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When the Smoke Clears

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Waverly’s hand didn’t even shake as she ran the hard bristle brush over grey, sallow skin. The body was fresh, brought in just a few hours ago, and she just had to give it one last wash before she started dressing it.

“You’re one hell of a first solo customer, Uncle Curtis,” Waverly sighed. She cleaned the last bit of dirt and blood from the tips of the body’s fingers and took another last look. Satisfied with her work, she set the stiff brush back down on the table.

Aunt Gus had said not to ‘bother with the works’ (‘he weren’t no beauty in life, don’t need’a be in death neither’) but Waverly felt like this could be her last gift to Uncle Curtis. A final thank you for passing on the tricks of this trade.

In a way they had started out the Earp tricks of the trade. After Waverly’s Daddy died, with no Earp available, Curtis took over the family undertaker business that they had established in Purgatory over a hundred years ago now.

Peacemaker Mortuary sat just on the outskirts of town. The only thing you passed on the way to it was Mama Olive’s diner, which had its own aura of macabre around it if you listened to the teens around there. After a tough winter decades before that left many Puragtonians dead and starving, Mama Olive’s was the only restaurant that seemed to survive. After that, the rumors were relentless. But once you made it past the diner, you could see the old Mortuary rising along the horizon, the rundown Earp Homestead nestled back on the property on the edge of the lake but mostly out of the way of the main road.

Two stories of weathered wood, the porch wide to accommodate the open coffins of outlaws that used to be propped up on the outside for townspeople to come gawk and throw their pennies at.

A common practice that in a town built mostly by thieves and outlaws, didn’t quite start the Earps off with the best reputation.

Especially since Great Great Great Grandaddy Wyatt Earp was responsible for putting half of them in the ground to begin with.

It seemed like a moral grey area to be both the town Sheriff and the undertaker, a conflict of interest that didn’t sneak past the town’s people at the time, which just made the town’s resentment worse.

A deep deep vein of distrust that they still hadn’t quite been able to get past.

Waverly spent her teen years researching the family name and business, gathering any information on the Earps that she could. With Daddy and Willa dead and Mama and Wynonna gone, it was the only bit of family Waverly really had to cling to. She did all the research and spent her free time in the Mortuary with Curtis learning. After high school she enrolled in online classes to get certified and traveled into the Big City for the hands-on classes she was required to take. And now, finally, she was fully certified— just in time.

Now her dead Uncle sat in front of her on the table.

Waverly sat up and rolled her shoulders, wheeling her chair to the metal table behind her. She looked over at where Curtis’ face was covered with a sheet, even concealed under the thin white drape, Waverly could tell there was something off about the shape under it.

She’d been working at the mortuary with Curtis for a couple of years now, but nothing could prepare her for this.

Working at a funeral home in a small town, you were bound to be dressing the bodies of people you knew, but there was never anything that could compare with family. Luckily Waverly could compartmentalize the shit out of this just like she had been doing her whole life. She cleared her throat and placed her hands over her knees as she looked back at the tools she’d laid out.

It really was just a body. Uncle Curtis was-

Well, Uncle Curtis was gone. Tragic accident. Apparently.

She glanced at the clock. It was getting late and she could just finish Curtis up tomorrow in time for the cremation the next day.

Rolling the body back into the drawer, Waverly walked over to the hazard disposal bin and began her ritual disrobing. First she would peel off her two layers of latex gloves and drop them into the bin, then take off the plastic shield over her face and the standard facemask over her mouth. Then she reached behind her and untied her paper gown, then slipped off her booties before letting out a long breath. Then she went to the sink and washed the latex smell off of her hands. Turning off the lights, she ascended the stairs from the basement. She emerged from the narrow stairwell to the first floor, depositing her behind the main desk.

With a stretch of her arms over her head, Waverly looked up at the thick oak plaque with “Peacemaker Mortuary” carved deep into it. The sign was the original one her great great grandaddy had hung outside of this very same building back in the 1800s.

Waverly checked her phone to see if Wynonna had texted her back since she asked if she’d be coming back for Curtis’ funeral. She supposed her silence would be the only answer she needed. A twinge of sadness pulled at her chest, but she chastised herself for even having any hope. Wynonna hadn’t been back for years, what would make her come back now?

She supposed she couldn’t blame Wynonna. Purgatory wasn’t exactly sunshine and roses, especially not when everyone knew you handled dead bodies all day. People always stared at her hands, though Waverly wasn’t sure what they were expecting. Some leftover blood under her nails? An eyeball gruesomely hanging from her wrist, caught on her sweater like a dust bunny?

Waverly checked the messages quickly and decided to lock up. Tonight she would sit by the fire with some tea and finish her book. Tomorrow she would reconstruct her Uncle’s face.

***

Waverly stared at the skull sitting on the top of her Uncle’s desk.

She leaned back in the old office chair, worn vinyl squeaking and its springs creaking as she did. Reaching down, she grabbed the handle of the bottom drawer and kicked the side of the desk as she pulled so that the rickety drawer popped open. She reached blindly into the drawer and pulled out a half empty whiskey bottle. A glass came out of the drawer next and she poured herself a shot.

The skull stared back at her and Waverly leaned forward with her elbows planted on the desk like she was staring it down.

Unblinking eye sockets just stared back at her and she looked down at the worn will that had sat in the mortuary safe since before she was born. There was one amendment to it where the ink was less faded, Uncle Curtis’ writing bright and happy.

Upon my death, Waverly Earp will become the Keeper of the Bones.

Shaking her head, Waverly looked back at the skull.

