Halfway through her night shift at George Tafel’s funeral home, Anne Loudreinne almost fainted when the dead man let out a sigh which was barely audible yet still distinguishable from anything else. She had just finished washing the body of old Mr. James Tripplehorn and was staring at his wrinkled face. It was so white it looked as if it were caked in some kind of white powder. The eye lids were partially open, revealing the foggy blue eyes behind them. Between the monotonous buzzing of the neon lamp overhead and her own ragged breathing, the subtle and plaintive sigh had announced itself.
She backed up immediately as her whole body started to shake from fear, realizing at the same time how unusually quiet it was in the funeral home. Against her will, her eyes reluctantly cast to the dead man’s face again, which was contorted into a permanent look of deep agony as rigor mortis had set in hours ago. Earlier that afternoon, she had overheard Mr. Crowe tell Mrs. Tafel that Mr. Tripplehorn died from acute benzodiazepine intoxication. It was a suicide. The man had been neck-deep in debts and lived alone in his cramped two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town when he decided to end his own miserable and lonely existence.
She tried to ease her rapid breathing as she rubbed her eyes with the back of her arm, wondering if she had only imagined it. Working the night shift had probably taken a toll on her mental health. And yet the horrid sound had deposited itself into her brain. She opened her mouth, ready to challenge the onslaught of what was coming next. But her voice got choked up in her throat. She waited. But nothing else happened. Mr. Tripplehorn was dead. He had been dead for more than fifteen hours now. So what was it that she had heard?
As if answering her confusion, a faint and low hiss suddenly broke the silence and filled the whole room. There was no doubt in her that it was coming out of the dead man’s sewn-shut mouth, as if he were gritting his teeth in agony. To say it was unsettling was an understatement. Her blood ran cold and she decided to make a run for it. She crossed to the door quickly, pulled it open, and sprinted down the darkened long corridor, feeling as if her knees were about to give out soon.
Mrs. Tafel barely looked up from the old gossip magazine she was reading when her door swung open loudly, a cigarette pinched between her two small fingers. Anne threw herself in without a second thought, her face as white as a sheet. Mrs. Tafel threw her a quick glance of disapproval, her huge and heavy-looking diamond hoop earrings glistening in the spill of her desk lamplight.
“Yes?” Mrs. Tafel grunted as she gave Anne a perfunctory, half -angry nod.
“I… there’s… there’s something terribly wrong with Mr. Tripplehorn’s body,” Anne croaked, clutching her hand tight, still half-crying.
“What do you mean ‘wrong’?” asked Mrs. Tafel, still not looking up from her magazine.
“He… I mean… it… it was making these weird noises and―”
“What weird noises?” Mrs. Tafel blurted out as she put her magazine down and stared at Anne, frowning.
“It… it groaned. And… and… it hissed at me.” The words were no sooner out of her mouth before she realized how utterly dumb they sounded even to herself.
Mrs. Tafel didn’t say a word at first. She rolled her eyes and hissed around the cigarette filter clamped between her tiny teeth. The tired and slightly annoyed look on her round plump face was a silent condemnation of what might have been the silliest story she had just ever heard in her entire life.
“You know… Anne, was it?” She said softly, a flat smile plastered on her face. “I’ve been doing this job for almost fifteen years now. When my husband passed away, I inherited this place.” She offered Anne a cigarette, which the latter refused with a headshake and weak smile.
Mrs. Tafel shrugged.
“Did I want it? No. Did I like it? No. But it was neither a matter of what I wanted nor what I liked. It’s what this little sleepy town needed. And I gave them just that.”
Mrs. Tafel took a final long pull on her cigar and flicked the butt under the table casually.
“My late husband was a decent and kind human. A beautiful soul that could embarrass a saint. It’s almost impossible to try to live up to that, you know, a huge responsibility and reputation to hold up, made exceptionally difficult because the people of this town were so judgmental. One false move, and the theatrics out of these people, My God. You would think you were living in the time of Jesus.”
She shook her head and let out a brief mirthless laugh.
“I could have had this whole place torn down and started my own business―I’d always wanted to have a boutique or a beauty salon―away from the grim and lingering stench of death. But I didn’t. If that’s not an act of selflessness and kindness, then I don’t know what is.”
She took a sip of her cold coffee as an awkward silence permeated the whole room.
“I’m the type of person who straightens out the wrinkles in other people’s personalities. I push them to be the best version of themselves, as I did to myself years ago. And now, kid, I’m gonna push you,” she explained, a note of impatience in her high-pitched childlike voice. “We’re a team here. And I need you to hold your end of the weight and do your job well.”
Anne’s terrified expression melted into a subtle look of confusion. It wasn’t so much Mrs. Tafel’s convoluted story which amounted to little more than a weak excuse for her arrogance, as her complete refusal to address the situation that made Anne look at her in disbelief.
Anne herself would fess up, albeit reluctantly, that she settled for this job. She had had no prior experience dealing with dead bodies when she decided to apply and thought she would just wing it and be okay. She didn’t hate it. It was just not what she was looking for. Glenmore was a small town where an overwhelming preponderance of young men and women had no choice but to work at old farms of which their own parents were the owner.
“I make no concession to working with anybody. It’s my business and I run it how I like it.” She shrugged as she lit another cigarette. “Now go back to what you were supposed to be doing. I’m busy,” she said, waving one hand dismissively and went back to flicking through her gossip magazine with the other.
Anne stalked out of the room silently, defeated. It wasn’t the first time that prickly woman had blown her off unceremoniously like that. She glanced down at her watch. A few hours left and she’d call it a night and be done for the night. Maybe she’d whip together a simple chicken soup before bedtime. She hoped someone would be available to fill in for her because she didn’t feel like going to work tomorrow. The long narrow corridor looked dark and deserted as she made her way back to the embalming room, her footsteps echoing off the dull green walls.
I must have imagined it, she thought to herself. There’s no such thing as―
She pushed the door open and it creaked and groaned loudly. The naked pale body was still there, slathered in a strange bluish light emanating from the lamp above it, supine on the porcelain table where she had left it. Very dead, obviously. What had she expected? That it had somehow changed positions or disappeared? Probably taking a long stroll somewhere? She almost laughed to herself but held it in.
Her stomach knotted up again as she approached the corpse cautiously, unkeen to receive any more surprises for the night. She was aware of how ludicrous she must have looked tonight. Mrs. Tafel was not one to cross. Not when she had got off on the wrong foot with the sharp-tongued woman by arriving late to her first night of working at the old funeral home. If there’s one thing Mrs. Tafel hated the most in this world, it was sass and or tardiness. Anne was lucky Mrs. Tafel hadn’t snapped at her or given her an earful about taking one’s job seriously because the fierce-looking woman had looked as if she were ready to swallow Anna whole.
Anne glanced expectantly over her shoulder at the rectangle door behind her, suddenly feeling utterly alone again. The dank and grim atmosphere of the embalming room added a sense of desolation. But she had a job to do. It didn’t matter whether she liked it or not. The initial excitement of being free and making a fresh start had dwindled. Caleb, her boyfriend of three years, had dumped her and kicked her out. She had nowhere to go. She was well aware that she should have been kinder to herself and not ignored all the red flags in him mixed in with charm and seeming affection. Now she kept telling herself that she needed this job.
She reluctantly grabbed a piece of clean and neatly-folded cloth, crumpled it up then started dabbing it carefully on the dead man’s pale chest. He was so skinny she could feel his ribs sticking out. As her fear began to unravel slowly, she found herself humming a familiar tune from her childhood which her mother used to sing to her whenever she felt sad or scared.
She yawned, shook her head to fight off sleepiness, and went on singing under her breath. It was all she could do to stay focused for another sound was heard as soon as she went silent. At first she thought it was only her own voice bouncing off the walls. She cocked her ears and the deep guttural growl resumed more clearly, followed by a long faint wail which made every hair on her body stand on end. Her heart leaped and she dropped the cloth where it landed on the old man’s chest. This time Anne was convinced she wasn’t only imagining it.
She backed away quickly right when the door behind her swung open with a loud metallic screech. She let out a high-pitched yelp instantly and turned around to find Mrs. Tafel frowning at her.
“What now?” The fierce-looking woman snapped at Anne. Without waiting for an answer, Mrs. Tafel sauntered into the room and approached the corpse matter-of-factly.
Pale-faced, teary-eyed, and still trembling with fear, Anne struggled to speak. But Mrs. Tafel’s stone-cold expression told her that it didn’t look like the woman was waiting for her to answer. So Anne didn’t bother, and instead she watched as Mrs. Tafel put on her gloves, grabbed the crumpled cloth, tossed it aside, and pressed the corpse’s chest with two fingers repeatedly. A sloshing sound escaped its greyish mouth, followed by what could only be described as a guttural groan, which made Anne take another step away immediately.
“He’s already decomposing fast,” said Mrs. Tafel indifferently, as if this gruesome observation was merely evidence of something she had already expected. “He had been dead for more than seven hours when they found him anyway.”
Anne decided to clear her throat.
“But what about that weird noise coming out of his mouth just now?” She asked, squinting through her tears.
“What about it?”
“How…” Anne stammered, almost hysterically. “How’s that even possible? He … he’s already … dead!”
Mrs. Tafel tsk-tsked as she shook her head incredulously.
“When somebody dies, they may still have air trapped in their lungs or stomach. As bacteria consume their insides, gas and waste are released, which causes the body to bloat.”
Anne didn’t say a word. Her face felt cold and her lips thinned to nothing, and tears were rolling down her cheeks.
“If you move it, the built-up gas may become dislodged unexpectedly, and even make the body twitch.”
Anne stared at Mrs. Tafel, expecting a final summation that would share some light on this disconcerting and gruesome phenomenon she had never been made aware of. She had to take a moment and swallow hard several times. If she had found it almost difficult to speak before, now feeling ashamed and utterly stupid, she felt a lump close her throat down. It would be impossible to speak for a while.
“As it flows past the vocal chord…” Mrs. Tafel went on “it can cause the grunting, moaning, or hissing sound you just heard.”
Anna continued watching silently as Mrs Tafel proceeded to place a white linen sheet over the corpse.
“Put him back in the freezer now.” Mrs. Tafel demanded dismissively. “I’ll go find Patrick and tell him to bring in the stretcher.” She walked out without even turning to look at Anne, who nodded immediately and tried to regain her composure.
A few minutes later Anne found herself pushing the corpse-laden stretcher alone through the empty, long and narrow corridor. Between the irritating sound of the wheels of the stretcher squeaking loudly and her own footsteps ricocheting off the walls, she could vaguely hear the muffled sound of wind and rain lashing unmercifully at the windows. It occurred to her that she had forgotten her raincoat at her cousin’s place.
As she pressed on through the empty corridor, listening to the distant rumble of thunder outside, she realized that the temperature had dropped significantly below the level at which her body had already grown accustomed to. Something just felt different tonight, she felt it. It wasn’t so much the extra cold the storm had brought in as the feeling of being alone and trapped in a place which reeked of death, that suddenly prompted Anne to shudder and grit her teeth.
When she reached the end of the corridor, she pressed the elevator button quickly. Lightning flashed with sudden bursts of light seeping in through the sides and from the top of the closed blinds, momentarily illuminating the whole corridor. She peeked through one of the blinds to catch a glimpse of the storm, but it was too dark outside. Still, she could not wait already to get home and shrink into her own peaceful thoughts in the shower with the hot water running before bed. The elevator doors parted with a metallic clunk in front of her and she proceeded to push the stretcher inside very carefully, making sure to position it off-center to give some room for herself in the long narrow car. She hobbled inside and pressed herself against the wall, keeping her distance from the dead man. The doors closed automatically as she pressed a button and with a weak jolt the car started its slow descent.
It wasn’t her first time being cramped inside the elevator with a dead body, and definitely wouldn’t be her last, or so she had thought. But as she tried to get her mind off this intrusive and rather morbid idea, the light above her head started to flicker rapidly. Before she realized what was going on, it suddenly went out and she was plunged into darkness. She let out a yelp of surprise instantly but then the whole elevator jerked and screeched to a halt with no warning.
This can’t be happening, she thought to herself as terror began to seep into her every pore. Her worst nightmare since she started working at the funeral home had finally come true. The horror of it filled her every sense.
“Hello?” She shouted at the top of her lungs as her whole body shook hard, fighting the urge to fidget. “Maya? Can anybody hear me? Hello?”
Then came the horrifying realization that she was stuck in between floors and nobody could hear her. Tears welling up in her eyes, she shook her head to stop the thought from blossoming into something far worse than she could endure.
“Maya? Help! Anybody?” She started banging frantically and blindly on the elevator doors as hard as she could, her chest heaving rapidly with fear. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, then rubbed her face. A dreadful silence filled up the elevator, merging with the darkness, closing in on her from every direction, and what little hope left in her started to fizzle out.
