“Your family are lovely people…” Arthur admitted, brushing the coarse and dark hair of the man before him, feeling nothing but absolute peace as he looked down at the man’s face, speaking to him like he would an old friend, “Your niece is a darling, and very mature for her age.”
Arthur frowned as he looked down at the man’s face, “Hmm… I know you want to look professional, I’m doing my best here, I’m not a hair stylist… But, at least we have the major parts done. And you seem comfortable. I wish I was this comfortable when I get my hair done.”
Arthur then placed his gloved hands on his hips, staring at the man, pondering. He wondered what else he could do to perfect his work, and make this man look presentable.
But then, Arthur smiled, “You seem like a really sweet man, and your family speaks only the best of you— I wish most people I knew were this good. Although, I know I have the advantage here, eh?” Arthur chuckled as he then walked around the metal table, his shoes tapping on the marble flooring. “My friend, Francis, who I told you about earlier—He’s constantly nagging me to go out more, apparently, since I’m going to be thirty in less than two years; I’m wasting away. Ironic, eh? I know! He can’t say shit, he's older than me and he’s prolific with women! It’s hypocritical of someone like him to give me shit for being single!”
Arthur laughed, pulling on the white blanket that was covering the man’s modesty and scarring, “Apologies, it was starting to slip—But! Do you get it!? Now that I think about it… He’s a player, I guess he wants to get me back in the game too, you know? Since he seems to love it so much,” Speaking like this seemed to grant Arthur some form of clarity.
Arthur then picked up the man’s hand, before running his fingers up the arm, noting the pigmentation and feel of the muscular and firm arm, “Although, the Frenchman does have a point; it has been a long time for me… But, with good reason, you know. You know I’d tell you the whole story if I could, but you know that I’m on a time limit, shame, innit? You’re such a good listener... I can go on forever with you.”
Arthur smiled down at the man, inspecting his work, but once again, Arthur found himself unsatisfied with the hairstyle, and so, Arthur returned to the man’s head. “I know you’ll mess up your hair when you get dressed, but I at least want to know what looks good on you…” Starting over again, Arthur picked up the comb from his roller-table, which stood next to the table, where Arthur’s new friend laid, “Do you think I could start dating again—do I really have to, guess is the question I should be asking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of men, and I know how to have a good time… Just… Is it worth it, is it worth the risk? Because… I saw your entire family out there… And… They just want to see you again…”
Arthur couldn’t even think of a way to finish what he was going to say, and just stared down at the man’s face as his own paled, “It shows every time, you know… The pain of loving someone so much… I wonder how much other people think about it… How quickly everything can crumble once that person is lost…”
But then, Arthur frowned when he noticed something in the man’s eyes, frowning, Arthur leaned over his face and inspected the man’s face, and suddenly, the anxiety disappeared as Arthurs attention to detail took over, “Hmmm… We may have to fix up your eyes a little too, let me readjust your caps…”
Murmuring to himself, Arthur placed his hands on the man’s face, pressing against the close lids of his eyes, to fix the uneven elevation of the cap which sat under the eyelid of the man’s right eye, making sure that it wasn’t obvious that caps were being used to replace the mans decayed eyeballs. “Does that feel any better?”
Arthur couldn’t help but laugh, asking a corpse a question was a fruitless endeavour, but at least it helped Arthur in not feeling so alone as he performed his craft of preparing people for their final viewing…
Arthur spent another half an hour with the corpse, reapplying makeup, readjusting the sutures applied to keep the jaw fastened shut, and making sure that the corpse looked as ‘alive’ and ‘fresh’ as he could manage. Arthur then called a colleague in to help dress the corpse in a suit. Then, Arthur fixed the man’s hair again, and once he was completely confident with his work, Arthur signed the paperwork to allow him to be moved into the casket he will be viewed in.
Arthur had finally begun to clean up, he sanitised the embalming table and cleaned all of his equipment with sanitisers, and had even begun to brew himself a cup of tea, for him to have while he waits for the next embalming patient to be rolled through the doors. But instead, the doors to Arthur’s own embalming room opened to reveal someone who was not Arthur’s next assignment.
“Arthur…” A meek voice murmured as Arthur removed his long surgical gloves, Arthur looked over to the door to see the funeral homes newest intern, Kiku, peering into the embalming studio, where Arthur had been working. “I need you to sign off on someone before they’re cremated.”
