The following short story is based on characters created and/or copyrighted by Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis Lynn, and MTV. All other characters were created and copyrighted by Roland Lowery.

The author gives full permission to distribute this work freely, as long as no alterations are made and the exchange of monetary units is not involved. Any questions, comments, suggestions, or complaints should be sent to esn1g(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.

"We must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose."
-Indira Gandhi

Go on Living
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery

I arrive at work early, but as usual my assistant is already waiting for me. I've never been able to figure out exactly how he manages to do that. Not that it matters much, and as long as he's willing to wait in the freezing cold until I show up, I'm not going to look too deeply into it.

As I step out of my car and into the brisk December morning, I pull my coat tightly around me and clutch my keys in my hand, thankful for the layer of cloth sitting between the skin on my fingers and the blisteringly cold metal. I walk slowly over to the door, partially because I don't want to slip on any icy patches hidden under the light dusting of snow, but also because I'm not in any hurry.

I'm almost never in a hurry. There just doesn't seem to be any point to it.

Paul rubs his bare hands together and breathes on them, sending a cloud of mist around them and up into the air. I check through my keyring and slide the appropriate key into the lock. Before the door is even a few inches open, he has rushed past me into the relative heat of the building. He's an almost-disturbingly rail thin man, so this sudden move barely causes me any disturbance.

Once inside, I lock the door behind me and step into the foyer. Lushly appointed. Covered in flowers. I don't like it very much, but it's a necessary part of the business. Fortunately, it's a part of the business that will be handled by Pamela once she comes in an hour or so from now.

Paul and I stomp the snow from our boots on to the plastic sheet set out specifically for this task. Winters tend to be mild in this area, but also long, making it a decent preventative measure against the gradual ruination of the thick carpet extending from the foyer into the showroom. A decent measure, at least, when customers remember to use it. Not that I can really blame them for forgetting, considering the state of mind they're usually in when they visit.

I follow my assistant through the public area of the building back to the hallway that leads to the uglier side of the business. My side of the business.

Lights snap on overhead in the main work area as Paul hits the fuse boxes, flipping the proper sequence of switches without having to bother looking or double checking as he's doing it. The initial stages of the morning routine are well in hand, so I leave him to it and step into my personal office.

Like the work area and unlike the public areas, my office is sharp, clinical. Black, grey, and white are the predominant colors. Everything is neatly squared away, exactly where it is supposed to be, exactly where I put it. All except for Paul's keys, which are sitting right in the middle of the desk calendar.

No matter how many times Pamela and I have gotten on to him regarding leaving his keys in the building, at his apartment, in his car, and various other places ranging from somewhat reasonable to entirely mind-boggling, my assistant never seems to be able to get the concept locked into his brain that he needs to take better care. Fortunately there's never been any major incident because of this poor habit.

Yet. Of course.

I take off my coat, scarf, and hat and drape them on the coat rack just inside the door. My gloves go in my purse, and my purse goes in a small space between the desk and one of the several filing cabinets in the room. Paul's keys almost go in the garbage can, but I relent at the last moment and simply set them off to the side before opening a drawer and pulling out some non-urgent paperwork left over from the previous day.

Filling out the forms is soothing. Ticking boxes, filling in blanks, dotting i's, crossing t's. It's the very act of bringing order to a world that so often seems to have none.

Around half an hour later, Paul knocks and sticks his head in through the door.

"Morning delivery is here, boss," he says, the first spoken words between us of the morning. "It all seems pretty standard, so I got the easiest one set up to go first."

"Thank you."

He disappears, leaving me to finish up a few last lines before stacking the papers neatly and removing the jacket of my suit to join my coat and other winter wear. This leaves me in a button-up blouse, black slacks, and my heavy boots. This last sort of ruins the whole "professional businesswoman" look of the rest of my outfit, but I don't think my customers really care. They generally aren't looking at my feet as I work with them anyway.

I unbutton my sleeves and carefully roll them up over my elbows, then step out of my office to grab one of the rubber aprons hanging just outside the door. I slip the strap of the bib over my head and tie the thick ribbons off behind my back. With my front protected from my neck down to my shins, I grab a filter mask from the stack and slip it over my head to rest just under my chin.

Thus equipped, I make my way over to the nearby table and the dead body that sits atop it.

The corpse is male. Late 50's, early 60's. Nearly bald, and what few hairs he has left are a silvery-grey. Pudgy around the middle, but not in horrible shape. Skin the color of old paper on top fading to a slightly blotchy blue underneath, but that's settling blood for you. No obvious wounds, but a long scar runs down the middle of his chest from the heart surgery that obviously only delayed the inevitable.

Still, obvious or not, there's no reason to leave things to chance. As Paul sets a file folder on the nearby worktable, I get to work checking to make sure the dead body is, in fact, actually dead. After snapping on a pair of sterile gloves and pulling the filter up over my mouth and nose, I check for a pulse in a few different areas, getting no response. Shining a light into the eyes gets the same, as does a quick breath check.

