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Lucy’s decision to become a funeral director was born from two things.

The first was the disgust at how extortionate the funerary business had become, secretive, and dominated by men who pushed traditional beliefs of expensive and unnecessary funerals.

The second, was seeing what it truly lacked: personal touch, the bare minimum for anyone’s final sendoff.

She’d worked in marketing earlier in life, seeing first-hand how people were repeatedly conned into buying things that, really, they didn’t need. This was an inherent part of the business world, but seeing the same thievery in the funeral business was unacceptable. To profit so overtly in someone’s death.

She put her heart and soul into every single family bereavement who came to her. Lucy worked tirelessly. Even when she was called out to retrieve a body in the early hours, she never relented.

And so on the day she was roused from sleep at 4:10am by the insistent humming of her phone on the bedside table, she acquiesced to the calling and picked up.

No one spoke from the other end. Lucy yawned, then took it upon herself,

“Hi, who is it?”

With the speaker pressed to her ear, she could only make out hushed, but somewhat frantic breathing, before a man’s voice sounded.

“Yes, hello, I- this is Velvet Shroud Funerals?”

“Hey, yeah, Lucy speaking. What can I do for you?”

“There’s a, um, a body here that needs picking up. St. Alfred’s Church at Finch’s Green.”

“Okay. I’ll be there as soon as I can-“

“I should warn you, Lucy. It’s a young boy,” the man interjected, his voice becoming shaky.

Lucy had been on many body retrievals, but the clients in question were usually middle- to old-aged. She seldom had to deal with the young, and always felt a vague foreboding on these occasions. But, no matter the age, all are deserving of the proper treatment.

“Ah. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll drive out to you now.”

She threw off the bedsheets, letting the wintry air in the room wash over her skin, drawing out gooseflesh. After dressing in a white shirt, dark trousers and her black overcoat, she made her way down the stairs and out to her van.

Setting the destination on the satnav, she started the ignition and pulled out onto the road, driving down the country roads that seemed frozen in time by the cold night.

While many things fall from familiarity in the darkness, Lucy could swear she’d never before seen the roads she found herself on. Even after living in the area for years, to her, these coiling lanes hadn’t existed until this very moment.

The old metal sign for the small village sped out from the darkness like a fish from the depths, passed by, and was swallowed up just as quickly as it had emerged. The paint was peeling and faded, but the few letters read Finch’s Green.

The air held a silent apprehension as she stepped out of the van, beholding the moonlit silhouette of an archaic Norman church. Its shadowed steeple rose into the air, pointing in accusation of the heavens above.

Lucy winced as the quiet was broken by the snapping of the gurney clips, freeing it from the van’s interior and allowing it to trundle out, a single wheel squeaking with each revolution.

With the trolley raised to waist height, she shut her van, locked it, and began up the old, cobbled path. It was an uncanny night. Besides the razor-edged crescent moon, the sky was empty. Not a pinprick of light to indicate a star unveiled itself from above.

A light mist held close to the ground, making decrepit boats of gravestones, chipped bows and ruined sterns jutting out from a spectral sea. Lucy couldn’t muster the will to resist the unease that swept across this holy ground, as if its presence was an inherent, undeniable truth.

So self-absorbed was she in this feeling that she hadn’t yet noticed the huddled figures, just barely outlined by the pale moonlight afront the vestibule. She needn’t search for them, as one of them, a man, made their presence known.

“Are you here for our son?”

His voice was wrought with subdued agony, like rattling fine china on the verge of cracking.

Lucy slowed her pace, making the cobblestone imperfections below manifest themselves through the gurney.

“Yes, uhm, I’m Lucy from Velvet Shroud Funerals. I was called out here by-“

“He’s inside. Please hurry,” the man shuddered, directing his attention back to the woman he held in his arms, who shook and sobbed openly.