“Right,” Arthur murmured as he unbuttoned his lab coat, revealing the black suit he wore underneath. Arthur remembered his days as an intern in England, regulations were so strict back then: Arthur felt like he couldn’t even go to the bathroom without prior approval from the mortician or funeral director in charge. And so, Arthur had to qualms about helping Kiku feel as comfortable as he could. “Do you have the papers ready?”
“Yes, the widow filled them out when the body was handed to the crematorium,” Kiku explained, “I’ve done what I need to do, I just need you to sign it off.”
“Right… So, tell me, how are you finding the crematorium?” Arthur asked, chuckling like a senior looking down upon the young man, reminiscing about his own experience as an intern.
“It’s different…” Kiku admitted, “But the people there are nice. They’re letting me take care of more deliveries, but of course: I need permission before putting anything in the oven, and I can’t find the others anywhere. So, I’m sorry to disturb you.”
“No problem at all, I’m not busy,” Arthur replied, shoving his hands into the pockets of his suit as Kiku escorted him across the lush courtyard of the funeral home, before silently making it past the security doors into the crematorium.
But after a few minutes of silence, Kiku broke, “I looked over his papers and everything seems fine, he encountered no dangerous diseases and seemed to only suffer bradycardia later in life, and he died at 76 of lung cancer…”
“Did he have any implants or installations?” Arthur asked as Kiku then led him into the crematory room, where a line of crematory ovens stood, with one in use. But it was the one in the middle that Arthur was interested where a long wooden box was placed in front of, waiting to be slid in and the burning to begin. Kiku then handed Arthur a clipboard with yellow paper, before hesitantly removing the lid of the box, revealing the corpse inside.
Arthur frowned as he looked at the form the widow of the deceased filled out, bradycardia was what intrigued Arthur the most, seeing as how the widow ticked ‘No’ to any items being installed in her late husband’s body. Sceptical, Arthur took some green disposable gloves out of his pocket and approached the corpse, without a single second of hesitation, Arthur placed his hands on the corpses rubbery and discoloured chest and began to massage, trying to not take note of Kiku’s obvious flinching…
He’ll learn, Arthur told himself as he felt more around the chest of the old, fatty corpse for what he suspected. With each inch of pressure applied, he could feel the softened and putrefied matter underneath the skin sludge around. Arthur internally noted that this corpse had been left alone too long as it is, and his embalming fluid mixed with putrefied body matter had begun to leak into the box, the smell was almost unbearable, even for someone with as much experience as Arthur. He needed to be cremated, immediately. Arthur pushed hard, ignoring the smell and noises that came with his actions, because Arthur knew exactly what he was looking for, and why Kiku may have missed it.
And finally, he found it, and kept applying pressure to the area to keep the irregularity in place.
“Scalpel.” Arthur ordered, keeping his hand against the one spot on the man’s chest, where he felt an irregularity in the corpse. Within seconds, a scalpel was in Arthur’s free hand, and he cut a line across the chest of the deceased and then wriggled his hand inside of it, rooting around for a while before pulling out something that looked like a metal lollipop, leaving the man’s chest open, dark and bloodless.
“There we are…” Arthur chuckled, inspecting the obvious pacemaker, not even phased by the human flesh that transitioned to his glove.
“I’m so sorry, I can’t believe I missed something so obvious!” Kiku exclaimed, clearly embarrassed by his rooky mistake. “This is shameful of me, I’m so sorry!” He knew the consequences of a pacemaker being left in a corpse during cremation, the small device may have exploded and broke the machine, which is worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s ok, you’re learning still…” Arthur explained as he placed the pacemaker and his dirty glove into a bag, before throwing them into the bin. “I won’t tell anyone about this, ok?”
“I’m so sorry,” Kiku apologised as he nodded.
“Just, don’t be afraid to really have a feel around when checking the deceased, press hard and trust me, after another month: your squeamishness will be gone,” Arthur explained as he signed the form for Kiku, granting him the permission to perform the cremation.