“Well, guess it’s just you and me now,” she said as she picked up her whiskey glass and held it out in a toast towards the skull. “Til death do us part.”

The whiskey burned as she tipped it back into her throat, the sting of the tears behind her eyes fading in comparison.

***

The harsh sound of the grater moving across the plaster was soothing in a way. Methodic, reliable. Waverly felt a bead of sweat dripping on the inside of her mask, tickling her, but wouldn’t bother with it while she was shaving the plaster she was using to reshape the part of her Uncle’s skull that had been missing when he came to the mortuary.

“You’re coming along nicely, Uncle Curtis,” Waverly said as she pulled back the grater to look down at her handiwork. The plaster was smooth and successfully covered the gaping hole above his cheekbone.

According to the report, that’s where the machine had thrown a metal bar at high speed and pierced his skull, killing him almost instantly.

For Waverly, it was just a problem to be fixed.

She hummed to herself as she pushed her rolling chair back towards the instrument table, picking up her tin of wax. She held it up like she was showing it to him as she rolled back towards Curtis.

“This is the stuff you like?” Waverly asked, as she screwed off the lid. “Best facial reconstruction wax in the biz, right?”

She scooped a big glob out with her double gloved fingers and stared at Curtis’ still intact cheek as she tried to shape the wax like the cheekbone. She was lost in it when she heard the bell ring, indicating someone was at the front desk.

“Oh shoot-”

The bell buzzed again and without thinking she dropped the partially shaped wax onto Curtis’ newly reconstructed skull and sprinted towards the stairs. She always got caught up in the work and missed deliveries, something she told Curtis she would be better about that so she didn't have to awkwardly tell families that their deceased ones’ flower deliveries weren’t in time for the service.

“Coming coming,” Waverly huffed as she ran up the stairs from the basement, her paper gown swishing loudly and rubber gloves held aloft in an attempt not to drip any gross stuff on the floor or her clothes. Facial reconstruction wax clung to her gloves and she hadn’t thought to take them off before running up the stairs when she heard the ding of the front desk bell, but now she regretted it.

“Hi, hello,” she smiled then remembered she still had on her face mask and face shield as she gave herself a moment to collect herself. “Can I help you?”

A crop of red hair popped up first behind the arrangement, Waverly’s eyes drifting down to perfect dark eyebrows and deep brown eyes. The pale skin of her arms were covered in tattoos, what looked like a sleeve of flowers and foliage on one arm that disappeared past a rolled up t-shirt sleeve. The other arm was covered in what looked like a far less organized yet still beautiful array of symbols like a map. She cleared her throat when she realized she was staring.

“Hey, I have a delivery for the Gibson family?” the delivery woman said with a gentle smile. Waverly’s eyes lingered on deep dimples for a moment too long.

“Oh, great,” Waverly said, heart a little sad as she looked at the beautiful arrangement.

The delivery woman waved a clipboard in front of her face and eyed Waverly’s hands. “I’m guessing you can’t sign for them.”

Waverly gave her an awkward smile. “I’m sorry, Miss-”

“Oh, uh, not a ‘Miss’,” the delivery person said as their dimples faded just the slightest. “Just call me Nicole.”

“I’m so-” Waverly snapped her mouth shut, shame seeping through her veins and making her stomach drop. She forced a smile past the embarrassment. “Nicole. Nice to meet you, I’m Waverly. I’d shake your hand but-” she looked at her rubber gloves, blood and some other unidentified liquid now drying to them. “And uh, you can call me ‘Miss’. Not that-. But just Waverly is fine.”

Nicole let out a low chuckle that released some of the tension in Waverly’s shoulders. They looked her up and down and she blushed for an entirely different reason.

In her full PPE she probably looked like some kind of horror movie monster. She really needed to hire a reception person.

“Yeah, well, I’m sure you’re not just anything but, nice to meet you, Waverly,” Nicole said. They scribbled on the signature line of the clipboard and clicked their pen with a flare. “See you around.”

Nicole tipped an imaginary hat at Waverly before turning around and walking back out of the office. Waverly stood staring at the door they’d just walked out of when the smell of formaldehyde wafted up her nose. She was used to it, but it still made her wrinkle her nose and shiver a bit. With one last look towards the door, she turned around and headed back down the stairs, nearly slipping in her paper booties as she went.

***

“I really stuck my foot in it,” Waverly muttered, taking the long, viciously curved needle and pushing it through Curtis’ bottom gums. Practiced hands pushed the needle through the roof of his mouth and through his septum, bringing it back down to sew his mouth shut.

“Gus always did say she wished she had a way of shutting you up,” she chuckled.

Waverly stepped back to take a look at her handiwork. In front of her was her Uncle. There were bits of hard wax filling in the gnarled holes of his face, tissue paper lovingly brushed over other blemishes as a substitute for missing skin and heavily made up, but she’d seen worse. The cotton she used to make his cheeks look fuller also did the trick, making him seem more robust like she remembered him.

“You look great,” she whispered to him before changing the subject again. “Anyways. I really messed up earlier with this person who came in to deliver flowers. For you, by the way, I didn’t see who they were from. But anyways, like an idiot I just assumed they were a woman and misgendered them. I always thought I was better than that.”

Waverly blew her bangs from her face and set her hands on her hips as she took another look at Curtis. “It’s time to put you away, though. Until tomorrow.” Waverly began to wheel him towards the freezer as she kept talking, her mind on the redheaded stranger. “They were very attractive...their name was Nicole. Maybe I’ll take them a coffee or something to apologize.”

