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Chapter Ten

The books numbed Archie's brain. It was the combination of the numbers themselves—he'd always hated numbers—and the idea of what the numbers stood for, the cold hard facts of undertaking, or, as McCloud preferred, Funeral Directing, which made him sick.

So many stiffs in, so many stiffs out. X number of slumber suits at Y less ten percent professional courtesy. Cosmetology, caskets, carnations. Embalming, interment, interest if paying on time. Every month it all added up to big bucks. Against a miniscule overhead.

Archie's eyes ran down the page till they came to "salaries." There it was, proof positive next to his name that what he made couldn't buy him a new moped, let alone any kind of car. Let alone pay for college, which he shouldn't have been thinking about anyway since he wasn't sure what the hell he wanted to do with his life besides hold on to it.

Crazy Johnny Progressive was on a Dead Kennedys kick tonight, 1230 on your dial, WZMB. The music had probably started out distorted, but by the time it got through Archie's aged transistor radio, it sounded a whole lot more like noise. Still, it kept him company.

Between bursts of static, brought on no doubt by yet another storm that had been brewing all day, Archie could hear the lyric, part of something Crazy Johnny called Funland at the Beach.

Ran a turn and then it smashed right down
Through the crowded haunted house below
Oh No
Human Hamburger No
And it's crushed little kids
Crushed little kids
Crushed little kids
Adorn the boardwalk.
It was like the whole world was going crazy, wasn't it, listening to the dead Kennedys singing about a roller coaster accident and liking it? Funny thing was, Archie liked it too. It had a good beat. The guitar was kind of like the old fifties tunes. It was easy to dance to and the dumb lyrics made you laugh. Give it a ninety-three.

Archie spun the dial for something softer, since he'd already heard Funland at the Beach three times tonight, Crazy Johnny Progressive being something of a space case.

Something sick like Montovani as interpreted by Lawrence Welk came up on the more powerful Albany station. Archie set aside the ledger, readjusted the light out of his eyes, and took up the Freeman High yearbook, Beach Head.

It fell open, as he knew it would, to the S's, and there she was, his dream woman, Joanie Snowland, with her hair curled and her cleavage wrapped in a deep-V drape, pretty as fresh produce in a natural foods store. There had been a move, a referendum, a couple years back, to shoot the students in whatever they felt like wearing for the yearbook, but Archie's class had voted for a return to the traditional, jackets and ties and the classic drape. Girls knew guys like breasts, and Archie supposed they were fond of them themselves, so there they were. And there she was, forever more, in the past tense:

JOAN SNOWLAND
  • Student Council 1-4
  • Choir 1-4
  • French Club 1-4
  • Cheerleader 2-4
  • Pep Club 2-4
  • Beach Head Staff 3-4
  • National Honor Society 3-4

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

To sleep, perchance to dream of sleep with Joanie. Archie's head nodded towards her picture on the page—voluntary, involuntary, who could say?—and then the Montovani crackled loudly and was gone in the instant before a huge clap of thunder rocked the mortuary. A second or two later, a million volts of lightning slammed into the old elm out front, ripping it apart. The lights in the room flickered and died.

Archie stumbled through the darkness and reached the door before a second lightning bolt tore to earth, instantaneously with the thunder. He felt his way along the hall to the breaker box, opened it, reset the breaker and grabbed up a flashlight that they kept there. He switched on the hall light and stood quietly for a moment, listening. He could hear the blood beating in his ears, his breathing—which was heavy—and, most worrisome, an intermittent clicking sound that seemed to be coming from the prep room.

Archie had a good idea what was causing the noise, and as he passed through the kitchen and approached the swinging door, the clicking intensified. Pushing halfway through the door, he played his flashlight over the face of the vault. He had no intention of going any farther. There was nothing he could do, only hope that whatever repairs Franklin had made on the compressor would hold.

The prep room, except for the clicking, was still as dead can be. Archie backed quickly away, replaced the flashlight, switched off the hall light and proceeded to the display room, which still smelled of gardenias, though the flowers had all been moved to the cooler. There was a lingering odor of perspiration there as well. The combination was unpleasant. Only a weak flood of light from the office caught the tops and sides of the two rows of caskets. Halfway to the office, the lightning flashed again, reflecting brightly off the glass fronts of the display cases opposite the windows in the room.

Again the thunder rumbled and died, like the Dutch Bowling team in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The clicking continued, louder perhaps, and as he neared the office it was augmented by the thoroughly nauseating strains of Montovani aborting Let it Be. Archie quickly switched off the transistor. He rushed back over to the door to the display room, slammed it, and crossed quickly to the door on the hall, likewise shutting it against the insistent incipient compressor failure.

He sat down at the desk at last, reached for the phone, and dialed a couple digits before reconsidering a moment and hanging up.

"What am I going to say?" he said to himself. "The power went off? Lighten up, Arch."