Deciding not to question his peculiar urgency, Lucy unlatched the time-worn oaken door to the vestibule. Within, another shape took form out of the darkness, darting in her direction.

She flinched, then lowered her hand to see the vicar who had been waiting in the porch.

“Thank the Lord. You’re here. I must be going now – thank you for your kindness.”

Before Lucy could get a word in, the vicar slid past her and quickly disappeared into the moonlit, starless night.

Inside the chapel, the only light was filtered through the sparse stained glass windows, scattering a multitude of fractured colours across the maroon tiles and dark wood pews. Dust floated aimlessly in the beams of light, only to become hidden in the darkness once more.

At the far end of the centre aisle, something was illuminated by a beam of red light – moonlight passing through the blood of Christ, impaled by the spear of Longinus.

An adult sized figure lay under a white sheet. This couldn’t be their son, Lucy thought. She’d gotten the impression of a young boy, no less than ten, but the shape concealed under the veil was of no child. Then again, who she’d thought to be the parents outside had never specified an age.

She let her arms flop down to her sides in exasperation. This was going to be a hefty load. She dialed her colleague, hoping to call him out for assistance – no luck. It seemed like she had reception, but the call just kept going straight to the busy tone.

Reluctantly, Lucy released the gurney jacks and lowered it to floor level. Snapping on tight a pair of latex gloves, she squatted, bracing her back, and pulled at the ankles. She stumbled backward, letting go of the body after finding that, for its size, it was impossibly light. Not like a plastic mannequin, but with the resistance of a child’s limp body.

The body slid onto the stretcher without any trouble, and Lucy once again pumped up the jacks.

She hesitated for a moment. There was a feeling. A magnetic pull toward the body under the blanket. She found her hand drifting toward the head, intent on pulling back the sheet, before catching it and pulling away. A heavy foreboding seemed to be contained under that thin layer of fabric, and if she were to shift it away, some untold terror would be unleashed.

Relenting, Lucy turned the trolley around in the aisle, and made her way back toward the entrance. She still felt the presence of her God, guiding her even on this darkest of nights, but there was something else too. Something she didn’t stay long enough to discern.

A wave of anguished wailing erupted from the woman outside as the gurney wheeled past. The man looked down to the body, then up to Lucy, the sense of loss palpable in his eyes. Even holding his gaze for just a moment caused a chill to race down her spine.

She gave them the address of her shop, and they made off without another word, only mumbles of reassurance amongst sorrowful cries. In the void where two people had just been, a thick silence took residence, that followed Lucy as she pushed the trolley back down the cobbled path.

The stretcher loaded into the van with ease, and was secured in moments. Despite the apparent cell reception, the satnav presented her route as a lone, ragged blue line that bent and curved the route home.

The dark lanes coiling ahead of the van were just as, if not more unrecognisable than they had been on the initial journey. Perhaps the satnav had just chosen another way back. It didn’t matter.

Something shifted in the back, unknown to Lucy. Was that a stifled cough, maybe a sniffle, that came from somewhere behind her? She wasn’t even certain if there had been any sound at all. She kept her eyes locked on the road. Out of sight, out of mind.

Lucy didn’t know when it happened, but she found herself finally driving down a road she knew. In tandem, the satnav blinked with buffering satellite imagery, even though there had been reception for most of the night.

Not ten minutes later, Lucy’s van pulled up into the rear entrance to the shop.

She sat with her eyes closed for a brief moment after turning off the vehicle. The events had left her a little shaken, but the feeling bled away as she acknowledged her exhaustion. Everything was normal, she only needed a warm coffee to wake up.

The town wasn’t silent, and the gurney clips shattered no unbroken calm. Distant noises of cars drifted along the sky as Lucy pulled the stretcher out, pumped the jacks and made her way up the slight ramp to the mortuary.

Entering the freezer room, she winced at the cold blast of air, but the jolt woke her up some, sharpening her mind. The racks were empty.

