Old Thyme 1. Jasmine for Jack

Sitting at his desk, Augustus Thyme checked his calendar for the third time that afternoon. The florist, Jack Mills, was a day late with the delivery of two dozen white roses. The Wilson funeral was scheduled for first thing in the morning, and if those roses didn’t arrive, it would be the first setback in Augustus Thyme’s twenty-seven years as funeral director. The thought did not sit well with him, not at all. He stood up, smoothed down his shirt, and straightened his black bow tie.

Of course, Augustus hadn’t heard of rock-and-roll, or about the extra traffic and chaos a popular music group had brought to Roseland. Thyme Funeral Home had been built back in the day when Roseland was more commonly known as Stumptown, up on the hill away from the bustle where the dead rested soundly among the groaning evergreens with branches whispering their secrets in the wind. Augustus had an old radio filling the corner of his small office, but he only listened to big band music, soft jazz on occasion. He hadn’t heard about the accident.

On weekends, Mabel operated the lines, and she was already greeting him before the earpiece even reached his ear. Gus, she called him. Everyone in town did even though he politely corrected them too often to count. Her voice, always chipper no matter how grave the news, carried the words that froze Augustus still. Jack Mills had died instantly the night before, run down by a Fifty-two Ford. The driver had been dodging teenagers rushing across the road and ended up on the sidewalk, according to the report. The operator had her doubts. Drunk driver, likely.

Mabel offered to put him through to Jack’s daughter, Susan. This was the first Augustus had ever heard about a daughter. Mabel rang Susan. As Augustus waited, he prepared for the business at hand. As his father had taught him, he focused on the solemn place in his mind where jazz met blues. Always carry a soft, respectful tone when speaking, the old man had instructed on nearly a daily basis while passing on the family trade.

After apologizing for the late delivery, Susan Mills promised to bring the flowers over. Augustus offered to pick them up, but Susan quickly refused. She needed to make arrangements for her father. They needed each other’s services, and after the necessary polite exchanges society demanded, the conversation ended abruptly.

Graveyard

It’s always quiet here on the hillside. The evergreens dull the noise from the city below. Visitors speak in hushed tones. At night, it’s usually just the frogs and I.

Sitting in the grass, I like to think. Not about anything complicated, more like reflection, really. The scent from the flowers in the garden lifts my spirits. I select some of them, water on occasion, but the groundskeeper does most of the work. I mostly just sit nearby and admire the flowers while I gaze over the gravestones in the evening twilight.

Sometimes I’m not alone, like tonight. He always keeps his distance, but I feel him watching. He’s a silhouette between two mighty firs. I only spot him at night.

I think he belongs to the graveyard.

"Nine signature"

Embalming

My father does the embalming. He’s licensed. I’ve watched him enough times, and sometimes I prep the body for him, so I have it down pretty good. Personal protection—including gown, apron, and show covers—is important, and sometimes I have to remind Daddy to put on his goggles. He wears prescription glasses, and in the old days that was considered enough.

Mixing the fluids is science, but for Daddy, it’s art. Mixture depends on the body size and condition. An incision is made near the right collarbone, the carotid artery, and another incision in the jugular vein. The arterial tubes, one towards the heart and one towards the head, are inserted into the incisions. Another hose is for draining the blood. After connecting the hoses to the embalming machine, adjusting dials for pressure, switch the machine on.

Thump-thump, the embalming machine works like a heart.

Massaging the flesh with a soapy sponge helps the flow. Daddy watches the skin color for signs of trouble. If the flesh firms up and turns rosy, then all is good.

Afterward, turn off the thump-thump, remove the hoses, and suture the incisions. The internal organs are then suctioned out, replaced by a strong fluid.

That’s embalming in a nutshell.

"Nine signature"

Thrush Forum

Music shredded the desktop from the tiny speakers hidden behind a clutter of wires, pop cans, and three single-sized pizza boxes. A tweeting chime announced new motion on a cam-link, another bird checking in. After slurping down the last pizza slice, Tom licked his fingers clean and tapped his trackpad.

