There once was a boy who found his only friend dead on her kitchen floor.
She had been ill; he was too shy to see how she was doing, so he'd hid in his own dark and dirty house, unwilling to intru-
(No, that was a lie. He was afraid of what he would find.)
Eventually loneliness drove him out into the killing sun – only to find that he was too late.
So he sat there with her empty shell on his lap like some big broken doll and wept into her hair with his arms around her – what else was there left for him to do?
His tears ran out as the sun crept across the clean white linoleum, forcing him to take his friend into the shadows of the hall and out of the razor-bright light.
The boy leaned there against the wall for a long time with his arms still around her cooling body, lost in the memory of death; for he was much older than he looked and had a lot to remember.
The Language of Death
Death, like many things in this world is a language, a kingdom unto itself. Like any language or kingdom, death has rules. Death has rituals.
Well, any death that matters, that is.
This one did. If not, why was he crying over something that should have been a light snack easily forgotten?
What were the rules of death? What were the rituals? The boy sat listening to a branch tap softly against the kitchen window, trying to recall the rules and rituals that he'd deliberately cast aside at his own.
It wasn't easy, this sort of remembering.
After a while he gently put his friend aside, her head resting on his rolled up coat, and walked through her echoing house, covering all the mirrors he could find. Not that mirrors meant anything to him; mirrors had given up on him a long time ago and he likewise.
He used towels, he used sheets, he used one of his friend's youngest daughter's little pink t-shirts, and one of the eldest's pillowcases; taken from the laundry basket by the stairs.
That done, the boy returned to his friend, sat down next to her body, and held her hand. He'd never once held it when she was alive; another set of rules and rituals that he thought he'd discarded long ago, forbade it. He, the ultimate intruder, felt that even touching her would have been the ultimate intrusion and had refrained.
In return, she had given him hospitality. Nothing formal, nothing like the stilted little parties his mother once held in her front parlor whenever her tuberculosis allowed her such niceties.
Instead, his friend had offered him little comforts, a cup of hot chocolate here and there, clean clothes, grownup conversation - and…quiet acceptance without prying…which had been a blessed relief (even when he was being a childish bastard).
Which he was… often. Living nigh on forever, even when one is dead, gives one a lot of time to be a childish bastard in.
"It's my job."
Not that the boy felt any shame… after all he was evil - it was his job, he did it well. However, around his friend, what appeared at first as great adventures, amazing escapes, and marvelous fun -seemed no more than the pointless antics of a demented child.
Impossible! It couldn't have been shame that he sometimes felt around her. He was a demon: shame wasn't part of the deal. (Still, it had felt good to be treated like an adult whose opinions mattered.)
For that alone, he felt that his friend had earned more than a few blinded mirrors, so he dug around some more in his perpetually aching head and tried to remember what came next... how could he have forgotten?
Bloody simple, really - as a small boy he had witnessed the preparing of loved ones while standing beside his mother as she sat quietly weeping in her invalid's chair; watching his aunts, no, it should have been his aunts, but those women had been undertaker's assistants, laid a body out in her second-best parlor. She'd been too ill, too isolated to do the right thing herself, so strangers had to wash and dress whoever it was for her – in some memories it was a man, in others it was a baby in a coffin no bigger than a hatbox, or a young woman with golden curls - as dozens of sweetly scented candles and lamps burned around them on stands.
The boy paused as he stood up.
They didn't do that sort of thing at home anymore, did they?
He looked down at his friend's body, frowning.
His friend would be taken away, to some mortuary where-
The very thought of strangers pawing at his friend's body, washing it, dressing it, making comments and comparisons… was appalling.
She deserved better.
Dressing his friend was mercifully easy –as big a looter of the bodies of others as he was the boy felt an unaccustomed indecency at the thought of having to deal with her underthings. She'd been wearing them already beneath her fuzzy blue bathrobe, relieving him of that duty.
He dug through her closet, past a graduation robe, a crumpled wedding gown, a maternity top, and a truly regrettable turquoise dress with huge shoulder pads left over from the eighties before he found her a grown-up outfit, easing her into the silk blouse as she stiffened, before arranging the jacket and skirt over all.
He found a pair of new shoes, still in their box, beneath the bed and slipped them onto her rigid feet.
With the curtains closed and every candle he could find lit and arranged around the kitchen among the houseplants and the wooden spoons, the boy washed his friend's face and hands. Her hair was uncurled so that she looked a lot younger than she was as she sat there propped up in a kitchen chair against the table with her eyes wide open and staring.
Had he met her twenty, maybe twenty five years before, he would have drained her, tossing her aside without a backward glance.
Now he was doing the right thing by her.
He took her purse out of the hall closet and painted her face with the contents, using a copy of Vogue he'd found stuffed down the back of the couch with peanut butter smears on the cover as his guide. He'd once done the same every evening for his Ripe Wicked Plum, lovingly lining her eyes, painting her lips, shadowing her lids as a caress. But his Plum was long gone, having shed him as useless, leaving him to wonder who now painted her face, and arranged her long black hair as he now did his friend's dark honey locks.
(This was an uncomfortable train of thought for someone who didn't like to think, so he took a break, setting aside the curling iron and going for the bottle of Bourbon his friend kept under the kitchen sink next to the Drain-o, before leaning against the counter to examine his work.)
Except for her eyes refusing to stay shut, it wasn't a bad job. The tradition of weighing them shut with coins would be pointless; he'd already decided that her daughters would find her sitting upright on the couch – the floor would be too distressing – the older one could take it, but the youngest…as big a pain in the butt as she was, he wanted to spare her this.
