Say Cheese

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I’m just a mortician. Or really, a mortician’s assistant. I’m not paid to ask questions about the dead bodies, just pick them up and move them back to the morgue. It’s not my place, right? But humans make observations, that’s just something you can’t help, and I was beginning to pick up a pattern.

This lady was old. Real old. And she lived in this big old house. I wish I could say it was up on a hill just to really cinch the look, but everything around here is flat and open. It was just old. She died alone and there were no hints of foul play, so there was no real suspicion. Sometimes, when you’re an old fogy living alone, you just die! Nothing much to it. It’s not even particularly sad.

So I went in. Not alone, uh, Christine was there with me. Fellow undertaker, and we got to undertaking. Just a big old house, smelled like mildew, dark fine wood, you get the jist. This body, so, when we found her, she was just lying there, you know, in her bed, old and dead, and that’s just the thing about it. People usually die with this expression on their face. Well, lack thereof, you know? It’s usually just. Neutral. So that was what was so weird about it. I mean it’s creepy in its own right, but people just don’t die smiling that often, and here was this old lady, lying in bed, and damn it, she just had this smile like someone had told her she’d won the lottery that morning, but instead, y’know, she was dead. Not a lot of reason to be happy. Maybe she’d seen her husband in her final moments, awaiting her at the pearly gates or…

Well, when Christine and I were loading her up onto the gurney, I just couldn’t get it out of my head, you know, that that was, what, the fourth person to die smiling that month?

So I asked Christine, I asked: “Christy, am I going crazy or is this the fourth person to die with a big-ass grin on their face this month?”

And she just rolled her eyes, and said: “Oh I don’t know. But if it was, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

And we just left it off like that. Brought her out into the car, loaded her up, drove her back to the morgue. Just another day done in Grandview.

So why am I singling this woman out for this story? Well, because as a mortician, part of your job is to dress people up for their funerals, right? You might see where this is going.

It was a late night, not because I’m one for dramatics but just because it was, and I was in the morgue and it was maybe a day or two before this poor woman’s funeral. Seems like she had a couple living relatives, and they weren’t doing too bad for themselves so they’d paid to really have her done up you know. Usually Christine did it, makeup and all, but I was trained and she’d taken the day off so it was my job.

I pulled her out of her compartment in the wall, urged her onto a gurney, and got her onto the table. Horrible thing is, she was still smiling. Just beaming those little yellow teeth out into the world, like her smile was the greatest thing there was to have, and you know, I just wondered, well, are they really expecting her to be smiling at the open casket? At the funeral? I wasn’t sure that was so appropriate, so I tried to start devising ways to get it to go away.

I started poking and prodding, and that’s uh, that’s when I made the discovery. You know, opened the mouth, looked in and bam.

I shut that thing right up, and I uh, I guess I didn’t do too good at my job, because I put her right back into her locker and closed up early. I figured we’d just dress her up tomorrow morning, when Christine was around.

So we did. That next morning, Christine pushed the door open to the break room, looked me dead in the eyes and said: “Why didn’t you dress up that old lady like I asked?”

And I had to tell her: “Well, come here, I’ll show you.”

And we pried open that mouth of hers, and I could barely look in, but Christine just laughed and slapped me on the shoulder and said: “Oh, silly! Some people are just like that.”

And while I don’t doubt her, no I don’t doubt her at all, she’d never lie to me, but, it’s just, I’d never seen someone to have two rows of teeth. It was something I could have brushed off on a good day, but. Well I asked Christine, I asked:

“You sure just anyone can have that? What about her smile? She’s been smiling since we got her, it can’t just be a coincidence can it?”

“Why,” she replied, “of course it can!”

And we just left it off like that. Now, I don’t want you to start thinking things of me, alright? It’s my job, I can look at the bodies however much I damn well please. And there were others. Others that we’d picked up, looked like they’d died in their homes, but they had these big ol’ smiles on their faces and I just had to know, alright? I had to.

So I picked one. Some guy named Richard. Slid him right out of the wall, pulled that tarp off of him, and he was still smiling, proud as ever to be deader than carpet, and I put my gloved fingers right between his teeth and I just pried and pried against his stiff, rigor mortis mouth and when I got it open it was… well, it was as I suspected.

There they were, two rows of teeth. No, no. Worse. I started prying harder, trying to get a better look, and right as I thought I saw a third row, I swear to you, now don’t think me crazy, he bit me.

Bit me! My fingers, caught in his mouth, I started yanking and pulling and I got my fingers out but he’d torn my glove and I still have a nasty bruise from the whole thing. And then I startled like the devil had looked right at me, ‘cause at first that’s what I thought I was seeing, his eyes all open and looking right at me, my heart nearly leapt out of my chest!