It was just another normal day for Arthur, seeing love in it’s most painful form; when it is lost. He could see it every day, especially when he walked from the cemetery to the funeral home, seeing the people dressed in black in the distance, gathering like a depressed murder of crows among the hundreds of grey gravestones, to watch their loved one descend into the earth. As he watched the streams of tears come from the spouses, the parents, the children and the best friend of those departed, Arthur couldn’t help but wonder; how strong will that individual’s absence be?
Arthur was one of those individuals with the morbid and Godless mindset of ‘nothing happens in death, you go underground and the rest of the world forgets about you.’ That’s what’s going to happen to him, and everyone who’s buried in the small New York funeral home and cemetery.
Arthur then returned to the funeral home, and walked past the viewing room, where he saw his latest work, lying out for his family to view. Curious, Arthur entered the viewing room, where he saw the funeral director, Gilbert, standing at the back of the funeral service.
“The family gives their compliments to the mortician,” Gilbert admitted as Arthur stood next to him, standing with his back straight and his hands connected in the middle, hanging loosely.
It was their way of saying ‘compliments to the Chef’, and it never failed to make Arthur smile, “I’m glad…”
The German chuckled, but his eyes did not leave the grieving family, “How sad is this? His granddaughter has just announced her first pregnancy to the family right after he died. He’s just missed being a great-grandfather…”
“Mm…” Arthur agreed, “Shame…”
“Yeah…” Gilbert sighed, before taking his eyes away from the family long enough to look at Arthur, “Oh, Francis wants to know if you’re coming to his housewarming party.”
When he first discovered years ago that Francis and Gilbert knew each other, he was surprised, but then again: he could see them get along greatly. Both were eccentric, had taste and courage, especially when it came to their friends. There was also the fact that they both have degrees from the same medical school hanging in their offices, but for completely different services. But, this also meant for Arthur that Francis had a set of eyes on him when he was at work, and he knew how much the Frenchman loved to keep track of Arthur, like a concerned mother keeping tabs on a teenager.
“Yes,” Arthur replied, knowing that Francis would give him hell if he didn’t at least turn up to his new home and say hello, and after years of friendship, Arthur supposed that he owed Francis that courtesy, even though Arthur has already seen the Frenchman’s new house.
“Good, I’ll see you there with Elizabeta,” Gilbert replied, “Oh, how’s Kiku going, by the way?”
Ignoring the mistake that Kiku made earlier, Arthur answered, “Very well, he said that he finds the crematory ‘different’.”
“Don’t we all?” Gilbert chuckled, “God, wait until that boy sees what’s left of a pedestrian after a car accident…”
“Hooo…” Arthur grimaced, remembering the horrific experience of embalming someone for viewing after they died at the hands of a driver’s mistake. There was even one time where Gilbert had to help Arthur literally sew someone back together after forklift accident left them in pieces. “Although, he is very respectful of the bodies.”
“He’s Japanese, he oozes respect,” Gilbert pointed out, “He even asked if he can light an incense in the embalming room.”
“Not in my bloody embalming room,” Arthur grumbled.
“That’s what I told him,” Gilbert chuckled, “But I let him do it in my office. It’s pretty calming, actually. I’ve started even buying some fragrances for it.”
“Of course,” Arthur muttered, “Do you know when the next delivery is coming in?”
“For you? Your next one should be here in an hour,” Gilbert murmured, glancing at his watch, “A fifty-five-year-old female, cause of death: drowning.” Sadly, Arthur had been doing this job for so long: his first thought was; dammit, water-lungs.
“Guys, I know you’re all terrified, but don’t worry: YOUR HERO IS HERE!” Alfred cheered, putting on his most charming voice, listening to the exaggerated response, Alfred continued, “I don’t care about that, I can do anything! Trust me! I’m the Hero, all you guy’ve gotta do is back me up! It’ll be no problem.”
Alfred riled himself up, ready to go in for the big one, he took in a deep breath as he listened to the response, leaning forward, “Yeah, OK, so the problem ain’t so little, it’s nothing we’ve not handled before, right?! We can do anything as long as we believe in ourselves, it doesn’t matter who says we’re not good enough! I just happen to know how to use my powers, it’s not your fault that you haven’t caught up yet, lil bro.”
Alfred was ready to go, literally about to burst from the pent-up energy. He was so ready for this, he couldn’t wait for it to be finished, just so he doesn’t have to think so much about it, but then again, he knew that once he was doing with this, he was going to be doing it all over again.