Along with the more obvious signs, this is more than enough for me to declare my first stiff of the day deceased as the proverbial doornail.

Next comes positive identification. According to the file that Paul left me, I should be looking at Mr. Porter Wright. Poor man. Born with two last names. Two last names that match up with the names listed on the plastic band encircling the corpse's wrist. Either I have the right guy or the boys up at county medical are dipping into the hooch while tagging again.

I strip the body of its only item of clothing, a pair of white boxer shorts, and replace them with a modesty sheet. The sight doesn't really bother me, and I don't personally care about the modesty of my customers, but Paul tends to get a little twitchy whenever he sees the naughty parts. He twitches regardless of the gender or age, fortunately, so at least I don't have to worry about what he might be up to with the bodies still stored in the back when I'm not looking.

I push my glasses up on my nose and lean over the table.

"Okay, Mr. Wright," I mumble quietly to the dead man. "Let's make you pretty."

I am a mortician.

I should have seen it coming. I mean, I did see it coming, really. That stupid aptitude test back in high school. But no one really takes those things seriously. At least, not until you somehow find yourself stuck in the job it predicted, of course.

A good number of morticians, I've come to understand, get their start young. Funeral homes are a good place for teenagers looking for part time jobs since there's always a fair amount of crap work that needs to be done. Lift this here. Move it there. Go get everyone lunch. Pick up some of those little pine air fresheners while you're at it. Sort this box of severed limbs. Make coffee.

I got started late, so I got to skip over that part, thankfully. I was already in college when I made my funerary career decision. It required changing my major from education to mortuary science. After finishing up a round of required general studies, I also ended up changing colleges. After I graduated, I passed the necessary exam, got my license, and served as an assistant for two years under a rather dour man that, thankfully, retired just as I was ready to replace him.

Not a very exciting story, I know. But it's mine.

After working as long as I have in this field, I've found that the title "mortician" can be confusing for some. I have met a number of people who aren't quite certain what duties exactly I perform, and to be fair, it is something of an umbrella term covering a number of duties. In a manner of speaking, I am only an embalmer, taking care of preparing the bodies that come my way for long-distance transportation or, in most cases, their final viewing before being interred.

"Mortician", however, also applies to Pamela, who handles all of our public services. As the funeral director, she helps people pick out caskets, plots, and other such arrangements. She sets up the viewings and tries to help the surviving friends and family deal with their grief.

We both received the same training and could easily switch jobs at any time, but we much prefer the division of duties as they are, thank you very much. It's a fundamental difference in our personalities, which also means that a good day is one in which the two of us don't even have to see each other. I dread the day that I have to prepare my own business partner just before being dragged away by the cops because I was the one who killed her just to get her to shut up for five minutes.

That's why I like Paul. He's not a big talker, at least not around me. In the year and a half he's apprenticed with me, I think we've spoken a total of fifty different words to each other in varying combinations. Not that he doesn't talk to other people. He and Pamela can paint the walls with their chatter when they really get started. But he understands the value of silence in my part of the building and respects it.

I see a successful career in his future handling both major aspects of the mortician label, if only he can somehow win the battle of the lost keys.

The thing with the keys is unfortunate, since Paul is so meticulous about everything else both in his personal life and on the job. Meticulousness is extremely important in my workspace. I like things neat and tidy.

It's one of the reasons I became a mortician.

Human bodies are filthy.

As significant as this problem is - significant enough to fuel entire industries based on disinfecting, antibacterial, and personal grooming products - it becomes even more so once that body is dead. The standard human corpse is a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty critters, and that includes the outside. The first major step in the beautification of Mr. Wright, therefore, is to get him clean.

Using a clean cloth and a bottle of disinfectant, I start by rubbing down the body. This simultaneously cleans away any grime, grit, or dirt that may have collected on his skin and kills off the weaker specimens of micro-organism that are just waiting to start chewing him into a state of putrefaction.

As I do this, I stop on occasion to work out his joints. Rigor mortis is a bitch, but I show it who the bigger bitch is. Massaging the muscles and popping the elbows and knees make the body somewhat loose again, making it easier to move around during both the embalming process and placement in the casket.

With that finished, it's time to show the hardier strains of bacteria and other lovelies the same oblivion given to their weaker cousins and their host. I take a long-handled forceps from the tray next to me, use it to pick up a swab, and then dip the swab into a jar of germicidal solution. The liquid runs brown as I swipe it back and forth across the body, making it seem like I'm basting Mr. Wright with a thin gravy, but it will eventually dry clear.

The sharp smell of these products manages to make it past my filter mask as just a hint of industrial cleaner. The pungency of the odor outside the mask is, naturally, one of the reasons I wear it. Still, just that hint is something of a boost for me. It's the signal that I have truly begun my day, more powerful than the aroma of even the finest and most expensive cup of coffee.