She rolled Curtis into the fridge and whispered a ‘goodnight’ as she closed the door. As she turned back towards the deserted funeral home basement, it suddenly felt more lonely. She took her gloves off, throwing them in the proper container as she started to clean up for the night. She turned on some music to play while she worked, the tinny sound from the speakers bouncing off of the tile walls and metal surfaces.

When she finally made her way upstairs, she went to the flowers that were still on the counter. She picked up the heavy vase and took a deep whiff of the flowers with a hum. Setting them in the walkin fridge with some other arrangements that had arrived, Waverly finally took a look at the card. It was signed from a name Waverly didn’t recognize, probably some distant relative, but she was more interested in the stamp on the back of the card anyways.

“Cattails,” Waverly chuckled. “Interesting.”

She flicked the corner of the card for a moment before slipping it into her pocket. Uncle Curtis would have told her to take it, after all. To make friends with the very attractive person who dropped off the flowers today. And she planned on doing just that.

***

The Chinese leftovers slid into her bowl and Waverly sighed as she walked back to her tiny table that folded down from the wall. The living in one bedroom thing had been cute and cheap for a while but it was starting to outgrow its charm. Rather Waverly was outgrowing it.

The dull thudding sound of the jukebox downstairs filtered through her floor and she sighed.

Yeah. Definitely time to move.

She opened up her phone and went straight to her one sided message thread with Wynonna.

Hey, did you get my call about Uncle Curtis?

Are you coming back for the funeral?

Call me.

She checked her email to make sure Wynonna hadn’t decided to answer the evite she had sent to every single one of Wynonna’s known email addresses. That twinge of sadness in her heart never went away, did it? Wynonna had a hard relationship with Purgatory, but Waverly had hoped their battered relationship would be enough to get her back into town for Curtis’ funeral.

Perhaps she should have known better.

Waverly watched the time tick over to midnight and sent Wynonna another text:

Happy Birthday! XX

Not expecting an answer, Waverly turned her phone over and continued to eat her dinner.

***

“Alright, Uncle Curtis, let’s just get this done nice and easy, huh?” she said as she used the step ladder so she could stand as much over the table as possible for better leverage. She had never dressed a body on her own before. At least not a body that was easily three times her size.

Stiff remains that were just hundreds of pounds of dead weight weren’t exactly the easiest to maneuver as one could imagine.

Placing one knee on the hard metal dressing table, she leaned down and managed to slip his feet into the leg holes. The pants were always the most challenging, it was so easy to tip a body off balance. She rocked Curtis’ body a little bit, sweat popping up along the back of her neck as she worked the pants over his legs. When she finally got them up around his waist and she took a labored breath.

Waverly looked at Curtis’ face, the skin off color and plaster still sticking out like a sore thumb over his eye socket. Other than that he just looked like he was sleeping. Makeup could cover that up next.

“You’re almost ready,” she muttered to him as she did up his pants and slipped his shirt over his arms. She had cut it up the back to make it easier to put on him and tightened it up afterwards. Just one of his better work shirts, Gus didn’t seem interested in getting him anything nicer. To be honest, it fit him. She wasn’t sure she’d seen him in anything else.

Once he looked good in his clothes, she rolled her chair over to his face and she started mixing the base.

“Alright, Curtis,” Waverly said, smiling softly behind her mask. “We’re going to make you beautiful. I know Gus is only going to see you for a few moments but we want you looking your best.”

The sound of the makeup spatula scraping over her Uncle’s dry skin seemed to echo around the quiet room and Waverly wished she had turned on some music or a podcast or something before she’d gotten started. Wasn’t worth taking off her gloves for.

“I guess this is it,” Waverly said as she switched to rouge for his cheeks. “For what it’s worth, I think you look great. I invited Wynonna to the funeral by the way. She hasn’t replied yet but, I think she will.”

Wynonna had always been a weird sticking point between Waverly and her caregivers. She had learned better than to breach the subject of Wynonna with Gus, but with Curtis sometimes he would slip her a letter or postcard from Wynonna or indulge her by letting her ask questions. But only when Gus wasn’t around of course.

“You had a good heart,” Waverly wasn’t sure if she was talking to Curtis to herself. “You didn’t quite know how to stand up for it, I suppose.”

Waverly felt something tickle the back of her neck and she rolled her shoulders trying to get rid of the itch. She opened up a drawer and looked at the different lipsticks she had from previous clients.

“Alright, which of these do we think looks most like your lip color,” Waverly said as she picked up a random tube. “Blushing Rose...little too pink. Wait, here we are. Sassy Sangria.”

Waverly scraped off the littlest bit of the lipstick and mixed it with some vaseline. She spread it carefully over Curtis’ pale lips with a brush and smiled.

“There we go, already looking more yourself.”

***

“I always hated this part,” Gus said as she fussed with the pearl button on the sleeve of her best rodeo shirt. Waverly’s fingers tightened around the handle of the door and she nodded.

“I know, Aunt Gus,” she said softly.

“Always felt dirty.”

Waverly flinched and pulled at the edge of her black skirt that suddenly felt too short. She purposely went with the slightly longer one because she didn’t want to deal with Gus’ sly remarks or looks. Not worth dealing with today. Gus crossed her arms over her chest and nodded.

“Alright.”

“If you want, you don’t have to see him,” Waverly said as she slowly began to open the door. “I can do his cremation myself.”

“No, no, I should be there,” Gus grumbled, slipping past Waverly as soon as she was able and into their cremation room. It wasn’t much, not like she’d seen in magazines where the client was basically escorted to a pristine white room with a shiny button where with one simple press, they could burn their loved one’s remains.

At Peacemaker, they had a small concrete room with a shoddy blue painted wall built in front of the main part of the machine, so that the loved ones wouldn’t have to see it.