Carrying his friend into the living room, the boy arranged her on the couch like one of his old lover's beloved dolls and sat on the floor at her feet, head on her lap.
He remembered sitting this way beside his own mother after a bad day, and of wanting to do the same with his friend, somehow knowing it was the wrong thing to ask of her.
Now, it didn't matter.
The boy rested for a while before he sat up and looked at his handiwork. He'd forgotten something, but what was it?
He'd done her nails, shaping and painting them to gleaming perfection.
Her hair wasn't salon perfect, but close.
Her makeup was up-to-date, even better than if she'd done it herself.
The perfume he'd anointed her with was correct.
What had he left out? What had he forgotten?
He recalled the attendants clipping locks of hair from the bodies… and watching his mother braiding that same hair into thin plaits that soon became watch chains and bracelets with delicate miniature portraits decorating them…he'd worn one as a little boy of a favorite cousin… Did they do that any more?
Doubtful. He would have noticed, wouldn't he?
Using a pair of nail scissors, the boy harvested her hair from where it wouldn't show, braiding it into thin cords as his mother had taught him while telling his friend what he was doing and why.
His friend made an excellent listener as his fingers at first fumbled and then remembered what he expected of them until big sis's was finished. He laid it out on the coffee table before he clipped more and made another for the younger daughter with more assurance in his hands. Thanks to him, they could wear these memories among their friendship bracelets so that they wouldn't forget their mother.
He found this comforting.
As his mother had presented him with a thin braid with a portrait of a cousin on it one day in private, he would do the same for the daughters so he wrapped his work up in a linen napkin he found in the antique sideboard and tucked them into his duster pocket near his still heart.
He sat there for a long time, debating.
To take anything for himself would be… presumptuous. (No, painful.)
Not to, would leave him with nothing - which he already had plenty of.
In the end, the boy apologized, stammering like the nobody he'd once been, feeling like an idiot speaking this way to a corpse as he began harvesting a final lock.
The doorbell interrupted his pilfering. After carefully setting aside the hair he'd already harvested, he opened the door abruptly.
A spotty faced deliveryman stood outside on the porch, a bouquet in his hand.
After he accepted the flowers with a pointless made up signature using his friend's last name as his for the hell of it, the boy told the man in his absurd chartreuse and pink uniform to "Sod off!" and slammed the door in his face, only to re-open and hand him what little money he had for a tip after he heard the man grumble on his way back to the delivery van, "Whoah man, that majorly sucks! The lady who lives here is like, way nice, but her son's a real asshole!"
The boy put the bouquet on the newel post right inside the door. He would have arranged them around her body the way he remembered seeing it done in the past, but somehow he had the feeling that this would only alarm the daughters so he didn't.
Anyway, they came from some bloke who was doubtlessly a wanker.
To decorate a loved one with flowers from a wanker would be a worse insult than leaving her laying on her back in her bathrobe, eyes staring up at the ceiling in a pool of shattered mug and sticky hot chocolate - even if it was the kind with little marshmallows in it.
He sat back down on the floor, leaned against her knees, and went back to braiding, using a round seven strand style that was more weave than braid so that a dark honey cord slowly spilled from his fingers as he and his friend watched the day's episode of Passions, like they used to.
(Timmy still wasn't a real boy, Tabitha was still batty as ever, and Fluffy? Forget it!)
He tried the braid against his throat. It was too short, so he continued weaving as the credits rolled past.
There was a mistake. The boy unraveled it and started over.
There was another mistake. More unraveling.
And more unraveling.
Finally he realized that he was delaying the inevitable and finished the job.
Though it was pointless, the boy showed her his work before slipping it on over his head after asking her permission.
Somehow he knew her answer, so he kissed her hands while crying.
Gratitude was rare for him.
Why show gratitude when it gets you nothing?
The boy finally ran out of tears and stood up, pretending to be an adult as he turned off the set. There were other things he needed to do, he needed to nick an appropriate suit; what he had on was wrong – the rules and rituals said so. The rules and rituals also told him that her daughters needed time to be alone with her so that they could prepare themselves…and he would be there to help. Really, that's what the rules and rituals said…
Because his friend had been very house proud, he took down the cloths from the mirrors, cleaned up the floor where he had found her, and put the candles back before leaving the way he came, ratty blanket over his head to block out the sun, and into the storm drain in the alley two houses down…
The boy cursed all of them as he took out the linen napkin from his friend's sideboard and unwrapped the braids.
They hadn't asked him to help carry the casket; he'd been stupid to expect that adult privilege.
Angrily the boy tossed a bracelet into the little fire made of twigs and leaves he'd found lying about the door of his lair.
It fizzled, smoked and stank.
They held the funeral in broad daylight; he should have expected that. And he couldn't even do her the courtesy of sitting vigil after sundown: his grandsire was intruding where he didn't belong – he should have expected that too.
The boy tossed the second bracelet into the fire, refusing to cry.
He wouldn't give them the satisfaction.
Worse, he'd been turned away from the reception afterwards, so he couldn't even give the two sisters with the memories he'd trapped for them.
He took the final braid from around his neck, preparing to toss it into the little fire but the boy couldn't let go. His fingers wouldn't let him.
Instead he stamped out the fire…
The boy looked up at the stars – they were blurry.
…and pulled the fragile cord of human hair which still smelled softly of his best friend's perfume back over his head.