But he knew that he could keep in character.
Alfred yelled, screamed, gasped and grunted; loud enough for the people in the next room to hear, Alfred threw fake punches.
“I GOTCHA NOW!!”
Alfred listened to the other people speak, waiting for his cue to chime in.
Alfred’s voice was exaggerated, on the verge of yelling, and boyish as he continued, “No one can stop a real hero! The darkness has nothin’ on me as long as we- I mean—SHIT! – URH, fuck me running!!”
“Alfred, if you want that blooper-reel, you’ll have to stop swearing.”
“Uuugh come on!” Alfred whined, pushing away his microphone, staring out at the unimpressed producers who were sitting next to his recording booth, “Can’t you just bleep it!?”
“That’d work once, but not every single time, we have a target audience here!”
Alfred rolled his eyes and huffed as he removed his headphones, getting his script to read through the last bit. The rest of the episode was easy for Alfred, it was only this line that the end that confused him a little bit! He was going to do it perfectly in the next take!
“I dunno, can I change it up a little bit?” Alfred asked.
“No, just try again.”
“Come oooon,” Alfred whined, “I can come up with something way better, I can improve this and fucking kill it.”
“Alfred, you’ve only stuffed up the line once, you’ll be fine,” The producer explained, “Just try the scene again. Ready, right from the top of the page, aaaaaand… Go.”
And so, Alfred read through the lines again, performing with the same amount of energy and gusto that he put into every single take, every rehearsal and every reading. Alfred felt like he was the hero, just like his character. He was born for this role, he could feel it, and so; he put his heart into it and gave it all he got.
Alfred saw himself as a man full of energy, energy that had to be constantly exerted, either through exercise or performance, he never wanted to slow down: he just needed the rest of the world to catch up with him.
The second take was better, but the director felt that Alfred could do better. And so, with a smirk, Alfred showed him and did exactly that. Finally, everyone was satisfied with the recording and Alfred was free to go.
Alfred was one of the lead voice actors for a popular cartoon for kids, a good gig for a 26-year-old. Alfred felt on top of his game as he left the studio and walked down the bright, colourful and animated halls of the network headquarters, which was littered with the wild and unusual faces of popular cartoon characters: one of which Alfred voiced.
The American always had a spring in his step whenever he finished recording an episode, he felt accomplished and important, because he knew that the show wouldn’t be complete without their hero.
When he finally rode the elevator down to the foyer of the building, Alfred saw more people than he expected. Dozens of middle-schoolers walking around, their laughter echoing through the large space. It always made Alfred happy to see kids running around, being carefree and having a good time – if he could go back, he would have taken advantage of that free time.
As he walked past the group of kids, who were obviously on a school-tour of some kind, one didn’t see where he was going and ran right into Alfred’s back, surprising him. Alfred turned back to see the kid looking up at him with a surprised and embarrassed face, his puffy cheeks had gone bright red as his friends started laughing at him. But, Alfred couldn’t help but notice the t-shirt that the kid was wearing… Alfred couldn’t help but smile, recognising the charming smile and cool pose of his own character.
Instantly honoured, Alfred smiled as his eyes lit up, looking down at the child with warm and kind eyes, and ready to make the kid’s day, he quickly thought of what to say. Smiling, Alfred winked at the kid and said in his character voice, knowing that if the kid was truly a fan, he’d recognise it. “Hey, watch out, Bud, you don’t know who you’re gonna run into.”
And instantly, the kid’s face tightened and his eyes widened, recognising the line as Alfred made his way to the glass exit doors, as the kid was called back to his class.
That was perhaps the highlight of Alfred’s day, and maybe even the highlight of the kid’s too.
The feeling was so amazing, he recounted the experience to his best friend, as they jogged on the treadmills at their local gym, where they usually met up to do sessions together.
“You should have seen the kids face too! He looked so shocked and happy!” Alfred explained, panting slightly, “He looked like me when I was little, but not as fat!”
“Come on, you weren’t that fat when you were little!” Matthew sighed, readjusting the bobby-pins in his hair, which he used to pin back his blond bangs. Alfred would have fought Matthew on this, but he was too preoccupied turning up the speed on the treadmill and breaking into a run, as though he could run away from the thoughts of returning to that size. Besides, Alfred could tell that Matthew was only saying that so Alfred didn’t feel so bad about his former weight, which was a pointless endeavour. “Hey, you’re gonna burn yourself out!”