Setting the forceps and swab aside, I open up Mr. Wright's folder and shuffle through the papers. Sitting midway through, as I'd hoped it would be, is a relatively recent photo of the deceased, still alive and smiling ever so slightly at the camera. I lean over and stick the picture up against the nearby cabinets using a hanging clip set there just for that purpose.

Now, Mr. Wright, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to stop looking at me like that. Or looking at anything else at all, for that matter.

Thanks to movies and TV, people expect the eyes of the dead to stay closed. The scene is almost always the same, with some character or another making a big heroic sacrifice. They die with their eyes open, and invariably someone comes along to close the lids as some sign of respect or to give the dead their dignity. What isn't shown is the part where the dead person's eyes eventually pop back open, often unevenly so they have a goofy half-asleep look on their face.

Thanks for the dignity and respect, guys.

Reaching back over to my tray, I grab the two eye cups that Paul already set out for me and insert them directly over Mr. Wright's eyeballs. Shaped more or less like an over-sized pair of contact lenses, the cups are covered in a series of small protrusions, tiny ridges that grab on to the underside of the eyelids and hold them in place. I squeeze the lids shut and, of course, they stay put. Not because of movie magic, but because of the amazing wonders of mortuary technology.

Moving on to the mouth, I find that the facial muscles on my customer are still a bit stiff. Taking a small jar of cream from the middle level of my worktable, I massage the contents into the skin to loosen it and the tissues underneath it. Once I'm finished, I look back and forth between the photo on the cabinet and the real face on the table as I stretch his lips up and down, side to side, and all around.

I find a pose that looks both peaceful and natural, then take out a tube of clear adhesive to make sure it stays that way. Some morticians use thread and others have those specialized needle guns that wire the jaw shut, but I stand by my glue. It's never done me wrong before.

Face set save adding the pretty pretty which will be handled later, it's time to move on to the fun part.

Naturally, it is around this time that Pamela arrives and checks in to see how everything is going before she opens up the front for the day. Paul, having just walked in from the back, intercepts her and answers all of her questions, allowing me to continue my work uninterrupted. I may have to think about giving him a raise.

I tune them out as I pick up a scalpel from my tray and use it to slice into the side of Mr. Wright's neck. I then probe around to find the carotid artery and jugular vein and proceed to give each their own personal incisions. With the way opened up, I take the first tube of the embalming pump and insert it into the carotid. The second tube is then placed in the jugular.

After the pump is activated, I step back to take a short breather. As Paul promised, this is an easy case. Mr. Wright died of cardiac arrest, but from his charts I can see that there wasn't any major damage to the heart or the vessels themselves and there seems to be little chance of heavy blockage. This allows the blood to flow out of the body with relative ease as the embalming fluid is pumped in to take its place.

If there had been any major damage to the circulatory system, it would have meant multiple pump points on the body to circumvent the afflicted areas. As it is, however, I watch as red slowly begins to seep out into the collection tube sticking from the jugular as the embalming fluid flows from its silvery-chrome tank and into arteries of the exquisite corpse.

Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.

I still write. The entire point of getting into Raft was to help me with the writing career I always expected to have. My major was education, sure, but that was just the fallback plan. Teaching would pay my bills while my writing was busy making me famous.

Yes, just like every other pathetic sob story Language Arts teacher in the world. I had also planned on becoming an alcoholic, just to make certain that the stereotype was complete, but time and change make fools of us all. Not that I can't afford to be an alcoholic. I would probably be able to sustain the bad habits of another alcoholic or two if it was required. It simply turned out not to be an appealing lifestyle to me.

But despite my moderation and change of vocation, I still vainly attempt to become that ever-elusive thing known as "author", creator of worlds and nations and peoples all squeezed down into text form and printed for the masses to consume. I have plenty of time in which to hone my craft during this journey, but I unfortunately have yet to write anything that I feel is worth trying to send for publication.

Self-confidence? What's that?

No, really, I do have self-confidence when it comes to my writing. Ever since the whole Musings debacle, I've never been terribly worried over rejection. I feel I'm technically proficient enough to pass muster with the editors. I simply worry that perhaps the stories I write aren't the kinds of stories people want to read.

I fully realize how insane this is, of course. I can't really know if it's what they want to read unless I let them read something and make their own decision. Understanding of one's own neuroses, unfortunately, does not always lead to the treatment or cure of said affliction.

But still I write, pounding out short story after short story to be saved away on my computer's hard drive, never to be seen by the unknowing public. I haven't done a specific word count or anything, but I'm almost certain that I might even have a novel or two sitting in my writing folder, slowly collecting digital dust.

At least when it is my own turn to pass into that great unknown that awaits all of us, all of my works can be found and published, making me famous posthumously. Most great artists aren't truly appreciated until they are gone anyway. And the company that manages to grab the rights to my work will clean up quite handsomely if they call me a modern day Emily Dickinson or something else equally intellectually insufferable.

Maybe I should write something about terrorists. I hear that Tom Clancy is rather popular.

