|The mortuary where Lauren held her sleepover wasn't quite this scary on the outside, but they're all creepy on the inside.|
Lauren Simms (not her real name, obviously) lived in the town into which moved when I was nine years old. My family and I lived there for the next seven-and-one-half years, until my brother and I graduated from high school. It was an upscale university town in northern California. Several of our friends had parents who were university professors. My father was a medical researcher who conducted parts of his research at the university campus and at the affiliated medical school twenty miles or so away. (Other parts of his research were done at university-affiliated hospitals around the state.) My mom was a school psychologist and administrator for the local school district. Lauren Simms' father was the owner and operator of the only locally-owned mortuary in our town.
I played with Lauren at school, but we didn't play at each other's houses when we were in grade school. Her house was about two miles from my house. I didn't have annual birthday parties, and I don't think she did, either. I do remember that she attended my eleventh birthday party, and I attended a party for her tenth birthday, which was held at a local ice-skating rink. The sleepover for Lauren's thirteenth birthday was the first time I was ever in Lauren's home, which was connected by a hallway to the mortuary.
If memory serves me correctly, Lauren's sleepover party was held on the last Friday night before her actual birthday, which was on Halloween, and which fell on a weekday that year. The girls giggled behind Lauren's back about how creepy it was to be spending the night in a house attached to a funeral home, and the Halloween atmosphere probably intensified the effect, but, morbid little souls that we were, we probably totally thrived on the prospect.
The party guests all showed up around 6:00 p.m with our sleeping bags and pillows, not exactly sure what we were in for. We dropped our belongings in the family room and ate the pizza that was delivered to the doorstep shortly after we arrived. I can remember feeling oddly disappointed to be eating something so banal as pizza, though I'm not sure exactly what I thought Mrs. Simms should be serving us. Surely I knew even then that the Simms didn't barbecue the extra body parts and eat them or serve them to guests.
Anyway, the party was shaping up to be all too ordinary. We had pizza, chips, and soda for dinner, and had birthday cake and ice cream for dessert. We settled down in the family room to watch rented movies, none of which were sufficiently macabre for any of our tastes, especially considering where we were and the time of the year it was.
Then things suddenly took a turn for better, or worse, or certainly different, anyway. Lauren's father had changed out of his suit and tie and was wearing jeans and a polo shirt, which made him look disappointingly normal, as in pretty much like anyone else's father. Then the business phone rang. Lauren's parents were in another part of the house and didn't hear it. We didn't know it was the business line. We were expecting a call from one of our classmates, who had participated in a volleyball match and was going to call Lauren's house as soon as she was finished and on her way to the party. One of the guests -- my friend Meredith -- grabbed the phone and blurted out one of the stupider standard joke telephone greetings (though oddly apropos in this case), "Simms Mortuary. You stab 'em; we grab 'em. Some go to heaven. Some go to hell-o! Who is this?"
Before the party on the end could reply, Lauren grabbed the phone from Meredith and hung it up. "You just hung up on Claire!" Meredith practically yelled at Lauren.
"No, I didn't," Lauren giggled. "That was my dad's business line."
"Oh, no!" Meredith groaned. "Did I just cost your parents a sale, or a death, or a client, or whatever you call it?"
"I wouldn't worry about it," Lauren reassured her. "If it's important enough, they'll call back, and my dad has more business than he can handle anyway. He's not supposed to be taking any calls tonight. The answering service is supposed to refer calls to another mortuary. "
Lauren turned the movie back on, and our attention turned back to it. Then the phone rang again. This time no one moved to answer it. Lauren went to her parents' bedroom to tell them that the business phone was ringing. Lauren's mom came out to answer it. Lauren turned the movie volume down. We listened as her mother said, "River Cities is taking all calls tonight. . . Oh. . . I see . . . Let me get my husband." Mr. Simms took the phone, wrote something down on a tablet his wife handed him, then hung up.
"We have to go," he told his wife.
"I can't leave these girls here by themselves!" his wife protested.
"You'll have to," he told her. "Besides, almost all of them babysit. They're old enough to stay by themselves for an hour or so while we . . ." he stopped himself before [presumably] saying in front of the room full of twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls what it was that they were about to do, which was to pick up one or more dead bodies.
My friend Meredith appointed herself as spokesperson for the group. "Mr. and Mrs. Simms, I will take charge of the girls. I've been babysitting professionally since I was eleven. I'm certified in CPR and I've completed the YMCA Babysitting Course. You have absolutely nothing to worry about. Take your time. "
I'm not sure Mr. and Mrs. Simms were all that reassured by anything Meredith had to say (they shouldn't have been) but they had little choice but to leave. There was apparently some sort of death epidemic in the senior citizen facilities of the communities, and the inhabitants were for some unexplained reason dropping like flies. All the funeral servers in the surrounding small communities had been maxed out. Even though Lauren's father was supposed to be off for the evening, he had been called when other options were exhausted. He was headed to two different residence facilities to collect clients.
Mrs. Simms told us to stay inside no matter what, and not to answer the door to anyone except Claire if she happened to show up. We were told not to turn the stove on, not to tell anyone who came to the door or called that no adult was home, and to stay out of the mortuary. Mr. and Mrs. Simms disappeared through the door that led down a hallway to the mortuary, as the garage for the hearses was on the far side of the funeral parlor.
Once we heard the hearse round the corner, Meredith announced, "I'm going to make fudge. Get me some sugar and some chocolate chips and some butter and some sweetened condensed milk."
I reminded Meredith that Lauren's parents had told us explicitly not to use the stove. "They just meant not to deep-fry anything or use an open flame," she rationalized. "They won't care about fudge."
Lauren told Meredith that there weren't any sweetened condensed milk or chocolate chips. Meredith told Lauren that someone would need to go to the store or borrow the stuff from a neighbor. Lauren reminded her that we were not allowed to leave the house. "Oh, they just meant not to go out and TP the neighborhood or throw eggs. They don't care if we go shopping." Lauren ended up calling a next-door neighbor, who brought the items to the door. Megan, another friend, reminded everyone that we weren't allowed to answer the door. "Not to an axe murderer," Meredith clarified. "Duh! I seriously doubt that Lauren's next-door-neighbor is an axe murderer. And what are the odds anyway of an ax murderer moving in right next door to a funeral home? Wouldn't that kind of raise suspicion?"
Meredith stirred the fudge ingredients until they came to a boil, them poured them into a greased pyrex dish. She turned off the stove. "OK!" she declared, wiping her hands dry. "Now it's time to go into the mortuary."
We all stared at her with dropped jaws. "You heard me. What are you waiting for?" she said to us.
Cecilia had fallen asleep on the floor under a coffee table. We debated what to do about her. "Just leave her. We won't be gone for long," Meredith concluded.
One by one, we followed her. I was the last person through the door. We filed down the hall and through an office, then into an open room containing a coffin. Lauren turned on a light, illuminating the room. "Does it have to be so bright?" Meredith asked. Lauren manipulated the switch to dim the lights.
We all stood in a cluster until Gracie tiptoed over to the open coffin. She let out a piercing scream. We all ran for the door leading back to the house, but Meredith blocked the way. "What is wrong with you people?" she demanded. "The dead are just like you and me. It's only that they're in a different stage of their development. There's nothing to be afraid of. We're not going anywhere until we finish our tour of the place."
Gracie, practically hyperventilating, was trying to tell us something about the body in the coffin. Meredith told everyone to be quiet so that Gracie could share. "It's her!" she exclaimed.
"Who?" I asked.
"Mrs. Pierson's mother! I recognized her from the picture on Mrs. Pierson's desk," Gracie explained.
Mrs. Pierson was a teacher at our school. Most of the girls at the party were in her math class. I wasn't, so I hadn't seen Mrs. Pierson's mother's framed picture on her desk. Mrs. Pierson had apparently been absent since Thursday, when her mom passed away. All of the girls except Meredith, Lauren, and I screamed and ran into the next room, which was a chapel. Lauren, Meredith, and I followed them.