Always aspiring to be neat as possible, Lucy slid the stretcher off of the trolley and onto the lowermost rack. Empty spaces below a body didn’t sit right with her, for reasons she could never pin down.

The stretcher, bearing the impression of a corpse beneath linen, slid back into the shelves and clicked into place, leaving the gurney empty. Lucy returned it back to her van, then came around to the front entrance, opening the shop’s doors for the day.

At long last, the kettle squealed, heralding the hot brew of coffee Lucy needed since the moment she woke. The steam drifted from her mug into the winter air as she walked down the old, beaten path behind the shop, down to her favourite spot by the lake.

A lone bench overlooked the watery expanse, still glittering with stars from the fading night. Lucy sat, cradling her mug, looking out across the water. It was, really, a form of meditation that - for her, at least - required no effort.

Being a familiar sight, Lucy didn’t yet notice the sky’s stark contrast in comparison to earlier. Yes, cloud cover may have come and gone, smothering the stars and releasing them later, but the moon still hung back in Finch’s Green, clear as day. Here, both the pale crescent and the starry expanse were visible.

Before she could understand any of it, the Sun began its climb, slowly heaving itself above the horizon. Finishing her coffee, Lucy stood up from the bench, stretched out, and made her way back to the funeral directors.

After starting up her work laptop, the rising urge for another coffee pushed itself into her mind. This urge was quickly sated, though, when her colleague Dan arrived with fresh coffee and wholemeal blueberry muffins.

“Hey Luce! If you’ve already had breakfast, well, make some room.”

“Morning, Dan. Is this muffin thing turning into a tradition?”

“You know I can’t resist the bakery when I drive past. Maybe I should take a different route in the mornings but they’re just so damn good!” he chuckled.

Dan set down the to-go breakfast and sat down across from Lucy, pulling out a folder from his bag.

“Thanks,” Lucy said, “I’ve just picked another one up today. A little boy.”

Dan released a sigh at this. Even for those accustomed to death, and the morbid in general, dead children were something that could only be prepared for. There was no getting used to it.

“Yeah. He’s not really little at all, though. I tried calling you earlier, thought I might need some help but it didn’t end up being too difficult. Was your phone off?”

“You phoned me? I’ve had it plugged in all night, and you know I’m never on do not disturb. Same reasons as you.”

Dan unlocked his phone and navigated to the contacts app. He scanned the missed calls for a moment before looking back up to Lucy.

“Nope, nothing.”

“Weird. Well, it doesn’t matter. He’s here now.”

Lucy rose up from her seat, turning slightly while beckoning Dan to follow.

The pair entered the freezer room. Even with a now wakeful head, Lucy felt that dark apprehension just as she had back in the church.

Dan made his way over to the racks and pulled the only occupied one halfway out. He gently uncovered the body, pulling the white linen away from the head.

Lucy’s legs almost gave out when she saw what lay underneath.

This thing was not a little boy. It wasn’t even human.

The head was a coiled mess of twisted, ribbed horns, curled tightly to form a round and solid mass, only broken by a central hole where a face might be, a window into a black abyss. Chitinous patches covered the skin on its chest and shoulders, framed by visceral purple skin, stretched taught across sharp bone. Bulging veins branched across the surface, but their colour, their vitality, belonged to a living body, not a corpse.

The intense focus Lucy held on the creature dulled her other senses, deafening her to Dan’s worried calls.

“Luce! Luce, are you okay?”

Everything came back sharply, her shallow breaths, the pounding of blood in her temples.

“Y- you don’t… it’s…”

“I know, I know. He can’t be more than seven or eight… I get that it’s more difficult for you, with children of your own.”

Dan turned around without waiting for a response, and covered the abomination back over.

“Come back through, I need to be filled in on your info.”

He walked out of sight, into the reception area, leaving Lucy to absorb the newfound horror she had just witnessed.

Did he not see what I just saw? she thought, slack-jawed, feeling somewhere between shock and puzzlement.