She fell on her knees slowly and her whole body shook. Then she started sobbing silently with her hands splayed against the cold floor. She had a hard time controlling her breathing as she closed her eyes, hoping that when she opened them again, the darkness had ceased. Maybe the power outage would be over soon. Maybe somebody would realize that she was missing. She opened her eyes expectantly. Nothing. Still the same dark, sightless cold she found herself in. Slowly her fear turned to anger.
Why hasn’t that fat old bitch come to get me…
She pushed herself up, staggering to her feet woozily. She started kicking and banging on the elevator doors again, harder and more violently.
“Hello? Can’t anybody fucking hear me?” She snapped. She had never felt this angry in her life before. Not when that good-for-nothing loser of a man Caleb dumped her. Not when her own mother slapped her hard across the face when she refused to give the old bat some money to buy some cigarettes. Not when Maya belittled and mistreated her over and over again.
To say that she was angry was an understatement. No. It was something far stronger than that. Her face was burning from exhaustion and fury. She had had enough of people treating her like she was a doormat. Not again. As soon as she got out, she would slap the hell out of that stupid bitch and quit. She deserved better. She would leave this damned town as soon as she could and never look back. The urge had been nagging at her for the past few years. It came in fits and spurts, laced with a sense of freedom and the determination to make her life better.
“Hello? Maya? Can anybody hear me?”
Still nothing. She took a deep breath and opened her mouth wide, charging up to scream at the top of her lungs.
But the next series of noises she heard stopped her immediately. At first she thought they were coming from the elevator. Maybe the power had returned. She cocked her ears and realized they were not caused by the power resuming, nor could they be passed off as being similar to the mechanical clanking and groaning of the car moving up and down.
The noises went on: a low crackling hiss permeating the darkness, vibrating through the cold air, followed by what could only be described as rattling breathing. A subtle outburst of something that violated the fundamental principles of science. For a moment, Anne just stood there, unthinking, paralyzed with fear. Then she thought of what Maya had told her earlier and it gave her, no matter how weak, a sense of reassurance.
The dead can’t hurt you. They’re dead…
She took in a lungful of air and clenched her fists to try to regain her composure, then resumed her plea for help, more calmly this time.
“Maya? Hello? Can anybody hear me?”
A guttural wail rose in the dark behind her, as if answering her. She smacked her lips impatiently, trying her best to ignore it.
“It’s the built-up gas,” she said to herself. “Maya? Hello? I’m stuck here!”
She pressed her hands hard against the elevator doors, then with all her might she tried to pry them open. But nothing happened. The doors wouldn’t budge. She kicked the cold hard metal surface in frustration.
Another wail reverberated through the walls around her. But it sounded different this time. There was a tone of urgency in it. She had tried to reason out how it could have possibly happened when she first heard it. But even after what Maya told her, there was still a sense of disbelief lingering in her as to what might be behind this unnatural occurrence. Built-up gas seemed to fall short of a satisfying explanation to account for it.
“Hello? Can anybody hear me?” She shouted out loud.
A grumble rose loudly in the darkness, as if mocking her, and then stopped abruptly. She held her breath and strained her ears as complete silence overtook the darkness. She found this abrupt cessation of auditory stimuli far worse than anything else. A feeling of unease settled in her stomach. Every hair on her body stood on end. Her head and heart were pounding in unison. So many questions were swirling around in her head.
It’s the built-up gas, said a faint voice in her head. Get a grip on yourself and stop being an idiot! He’s dead. Fucking dead. He can’t possibly hu―
And then the long guttural wail resumed. Louder this time.
“Oh, shut up!” She snapped and clucked her tongue in irritation. “I didn’t want to be stuck in here with you either.”
Then she felt a cold draft coming from behind her. Another sound was heard and her blood froze instantly as her fear amplified. This time she was convinced that no built-up gas could possibly be responsible for it.
“PLEASE!” She screamed in terror. “SOMEBODY HELP! GET ME OUT OF HERE! HELP! HELP ME!”
The eerie sound went on as she kicked and banged hard on the elevator doors like a maniac.
Not a growl. Not a hiss. Not a wail.
It was a faint chortle that rose slowly to a deep and guttural laugh. Something stirred in the dark and then the whole elevator shuddered when a pair of feet landed heavily on the floor behind her.
Anne screamed and screamed until she couldn’t anymore.
Credit: Eoghan Ferguson
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