Inside the room, the gentle roar of the cremation machine overpowered the soft, instrumental music that Waverly was playing through a small speaker in the corner. There were air fresheners plugged into every available outlet and bouquets of flowers placed all around the room but despite these things, the underlying smell of burning still lingered under everything.

Waverly led Gus to where Curtis’ cardboard coffin sat on the machine that slid the box into the crematory. Gus walked up to the box and began to tip the lid open but Waverly rushed to her side, pushing the lid back down with a gentle smile.

“I’m supposed to ask if you’d like to see Uncle Curtis,” Waverly said. “He hasn’t been embalmed, just fixed up a little.”

Gus nodded, crossing her arms again. Waverly gently lifted off the lid to reveal her Uncle’s remains tucked inside. His hair was perfectly brushed, face brightened up to look alive and hands folded neatly at his stomach. Only Waverly knew she’d had to to tie the hands together to keep them from floating awkwardly now that rigor mortis was taking place.

“He looks great, Waverly,” Gus said, voice choked with tears as she gazed at her late husband. “Jus’ like he did before-”

She sniffled and quickly composed herself, gesturing for Waverly to put the lid back on. She complied and Gus put her hand over her mouth, still staring at the cardboard box. Waverly could feel waves of emotion coming off of her, tension and sadness. Waverly subconsciously braced herself, jaw tensing as she remembered all the times from her childhood where she felt paralyzed with the need to comfort her.

“Aunt Gus,” Waverly said softly, cautiously putting her hand on Gus’ shoulder. “Can I get you a tea or-?”

“‘M fine,” Gus said. She put her hand on top of the lid, patting it affectionately with a nod. “Yer Uncle was a good man.”

“I know, Gus,” Waverly said, putting her arm around Gus’ shoulders. She sniffled and gave the box one last pat on the top.

“A’ight. I’m going to go get ready for the memorial,” Gus said as she squeezed the arm Waverly had around her shoulders. “You did a good job, sweetheart.”

“Well, Uncle Curtis taught me everything I know,” Waverly said proudly.

Gus sighed. “I wish he hadn’a, coulda let you get a job better suited for a woman, but I’m glad the business can stay around.”

Waverly bit the edge of her tongue and reminded herself now wasn’t the time to bring up tired arguments. Her eyes darted to Curtis’ remains like he could look back at her and give her the affectionate eye roll he always did when Gus said something like that. She swore she could feel his meaty hand on her shoulder, letting her know it was alright. She didn’t mean it like that.

Whatever that meant.

Gus patted Waverly’s cheek affectionately and kissed the other one, giving her a smile. “I’ll see you at the memorial. Pick up some flowers on yer way?”

Waverly nodded and Gus briskly left the room, the door clicking softly closed behind her, leaving her alone with the quiet roar of the cremation machine. She looked back at the box with Curtis’ remains and she slowly walked around to where she had an old MP3 player plugged up to the speaker.

“Don’t worry, I know what you would really want,” Waverly said as she scrolled through the songs. She smiled as she clicked play and the recognizable guitar riff of ‘Highway to Hell’ started to play. Looking back at the box of Curtis’ remains, Waverly smiled and swayed her hips a little as she walked back over to him.

Laughing as she got to his box, she tipped up the edge of the lid to look down at his face again.

“I’m going to miss you, Uncle Curtis,” Waverly said with a sad smile. “You taught me everything and...I owe you a lot. I hope you like your send off.” She reached in and put her hand over Curtis’ cold, stiff one, squeezing lightly. “I love you.”

With one last look, she shut the cardboard lid and looked over at the control panel of the cremation machine. She took a deep breath and pushed the red button. A few moments later, the silver door of the machine opened up slowly like the mouth of a mighty beast. The heat of the flames hit Waverly in the face and the mechanical runway began slowly moving the cardboard box containing her Uncle’s remains into the machine.

As soon as the box hit the hot inside of the machine, flames burst from its bottom, licking up around the box as all the cardboard caught fire just as the box finished its journey into the belly of the machine. The metal door began to slowly close as the cardboard burned away, revealing Curtis’ remains just before the door closed forever.

Waverly watched on, throat thick but tears still refusing to fall as the song played on.

I’m on the Highway to Hell-

***

Waverly looked down at the card again before letting fall back into the cup holder besides her. After Curtis’ remains had been cremated, Waverly took his cremains to Gus before remembering that she’d asked for flowers.

Which was just fine because Waverly had some time to kill before the funeral, and the business card that had been burning a hole through her pocket.

She ducked down as she looked out her window at the shop sign of the flower shop as she drove by. She got to the end of the street and stopped for a moment before flipping a u-turn and pulling into a parking spot in front of it.

She needed flowers, after all. The perfect excuse to casually run into Nicole.

At least as casual as getting flowers for your Uncle’s memorial was.

The building was a thin two story building made of white painted wood with its door offset to the side and a large black bordered window with “Cattails” painted in delicate lettering on it. Waverly took a deep breath before walking in. Just inside the door was a narrow wooden staircase with a neon arrow with ‘Tattoos’ in glowing letters pointed up the stairs. Waverly hummed, eyeing some of the old tattoo style art up the walls. Waverly turned right and into the flower shop and took a deep cleansing breath of fresh cut flowers.

It smelled soft and light and bright like the light streaming through the window and illuminating the store. The beam landed perfectly on the long, rough wood table in the middle of the store that was stuffed with an eclectic display of potted plants. All the plants were in reclaimed tins, some coffee cans and old oil cans among the display, and long metal pails with fresh cut flowers on the floor around the table.