The notepad screen came to life, and Tom moused over to the icon with the red blinker indicating the alert. The cam view opened full screen revealing a gray house cat preening. As the feline turned away, her tail swooshed closer blurring out of focus. Tom chuckled. Since joining Thrush Forum, he never knew what he’d find when one of his alerts came in. He closed the window and flipped to one of his favorite cams. Dark, but he could make out the bed before sheer curtains glowing by moonlight. Waiting, he looked over the frumpy shapes of the bed covers.

A loud pop, and a creaking noise.

Tom cut the music, and listened to the silence. It was always like that. Strange sounds in the background, but whenever he turned the volume down, nothing but quiet. Probably the wind.

A chime, and Tom tapped the alert.

The exploding view revealed a bearded man leaning close enough to make out each whisker. The image blurred and shuddered as the man tapped the camera on his end. The idiot banged at the indicator light beside his camera at the top of the notebook lid, probably wondering why it was on. The first few times were funny, but after awhile it became boring watching them go through the same damn routine: swiping, poking, showing someone else, frustrated faces, and usually it would end with the clamshell lid closing on darkness.

Growing bored with the man poking at the keyboard and scratching his beard, Tom flipped back to his favorite. She still wasn’t there, even though it was nearly her bed time. Before bed, she usually sat at her computer chatting on Facebook. Tom didn’t use a key logger. It was like watching a silent movie, guessing at the conversation. And she sometimes mouthed some of the words as she typed.

Tom liked watching people going about their normal activities. Getting started was easier than he had expected. He had downloaded the tools from the Thrush Forum and sent out the birds. He packaged his birdies inside a casual game, and people loved games, especially on Facebook. Idiots opened anything. Very few of them ever figured out that he was watching, indicator light or none.

A ding alerted him of a new email. It was JokerMan from Thrush Forum with another set of cam clips showing teen girls in various stages of undress. JokerMan liked them young, too young for Tom’s taste. He closed the email and went back watching the empty bedroom.

It was getting late, and she still wasn’t there. Was it date night again? She had that new boyfriend with the goatee even though she was still close with the guy from the café. He should have guessed from the start she was a two-timer. All the pretty girls were.

A dimly lit room shown on the screen. It took a moment to make sense of the image, but he recognized the gurney parked in the corner. Empty. Sometimes the gurney held a corpse. An older man, sometimes a young woman, worked in this morgue. Whenever one of them worked with a body, Tom couldn’t help but watch. It never was much really: painting make-up or embalming. Still, watching someone work on the dead felt thrilling somehow.

A noise, and Tom killed the music. This time he heard it plain, the neighbor dog yapping away. The poor dog went ignored most of the time, and barked like crazy trying to get the family’s attention. He clicked the music back on. Glancing at the empty pizza box, he considered ordering another.

He flipped through the cams, twenty-one in his regular rotation. Twenty-two if he counted the new bearded guy. The stupid oaf was leaning over the keyboard and staring intently at the camera indicator appearing even more frustrated than before. Flipping through, Tom stopped at a woman making kissy-faces. Her arm outstretched held the device, likely an iPhone, while her other hand pinched her bare nipple. Sexting. Far more common than he had realized before joining Thrush Forum. The woman wasn’t really all that good looking, and she’d be at it for a while working through her usual poses, so Tom moved on quickly flashing by empty rooms and a handful of images showing people going about their daily routines in the background. Boring mostly. Returning to his favorite bedroom, he watched the empty bed resting in the moonlight glow.

The chime tweeted. A new birdie checking in. Tom tapped the indicator.

At first, confusion flooded over him as he tried to make sense of what he was looking at. As he leaned closer, so did the man on the screen. It was like looking in a mirror! He spotted the green indicator light glowing beside the camera lens. How could this be?

As Tom leaned back in his chair, a familiar face came into view over his reflection’s shoulder. It was her! And standing beside her, the dude with the goatee. Their menacing faces was the last thing Tom saw.