“No, I won’t!” Alfred promised, trying his best to hide the strain in his voice, quickly wanting to change the topic, “How was work?!”
“Fine,” Matthew replied, “A six-year-old nearly bit my finger.”
“Haha!” Alfred laughed, always loving Matthew’s stories from the dental office which he worked at.
“The little shit had sharp ones too and was pushing and squirming in the chair too!” Matthew explained as Alfred kept on laughing though the burning of his leg muscles, “And his mom just softly said to him ‘don’t do that, sweetie’ – like that fucking helps! I usually love kids, but that boy pushed me.”
“Kids, man,” Alfred scoffed, thinking about the kids who love him and the character he voices. He is always so overjoyed to see kids with toys or merchandise of the show, it made him feel like he was making an impact, like he was doing something right. The feeling of self-riotousness was addictive, it was just the kind of thing that Alfred needed to get up in the morning, the satisfaction was worth anything.
“Oh, also, do you remember Francis, you met him at my 26th?” Matthew asked, breaking up a minute built on their silence and panting.
“Oh yeah! The French guy!” Alfred replied, “He was cool!”
“He’s having a housewarming party and asked if I could bring you,” Matthew explained, “So are you free on Saturday?”
“Yeah!” Alfred answered, loving to take the opportunity to go out and have some fun, maybe he can even find a potential date… Francis did mention the last time he saw him that he has a lot of gay friends… It’s been around a week since he’s broken up with his last boyfriend, granted: it didn’t last very long, but not many of Alfred’s relationships do and now Alfred was ready to move on.
“Cool, I’ll let him know,” Matthew replied, “He liked you, said you were funny.”
Finally, Alfred’s legs and lungs couldn’t take it anymore, and he jumped, positioning his legs on the edges of the treadmill, continuing to let the track run underneath him as he panted and drank some water.
“Urh, fucking hell…” Alfred wheezed, exhausted and drenched in sweat, his racing heartbeat pulsing through his chest and into his ears. He could have gone so much longer, he felt like he should have gone for much longer than that! That was pathetic in Alfred’s eyes.
“See, I knew you’d burn out!” Matthew pointed out, continuing to jog, huffing from the increase in strain.
“Well at least I can say that I have impressive stamina, I’ve lasted that long, I could probably go even longer if I tried” Alfred chuckled as he wiped his neck with his blue gym-towel, winking in a way that he knew that Matthew would get what he was implying to, and what he also meant by ‘stamina’.
“Dammit, Alfred…” Matthew grumbled, breaking into a run on the treadmill, as Alfred returned to a brisk walk, building up strength to return to jogging again, still wearing his signature grin, knowing that Matthew was internally sighing over the brazenness of Alfred and his sexual exploits. “You only just broke up with a guy last week, don’t you think you need some time before you jump back into it? ‘Embrace the single life,’ you know?”
“Really? We were only together for like, a month,” Alfred explained, “It doesn’t matter that much. He stopped being fun. Plus, he was kinda clingy, too much for me, and he was so boring.”
“God, you are cruel!” Matthew hissed.
“Not cruel, just picky…” Alfred grumbled, “I want someone to keep me interested.”
“Ok, you’re not cruel, but childish,” Matthew pointed out, smirking. Only Matthew could get away with calling Alfred out like that, he’s been there for Alfred for so many years, Matthew could say anything to Alfred and get away with it. He’s more valuable to Alfred than all of his former boyfriends combined. “Just be careful, Alfred…” Because he knows that Matthew truly cares about him, probably more than most of them ever could. He’s known Matthew since childhood, ever since Matthew moved with his family from Canada—trust in Matthew has been one of the only constants in his life.
“I know, I know,” Alfred replied, before breaking into a jog, “I just gotta find the right one, you know?”
But Matthew sighed, “I get it, I get it. But you’ve got to be careful in the search too.”
Alfred frowned, considering Matthew’s statement, and while he understood exactly what Matthew meant, he couldn’t help but think about how he can’t help but have a little fun while he does it… Who knows, they could be right around the corner, he just needs a man who is going to keep Alfred’s interests for long enough to make him invested. It can’t be that hard, right?