The rest of the actual embalming procedure is long, tedious, and frankly quite disgusting if you're not used to it. There's the suctioning out of the abdominal and thoracic cavities, spot injection of fluids into various areas of the corpse that need it, and the evacuation and sewing up of certain orifices. By the time it is all over, I probably know Mr. Wright's body more intimately than anyone he may have known while alive.

Though that, of course, is merely conjecture. What Mr. Wright may have done in his own time is his business, and he may take those secrets to the grave with my blessing.

With the body finally drained of most of its own fluids and pumped full of my own little cocktails, I close all of the incisions I've had to make with a tight series of sutures and then give the body one last scrubbing and drying to remove any drips, spills, or leaks. When I finish, only the closest of examinations by a grieving widow could find the cuts unless they knew exactly what they were looking for.

At this point, the skin looks even less lively than before I started. Thus it is time to play dress-up. I no longer need the tray covered with cutting, sewing, and binding implements, so I change into a fresh pair of gloves and wheel that worktable away for Paul to clear and clean. I then pull over another table bearing various grooming tools.

Brushing Mr. Wright's sparse hair takes little time at all, and thankfully he has no beard or mustache with which to bother. He still has a bit of stubble on his cheeks, however, so I set up a small tub of water, pick out a razor, and proceed to give him a nice, close shave.

Sometimes I like to pretend that I'm the Demon Barber of Fleet Street during this ritual, but I refrain this time since Paul is in the room and it bothers him. Not because he has anything against Sweeny Todd in particular or even maniacal laughter in general, I don't think, but simply because it startles him to see my features so expressive and animated.

Ear and nose hair are trimmed next. Lying in a casket gives everybody a good look up the schnoz, and an untrimmed mass of spidery grey hair matted with dried globs of mucus is not something that impresses the friends and family.

Finishing up with a round of fingernail cleaning and scented powders, I look up to call for my assistant only to find that he is already wheeling a gurney my way. Together we transfer Mr. Wright from one table to the other and proceed to clothe him. The family brought in one of the deceased man's business suits yesterday, so I sort through the rack until I find it. I take the garment bag down, unzip it, and together Paul and I start picking through the contents.

Personally, I've always thought of underwear, socks, and basically anything else that doesn't explicitly show during a viewing to be a waste of time and fabric. That and the fact that I will state that opinion openly if the subject is broached are two excellent examples of why I let Pamela handle the living customers.

We pop the joints a few extra times as we're working to continue loosening the rigor mortis. To an outside observer, it might seem like we and Mr. Wright are all members of a very odd aerobicizing cult. Not that any kind of an aerobicizing cult could precisely be called "normal", of course.

I tighten the knot on the tie, and finally Mr. Wright looks like exactly what he is. A dead man wearing a very expensive three-piece suit. Paul goes to tend to the body he himself has been gradually preparing on the other side of the room, leaving me to the task of making the dead man look alive again.

The application of makeup on a dead body is, necessarily, fairly different from applying it to a living person. In the case of the living, makeup is meant to accentuate what is already there, building on the base of varying hues of human skin. For the dead, however, it is used to make it seem like that base of varying hues is still there.

The lack of blood under the skin makes the face and hands of Mr. Wright appear an almost uniform pale grey color. Using the photo tacked to the cabinet as a guide, I open a makeup case and pull out a tube of light pink lipstick. Making sure not to press down hard enough to crack the adhesive I applied earlier, I carefully run the pink tip along his lips until they once again resemble flesh and not someone's morbid idea of origami.

I apply a thin layer of foundation to the face, pate, ears, neck, and hands of the corpse, taking care not to get any on his suit. A hint of brown eyeshadow is spread across his eyelids to give the illusion of depth, and a similar dash of red blush is applied to his cheeks, around the edges of his ears, on the tip of his nose, and a few other spots in order to make it look like blood still pumps through those areas instead of unmoving preservative fluids.

Mr. Wright, you look maaahvelous.

Cosmetics were never really my thing. I did start wearing light, natural-looking lipstick when I was in high school. That has morphed over the years to include some light, natural-looking eyeshadow and the occasional bout of madness when I think fingernail polish is a good idea. But overall, I am still a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of woman.

Thanks to my job, however, I know more about applying makeup than I ever wanted to know. My sister would be proud if she weren't already aware that I use my skills exclusively on the dead.

That's a bit unfair to say, I suppose. On the rare holiday that I do get back to Lawndale to see my family, Quinn and my parents do seem proud of me. A little weirded out still, even after all these years of having a mortician sister-slash-daughter, but proud and happy that I have found a career that actually suits me.

And it does suit me, if I'm to be perfectly honest with myself. I may complain about it from time to time. I may hate the co-owner of my business. I may still be aspiring to become a published writer on the side. But when it comes down to it, I don't think I'd rather be doing anything else.