On a thin table in front of the window were cacti and succulents, all basking in the bright sun of the day as it filtered through the window.

Waverly found herself drawn to the table and shelves on the far left wall where the plants and arrangements were in what looked like hand painted pots. They were all unique and bold with bright colors and designs. Waverly reached out to touch the edge of one that had a bright red and yellow phoenix painted intricately along it. The signature at the bottom read ‘N. Haught’.

“Can I help you?”

Waverly jumped, her shoulder bumping into the shelf and knocking the pot a little bit towards the edge of the shelf. She grabbed the pot with both hands, heart rate spiking at the near fall. Her eyes darted over to where the voice came from to see a young girl with long dark hair and dark eyes staring at her.

Certainly not the tall redhead she was expecting.

“Oh, uh,” Waverly fixed the pot and chuckled awkwardly. “Sorry. T-this is beautiful.”

“All those are painted by our tattoo artists upstairs,” the girl said as she looked Waverly over. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

“Yes. They’re about five ten, red hair, gorgeous eyes.”

“Flowers,” Waverly blurted as she looked around at all the arrangements around her. “Uh- for a funeral.”

The girl’s face sobered immediately and she nodded, clasping her hands in front of her as she walked around the counter towards Waverly. She noticed she had on an emerald green apron with white embroidered cattails in the middle of it and the name ‘Rachel’ over the left breast and a little handmade ‘she/her’ pin under that..

“Sorry for your loss,” she said. “Can I suggest some bouquets or do you have something in mind?”

Waverly smiled at the girl, trying to reassure her that she didn’t need to be treated with the delicacy of a baby bird, but managed to make it worse.

“It’s my Uncle. Really the...only real father figure I had...whose body I’ve been preparing for three days,” she chuckled awkwardly, voice falling soft at the end as she blushed and looked at the pot she’d almost knocked off the shelf. She cleared her throat and smiled at Rachel again. “Actually, this is nice.”

Rachel looked from the pot that had red and orange roses in it and a giant phoenix on the side back to Waverly.

“This will be nice. He’s being cremated,” she said matter of fact. Waverly wished she’d stop rambling, she really did. But here she came just trying to flirt with the cute person who delivered to her the other day and now she was spilling her family tragedy to a kid as a cover up. “He always said it would be his last chance to have a smoking hot bod, so.”

Waverly felt a bubble of a laugh burp its way out of her mouth and she tried to cover her mouth, but her giggle filled the sound of the empty room anyways. Rachel’s eyebrows shot into her hairline at the sudden noise but Waverly couldn’t stop. Nervous, sad laughter filtered it’s way from her mouth and she waved her hand in front of her face.

“I’m sorry. Mortician humor.”

“You’re a mortician?” Rachel said, eyes getting wide. “Rad.”

“Really?” Waverly frowned. “That’s not the sort of reaction I’m used to.”

Rachel shrugged, hands on her hips. “I think it’s cool. Are you really getting those flowers for your dead Uncle?”

Waverly found herself laughing again and looked back at the pot again. “Yeah, I think I will. He’d like them.”

“Okay,” Rachel took the pot off the shelf and carried it over to the counter to ring it up. Waverly slowly wandered towards the counters, eyes still darting around and taking the place in. Behind the counter Waverly saw framed photos of beautiful tattoos and flash sheets of flowers. One picture showed a tattoo in the process of being drawn on a customer, a crop of red hair appearing in just the corner of the frame, hunched over the customer.

“You said there’s a tattoo shop upstairs?” Waverly asked as she pulled out her wallet.

“Oh, yeah,” Rachel pulled out a thick black business card with a gold border and written in gold filigree it said ‘Cattail Ink’. “You can get a discount for buying the flowers.”

“Oh, discount,” Waverly said as she let the edge of the card dig into the pads of her fingers. She remembered the impressive trail of ink up Nicole’s arms and thought it would be rude to not at least...look. She handed Rachel her card, eyes still on the business card before she finally slipped it into the pocket of her pants.

“Thanks-” Rachel looked at the credit card before handing it back, “-Waverly Earp.”

“Thank you, Rachel,” Waverly said as she took the pot in her arms. She walked over to the stairs, looking up at them and seeing a bright red neon sign at the top that read ‘Cattails Tattoos’.

Licking her lips, she started to climb the steps, the old wood creaking and doing nothing to hide her ascent into the room. As she reached the top, she could hear the buzzing of tattoo machines and rock music playing under it all. Inside the tattoo shop, the smell of plants was replaced by a musky, cologne scent. There was a long deep wood counter at the front in the little waiting area that had plush chairs and low tables with worn tattoo magazines and thick binders, some open and showing examples of different tattoos.

Shelves in the waiting area held more of the hand painted pots like Waverly had seen downstairs, flower arrangements placed in them and bringing more life to the place.

Behind the counter the room opened up and there were four tattoo stations set up along the back wall, each with their own metal tool drawers with a big mirror above it.

On the wall behind the counter hanging on the exposed brick wall was a big neon hanging sign of actual cattails. Waverly stared at the bright tubes for a moment before her eyes finally landed on the last tattoo bed in the far left corner where a familiar figure was bent over the calf of a man who was lying on his stomach.

Waverly’s stomach flipped and she set the pot on the counter just as Nicole sat up, tattoo gun poised in their hand as they took a look at their work.

“Alright, Freddie,” Nicole said as they set the gun aside and reached for their cleaning supplies. The man on their table pushed himself up on his elbows and looked back at his calf.

“Oh wow,” he said. He took a quick picture after Nicole finished cleaning it and then put a bandage over it.

