“You know, Ms. Landry, you have the best skin I’ve ever seen on a corpse,” Ember Denning told the body lying before her. “I would know; I’m a professional.” She dusted powder across the older woman’s cheeks, Ember’s whisper conspiratorial as she added, “But if you see your sister up there, don’t tell her I said so, since I may have said the same thing last month.”
Her latest client was predictably silent on the matter. She sighed. She needed livelier friends.
Ember squeaked in terror, spinning around, makeup brush brandished before her like a weapon.
Her boss chuckled. “What are you going to do, rouge me to death?”
She dropped her hands and shrugged, defeated, going back to her task. “It’s a powder brush, actually.”
He looked at his watch. “What are you doing here, Ember?”
She furrowed her brow, hoping she looked suitably confused. “I work here?”
That got her the eyebrow. Miller Hammond was a lot of things—including the owner of the funeral home she stood in—but he wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t buying it. He folded thick arms across his chest and fixed her with his best, hardened stare. He was trying for threatening, but with his dark freckled skin and kind eyes, he looked like he should be playing God in every movie.
“You know exactly what I mean. I thought you were going to the cemetery today?”
She shrugged, eyes sliding away. “The day’s technically not over yet.”
“Girl, do not play games with me,” he said. “You need to go see your father. You missed his wake. You cannot miss his burial. You need to see him before…” He trailed off, letting his words go unspoken.
He didn’t have to say it. She needed to see him before social services came to collect her. She didn’t see the point of shoving a seventeen-year-old into foster care for one year, but the social worker had assured Ember her opinion didn’t matter.
“Why do you even care?” she asked, tone casual as she slammed her brushes back into their proper containers. “He didn’t care about me when he was alive. Why should I care about him now that he’s dead? It’s not like he knows I’m there.”
He glanced at the old woman lying on the table. “Who are you trying to convince? You spend more time talking to the dead than the living.”
Her face flushed. She didn’t have a good answer, so instead, she said, “The difference is these people just died.” She snapped her rubber gloves off. “My father has been dead for years. Somebody just finally laid him down.”
“Ember,” he said, his voice soft with…something, sympathy, maybe pity. “Your dad was troubled, he—”
“Was a drunk,” Ember finished.
“He loved you.” He moved towards her, but she held up her hand. He stopped, palms raised in surrender.
She hunched in on herself. She had a thing about personal space. But she gave him a ghost of a smile anyway. It wasn’t his fault she was weird. Miller was just trying to help. He was always trying to help.
“I...” she started, apology dying on her lips.
“No. Nope. You don’t have to believe me, but you do have to listen to me. Not another word. Take your skinny behind out of here and go do what’s right. Now. I’ll have Alice finish up with Ms. Landry.”
I do not have a skinny behind, she thought with a huff. “Fine,” she said, snagging her sweater from the hook by the door. “But don’t blame me when she ends up looking like one of those queens on Bourbon Street.”
“Uh huh.” He waved a hand at her. “And you go straight home after the service. It’s going to be crazy in the quarter tonight. I don’t want you getting caught out in that.”
She rolled her eyes but nodded. “Yeah, yeah.”
“I mean it.”
“Okay!” Jeez, it’s not like it was her first day living in New Orleans. There was a festival in the quarter pretty much every day, especially this close to Halloween.
“Oh, and Ember.”
She turned with an exasperated sigh. “Yes?”
She gave him a lopsided smile. “Thanks.”
The walk to the cemetery was quick. People were already celebrating. Men wore skull masks and top hats, and women wore elaborate face paint and beautiful dresses in honor of Dia de los Muerta. She stared longingly at a dark-haired girl with a huge red rose in her hair and sugar skull face paint. If Ember were an ordinary girl, she’d be preparing for the event with her friends. Despite sharing her birthday with the day of the dead, she’d never celebrated it.
She smiled at the girl as they passed, but the girl dropped her eyes and moved far away on the narrow sidewalk. People avoided Ember as if a force field existed around her. It didn’t hurt her feelings anymore. It was why she usually ignored Miller’s fatherly warnings about being careful. Nobody wanted to be near her. People were afraid of her. She just didn’t know why.
It was cold even for that time of year. Swollen gray storm clouds marred the afternoon sky, casting the landscape around her in shadow. She pulled her sweater tighter, hoping her arm hid the largest hole. She shivered as the wind picked up and swirled the fallen leaves around her feet.
She wasn’t the first to arrive at the service. A sea of strangers, all gawking at her with undisguised interest, stood before the large mausoleum housing the remains of her father. Those gawking were mostly his students and other colleagues from the University, there to satisfy their morbid curiosity. Her father had no friends. It was hard to make friends when you spent your whole life as a barely functioning alcoholic; there weren’t many friends at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
She could feel their scrutiny like tiny daggers piercing her skin. She hated when people stared…and they always stared. Even in a city like New Orleans, a city that embraced voodoo, ghosts, vampires and witches, Ember made them uneasy. She was strange looking, her hair too orange, too wild, her wide violet eyes too unnatural, but she didn’t think that was it. She wasn’t the only unusual looking person in the city, but New Orleans was a superstitious place, and something about her triggered people’s paranoia.
She clenched her jaw, muscle popping as she ground her teeth. She just wasn’t herself since he died. Maybe she was getting sick. Thunder rumbled overhead, and she squinted into the sky, inhaling deeply. It smelled like rain. Of course, it was going to rain. She hadn’t brought an umbrella.