But it only took a moment, breathing and collecting myself, for me to realize his eyelids must’ve just fluttered open in the struggle, and I… passed my hand over them, closed them so he didn’t have to keep looking at the mortal plane anymore, sent him right on back to his maker.

So I guess that’s when I knew something was wrong. Not just felt it, knew, for certain. And of course, because things always seem to work out this way, that’s when things started getting worse.

Still in the morgue, I pulled out my phone and decided to dial Christine. It wasn’t that late, maybe eight o’clock, so I figured she was probably still awake, reading in bed or something like that, but I just couldn’t shake a feeling.

I had the phone up to my ear, and every time I heard that dial tone, it felt like it was… masking something. Every time, that ring, ring, ring, and it felt like something was happening under it, something… closer.

So I lowered my phone, and just listened.

It was quiet. And cold. The morgue has to be cold to keep the bodies from decomposing, and it has to be silent because the dead don’t make a lot of noise, so you could pretty easily tell when there was someone in the morgue with you.

So there I was, listening… and I didn’t hear nothing. Quiet. Just like I expected it.

So I brought the phone back up to my ear and found that it was Christine’s voice telling me I’d made it to her voicemail and that I should leave a message. So it beeped, and I started talking:

“Christine, I just pulled out Richard, the poor fella who died two weeks ago, the first one we found smiling, right? Well, I opened his mouth just to check, and I swear to you, I swear to you he has more than one row of teeth. Two at least. Maybe three, but when I tried to…”

But then I felt the need to have two ears alert again. I just couldn’t get it out of my head that I might be hearing something. Maybe an animal had found its way inside and was rummaging around? But something in my soul told me that wasn’t quite right. No, it was something a little worse than that. I didn’t know what. But I knew I didn’t want to be around to find out.

“Do you hear that, Christine?” I whispered into the phone. “You know what, just talk to me tomorrow. I’m gonna head home.”

I hung up, and I listened again. Now, what really made me realize… that it was a real noise I was hearing, it must have been the echo. The morgue is all metal, and the quality of sound just bounces around the room, so when I heard it, echoing around, I knew it couldn’t have just been in my head, something was here.

Well it didn’t take me two seconds to figure out where I was going. I pocketed my phone, dashed out the door, and went home. Wasn’t a power on earth that could keep me in the morgue longer than that. Only one or two powers in heaven, too.

The next morning was when things really started getting awful.

I woke up to my alarm clock, got out of bed, and felt like the last thing I wanted to do in the world was go into work. But, what I do is important, and I knew that, so I stretched, went into my bathroom, and started brushing my teeth.

Oh Lord in heaven, brushing my teeth.

Something felt weird while I was brushing, but it was when I flossed that my finger brushed up against something. Something lodged into my gums, right behind my two top front teeth. There’s no words in English to describe just… the panic you feel, when you start connecting dots like that. So I was digging with my fingernails, trying to really get a grip on this thing in my mouth, and I started getting it loose. It hurt, damn did it hurt, but there was not a possibility of inaction. I had to get it out.

And out I got it.

Out and into the sink. Unmistakably: a tooth.

Well maybe you see my pattern by now, but the very first thing I did, before even thinking of tending to my bleeding mouth, I pulled out my phone, and I was gonna call Christine, but it looked like I had a voicemail. From her.

“Jim,” came her voice, “a body’s gone missing. Get here quick.”

When I arrived, there were already police there, and Christine was waiting for me at the door to the morgue. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Didn’t you get my message? A body’s missing,” she said.

“No, I know that. I mean, what body?”

“Oh, some guy, uh,” she fished for the name, “Richard.”

I felt my heart sink in my chest. “Richard?” I asked, for clarification’s sake.

“Yup. Richard Moorehead, if I remember correctly,” she said. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“Sure it’s nothing? What do you…?” I trailed off before I could say something revealing. “Um, did you get my message?”

“What message?” She flashed me a big, pearly white smile, and for some reason that didn’t make me feel a lick better.

“Nothing,” I said, and we just left it off like that. That’s when a police officer came up to me, and asked:

“Are you Jim Yacoobi?”

“I’m him,” I said.

“We have some questions for you,” and they pulled me aside and there were two of them, one just asking questions, another with a notepad.

“Christine told us that you were the last one here yesterday,” the officer said, “did anything unusual happen as you were closing up last night?”

I clammed up. “Uh, well, yes, sir, I thought I might have heard a noise.”

“What kind?” He asked.

“Well, I’m not sure, really, I thought it might have been a large animal, but I… I left shortly after.”

“Interesting. And what did you do when you closed up?”