Nicole finally looked up towards the counter.

“Sorry! I’ll be with you in a second,” Nicole said with a wide dimpled smile. They said goodbye to Freddie and Waverly got a glimpse of his tattoo under the clear film, something that looked like flowers.

Waverly smiled back when a thought hit her: What the hell am I doing here?

What was her plan? She came up here in some weird attempt to find Nicole and - surprise - she did. But this was a tattoo shop, what does one just casually go into a tattoo shop for? Was she going to get a tattoo? Oh god, was she about to get a tattoo?

Her palms began to sweat and she looked at the pot between her hands, the smell of roses making her nose itch. Her finger was scratching at her nose just as Nicole turned around and she quickly brought her hand down, hitting her pinky on the edge of the counter and making her hiss in pain.

“Oh shit, are you okay?” Nicole said, leaning a little over the counter to try and see.

Waverly’s entire face felt hot and she was sure there was no way to hide the blush on her cheeks. And how did Nicole make jeans, a black t-shirt and red flannel look so good? She shook out her hand and shook her head.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Waverly said with a forced chuckle. She thrust her hand out to Nicole. “You came by my Uncle’s- well, you came by the mortuary the other day, you probably don’t recognize me-”

“Waverly, right?” Nicole said, taking her hand.

Waverly couldn’t help but notice how strong Nicole’s grip was. Sure. Firm. And how their hands were so soft and- oh no how long had she been shaking their hand? Waverly quickly let go, unable to look away from Nicole’s face.

“Yeah, Waverly. Nice to see you again,” Waverly said. “I just thought you wouldn’t recognize me since I was bundled up like a science fiction movie.”

“Nah,” Nicole smiled as they leaned forward, elbows on the wooden counter, and Waverly got a whiff of whatever perfume they were wearing. “I would recognize your eyes anywhere.”

The blush that had finally faded returned to Waverly’s cheeks with a vengeance and she chuckled awkwardly, stomach twisting and turning with excitement. She licked her lips and looked back down at the plant but one of the roses poked her cheek.

“Ow.”

Her tongue had to be an actual knot in her mouth, there was no other reason for her to be crashing so hard right now. Her brain struggled to catch up with what was happening. Was Nicole flirting? Because Waverly was pretty sure she had offended them last time. Unless she's just being ridiculous.

Nicole gestured to the pot and thankfully changed the subject, “I see you like my work. Thanks for buying that.”

“Oh, this is yours?” Waverly said, finger tracing over the N. Haught signature on the bottom as she let out a soft sigh of relief and tried to act normal. Not like some hormonal teenager.

“Yeah,” Nicole shrugged and touched the edge of one of the roses. “So what can I help you with?”

“Oh, right-”

“Did you want a tattoo?” Nicole asked, pulling one of the thick binders over so it was on the counter between them. They flipped it open, the first page pictures of different tattoos on people’s arms, two flower bouquets and one some kind of geometric design. Waverly couldn’t help but run her fingers over one that was a bundle of wildflowers on someone’s thigh.

“That’s beautiful.”

“Thanks,” Nicole said, a hint of bashfulness in their voice. “I do more than flowers though. What are you looking for? If one of my other artists would suit you better I can get you on their schedules too.”

Waverly felt the panic rising again. She’d considered tattoos before, sure, they seemed cool and just a fun expression maybe. Gus’ hatred of tattoos, women with tattoos in general was not a mystery so Waverly had never thought past a musing. She looked down at the bare skin of her arm and back at what she could see of Nicole’s mostly covered arms. They were even more intriguing up close. Waverly wanted to run her fingers along the ink so she looked down at the book instead, flipping to the next page.

One picture had someone’s arm that was a half sleeve of what looked like succulents and next to it was a full skeleton dancing in a macabre way on someone’s back.

Waverly chuckled and touched the skeleton tattoo. “This reminds me of my Uncle,” she said softly. “He has a skull that he keeps at his desk. Calls himself the ‘Keeper of the Bones’.”

She did a bit of a silly voice as she said it, chuckling and wishing she would just stop talking.

“That’s pretty badass,” Nicole chuckled. “He seems like a cool guy.”

“He is- was,” Waverly’s eyes cut back to the skeleton and pointed at just the skull. “What about something like this and-” she looked back at the succulents and pointed at them. “-this?”

“Where are you thinking?” Nicole said.

She held out her bare arms and turned them over. “Um, I’m not sure. Wrist?”

Nicole cradled Waverly’s wrist with one hand while the other traced a circle on the sensitive skin on the inside of her wrist. Waverly bit the inside of her cheek to suppress the shiver running up her spine, and shrugged.

“What do you think?” she asked a little breathlessly.

Nicole looked up at her, still holding her wrist. “Do you have any other tattoos?” Waverly shook her head and Nicole tilted their head. “Admittedly, it’s pretty painful there. But if you think you can handle it, I think it’s a great place for it.”

Waverly looked at the bare skin of her wrist, in the back of her mind wondering how she went from trying to figure out how to get out of this to actually considering a tattoo. But to her surprise, she did feel like she wanted it. There was the normal bit of apprehension when she made a big decision, but the idea actually excited her a little bit.

Though there was something to be said about Nicole being very attractive and smelling really nice and cradling her hand so gently-

“I have no other tattoos,” Waverly admitted as she looked up at Nicole. Their brown eyes caught her and she felt like she was being pulled, belly first, into their eyes. Her mouth moved without her even realizing it. “Alright. I’m in.”

Nicole blinked. “Yeah?”