As the minutes ticked by, she became restless. She hated waiting. Couldn’t they just start this useless ritual already? People whispered to each other, their gazes heavy on her back, their hushed voices like tiny insects scuttling in her ears, making her skin crawl.
She glanced at the gates. She could go. She could just turn and leave. But everybody would see. She chewed at her thumbnail. What did she care what a bunch of strangers thought about her? She could do as she pleased. She had nobody to answer. Her breath caught on the thought. She had nobody. She stayed where she was, frozen at the thought.
A dark-skinned man in a long black robe ambled his way to the front of the crowd, smiling and shaking hands with the people, clasping them warmly on the shoulder like a visiting dignitary. The group quieted, and Ember watched as the woman closest to her smoothed her hands over her blouse as if there would be an inspection after the service. Ember rolled her eyes.
“Brothers and sisters,” the man’s voice boomed in the silence, echoing off the surrounding stones. “We are gathered here to say goodbye to a dear friend.”
She couldn’t help the snort that escaped, covering it with a cough as eyes swung towards her. It was the reverend’s job to spout off platitudes about the dead, she reminded herself.
What was he going to say? “Dear friends, we’ve gathered to say goodbye to a man who was a lousy professor and an even worse father. A nasty, neglectful jerk that spent his days trying to decide if he would ignore his only child or verbally abuse her to the point of neuroses. He spent most nights passed out in his vomit, and none of us are sorry he’s gone.” This crowd would love that.
As he spoke, her anxiety grew. She felt feverish, a heat overtaking her body, starting at the soles of her feet and crawling higher as the minutes passed. Beads of perspiration formed on her lip, despite the cold air whipping around the stone mausoleums. She had to be coming down with something. She tuned out the preacher, her eyes fluttering as she swayed on her feet, vision swimming. She blinked hard several times and dabbed at the sweat at her forehead with her sleeve. Was she going to pass out?
A wave of black umbrellas swung into the air as the sky opened up. People huddled together, trying to ward off the frigid cold and the sudden torrent of rain. Ember made no move to protect herself from the torrent, all her energy focused on remaining upright. Her hair stuck to her face, her sweater and black dress clinging like a second skin. She should be freezing, but she was in flames, her mouth dry and head stuffed with cotton. What was happening to her?
The preacher droned on despite the weather. The woman in the blouse rushed forward to shield the good reverend with her obnoxiously large black umbrella. What was this lady’s deal? Was she trying for extra grace in heaven? Ember’s fingers buzzed like she held a live wire, the sensation growing until she was sure a million fire ants writhed beneath her skin, scratching and biting.
People inched further away from her. Could they see what was happening or did they simply question the sanity of a girl who didn’t have the sense to get out of the rain?
Her eyes scanned the perimeter, looking anywhere but the crowd. At first glance, she thought him a statue, an apparition in the deluge of rain. He sat perched on top of a mausoleum, crouched like a gargoyle with his elbows on his knees, a hood shrouding his face. Three stone crosses rose behind him, giving him the appearance a post-apocalyptic monk guarding a sacred shrine.
That feeling beneath her skin intensified, and she fought the urge to tear at her flesh with her nails. How could anybody not see something was wrong? She balled her hands into fists, clenching until her nails pushed tiny half-moons into her palms. The pain brought the tiniest bit of relief if she just focused on it and not the razor blades beneath her skin.
It hit her then, pain like a lightning bolt, ripping through her skull. She would have hit her knees, but she was paralyzed, hanging like a marionette doll controlled by some unseen puppet master. Her limbs wouldn’t budge, cement heavy and useless. She tried to scream, but no sound came. Nobody looked her way. Could they not see there was something wrong with her?
Dread clung to her as real as the fabric against her skin. She was on fire. She needed to cool down, but the rain was as hot and thick as the blood pounding in her ears. She was going to die like this, standing at her father’s funeral, drenched and in agony.
Her eyes settled on the figure in the distance. If he were a monk, maybe he’d hear her prayers. Maybe he could end her misery. He tilted his head, and she stupidly thought maybe he’d heard her somehow. Maybe he could sense what was happening.
He stood then, rising from the top of the mausoleum like another spire. He pushed back his hood but she still couldn’t see his face. Why couldn’t she see his face? She needed him closer…needed to see him, to know he saw her. She was going crazy. What did it matter what he looked like? He was too far away to help. She was going to die there, and he was going to watch.
She found the idea weirdly comforting. At least she wouldn’t be entirely alone in the end, not like her dad. Another shot of pain seared through her, her vision whiting out. She hoped it happened soon. At this point, she welcomed losing consciousness. Anything to make the pain stop. But if she closed her eyes would she only pass out? She didn’t think so. Her panic ratcheted. She knew with a sick certainty that if she closed her eyes, If she closed her eyes, if she succumbed to this…feeling, she was going to die. She didn’t want to die. Tears gathered in her eyes before slipping down her cheeks.
Ember felt it then, a slippery coolness washing over her; icy fingers pressed against her temples, working their way under her skin and soothing the searing heat like ice water through her veins.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, eyes closed, breathing deep, letting the break overtake her. When the sensation faded, she opened her eyes. It wasn't raining anymore. She watched the crowd drift away, not one of them ever looking back. She blinked, trying to clear the frosty cobwebs clouding her brain. She took a timid step forward, shoulders dropping in relief when she found her limbs were working.
She looked to the mausoleum in the distance, but there was nobody there. Had he ever really been there? Was this what it felt like to go crazy?