Henry was at a funeral by mistake when he met Alice. Such was his disposition that, instead of turning and immediately leaving the room, he felt compelled to stay and show his respect to the stranger whose memorial he’d stumbled into. He feared causing offence and so lied about why he was there. When questioned by the grimly-smiling young man at the door (a son perhaps?), he said he was a friend, he glanced back at the name plate at the entrance, a friend of Alice Turnberry.
“Yes, Alice and I were close.” Henry avoided looking directly at the man. The son nodded his head sympathetically.
An uncomfortable silence descended until finally the man asked how he’d known Alice. Henry thought fast. “Well, we met through mutual friends.”
The man said was it the bridge club? “Yes, that’s it, mutual friends at the bridge club.”
Would he like to spend time alone with Alice? Henry couldn’t say no. The young man bowed his head slightly and left the room, shutting the double doors behind him.
Henry, his legs shaking with the anxiety his deception caused him, continued the charade, and took small, respectful steps to the front of the room, just in case the son was watching him through the doors somehow. Peering into the coffin, he gasped and staggered back before steadying himself and, taking a deep breath, looking into the casket once more. There, before him, was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her skin was translucent, her lips full and soft, and her hair a lustrous brown that refracted the lights in a thousand directions, giving her a halo. He smelled strawberries and wondered what shampoo she used, realising a moment later the funeral home had washed her hair when they’d prepared her. He resisted the urge to reach into the casket and caress the dead woman’s cheek.
Henry continued to stare, aware the woman’s son was waiting for him to finish, yet unable to turn away. As he gazed at her face the room dimmed until there was only him and Alice, and pure happiness washed over him. It left him exhilarated and terrified, and at that moment he knew they were meant to be together.
A cleared throat behind him made him jump. The young man told him that the service was about to start, would he be staying?
Henry, overwhelmed by his feelings, so new and exciting and alien to him, mumbled something about an appointment and edged toward the door. With as much grace as possible he exited the room, disoriented, awkwardly navigating through the small group of people who’d been waiting outside.
It was easier to break into the funeral home than Henry thought it would be. The lock was easily damaged and the place was deserted that late at night. He paused to get his bearings; the building was dimly lit but he dared not turn on the lights. Finally finding his love, he freed her from the casket. Positioning her in an office chair, he started pushing: through the funeral parlour and out the back door to his waiting car. Henry gently placed Alice in the passenger seat, stopping to run his hand through her hair as he strapped her in. He returned the chair to where he’d found it and left twenty dollars on the desk for a new lock. It was the least he could do, considering they’d introduced him to the only love he’d ever known.
It was nearly dawn when he set Alice up in the living room and made tea for them both.
“Welcome home, my dear. I hope you like it here.” Alice sat silently, her head rolled to one side, her eyes closed. “Anything you need, you let me know. This is your home now.” He turned to pour the tea. “I lived here with my grandmother until she passed a few months ago. Now it’s just me.” He chuckled and corrected himself. “Just us.”
Henry stared at Alice. She looked so serene. He reached over and swept away her hair so her whole face was exposed, showing a sad and simple expression. He stroked her cheek, feeling intimate and powerful.
“You do love me, don’t you?” The dawning light had begun to fill the room and Henry realised how late it was. He looked at Alice with longing. “I’ve waited so long to find you.” Rising from the couch and cradling Alice in his arms, he carried her to the bedroom.
Henry woke around noon and at once noticed the smell. Of course, he knew this would happen, but he thought the embalming would delay it. He lay in bed, gazing at Alice, memorising her face. She looked so peaceful he decided to leave her where she was for now. He went downstairs and made coffee, and, as he carried a mug back upstairs, he noticed that the smell of it helped to cover the odour coming from the bedroom. But he knew it wasn’t enough. He checked on Alice before showering and shaving, thinking of solutions. Back in the bedroom he straightened his tie in his grandmother’s antique dressing mirror.
“Dearest, I’m going out for a while. I’ll help you downstairs and you can watch TV until I return.”
He returned a few hours later with several bags and boxes. Alice was as he’d left her, sitting in the armchair, propped up by pillows. Her head had rolled forward and pink fluid was leaking from her ear. Henry grabbed a doily from the coffee table and, wiping her cheek, headed for the kitchen.
“I’ll be in here, darling, close by if you need anything. I’ve a wonderful surprise for you.” Henry spent the rest of the day experimenting with his purchases and when he’d finished it was dark again.
“Sweetheart, I’ve done it!” Henry walked into the living room carrying a tray upon which sat a TV dinner and a glass of milk. Sitting across from Alice, he balanced the tray on his knees. “I’ve found a way to make sure we can be together forever.” He took a mouthful of runny potato. “It’ll be just you and me, my angel.” He finished the rest of his meal and put the tray aside. “Now, let’s get you ready.”
Henry carried Alice upstairs and gently laid her on the bed before disappearing into the bathroom. He poured his grandmother’s bubble bath under the running water and when the tub was full, he returned to the bedroom and approached his love. She was still wearing the dress from the funeral home, blue with tiny white buttons down the front. He leaned over and tenderly undid the top button, pulling apart the material. When the last button was free, he took both sides of the dress and pulled, the cut left at the back of the dress by the funeral parlour allowing it to fall easily. He manoeuvred her arms from the garment and threw the material aside. The white cotton panties she’d worn under her dress had been removed the night before. Taking a deep breath, he looked at Alice’s naked body. The skin around the staples used for the autopsy was rough and angry-looking, and Henry gasped when he saw it.
“What have they done to you?” He leaned down and tenderly ran his finger along the puckered flesh. “It’s okay, my love, you’re still beautiful.” Henry was careful not to splash any water when he placed Alice in the tub. He took a sponge and slowly washed her body, and, when bits of her skin rubbed off and floated in the water, Henry continued more gently. He tilted her head back to clean her hair, leaning in and placing a chaste kiss on her cold, wet cheek. When he was done, he wrapped her in his grandmother’s housecoat and carried her to the kitchen.
Henry balanced Alice in one arm while he used the other to sweep the dried fruit he’d prepared earlier off the long oak table. The normally spotless room was filled with empty boxes and cardboard packing material, small and large plastic bags, and little black twist ties. The machine he’d selected was the largest he could find, with a superior fan for the best circulation, cutting down on the time it would take. It had sliding trays instead of stacking, making even more room available inside, which would also shorten the wait.
He went to the drawer and took out a carving knife and a butter knife, then parted Alice’s housecoat and inspected the staples. Taking the butter knife, he inserted it beneath each piece of metal and pulled, stopping to wipe up the leaking embalming fluid with a souvenir dish towel from New York. Peeling back the skin and muscle, he laid bare her chest bones. Grasping one rib in each hand and starting at the top, Henry pulled each set apart, his stomach leaping at the cracking sound they made as they snapped.
Finally, he exposed the organs, sighing with regret he hadn’t known Alice when this heart was beating, these lungs were breathing. Using the carving knife, he removed everything he could see, cutting and scraping, and then used both hands to scoop out the red pulp.
“This is like carving a pumpkin, isn’t it my dear? Do you remember cleaning out pumpkins when you were a child?” He carried on until the body was as bare as he could get it. Unsure of what to do with the organs, he wrapped them in plastic sandwich bags and put them in the freezer. They were Alice’s and he didn’t have the right to discard them. “I’ll just keep them in here, darling. In case you want them.”
Henry stopped to clean his knife and wipe up the table. Embalming fluid covered the floor but it would have to wait. He took a few minute’s break, grabbing a glass of milk and a fig newton, thinking of the next step. He’d considered following the Egyptian practise of scrambling and draining the brain through the nostrils, but he just couldn’t hurt Alice’s perfect nose like that. Instead, positioning himself at the top of Alice’s head, he cut, from the neck up one side, around the ear to the very top. He did the same on the other side and cautiously pulled. The skin held firm, so he got the butter knife and slid it under the flesh where he’d cut, jiggling it around under the skin and cutting himself in the process. The fluids from her sliced skin mixed with his own blood, but he ignored it, instead focussing on his work. He tried pulling again and this time Alice’s face slid forward into his hand. A short tug at her hair and her scalp gave way into his other hand, her delicate ears flopping back and forth. He carried both pieces over to the dehydrator and placed each on a separate tray. Closing the door and setting the timer, he willed the machine to take care with his greatest possession. While he waited, he scraped the muscle and tissue from her head and gently washed her skull with lemon-scented kitchen spray until it was smooth and clean.
For the next three days Henry worked, reverently preserving his Alice. Sometimes the skin would shrink and he would have to stretch it carefully before sewing it back on. He’d used the stuffing from all his grandmother’s pillows, including the cushions from the chairs in the lounge, to fill the hole in her body left by his ministrations. Barely sleeping or eating, by the time he was finished he was exhausted. He’d found his grandmother’s make-up bag and did Alice’s face for her. The dehydrating machine had turned her skin brown and he used the entire bottle of foundation to lighten her up. There was only blue eye shadow and, although he’d never touched make-up before, he was pleased with the results. Some sweet-smelling perfume and a smear of ancient red lipstick completed his canvas.
Henry stood back to admire his work and stumbled, nauseated and dizzy. “I’m tired is all, my sweet, don’t worry.” He reached over and caressed her hand. “Oh, don’t frown love, I adore every single moment I spend with you. It’s just, I must lie down.” He carried her upstairs, struggling, his heart racing and his skin burning. He placed Alice on her side of the bed and without undressing lay down beside her, sighing contentedly. As he fell asleep, he heard her whisper to him and reached out to take her hand.
A week later the police arrived to investigate reports of a strong smell coming from the old house. They found Henry, dead from the same sepsis that had claimed his love, curled tenderly around the missing remains of Ms Alice Turnberry.
Copyright Kelly Evans