By: Nico Bell
Jack smiled at the dead woman. Tomorrow, her family would gather to say goodbye, but tonight, she belonged to him. She lay on the embalming table with the perfect shade of pink blush highlighting her cheekbones. A warmth spread through him.
“Wow, great job. I knew there was a reason I hired you last year.”
The warmth faded as Jack looked up and spotted his boss Matthew enter the room.
“You know I love your dedication, but it’s late, and I was hoping to close up.”
“I’m finished.” Jack cleaned his space.
“Thanks. I need to make sure I’m home in time to help my daughter with her chemistry homework.” Matthew grinned as Jack’s jaw tightened.
At least he has a family.
Jack shook off the thought and pushed down the sour taste in his mouth as he said a quick goodbye and left. The night air chilled his cheeks, and he shivered while getting in his car. As he drove out of the city, lights from a 24-hour convenience store reminded him that he had nothing to cook for dinner. A few minutes later, he parked in front of the store and walked inside. Jack shuffled over to the cup of noodles, grabbed one, and headed to the cash register.
A short brunette with pale blue eyes greeted him. The name tag on her shirt read “Sarah.”
“This all?” She held up the cup of noodles.
Jack stared. He had seen many beautiful women, but rarely alive, and they never talked to him. They never saw him. They never cared about him. He managed a nod as his mind raced through a color palette perfect for her tan skin. Their hands touched when he handed over the cash. He wanted to say something clever, but he wasn’t a clever man, not when it came to the living. He gave a little nod and hurried to his car.
At work the next day, he began the makeup of a thirty-three-year-old woman. Jack’s mind wandered as his hands worked on autopilot. He imagined what it would be like to brush Sarah’s hair. Would it be thick like the woman on the embalming table? Would it tangle in his fingers?
He smiled and looked down at his current client. Her family wanted her to wear a plum lipstick. Apparently, that was the woman’s signature color, but Jack frowned at the thought. He picked up a soft rose hue, the same as Sarah’s, and painted the dead woman’s lips.
“Hey, Jack. Looks pretty good.” Matthew walked over. “Huh, you changed the lipstick.”
“It works better.”
“Yeah, maybe, but the family insists you use her favorite color.”
Jack fought the rising heat in his stomach. “But she’ll look ridiculous.” And I’m the artist, not her stupid family.
“Just fix it, okay?”
Jack didn’t fix it. That night, he parked his car in an abandoned lot across from the convenience store. He watched through his windshield as Sarah helped a customer. The ends of her brown hair skirted her shoulders.
“I like your hair down.” He spoke to Sarah as if she were with him. “You should wear it like that more often.” He smiled. “My day? Not great. My boss is a push over. He does whatever the clients ask, even though he knows I’m right.”
A car pulled up to the shop. Sarah looked out the window, and her posture stiffened.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Jack leaned forward and rested his arms on the steering wheel.
Sarah stepped outside. A tall man with broad and defined muscles got out of the driver’s seat and started pointing his finger in Sarah’s face. Whatever he said caused her shoulders to slump. Sarah turned to go back into the store, but the man grabbed her forearm and tugged.
Jack clutched the car door handle, but he froze. His pulse quickened. The man shoved Sarah aside. She stumbled but stayed upright as she pulled away and hurried into the store. The man got into his car and drove away. Jack’s hands trembled. “It’s okay, Sarah. You won’t need to worry about him much longer.”
The next day, Jack wore his best and only button-down shirt to work. Mathew chuckled when Jack walked in.
“You know our clients are dead, right? They can’t tell what you’re wearing.”
Jack frowned. “It’s for my girlfriend. We have a special night planned.”
“Oh, yeah? That’s great. Have fun, Jack. You deserve it.” Matthew walked toward the door.
“Oh, and don’t worry about the lipstick from yesterday. I fixed it before the family saw.”
Jack swallowed his anger and focused on the daily tasks, hurrying through the workday. He left fifteen minutes early with a knot twisting his stomach. As he pulled up to the store, Jack noticed the jerk’s car immediately. He squared his shoulders and walked inside. The guy leaned over the counter whispering something to Sarah. When Sarah noticed Jack, relief washed over her face. Jack smiled, and his shoulders relaxed. This is it. This is the moment everything changes.
He steadied his nerves and walked up to the counter.
“Can I help you?” Her voice was shaky.
Jack felt the guy’s eyes burrowing into him, but he kept his focus on Sarah. Tonight was about them, not the jerk who clearly didn’t deserve her. “Um, actually, I was just wondering if you wanted to grab some dinner with me.”
Sarah’s lips parted, but before she could respond, the guy chuckled.
“Hey, buddy. Get out of here. She’s not interested.”
Sarah’s smile seemed forced. “It’s okay, Daniel. He’s just being friendly.”
The words slapped Jack’s cheeks. “I’m being serious.”
“I said, get out of here.” Daniel grabbed Jack and shoved him through the front door. “It’s time to leave, asshole.”
Jack tripped and tumbled to the ground.
“Shit, Daniel. Did you have to do that?” Sarah rushed outside and leaned down. Jack inhaled the scent of her strawberry shampoo. “You okay?”
Jack looked up into her kind eyes and smiled. Something large and heavy slammed into his ribs.
But Daniel kept kicking Jack. Sarah stepped between the two. It was just the right distraction. Jack gritted his teeth as anger erupted from his core. He got to his feet just as Daniel shoved Sarah aside.
“She’s mine!” Jack balled his fist and slammed it into Daniel’s jaw. A cracking sound reverberated through the night air as Daniel collapsed to the ground. His skull met concrete. Blood spilled from the wound. Sarah screamed in the background. Jack breathed heavily as he grabbed her and dragged her into his car. His hands trembled as he started the engine. Curse words paraded past his lips as he ran his hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry.” He did his best to keep his voice calm. “This isn’t how it was meant to be.”
Sarah sobbed in the passenger’s seat. He drove all night, out of town and down the backroads where the road turned to gravel. He pulled up to his little cabin. Exhaustion rolled over him as the morning sun began to rise, but he knew he had to push through it. Sarah kicked and screamed, but he dragged her inside. His beauties were waiting for him. Laura, the department store clerk with the large green eyes and olive skin, stared at him with a permanent soft smile from the glass container he had propped up against the wall. Bethany with her fire engine red hair and toned legs stood in her glass container next to the kitchen, where she often joined Jack for meals. Meghan, who was a former beauty queen with shiny brown hair and full lips, waited to greet him in the living room where her glass container sat.
“Oh, God.” Sarah stood with wide eyes as she scanned the room. A sense of calm settled over him as he reached for the knife resting on the small side table.
“We have a new member of our family. Ladies, I’d like you to meet Sarah.” He smiled thinking of the embalming table in the basement, and the empty glass container waiting to be filled.
“She’ll be joining us here at the cabin.”
Sarah wiped her tears with the back of her hand. She gazed from one frozen woman to the next and by the time her eyes met Jacks, they were narrow and focused. She gritted her teeth and clenched her hands into fists.
“I don’t think so, asshole.”