). Several tubes snaked from the great chugging, grey beast of an embalming machine. The sink, longer than the tallest fella Pa’d ever buried by a foot, remained sparkling, good-as-new looking. On my few visits down there, I’d never seen nary a drop of blood.

     But the body beneath the blue blanket drew me, surely as a magnet attracted metal shavings. Mrs. Sauers’ brillo-pad grey hair stuck out, wiry and mean. Her toes peeked out the bottom, tiny blue veins wrapping around them and exploding into corns the size of thumbs.

     I didn’t know what I expected to see but was pretty dang sure what I didn’t want to see. Sometimes you don’t get what you want.

     Slowly, I tugged the blanket down. Her eyes stood open, milky and nobody home. Peculiar. Pa always closed the project’s eyes first thing. He said he did it out of respect for the deceased. But after seeing Mrs. Sauers’ open eyes, I suspect he did it to keep the dead from watching him.

     I wanted to stop, I really did. But I’d come this far, and if nothing else, I wanted to prove to the nay-saying voice in my head that I could do it, wasn’t a chicken at all.

     The blanket rode the ridge of Mrs. Sauers’ nose, a crooked blue snow jump, until her nose popped out. Little tiny hairs drooped from her nostrils. And I swear what I saw next was only a trick of the bad blinking overhead light. One hair pulled inside a nostril, blew out again.

     That’s what I thought I saw, at least. That’s what I didn’t want to believe I saw. My brain told me to run, go crawl into bed. But my feet didn’t listen, holding to the old adage, “In for a dime, in for a dollar.”

     As I pulled the blanket down below her chin, my hand shook worse than ol’ Sy’s three day tremors. I withdrew my hand fast as a jackrabbit, afraid of things that might bite.

     Her mouth opened. Not an involuntary movement caused by gas either, the way Pa explained sometimes happened. She gasped. No, that wasn’t quite right. More like a hissing radiator.

     Shhhhhhhssssssss

     Spit gathered at the corner of her mouth like condensation. It ran down her pale chin in teary streaks.

     I slapped my hand over my mouth and turned tail outta’ there, forcing my legs to cooperate.

Behind me, the gurney rattled. A rustling of cloth. I didn’t want to look, but…

     Now, she was sitting up. Head turned at a sharp, unnatural angle. Chin cocked. Looking at me. The milk had siphoned out of her eyes, now fully clear. And full of anger.

     “I…didn’t do this.” That was all I said. All my addled brain could muster, a weak apology so I could stay out of Hell, for surely that’s where she intended on sending me.

     Varicose veined legs swung over the side. Meaty toes dangled above the linoleum. I was doomed, damned for messing with things beyond my ken. Had I not been so terrified, I would’ve dropped to my knees right then and there, and prayed loud enough to wake even the snooziest of angels.

     My heart jumped. Something scattered across the room. Soft pitter pats of hesitant rain. No, not rain. A golden cat, walking toward Mrs. Sauers, white paws prancing about like horseshoes. Striding toward her, more determined than Mr. Jones and his prized pig at the fair.

     Mrs. Sauers framed an ugly oval with her mouth and hissed between gaudy red lips, part feline herself. The cat took no heed. Jumped right on top of her, claws digging into the blanket. Mrs. Sauers gasped again, then lay back down where she belonged. The cat strolled up to her face, lowered its head, a strange mouth to mouth resuscitation ritual. Only it had the opposite effect. Mrs. Sauers’ eyes closed. Her chest rose once more, dropped and stayed that way.

     The cat looked at me. Licked its chops like it’d just eaten the plumpest mouse in the county.

     As soon as the cat hopped down, I bolted like lightning out of there. Straight up to my room. Blankets over my head. I don’t recall (as you may well imagine, there were quite a few other things to recall) sleeping, either.

     I never told Pa what happened that night down in the cellar. Not only did I not want to get punished, but I reckon I wasn’t rightly sure what did happen.

     It’s hard enough being young, deliberating between science and religion, navigating the rough and turbulent waters of school, without having something new introduced. Something no one could explain, something horrible.

     They say that life in the country is different, I reckon so is death.
***

 Here I am, talking about myself, pretending not to. Ah, I'm probably not fooling anyone, but play along anyway, 'kay? Just imagine Morgan Freeman narrating and we'll all get through this just fine.


For more of Stuart R. West's adult and young adult suspense tales filled with light heart and dark humor, check out his Amazon page.
And please do check out Stuart's blog featuring weekly rants, failed stand-up comedy routines and incisive author interviews: Twisted Tales From Tornado Alley

Brand spankin' new and creeptacular trailer for Ghosts of Gannaway: