Picture Perfect

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After hours was Terry’s favorite time to work. To be allowed vast swaths of time unbothered, to be able to turn his music up and really concentrate on what he was doing, was a real treat. During the day he was an average employee; helping Mr. Casey arrange the flowers, lay out the cards, restock the tissues. But at night... well. At night he was a star.

He hadn’t always been in charge of preparing the bodies. When he first started that wasn’t part of the gig; that was Carl’s job. But then Carl had that accident, fell down the stairs one afternoon on his way down to work on their latest client. He fell hard too, managed to break both his arms trying to catch himself on the way down. After that, with no one else to do the work, Mr. Casey had no problem giving the job to Terry. He didn’t even mind him working at night, as long as he didn’t ask for overtime. And Terry never did.

You see cleaning up those people, making them look beautiful and whole and peaceful, was Terry’s true calling in life. He hadn’t known it until he took the job at the funeral home but the second he went down into that basement with Carl on his first day he felt something he had never felt before. The vats of fixing solution, the trays of makeup, the bottles of shampoo. The clean, cold table Carl worked over. The sharpness of the lights. Terry fell in love.

He didn’t tell anyone else how much he enjoyed this part of his job. He knew they wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t be able to see what he saw. The beauty of it all, of his creations. And they certainly wouldn’t understand the pictures. They weren’t anything bad, just strange. It was strange to have an album of dead faces under your bed at home, even if they were beautiful dead faces. Even if they were the most perfect, most adored dead faces that ever existed. That was why Terry had to work after hours. It wasn’t just that he liked to work alone. He didn’t want anyone to hear the whir of his old Polaroid camera, or walk in on the pictures lined up on the counter, the images slowly coming into focus. A testament to his talent, a history of his progression. Something to be proud of.

Tonight he had a young woman on the table, only 26 years old. Suicide he thought he heard Mr. Casey say but Terry never cared how they died. He just cared that they were here with him now. He stood over her and took his first picture, tugged the photo free from the front of the camera, and laid it on the counter. Then he got to work, washing her hair and body and gently toweling her off. Then another picture.

He usually didn’t look at the pictures until he was done. That was part of it, being able to look at the whole process all at once. He ran out of detangler though, and when he reached for another bottle he looked down at his second picture. The one where her eyes were open.

Terry looked back at the woman on the table, laying as he had left her, her eyes definitely closed. He looked again at the picture. Large blue eyes, the whites bloodshot, looked back at him. He leaned over her, carefully pulling back one eyelid. Her eyes had been blue, but they were milky now, unseeing.

Terry shivered a little, unsure how to proceed. If she hadn’t been so beautiful, her skin so unblemished, her hair so thick, he might have stopped. But that body called to him, so Terry carried on. Maybe her eyes had been open when he started and he just forgot. Dead bodies did some odd things.

When he was done with her hair he snapped another picture, laying it quickly next to the others without watching it develop. He moved on to her face, gently applying foundation and blush and lip gloss. Another picture. He checked the reference photo the family had given him, with the woman’s hair in two long braids, and decided that would do the trick. A nice finishing touch. Another picture.

He was so absorbed in his work he forgot about that second picture. When Terry worked on bodies he seemed almost in a trance, everything else fading away. He placed his last picture on the counter and stood back a little to admire them.

The second photo hadn’t changed. Those blue eyes still stared back at him, wide and pained. In the third picture it seemed like she had tried to open her mouth a little, like she was trying to smile at him. Or scream. It was hard to tell, and Terry knew he had wired her mouth shut. The next shot had the woman’s face much closer to the camera, her mouth curling into a snarl, her eyes now furious. He looked back over his shoulder at the body laying exactly where he had left it, then held the fifth picture up in his trembling hand, waiting as it came into focus.

Terry had painted the woman’s fingernails a pale pink, her favorite color according to her family. He had laid those hands on her stomach, one over the other, the nails drying to perfection. The hand coming at him in the photo didn’t have painted nails though, and he could see the wrist was coated in dried blood. She was raising one arm, reaching for him and his camera. Trying to pull him toward her. Terry heard a shuffling noise in front of him, from the table. He lowered the picture slowly and found himself staring into a pair of blue, bloodshot eyes.

The next morning Mr. Casey was surprised to see Terry’s small hatchback still parked in front of the building. Usually on the nights he worked late Terry would come in a bit later the next day to make up the difference. Mr. Casey unlocked the front door and was heading toward his office when he noticed the door to the basement was open, clean white light spilling out into the hallway. He frowned. Terry was usually so good about shutting everything down. Mr. Casey headed downstairs.

A young woman was laid out on the table, her face serene, her clean hair plaited into thick neat braids. Her hands had been folded over her stomach, the nails a sweet pale pink. On the counter sat an old camera and next to it five photographs. Mr. Casey wasn’t sure what Terry was playing at, leaving a body out overnight like this. Or leaving all those creepy pictures behind. It must be his idea of a joke, taking those pictures of himself on the table, his face looking anguished, getting progressively more desperate with each picture. Mr. Casey looked at the photos in disgust and tossed them into the bin at his feet. He would have to have a talk with that man, he thought. He was a nice guy, but he did some odd things.

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