I love the quiet. I always have, and besides the occasional release of leftover gas, there's no one quieter than the dead. They don't complain. They don't make a fuss or unreasonable demands. They don't want to make inane small talk about the stupidest things imaginable. They don't judge, or mock, or suggest you should go out and get some sun, for goodness sake. My customers are the best customers.

Besides my apartment, I'm never more at home anywhere than I am within the clinical confines of the embalming room. Everything neat. Everything straight. Everything sterile, disinfected, clean. Even the corpses that come in looking a complete mess, leaking slightly coagulated fluids from multiple gunshot wounds, are eventually turned into neat and precise works of art by my hand. I take the chaos and disarray provided by life and turn it into a picture of subtle, peaceful repose.

Also, the hours are good and the money isn't horrible. So there's that.

I take a few seconds to double-check everything. One of Pamela's little joys in life is to find some mistake and bitch about it endlessly. One of my little joys is being able to rub my own smugness in her face when everything I send out is perfect. We have a wonderful working relationship.

Mr. Wright, it's been fun, but I'm afraid our time is done.

With a feeling of grim satisfaction, I push the gurney over to the door that leads out to the viewing room's prep area. Later, Paul will take the gurney through so that he and Pamela can put the body in a casket and position it properly for the final viewing. Barring any major accidents, my involvement with Porter Wright is finished.

The rest of my day proceeds more or less the same, with only a few variations. As Paul promised, there aren't any huge surprises waiting in the wings, and together we finish the rest of our day without incident. Tanya arrives right on time as usual to take over the embalming room for the evening shift, and I gladly hand the reins over to her. She's a good woman, a great mortician, and an excellent employee.

I pull the gloves from my hands and toss them in the bright orange bin marked "biohazard", quickly followed by my filter mask. My apron, smeared with the various fluids of the day's work, gets thrown into a cloth basket similarly colored and marked. One will probably be thrown into a landfill just like everything else, and the other will be taken elsewhere for cleaning.

This is assuming, of course, that either gets to its destination instead of being stolen by some punk kid thinking they might score some embalming fluid. They like to lace it with PCP, dip cigarettes and joints into the mixture, then smoke the results. It's called "wet" and a few other slang terms that I haven't bothered trying to memorize, and it can cause serious health problems just like any other abused substance.

These health problems can include brain damage, cancer, and eventually death. Of course, after the last occurs, I'm perfectly willing to give them all the embalming fluid their bodies can stand.

Kids, don't do drugs.

Just as I've finished washing my hands and arms in the big stainless steel sink, Paul's replacement comes in the door. He's new, which means I don't immediately remember his name. In this case, "new" means "been with us a few months". I came to grips many years ago with the fact that I'm horrible with names.

Since I no longer need my hair up in a bun, I remove the bobby pins holding it in place. It had partially come loose several hours earlier anyway, and I wonder briefly why I even bother with it sometimes. I leave the tie where it is, allowing my hair to dangle shoulder length as a ponytail as I step into my office.

The end-of-shift paperwork goes fast, and what little of it I can get away with putting off I stash until tomorrow morning. I roll my sleeves back down into place, put on my jacket and various winter clothes, grab my purse, and leave. Tanya and the new guy wish me a good night as I'm walking out the door.

I reply silently with a simple wave, which they have learned to accept as my only concession to the standard social norm. Frankly I would far prefer to slink away under the cover of darkness with only the slight movement of the air left behind to denote my passing, leaving everyone to wonder if I had ever truly been there in the first place.

My car is waiting for me where I left it out in the cold, and it protests this treatment by refusing to start until the third try. As penance for my thoughtless abandonment, I sit and wait for the engine to warm before settling the gear into reverse and backing out onto the salt-strewn road.

Given the inclement weather, I consider going straight home. I look up at the darkening sky as small flurries of snow drift down and whip about in the snapping breeze, but decide what the hell. I'll chance a girl-night-out.

I like bars. On the face of it, this seems strange if not outright contradictory for a self-appointed social outcast such as myself, but it is true nonetheless. Bars, pubs, and other such establishments represent an interesting dichotomy to me. On the one hand, we have the people who like to get drunk and chat with their friends, enjoy their inebriation, or just outright par-tay. On the other, there are those who down shot after shot of their preferred poison so they can forget their pain and possibly work their way into a whiskey-soaked grave.

Bars are where people go to either - and I'm aware I'm blasphemously misappropriating a famous movie quote here - get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.

I stop in at one of my favorite places, where this peculiar division is particularly evident on a regular basis. It occupies an interesting middle ground where the lonely, depressed, and destitute regularly sit and watch the happy people clink glasses with each other and celebrate their good fortunes.

I do not fall to either side myself and consider myself more of a control group, sent in to study the other two. I leave my coat on the rack next to the door, walk up to the bar, order my drink, and then find a seat off in the back where I can watch the dance of humanity that is somehow subtle and gross at the same time.

Ah, vodka. Truly you are a gift from the heavens. Especially when mixed with vermouth and lemon.

I am most of the way through my drink when the man who has been glancing my way since he came in stands up from the bar and ambles his way over to my table. He's a slick piece of work, I have to give him that. Dressed to the nines with a killer smile and the easy confidence of someone used to getting his way. He's obviously new to town and has absolutely no idea who he's approaching.

"Hey, beautiful," he says, flashing me his pearly whites. "Looks like you're almost done there. Want me to buy you another drink?"

I take a sip of my martini and raise my eyebrow at him. "You could get me a dead man's foot," I tell him.

"'Dead Man's Foot'?" he repeats quizzically. "I don't know that one, baby. What's in it?"

"Oh, it's not a drink," I say, giving him a slight smile. "I want you to bring me the foot of a dead guy. I'm the local mortician," I add when he gives me a blank stare. His face drains of color when he sees that I'm not joking on that part, so I press ahead.

"You see, I just got off work, but I had to leave this guy on the table without one of his feet attached. I searched through the entire building for it, but damn if the thing hadn't just run off somewhere on its own. I'll get in trouble if I don't find a replacement foot by tomorrow, and if you would be willing to help me, I would be more than willing to . . . repay you."

Leaning forward, I flick my tongue over my upper lip and look up at him seductively. His killer smile dissolves into a killer look of utter panic as he quickly finds himself somewhere else to be.

I slam the rest of my drink down my throat, leave a cash tip next to the empty glass, and grab my coat on the way back out into the cold.

I am asexual.

I wasn't exactly a sexual creature in the first place. My crush on Trent never took on any serious sexual tones. I did want to sleep with Tom, my high school boyfriend, but it wasn't enough of a driving need for me to actually do it. The want never really felt right anyway. It was artificial. Made up. Not real. Something that I had convinced myself I actually felt based on some notion that it was the way I was supposed to feel.

I did that a lot when I was younger. It is no longer a habit to which I cling.

This isn't to say that I didn't continue feeling that artificial want or that I didn't date anyone else after Tom and I dissolved our relationship. My sexuality didn't simply switch off like a light bulb. There were two more boys after Tom while I was attending Raft College, and in both cases I felt that underwhelming desire to engage in the carnal act with them.

I transferred from Raft to Merrickson a virgin.

It was while I was learning the mortuary sciences that I realized the truth behind my lackluster urge, that I don't actually have the urge at all. One might think that it was because I was constantly dealing with dead people every day of my schooling, either learning about them in the abstract or directly working with them in the mottled flesh, but I don't feel that is the case. Seeing all of those nude cadavers was simply a catalyst for my epiphany, not an actual cause.

The desire to mate simply isn't a part of my build. I do not lack the capability, but I most certainly lack the drive. And I'm okay with that.

Surprisingly enough, my parents are okay with that as well. Or perhaps not so surprisingly, since Baby Factory Quinn has already popped out more than enough grandchildren to keep them busy for years and years to come.

This is where the whole "artificial insemination" thing usually gets brought into the conversation, but no thanks. I was also constructed without a biological clock, it seems, and I loathe any child that isn't one of my nieces or nephews. And even in that case I try to spend no more than five minutes at a time in the same room with them.

So, no sex and no babies. In the realm of romantic relationships, that would leave only the monetary benefits and, of course, the whole romance thing. I do co-own my own business. Our incoming clientele stays fairly steady. So I certainly don't feel the need to get with any guy or girl for their bank account. And romance?

I visit my family approximately twice a year. I try to keep conversation with my co-workers to a bare minimum. I don't really have any friends except Jane, and she's a special case. All of this may seem like an intolerable state of affairs to most people, but I have found that I am just as fine with being asocial as I am with being asexual. I am not exactly sentimental.

I do not need romance.

The drive home is an adventure due to the increased hostility of the weather, but I manage to navigate the snow-lined roads and park safely in the lot next to my building. I abandon my vehicle once again to the capricious mercies of the elements, unlock my apartment door, stomp the white from my boots, and step inside.

I like my apartment. Two bedrooms, bath and a half, kitchen area. Furnished except for a washer and dryer, but it has hookups that I use with a washer and dryer set that I bought myself. And one can't forget the wonderful convenience of having a sprinkler system sitting in the ceiling overhead, waiting at any moment to drench everything I own at the slightest hint of a fire.

With my income I could doubtlessly afford better, but I see no reason to bother even entertaining the thought of moving elsewhere. Living under my means allowed me to pay off several important outstanding bills such as my college loans and a handful of medical bills far earlier than I might have been able to do otherwise. I am currently sitting on a rather comfortable nest egg that only continues to grow every month.

And honestly, I don't need anything more. Like my office at work, everything here is neatly arranged, stored out of the way, perfectly aligned for maximum efficiency of space. Not that there is even that much of it, in any case. My living room contains three bookshelves, two seats, an end table, a lamp, and a modest entertainment center. No massive couch, no coffee table, and the items I do have are relatively small examples of their type.

I divest myself once again of my winter clothing and suit jacket. The rest aches to be gone from my presence as well, so I make my way down the short hall to my bedroom and strip. My still somewhat soppy boots get placed at the foot of my bed while the rest gets tossed in the hamper on the way to the larger of the two bathrooms.

The shower feels exquisite. As much as I might enjoy my job, nothing beats washing away all the sweat and grime that builds up while slaving over a cooling corpse. I luxuriate in the feel of the water washing the shampoo from my hair, which is finally free of its elastic band prison.

The lingering remains of the lemon drop martini from earlier mixes pleasantly with the warmth of the steam around me, and by the time I step out to wrap a towel around my hair and a robe around my body, I feel completely refreshed and relaxed.

Not one to simply sit back and settle for just relaxed, I slip into the kitchen next and pour myself a glass of white wine. I take a sip of the sweet vintage and roll it around on my tongue before swallowing, savoring every second of the flavor. Let the high class snobs sneer down their nose at me from behind their carafes of dry wine. I like my sugar, dang it.

And this isn't some cheap boxed wine. Being frugal and only allowing myself the occasional splurge has its advantages.

I put the bottle away and carry the glass with me back into the living room. The moment I sit down and set my drink on the end table, Ankou jumps down from the other chair and leaps up into my lap. He sits on the edge of my knee for a moment, sniffing at the air between us, then stretches forward, flops down across my legs, and closes his eyes contentedly. The soft rumbling of a continuous purr reaches my ears moments later.

Ank is entirely black from one end to the other save for a small tuft of white just under his chin, and without a doubt he is my baby. Give me thirty more years, thirty more cats, and an afghan to throw over my legs and I'll have the old cat lady thing cinched.

I stare down at his sleek form for a few moments, enjoying his presence. A full swallow of wine finds its way down my throat, and I sit back and close my eyes to enjoy the sensation of it slipping its way through the walls of my digestive system, into my bloodstream, and up to my brain. It sits there nicely. Very nicely, indeed.

Not nicely enough, unfortunately. While I am not predisposed toward sentimentality or loneliness, I am also not completely immune to their call. Even with Ank keeping me company, I feel spidery-soft feelers of desolation beginning to caress the edges of my heart, the subtle whisper of their movements promising more maudlin levels of emotion to come.

I open my eyes and sigh softly to myself. Feeling those fingers wending their way into my chest more insistently, I reach over and take Jane's hand, patting it gently for comfort.

Or rather, I gently pat the glass dome encasing her hand.

Oh, Jane. I miss you so much.

Jane and I loved each other. Of that I'm absolutely sure.

Despite the rumors that persisted throughout our high school years, our relationship was not sexual by any means. Of course, for my part anyway, this is extremely obvious in hindsight. It certainly wasn't romantic in nature. It did start off as simple friendship, but after only a very short period of time it began to run far deeper than that.

In the end, I'm not entirely certain what the thing we had should be called. But it was something, it was ours, and somehow it managed to survive everything that life - and worse, we ourselves - could throw at it. It was the only true connection I have ever felt with any other person.

And now it's gone.

The cancer was diagnosed just months before she was set to move to Boston and begin attending at the fine arts college. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Deep in the very core of her body, her own bones had betrayed her. Her marrow was on constant overdrive, producing wave after wave of white blood cells until it was essentially choking itself from within.

To this day, I have trouble believing how fast it all happened. It seemed as if one day she and I were talking on the phone, joking around and making sarcastic quips as usual, talking about how great it would be when she finally moved up and we could see each other regularly again, and then the next she was complaining about how tired she was all the time and couldn't chat for very long.

She had to stop her regular jogging sessions because she would come home with bruises all over her ankles and upper legs but no idea where she had gotten them. She would talk about how hot she felt even though the weather had started turning cool, and most disturbing, she confided to me that she was eating far less than usual.

Worried for her health, I convinced her to go to the doctor. Two days later, Trent called with the diagnosis. Leukemia.

I was ready to drop everything, leave Raft, leave Boston, and travel straight back to Lawndale. But she didn't want that. She wanted me to stay, to finish what I started, and I acquiesced right up until Thanksgiving holidays, the entirety of which I spent right next to her bed at the hospital.

I know that most of it had to be my imagination, but she looked so thin to me, so frail. She had already been a toothpick, my Jane, but at that point it had looked like in order to treat her ailment they had simply ripped the offending bones directly from her body, leaving behind the skin and muscles to slowly contract down into the empty spaces.

She had already been put through the first round of drugs by then. The actual chemotherapy would begin shortly after I returned to Raft, but we didn't speak a word about that during my few days with her. Instead, at her insistence, we talked about me. How was I doing in college. Did I like any of my professors. How were my grades. Did I meet any cute boys while I was there, and would I mind sending a few her way.

It was while we sat there that I made the decision to change my focus at school. I told Jane in all earnestness that I was ditching the teacher malarkey and becoming a doctor. Just like that. Completely serious face, and she laughed right in it.

"You can't fix this," she told me.

As much as it hurt to hear it, I knew she was right. The doctors had been very clear right from the start that Jane's odds of being successfully treated weren't the greatest. The most they could give her was 50/50, and even if she was in the positive 50, there was no guarantee it would take for good. On the negative 50 side, she might, they said, have only a few months or years to live at most. Even if I started working on becoming a doctor immediately, it would take longer than Jane had left to spare.

So she dredged up that old memory about the aptitude tests and joked that I should become a mortician instead. That way, no matter how long it took to graduate, I could still do something for her, even if it was just to fill her up with sawdust and pose her in the corner like one of those stuffed grizzly bear statues.

I laughed and reminded her that she was thinking of taxidermy, but the kernel of the idea had still been planted.

I returned to Raft soon after, then went back to spend all of the Christmas holidays with her. Even as bad as I remember her being before, on that occasion I distinctly remember her being worse. Her hair was gone, she was weaker than ever, and she was most definitely fragile. My heart ached every time I saw her move, and all I wanted to do was pour everything of me that I could into her to make her healthy again.

Please, I begged whatever deity would be willing to listen to me. Please, take my marrow and give it to her. Take my blood and run it through her veins. Take anything from me that you want, just please, please take her pain away!

I don't know if there's a great creator. I don't know if some benevolent god or gods watch over the mortals of this world and help them when they ask for it. I do know that Jane did get better after that, if only for a short time.

She used that time as best she could. Though due to obvious reasons she wasn't able to attend her first semester at BFAC as planned, she had requested an easel, all the blank canvases she still had in her room at home, and as many art supplies as she would be allowed. She mustered up all the strength she had left in her wasted body and poured all of it into her painting.

She stayed at the easel for as long as she could every day they would let her. Each picture spread outward at a slow but steady crawl, and the moment she finished one she would begin another. And another. And another.

Trent would visit her almost every day, and he would collect the completed works to ship out to their new owners. All of the packages came enclosed with a letter written in Jane's own spidery handwriting, explaining what they were.

I'm dying. Sucks to be me, but hey, at least I get all the hospital food I can stand, so it's not all bad. Anyway, I know everybody holds out some kind of hope that I'll pull through, and maybe I will. Who knows? But just in case I don't . . .

There are so many things I wanted to do with my life. So many places I wanted to see. And paint. So many people I wanted to mock. And paint. But there's a good chance I'll never get to do any of them. So I'll do the next best thing.

I'll paint them.

I received mine near the beginning of March, and I still have it hanging over my bed. The colors are a bit ragged at the edges from her shaking hand, but I wouldn't trade it for all the Picassos or Da Vincis in the world. When I look at it, all I ever see is the most important part.

I see two women, one wearing a red button-up shirt over a black t-shirt and the other sporting a green jacket and glasses with enormous round lenses. Both women have silvery grey hair. Their faces are lined with age, but those lines have obviously been worn into their skin through years of smiles and laughter. They are locked forever in a mutual glance, their expressions suggesting that they are in the middle of a shared joke.

I cried for three hours straight the day it was delivered.

She died six months later.

There was a will, which Jane had apparently gotten drafted in between painting jags. She had never really owned much, so it was rather short and to the point.

She gave all of her art supplies to her mom and a photo album to her dad. Trent got her stereo on the condition that he always keep the volume at max level. She left several small keepsakes to the rest of her siblings, though I've always had the feeling that they were items that she had scavenged from their rooms while they were off traveling anyway.

Her bed went to Tom for reasons about which I actively try not to think. But to be fair, she did date him first. All of her clothes except her boots and one of her red shirts were to be packed up and given to charity. The boots and shirt, as well as everything else, belonged to me.

This included, to my complete surprise, her right hand.

I asked her parents about this, and they told me that they had known about the request, which they both accepted and heartily endorsed. The rest of her body was to be cremated and the ashes put into an urn of her mother's design, but the hand that had created so many beautiful works of art over the years while I sat reading on her bed next to her was to be mine.

Once her hand was removed, it was embalmed by a mortician and hermetically vacuum-sealed in a glass dome on a metal and wood base. I keep Jane's shirt and boots tucked away in my closet, but her hand will forever sit on the end table in my living room. That way, no matter what I'm doing, be it reading, watching old tapes of Sick, Sad World, or simply staring out into the abyss, she will always be beside me.

I look down at the hand that I'm cradling as tears slowly trail their way across my cheeks. No matter what I do, no matter how I strive, I will never be able to make sense of the world without her. But I am okay with that. I know that someday, somehow, I will find my way to wherever she is. Heaven. Hell. Purgatory. Oblivion. I don't know which, and I don't care. We will be together again. Until then, all I can do is keep going as best I can.

Jane is dead.

The rest of us have to go on living.

It isn't fair.

But I'm okay with that.


Roland 'Jim' Lowery

September 29, 2010