Waverly nodded and Nicole’s smile widened. “Awesome. Here, just fill this stuff out for me.”

They reached down and pulled out a clipboard and pen. Waverly filled it out while they excused themself to go get their station ready. Waverly’s eyes glanced up partway through her paperwork and saw Nicole sketching on a digital pad, brow furrowed in concentration as they did. A piece of hair fell into Nicole’s eyes and Waverly imagined pushing it up and back behind their ear.

Nicole looked over just in time to catch Waverly staring again. They gestured with a nod of their head for Waverly to go to their station so Waverly’s feet willingly obeyed, leaving the pot on the counter as she did.

Waverly sat down on what looked like a black leather doctor chair and Nicole turned the pad around for Waverly to see. In the middle was a sketched skull with aloe coming out of the top like a vase. Waverly’s lips tugged up into a smile when she looked at it.

“I love it,” she said, surprising herself with her own genuineness.

“Well, that’s good because this is going to be on your body forever,” Nicole said with a teasing smile. “Are you sure about this?”

“Are you trying to talk me out of it?” Waverly quipped, relaxing a little bit when Nicole chuckled.

“Never, I just want to make sure that you’re sure,” Nicole winked at her and Waverly felt herself blush again. “I always ask a lady at least twice.”

Waverly felt her palms start to sweat. “Just the ladies?”

“Maybe just the pretty ones,” Nicole smiled as they pushed their chair back and it rolled away from Waverly. “Just let me print this out. I’ll be right back.”

Waverly watched as they disappeared into a back room and let out a long sigh. She wiped her sweaty palms off on her skirt. They called her pretty. Waverly suddenly felt very very hot.

Nicole was back out before Waverly could fully collect herself, three sizes of the design printed out. Their sleeves were rolled up to their elbows and putting their own tattoos on display which turned out to be very distracting. Waverly ended up going with the midsize one and then the rest of the prep felt like it went by far far too quickly. Nicole squirted some kind of liquid on a paper towel and rubbed it on her skin and placed the stencil and - when did they put those rubber gloves on? And why was it...a little bit sexy.

“You like how that looks?” Nicole asked as they got some ink out. Waverly looked at the outline on her wrist in a dark blue ink, a little bigger than a silver dollar. The skeleton stared back at her with it’s macabre grin stretched across its bony features.

“It’s perfect,” Waverly said as Nicole rolled a black leather armrest wrapped in cellophane under her forearm.

The sound of Nicole turning on the tattooing machine made Waverly jump. Nicole gave her a reassuring smile, the running tattoo machine buzzing in her ears.

“Ready?”

Waverly’s other hand curled into a fist on her thigh. She nodded.

“I need verbal, sweetheart,” Nicole said, voice low and warm and putting Waverly’s muscles at ease. The term of endearment would have made Waverly throw a harsh look at whoever addressed her that way under normal circumstances, but the soothing honey of Nicole’s voice just made a thrill run up her spine.

“Yes,” Waverly breathed. Nicole looked at her for a moment and when their eyes caught it might as well have lasted a lifetime. Waverly’s breath slowly left her lungs and they stubbornly refused to inflate. Even the buzz of the tattoo machine melted away and she just smelled warm vanilla and heard the sound of Nicole’s breathing. Or maybe it was her own.

“Okay,” Nicole said, giving Waverly a wink. “Here we go.”

Nicole looked back down at Waverly’s skin and she watched in rapt fascination as the tattoo gun got closer and closer to her skin. Waverly’s palms were sweating with nerves, the back of her neck hot, but she wasn’t sure if it was anxiety for the needle or for how close Nicole was to her with the way they were bent over her arm.

The first touch of the needle on her skin was sharp, but not as painful as she imagined. It just felt like someone was scraping the top of her skin over and over.

“How is it feeling?” Nicole asked as their steady hand traced the line on her wrist. Waverly watched with some fascination as ink smudged on her skin. Nicole pulled the gun away for a moment and wiped some of the ink away before continuing to tattoo her. Nicole’s eyes darted over her figure and they smirked. “You don’t look dressed for a tattoo, you look like you’re going somewhere nice.”

Waverly looked back down at her nice black skirt that rested at her knees and the blush colored flowy top she’d paired with it. She glanced down at her watch too and noticed that Curtis’ memorial started in a half hour. She knew she’d never make it, but she couldn't bring herself to care much.

“I was actually...on my way to my Uncle’s memorial,” Waverly chuckled dryly.

Nicole looked up at her in shock, lifting the tattoo gun off of her skin as they did. “I’m sorry.”

Waverly waved off Nicole’s sympathy and her eyes went back to the tattoo gun as the needle slowly descended to her skin again. Her finger twitched involuntarily and the uncomfortable scratching continued.

“He uh-. I prepared his body, I kinda got over it already,” Waverly frowned.

“Right, I guess that’s what I interrupted the other day,” NIcole said.

Waverly’s brain suddenly switched directions. “So you work here and the flower shop then?”

“Yeah, I dabble a little in both flowers and tattoos,” Nicole chuckled. “So how did you become a- funeral director?”

“Mortician,” Waverly said. “It’s actually the family business. It was founded by great great granddaddy Earp.”

“That’s pretty incredible,” Nicole said. “You have deep roots here then. In Purgatory.”

“I guess you could say that,” Waverly considered the harsh judgements that came her way for no more reason than being an Earp. The Earp roots were deep, alright, but tangled and fed by bitter water. “You’re new in town. How long have you been here?”

“About a month.” Nicole wiped off Waverly’s wrist again and gave her a flirty smile. “You know, Waverly Earp, you’re quite the popular girl around here.”