As much as she wanted to check her eyes hadn’t deceived her, Lucy couldn’t bring herself to lift the sheet. Even with her fingers grasped onto the rim, it was as if the sheet were made of titanium.

Are you of faith?

Lucy stepped back from the racks and spun around, looking for Dan. It was an odd question, but he was the only other person in the shop.

No one. He wasn’t there. Lucy didn’t have time to think about her next action before the question rang out again from every conceivable direction.

Are. You. Of. Faith?

Trembling, she turned her head ever so slowly, peering out the corner of her eye toward the shelved body, before looking at it directly. She didn’t know what she was expecting, but the corpse lay still as ever. Unmoving. Silent.

Her unnerving trance relented, and she was quick to pace over to the cold room’s door, exiting, and closing it.

Lucy took a moment to still her racing thoughts. That couldn’t have actually happened, right? She was just tired. Yes, that was it. Just tired. She’d had a bit of a late night, so it was a reasonable conclusion.

She and Dan discussed the details of the case. The parents had only introduced themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Petreau at the time, and their deceased son as Liam. In any case, the cause of death was as clear to Lucy as the next winning lottery ticket’s number, so she rang her usual coroner to arrange an autopsy.

An examination on the afternoon of the same day was agreed, but the Petreaus turned up just before midday. The daylight drew out their complexions, Mr. Petreau’s tanned skin and windworn crowsfeet contrasting Mrs. Petreau’s fairer and paler, but reddened face.

Mr. Petreau seemed in a half-daze, but shook himself into order to address Lucy.

“Hi there. We would have come earlier but, well…”

“I completely understand. This is a very difficult time for you,” Lucy reassured him.

“Can sh- can we see him?”

His wife looked up from the floor, floodgates already on the verge of bursting open. She looked over to him, then to Lucy. The emotion in her eyes took a second for Lucy to fully comprehend. A despair beyond despair.

Too stunned initially to reply, Dan stepped in and gestured to the couple to follow. Not a word spoken.

Lucy sat at her desk outside, already planning the basic arrangements for Liam’s funeral. Halfway through typing a word, her hand jolted sideways and broke off a keycap in response to the mother’s abrupt wail.

Mr. Petreau emerged from the cold room, barely supporting his own flimsy stoicism, let alone the sobbing and weak-kneed Mrs. Petreau who clung to his shoulder. Standing now, Lucy rested a gentle hand on Mrs. Petreau’s back.

“It’s okay if you want to come back another day, to go through our options. Any break you want is time you need.”

The mother’s spasms and sobs calmed just a bit, and she drew in a few deep sniffles to clear her nose.

“That’s- I- thanks. I just… I just never imagined our time with him would be so short-”

Her words were cut off by an involuntary hic, but she caught herself from breaking down again. Mr. Petreau spoke up in her place,

“I think we should talk about plans now, if you’re not booked up.”

His wife nodded in agreement. Lucy reciprocated, opening the meeting room door and leading them inside.

Most, if not all of the suggestions came from Lucy, the parents being too distraught to trust themselves to think clearly. Though, in particular, they insisted the funeral be modest and discreet. Lucy understood this; the commonly used proverb of ‘we are not here to mourn their passing, but to celebrate their life’ did not apply so well when the deceased in question had barely gotten a glimpse of their own.

No disagreements were had, but it may have simply been that the parents were already anxious to leave the same building housing their dead child.

They had informed Lucy of a medical condition the boy had involving high blood pressure. This was passed on to the coroner when the body was sent off for the post-mortem.

It turned out to be of great help, as the coroner was finished by late afternoon on the same day. It was found that the boy suffered from a major aneurysm, which was recorded as the official cause of death.

However, Lucy found no closure in knowing this.

When she brought the body into the embalming room, a voice once again pierced the veil. It was different this time, not the weak and raspy one that spoke to her before, but youthful, and choked-up.