"While we're here, let's have a funeral," Meredith announced.
"We don't have a body," someone mentioned.
"You," Meredith pointed at me. "Alexis can be the deceased. She looks the deadest of all of us."
"No," I countered. "You need me to play the organ."
Meredith thought for a moment, then agreed with me. "OK. We don't really need a deceased person anyway. We'll just pretend it's Mrs. Pierson's mother's funeral. You play the organ. I'll sing 'Ave Maria.' Lauren can be the funeral director because she knows how things are supposed to go. The rest of you can be the mourners. Does anyone want to give a eulogy, or should we just have an open mike?"
"Open mike," someone chimed in.
I opened the organ, turned it on, and began playing "Rock of Ages" and other standard funeral fare. Lauren approached the pulpit and asked the mourners to bow their heads in prayer. I don't remember sure exactly what the prayer was about, but I'm pretty sure there was mention of cancelling a math test that was scheduled for the next week.
I played "Ave Maria," which Meredith sang, using as much phony vibrato as she could muster.
The mourners took turns sharing their memories of Mrs. Pierson's mother, and about how caring for her in her final days had caused Mrs. Pierson to be tired and grumpy in class. "May she rest in peace," Lauren concluded. I played "On Eagles' Wings." We said a final benediction, then moved on to the exciting part of our tour.
We first went through embalming rooms. No bodies were there, as the four bodies in the funeral home had already been embalmed. Still, just looking at the equipment was freaky enough. There were hooks from the ceiling that apparently held bodies as they were hosed down, and the cement floor had drains just below the hooks.
Next we moved on to the preparation rooms. Three bodies were there. Lauren looked at the face on one of the bodies and cursed. Her mom had apparently been on a jury duty stint, and a substitute cosmetician had been called in. The substitute cosmetician, or so it seemed, was not highly skilled. Lauren grabbed a tissue, blotted something on the corpse's face, then reapplied cosmetic solutions from a couple of tubes on a metal tray.
Meredith observed while Lauren put finishing touches on the corpse. "Anyone else want to try this?" she asked. "Once the putty is in place, it's just like putting on your own makeup."
"Not really . . . " Lauren argued, but four of the girls were already blotting corpses' faces and reapplying the makeup.
Lauren was laissez-faire about the matter. "I would object, but you guys probably won't do any worse than the moron who put on the makeup in the first place. My mom's gonna have to redo everything anyway. " She patiently waited while the girls finished brushing powder onto all the faces.
"Can we get out of here?" I remember asking. I was concerned that Lauren's parents could appear at any moment.
We made our way back through the chapel, back into the parlor, through the office, down the hall, and into the house, As we approached the door that led through the home office to the kitchen, we heard screaming. Several girls tied to run back into the mortuary, but Meredith blocked them. "It's just Cecilia," she scoffed. Cecilia had awakened under a coffee table, and somehow in her disoriented state she was confused and thought she was inside a coffin. She scratched frantically at the underside of the coffee table. We assured Cecilia that everything was fine.
The fudge had settled. Everyone scrubbed their hands - even I, and the organ was the deadest thing I had touched. I was taking no chances.
Claire had arrived, and had been pounding on the door for several minutes before we returned to the house. We let her in. "You brought the fudge," Meredith told her.
Not five minutes later, we heard the sound of Lauren's parents pulling into the mortuary garage. We settled ourselves in front of the TV. A few minutes later, Lauren's mom came in.
"Everything was fine," Meredith told her. "Claire got here, and she brought the fudge."
Lauren's mother took a piece of fudge from the Pyrex dish. "Tasty," she proclaimed after eating it. She looked strangely at her own Pyrex dish containing the fudge Claire had supposedly brought, and at the pan in the sink, though she said nothing.
An hour or so later, Lauren's dad wandered through. If he had noticed anything amiss in his mortuary, he certainly didn't say anything about it.
I haven't made a will yet, but when I do, I will state without equivocation that I desire to be cremated.