Pretty Broken Things by Melissa Marr

1





Juliana





The dead girl is in a grave so shallow it wasn't hard to find her. That’s all I know.

Dispatch doesn’t add that it’s awful, not directly. All she says is, “This is one for you, Juliana.”

There’s an unpleasant familiarity to this moment. I’ve only worked at my uncle’s funeral home for a few years, but I apparently have the stomach for the sorts of cases that he can’t handle. He’s not great with brutal death--like the bodies the Carolina Creeper has left behind.

“Is it . . .”

The woman on the phone doesn’t reply. “What’s your ETA?”

I glance at my watch. “Twenty. Thirty if there’s traffic.”

“At this hour?”

“So, thirty then.” I disconnect and take a moment to find a quiet place in my head.

My uncle used to do this part on his own, but the last few years, Uncle Micky hits the bottle every time he ends up at the scene of an ugly death.

Some of the worst ones come back to me when I close my eyes at night. It’s like having a photographic memory—but only for the things I’d rather never have seen.



* * *



Such is the fate of those of us who work as ferrymen for the dead. Morticians have a very high rate of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide.

I don’t drink much. I find my solace in other things.

I worry about Uncle Micky, and can’t help but wonder if that’s my future, too. Did he used to be more or less okay? Is his reaction to the work where I’ll end up if I stay in this business? Morticians have a high rate of alcoholism—and an equally dismal divorce rate.

Today, though, a dead woman needs me. Protecting Uncle Micky from more nightmares and retrieving the dead, those are my priorities today. I’ll deal with the rest another day.

I poke my head into the preparation room. “Is there gas in the bus? I’m headed out to Umstead.”

"Filled it this morning."

"I'll need to drop the client at the M.E.'s office," I add, clarifying without details that it’s very much not a natural causes run.

In this part of North Carolina, the medical examiner’s office is supported by a network of professionals. I often do transport. I do a number of preparations, and if I need to, I could do autopsy. It's not unusual. Plenty of states subcontract their work. It's cheaper for them than hiring full-time, and it's extra money for morticians who sign on.

After a longer than usual pause, Micky looks up from the body he’s preparing for viewing. He hears the parts I don't say.

"Are you good?"

I nod, even though I'm not. Seeing the dead who've been mistreated is never easy—and there's more likelihood of violent death than a heart attack today. I worry most about the dead who seem to show up in my jurisdiction more than anywhere else. His victims.

I whisper a prayer that today will not be another victim of the Creeper.

During my retreat to my own thoughts, Micky's attention returns to the woman on the table. Comforting the grieving and preparation are the parts of the job where my uncle excels. He can reconstruct expressions, apply make-up, and by the time he’s done, the mourners will see their loved one. It’s an art. No one ever suggests that the people he prepares look “wrong.”

I don’t have the patience for the make-up. Restoration and embalming, those are fine. Retrieval runs, paperwork, and marketing—because, yes, this is still a business and marketing matters—those are all fine, too. Make-up perplexes me; it always has. I can manage it, but not like him. Not on the bodies we prepare, and not on my own face.

Uncle Micky holds my gaze just long enough to make me want to tell him it’s okay. We both know he realizes that there’s a rough call. Uncle Micky might not offer to go in my place, but he would go if I asked. He’s good people. That’s a tried and true fact.

“Can you handle everything here while I’m out?” It’s not exactly saying that I’m okay or that I can handle it, but we aren’t direct like that.

He nods. “You’re a good kid, Jules.”

“I’m thirty-two,” I remind him.

He smiles. “I swear you were twenty-five last time I checked.”

I snort. “And this is why I do the books. You’re lousy with math.”

I walk outside, and feel like a wet blanket hit me. Carolina weather. It’s always humid, or at least it feels that way.

Murder smells worse in humidity. The scent of things best never smelled gets caught in the wet of the air, and I swear it clings. To my clothes. My hair. My skin.

I drive out to the park. I’ve hiked here. It’s almost six thousand acres of land with trails, campsites, and lakes. A part of me wants to believe this was a shooting or an accidental death. The logical part of my mind can’t quite do that. The park is well traveled enough that there is little chance of death by exposure or animal. A shooting here is likely to have drawn attention, but it’s not impossible to stealthily shoot or stab someone in the park.

The worst possibilities play in my mind: a child, sexual assault, murder suicide, group suicide, multiple graves. Sometimes, my mind wanders down paths I wish it wouldn’t. It’s a consequence of my job: I see the unvarnished truth, the details that are half-hidden or soft-focused before the family or friends hear about it. The truth is that people are cruel. It’s why Uncle Micky drinks. It’s why I check my locks more than once at night. It’s also on the long list of reasons I’m lousy at dating. Better to be single and haunted by my nightmares than to raise a child in this world.