He leaned back in the chair, put his feet up on the desk, and listened to the rain falling in a torrent, vibrating, it seemed, the entire house. The trouble was, he had too damn much work to try to sleep through the storm, though that would have been the most comfortable thing. He took his feet from the desk, started to roll the chair back towards the ledger, and chanced to glance through the window:

"Meegneauw!"

A wet and frightened cat had chosen that moment to look in at him, and Archie and the beast scared each other senseless. The cat arched its back like in a cartoon and Archie lept to his feet.

The lights began to dim rhythmically. He went back to the door, listening intently. There was a new noise now, a kind of weird grinding sound in harmony with the clicking, rising and falling in cadence with the lights. He took a deep breath, pushed the door open, and once again trekked down the hallway.

He turned on the lights in the prep room. They too rose and fell, accompanying the clicking and grinding.

"Ah shit," Archie said to himself.

He walked slowly over to the vault for a closer listen. He cracked one of the drawers open and the noises intensified. Reluctantly, he reached for the switch and shut down the compressor. As it wound down, the lights returned to their original intensity.

"Wonderful. This is just great." He closed the drawer, crossed back to the door, and turned off the prep room lights.

He ambled into the kitchen, stepped to the counter, and leaned heavily, wearily, on it for a moment. Then he opened the fridge, and removed a carton of milk. Taking a sip right out of the carton, have you seen this child?, he pondered his next move. As he replaced the milk, he heard another click and a rolling sound from the prep room. He moved cautiously back to the swinging door, reached around the door frame and clicked on the lights.

Joanie Snowland's drawer was half-open. He walked to it and shut it, with his eyes half-closed. He breathed a sort of puzzlement, turned and left again.

Back at the desk he quickly dialed McCloud. The old fart answered sleepily:

"McCloud speaking." There was a lot of static on the line.

"Mr. McCloud, it's Archie. Listen, I'm sorry to bother you, but I think the compressor is on the blink."

"Is it working?"

"Well, I turned it off. I thought it might blow a circuit." Oddly enough, he could hear the same clicking and grinding sound as before. And the lights started to surge and fall again too.

"Unh, hang on a sec, Mr. McCloud, I have to go check something."

He punched the hold button and left the office. Upon reentering the prep room, he stopped dead in his tracks: Joanie's drawer was open again. Archie walked over, slammed it shut good and hard, walked back to the door, flicked off the lights, and waited.

The drawer slid open slowly again in the dark. He turned the light back on and walked cautiously back to the vault, way concerned. He carefully closed the drawer again, and as he did, the two adjacent drawers clicked and opened slightly. Thinking quickly, he pushed the heavy embalming table in front of the vault to keep the drawers shut.

His mind turned in confusion, tinged with just a touch of the beginnings of fear, as he hurried back to the phone.

"Hello?"

"Jesus!" barked McCloud. "It's about time. What's going on there?"

"The whole unit is acting weird. The drawer latches aren't working and—"

"Get that plumber over there ASAP! I will not bend over backwards to pay through the nose for slap-dash work! I want this corrected now!" Loud static punctuated the order.

"Hello?" said McCloud. "Hello? Do you read me loud and clear?"

"Affirmative, " said Archie. "Unh…Mr. McCloud, I understand."

"And keep an eye on that temperature. Do not, repeat…do not allow that gauge to go above forty." The static increased. They were having a hell of a storm. Archie yelled above the noise:

"But the compressor is down!"

"I can't hear a word you're saying. I want solutions, Archie, not problems. See you in the morning." He rang off.

Archie hung up in sad frustration. But his curiosity was aroused. After some moments of thought, he took the flashlight from the breaker box, re-entered the prep room (which was getting to be a drag), and opened one of the drawers on the tier above the four new corpses.

He panned his flashlight down from one face to another. Palumbo. Roberta. Joanie. Davis. It was odd: even in death these kids challenged him. Taunted him. He found himself looking forward to their funeral. And then the long summer following. R and R. That's what he was really ready for. Rest and recuperation. Put this stuff behind him.

His light caught the repaired section of pipe. Joanie's feet were pushing up against it, and her plastic shroud was bunched up in the track mechanism for the drawer. Things were beginning to make sense.

No doubt about it, as he examined further, this was a problem. The pipe was leaking gas, with a still small but none-the-less ominous hiss. Archie had no idea what kind of gas it might be; he only knew that it wouldn't explode and couldn't possibly hurt the kids, who were beyond any further damage.

The interior of the vault was starting to sweat. So was Archie. Water dripped steadily onto the plastic death shrouds of four people he had never really known.


Next:Thanatopsis Reconsidered

Forward

"Those suckers are alive!"
in the darkness the undead quarterback
highway to hell in a handbasket
fill 'er up and check the oil
hell hounds on my trail
are you on drugs or just having one of those days?
Freeman and me and the rest of the world

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