Max needs a ride.
She says it’s from work, but you can smell the whiskey on her breath. Makes no difference to you. You’re happy to be her chauffeur, even if she never pays for gas and it’s 2am on a school night. It’s worth it to have a chance to be alone with her. You have been bewitched by her presence—the fried neon hair, the bony wrists, the silver ring hugging her pouty bottom lip—ever since you met her in Biology. You hope that with time, she’ll see you as more than just the mortician’s daughter—the one who sits in the back of class and only speaks up when no one knows the answer to a question about anatomy. That’s all anyone can say about you, since working with your father keeps you away from most social situations. Max is the only person in school that talks to you; the only one brave enough to turn around and ask to borrow a pencil. From there, your relationship grew: you were desk mates; then you were lab partners for dissections; then you were co-authors of a book report on Frankenstein; and, eventually, you were her friend because you had the keys to your father’s hearse.
So, when she asks you to make an illegal U-turn in the middle of the highway so you can go to Quick Trip, you agree. It’s worth it just to see her smile, even when the headlights from the oncoming semi catch on her lip ring.
Max is dead.
When you are out of the ICU, the doctors tell you that the hearse was T-boned in the middle of the highway. Max died on impact—whiplash from impact damaged her spinal cord and neck. You imagine the gold crest of a dandelion popping off the stem with the flick of a thumb. You, on the other hand, were in surgery for several hours. You needed a heart transplant immediately; lucky for you, one had just become available. When you realize what this means, you taste something bitter on your tongue—you had been compatible all along.
Max is mourned.
Your father prepares the body, and he forbids you from seeing it before he closes the casket. Perhaps as punishment for what you did to the hearse. He won’t allow you to go to the funeral either, but you sneak out while he aspirates a man who had drowned in the county swimming pool. In the cemetery, you hide behind a tree and watch Max’s mother cry into her newest boyfriend’s shoulder as they lower the casket. You worry you’ll have to wait a long time before everyone leaves; surprisingly, the mother is the first to go. Everyone tosses a rose, picked up from the nearest gas station, into the grave before they disperse. The gravediggers make quick work filling in the hole, having buried so many bodies in a town plagued by meth lab explosions and overdoses. They’ve grown sloppy, too, because the dirt is loosely packed. It takes no time at all for you to reach the coffin; you get there before dark.
Max is heavier than she looks.
For you, it’s not a problem. You’ve been helping your father move remains since you could walk. That’s the life of the mortician’s daughter in a town like this—motherless and bound to the family trade. Sometimes, you wonder if your father was the one who embalmed her. Right now, though, you are worried about getting caught. The sun has gone down and the light is still on in the mortuary, even though you know your father should have left by now. You hope that he just forgot to turn off the lights again, but you still hold your breath when you unlock the door. Inside, the metal table shines like a polished mirror.
Max falls onto the table with a loud thump.
Your pulse quickens, listening for footsteps on the floor above you. Nothing moves, and you exhale deeply. The tools you left under the sink are still there. So is the book you ordered from Amazon, advertised as being bound in real human skin, but as an expert, you know it’s really cow hide. It was all you could afford. You hope this works like fairies—believe hard enough, it will be real.
Max is still wearing her lip ring.
That’s all you can recognize, really, in the pale pulp that should be her face. Still, you do not hesitate. You get to work. Before your father said you would inherit the family business, you had planned on going to college to study art. As a child, you’d enjoyed making people out of mud down by creek running behind the house. You used sticks for their bones, stones for their eyes, and gravel for their teeth. My friends, you would say to you father, but he always made you toss them away, to melt back into the creek bed. Now in your senior year of high school, you take an advanced ceramics class without him knowing. Teachers often comment on your ability to capture facial expressions in raw clay. You use those talents now to push cartilage, bone, and flesh to recreate Max’s face. The decomposing muscle does not cooperate, so you make compromises. A nose more flat than Roman; cheeks pinched between thumb and forefinger away from the sunken skull; eyes more hooded to hide empty sockets. When you finish, you are delighted to see that Max looks as she did during 8am classes—only half-dead.
The book has a diagram of the constellation you must draw on the ground with chalk. It also gives directions on the order the candles should be lit. In the center of the drawing, you place the necessary ingredients. The book specifies nightshade and bone marrow, but you settle for poison oak and a drumstick bone from a bucket of KFC, licked clean. The final step is easy—the pet shop in the strip mall was having a sale. In your right hand is your father’s scalpel, small enough for this kind of sacrifice. The hamster bites your hand when you hold it down onto the floor. You close your eyes and bring the scalpel down. A scream erupts from your throat—the scalpel is stuck in the back of your hand. The hamster wiggles free of your grasp. Blood is still spilt, so you spit out the words of the incantation, hoping your backwoods accent doesn’t flub up the Latin. When you finish, you hold your breath and wait. The candles burn down to the bottom of their wicks and leave you in the dark.
Max isn’t moving.
You throw the scalpel at the open book and sob. Your palms press into your eyelids, smearing blood across your lashes. It was stupid to think this would work, but you got your hopes up anyway. You blame Mary Shelley for putting the idea in your head, but you did the book report—you know the moral of the story. This isn’t how death works. You should know firsthand: no matter how much blush you put on a corpse, they are already dead, and no amount of makeup or dark magic will change that.
The clock in the upstairs parlor chimes ten times. Your father will be looking for you now, if he isn’t already. You gather your tools and hide them under the sink. Behind you there is movement, and you remember you need to catch the hamster before you leave.
Max sits up.
It is exactly like the movies make it out to be—slow and dramatic. The fluorescent lights snap on and she lets out a terrified moan. You tell her it’s alright and rush to her side. Her skin is leathery and has lost much of its pigment—some is missing all together. On the right side of her face, you can see her molars click together when she tries to speak. A slick, stiff tongue wiggles the silver ring on her lip. Her legs swing to the other side of the table, startling you.
Max stands up.
You feel your heart racing when her hollow sockets fixate on you. Her head moves up and down, sizing you up. She inches closer, holding out her hands. The bones in her fingertips press into your cheek. They move downward towards your chest and you move closer, wrapping your arms around her. Max presses the hole of her nose into your scalp. Your heartbeat is a marble falling down a thousand stairs. She moans softly; your cheeks burn with blood. Her face nudges yours, and even though you know it isn’t right, you plant a kiss on her lips. How could you not? You are not as naive as your father believes—you have seen the movies, you know the signs. Warmth spreads throughout your body. Max presser her face against yours, her mouth open. This is your first kiss, so your tongue is lost. It slides across Max’s teeth, tracing grooves in enamel until you become painfully aware that you are making out with a skull. There is a sharp pinch and a metallic taste on your tongue.
Max bites you.
You touch the corner of your mouth and expect to feel pain. Instead, you shiver with anticipation. Without restraint, you kiss Max passionately. She moans louder, pushing you towards the wall. You submit and forget that your father could be here any minute. You have waited so long for this moment that you will not let anything take it away. Max moves down your neck, the lip ring tickling your flesh. You shudder in delight when she nibbles again. You hardly notice the second bite. Or the third. Soon, your ribs scrape against the broken teeth inside Max’s skull.
At your funeral, they will scatter your ashes across the ground near your mother’s grave. Before he leaves, your father will spy something shiny on the ground beneath his feet. He will bend over and pluck a small, moon-shaped piece of metal from the dirt. He will mistake it for an earring, still intact from the crematorium. There will be dried blood baked into the surface, and he won’t know which girl it belonged to.