Waverly blushed partially because she was pretty sure she was being flirted with and partially because she could only imagine the kind of things people were saying about her.

“‘Popular’ might not be correct. More like infamous,” Waverly chuckled dryly.

“Nah, not at all. Maybe if I buy you a cup of coffee you can show me around a bit? Next week?” Nicole said.

All of the moisture left Waverly’s mouth and suddenly she couldn’t remember any words in English. A couple of useless French phrases-

Voulez vous couchez avec moi ce soi-

-but nothing else. Was this a date? Should she say yes? Of course she should say yes, Nicole was gorgeous, what was holding her back? Waverly’s stomach felt sick with nerves and she could only stutter.

“I uh- I mean I’m-” Waverly’s phone buzzed and she pulled it out of her pocket. Distracted, overstimulated and desperately trying to make her tongue work so that she could answer Nicole, she fumbled at the screen. Gus’ text was hard to read in her panic, but she picked out the words ‘here’ and ’Champ’. Waverly frowned and quickly put her phone away just as Nicole looked back up at her. “I can’t... I have...plans. I’m a planner,” Waverly chuckled but the side of her tongue and tasted copper, stomach shrinking.

“Maybe some other time then,” Nicole said, as they ever so gently wiped at her wrist again, some blood coming away with the ink. Waverly thought she heard rejection in their voice but a bite of pain on her wrist drew her away. The incessant scratching feeling had begun to give way to a sharp pain as the needle traced back over sensitive skin. Waverly’s chest tightened as Nicoole’s needle went over the darkened eye socket of the skull and Waverly remembered how Curtis’ skull was fractured and jagged, digging into his own eyeball that had shrunken back into his skull by the time Waverly saw him.

She gasped as the needle bit into her skin, and tears prickled at the corner of her eye.

“You doing okay?” Nicole asked.

Waverly quickly wiped the tears away with her other hand quickly and Nicole lifted the tattoo gun. “Want some water? A break?”

“Oh, no, you’re almost done. It’s okay,” Waverly shook her head and tried to give Nicole a reassuring smile but she probably looked more like she was grimacing instead. “I was just thinking about my Uncle. Since this-, well, I guess this is sort of for him.”

“Then it’s a good thing that you chose aloe to go with the skull,” Nicole said. “Aloe means a few things. It’s a symbol of healing but it also can mean affection and grief.”

Waverly drew in a shaky breath. “Wow.”

“I think that’s the perfect sort of tattoo to get for your Uncle,” Nicole said as she wiped down Waverly’s skin again. With one last look they nodded and set the gun aside. “Alright. I think we’re done.”

Waverly looked at the tattoo, skin red and irritated but relieved. She smiled, what felt like a thousand endorphins flooding her system at once as the pain quieted to a dull ache.

“It’s beautiful,” Waverly said with a grateful smile.

“Let me cover it for ya.”

Waverly let Nicole take her hand and put it back down on the pad. They put some kind of cream on it before a thin layer of what looked like plastic.

“Okay, keep this on for at least a day, I’ll give you a card with aftercare instructions,” Nicole said. Waverly stood up, her head and chest light.

Waverly couldn’t keep her eyes off it. She kept staring at the fresh ink and her shiny skin and an unstoppable smile spread over her face. The sense of euphoria almost made her head spin.

“Follow me please,” Nicole said as if Waverly would have a problem following them anywhere right now. They walked back up to the counter and Nicole handed her a business card, their name on one side with a phone number, and on the back was step by step instructions on how to take care of the tattoo.

“Thank you, it’s beautiful,” Waverly said, gently running a finger over her still stinging skin. She walked over to the other side of the counter and Nicole leaned on it again like when Waverly first came in.

Nicole smiled a little shyly and shrugged. “It was my pleasure. And, please, it’s on the house.”

“Oh, no no,” Waverly started as she reached for her wallet. Nicole gently placed a hand over hers and shook their head gently. Waverly’s throat closed at their touch, thumb twitching in her instinct to brush the side of their hand with it.

“It was an honor to be your first tattoo. And for such an important meaning,” Nicole smiled and retracted their hand. Waverly bit the inside of her cheek at the loss. “Plus, an apology for having poor taste in asking you out on the day of your Uncle’s memorial.”

Waverly wanted to blurt not to confuse the bad timing and her poor response with lack of interest, but the sound of heavy boots pounding up the stairs stopped her. She turned and saw Rachel emerging at the top of the stairs with a bright smile.

“No ones coming in. Can I practice?” she asked.

Nicole raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “Are you done with your homework?”

“Yes.”

“Fine,” Nicole reached under the counter and threw an orange at Rachel. She caught it with a sigh.

“Can’t I practice on myself?”

“No.”

“You did.”

“Yeah and now I have a shitty foot tattoo. Practice on the orange.”

Rachel rolled her eyes and made her way to one of the empty stations. Nicole chuckled and shrugged. “Kids.”

Waverly had about a thousand more questions but when Nicole’s eyes were on her it all turned to moments of regret and lost breaths.

“Thank you,” Waverly said again as she circled her arms around the pot of flowers. “I love it.”

“Anytime, Waverly,” Nicole smiled brightly. “I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

“I’m sure you will,” Waverly said as she took a step back from the counter. Nicole’s smile widened, dimples deepening on their cheeks and Waverly quickly turned away so that they didn’t see her blush. Again.

She quickly walked down the stairs and out of the shop, letting out a sigh of relief. Getting back into her Jeep, she set the pot on the seat besides her and looked back at her wrist. Her phone buzzed with Gus’ call, but she ignored it and drove back to her tiny apartment.