There was something so subtly off about the officer, I couldn’t quite place it, but… I’d never been one to be very wary of men of law, but these ones, I just felt like… like something was off, you know? And that’s when I noticed that the one looking down, so intently looking down at his notepad, was smiling, so wide, this smile like someone had told him he’d just won the lottery that morning.

“I locked up,” I lied, “it’s a quiet business and there’s not much to do. I cleaned up, and locked up. That’s all there was to it.”

“Alright, alright. That should be all,” he said.

“Really?” I wasn’t expecting to be done with an interview so quick.

He responded: “Why not?”

“Well why’s he smiling?” I asked, a hint of panic making it into my voice. “What in the world has he got to smile about?”

The other officer looked up from his notepad, that grin plastered to his face, and he said: “Me? Why. I’m just happy to be here!”

The first policeman chuckled and shrugged. “Is that so strange?” He said.

Is that so strange? I had to get out of there. “Thank you, I’ll be taking my leave,” I said.

“Take care!” Came the reply, that smile so wide, that grin so… salivating. And when he spoke, I swear, I think I saw, I could have sworn…

No, I didn’t need to know. I had to take a vacation. I walked right back to my car, and Christine saw me along the way: “Where you going, Jim?” She called after me, teeth clenched like a bear ready to maul me.

“Home,” I lied again, “I’m going to take the day off.”

I figured I had enough on me. I just needed to get out of town. You know how cats can tell when an earthquake’s ‘bout to happen? I think that was the feeling. I knew something weird was going on, and I just wanted to be out of there. Away from all of it. My mouth still bleeding, my fingers still bruised. I just felt like if I stayed, something far worse was going to happen.

I ended up right, in that regard.

I wound up in a motel that night. Somewhere far away, I don’t even remember the town really. I just kept driving until I was sure nothing could catch me, even if I didn’t know what would catch me if it did.

The room was small. It was dim, there was a TV, and it was brown top to bottom. Just a dingy motel room like you’d expect. I put my things down, and I felt like I could finally breathe, but all I wanted to do was sleep. So, I flicked the TV on just to have in the background, and walked into the bathroom to wash up.

I pulled out my toothbrush, and brushed my teeth.

Oh, Lord…

I really don’t know what I expected, but I felt something was wrong again. I guess that in the turmoil of the day, I’d forgotten all about that morning. I immediately put my toothbrush down and dug my fingers into my mouth, trying to figure out what the issue was, and it was so clear, so stupidly clear, it was like there were little beetles all along my jawline, poking out of my gums. But, not just my gums, I… I could reach a hand back, and there were more… bumps, more little beginnings of things, all the way back, so far back that to try and feel them all I accidentally gagged myself, coughed a little bit.

And when I did, out into the sink. Four little teeth. Four little pearly whites, and a healthy helping of blood to go with them.

I was just about to scream, just about to call out for help, when I heard something. Something on the TV.

The name of my town. Grandview.

I heard another few words, too. “Unknown causes,” for one, and that was enough to make my skin prickle.

I walked back into the bedroom. Slowly, because I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be there. Wasn’t sure I wanted to see whatever it was. I think it might have been better if I didn’t, to be honest with you. I might have had a better time sitting in the bathroom and digging teeth out of my skull.

It only took one image. An image of a face, a horrible, disfigured face, like none I’d ever seen, with teeth growing out of the lips, and the chin, and the cheeks, almost like hair, some molars and some canines, piercing her skin like spears and clubs, even working their way up to her eyes, so that one, grown on the bottom of her eyesocket, come up and pressed the window into her soul so hard against the top of it that it had popped, that white fluid leaking down her cheek like she was crying — heaven forsaken and crying so that anyone might —

No, no, that’s why I couldn’t stand it, I turned it off. But right before I could find the remote, it went back to the reporter, and you can be damn well certain she was smiling like a breastfed baby, like the world was her oyster, like everything was going to be fine and more.

But then I turned it off. I turned it off and I collapsed. And while tears were streaming down my face, I couldn’t help but notice, I couldn’t help but catch on the detail…

It was Christine. That face was Christine.

So I prayed. I got to my knees, and I did the only thing I could think of, I pulled my cross necklace out from under my shirt and I prayed. I tried to get God to hear me, to set things straight, to give me and everyone I loved protection. To send her soul to heaven. Hell, sometimes I didn’t even know what I prayed for, I just did it, because if I didn’t I knew that I’d be further from His light than I’d ever strayed before, down into the deepest darkness of my mind.

I hope he understood me, ‘cause I wasn’t speaking so straight.

My jaw hurt, and try as I might, I just couldn’t help but smile.

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