It’s so dark. Where’s my mummy and daddy? Please… let me out.

Lucy could only listen, as her limbs became stiff as the corpse beneath her. The pleading was answered for her.

Don’t worry, boy. We’re in this together, and it won’t be long now. Lucy here will see to that.

For the first time, her lips parted to inquire on this madness.

“Who is that?”

We’re right in front of you, the raspy voice shot back. Lucy took a step back in impossible realisation.

We mean you no harm. He’s only a child, after all. If you would just lay us to rest, he can be freed.

The utterance was followed by quiet, ethereal sobs. The voices lent Lucy no comfort, for how could this be? She was close to fainting when the familiar voice of her colleague brought her back from her stupor.

“You want me to do this, Luce? I’m not gonna judge you, or anything.”

“That… yes, please. That would be for the best, I think.”

While Dan took care of the embalming, Lucy did the admin, planning costs and services for the funeral. It was to be held at the start of the next week.

As planned, the funeral was nothing special. Nor was it in celebration, or reminiscence. Lucy and the attendees were held under a blanket of silence, except the parents. This time, Mr. Petreau joined his wife in her expressions of grief, matching her despair. He’d been bottling up his true feelings until this moment, feeling like he would fail his lost child in doing so before the ceremony.

In accordance with their hopelessness, the parents had wished for a closed casket, outdoor funeral. Lucy tried to push the feeling away, but it brought her some relief knowing she wouldn’t have to see that monstrosity invisible to all but her.

After the vicar spoke the final vows, the casket was lowered, and it was done. Short and anything but sweet. Mr. and Mrs. Petreau thanked Lucy for her compassion, then left quietly.

Lucy returned to her shop for the day, thankful it was finally over, despite the entire process being relatively short in comparison with previous cases.

Still, there was a lingering stress, so she went out the back to do what she always did, when in need of some peace, however brief.

The familiar feeling of worries being washed away came over her, as she sat looking out across the lake. She’d been stressing before, that the boy wasn’t commemorated as he deserved, but respected the decision of his parents more than anything.

It was during her contemplation when a different feeling came over her. Something entirely unfamiliar. She recalled how she’d felt after hearing those disembodied voices. Stiff, unable to move, only now it was all-encompassing. Through some unknown influence, her entire body became rigid, tensed in apprehension of something.

That something introduced itself as distant, echoing steps sounding from down the path to her right. They sounded wrong, like they reverberated about a large cathedral instead of the open air.

A cold sweat broke out on Lucy’s forehead as the footsteps grew closer, agonisingly slow. Though they were already audible, only when they grew closer could the sound of crunching leaves beneath hefty feet be heard.

An involuntary whimper grew from Lucy’s throat as she felt the wood of the bench creak beside her, as if something large had taken a seat, and settled quietly. For a moment, the only sound was her shallow, shaky breaths.

You are of faith, aren’t you? Of faith so steadfast that the barriers in your perception have fallen away, unlike most.

The same gravelly voice was addressing her now. She only hoped that whatever was holding her in place would not let go, in fear of turning to see the being.

Do not fret. I am here to show my thanks, nothing more. You put the poor boy’s soul at peace, and he has left his flesh in search of the beyond. Something else came, and forced me out of my prison. Its wistful rambling was too much to withstand, in any case.

I owe you some form of explanation, I think. His very soul was in the process of being twisted, cultivated by the hands of the legion who had taken residence within him. I salute the priest’s efforts, of course, but he could not follow through. His death during exorcism means that I am something… halfway.

Though its voice sounded torn and shredded, it strangely comforted Lucy’s trembling form, even if the blood was drained from her face.

I harbour no ill will, nor do I have visions of benevolence. I know not of hellfire and brimstone, but as it is for my creators, it is the realm of my belonging, and so I must return. Thank you. That is all.

With that, the pressure that emanated from the air itself dissipated, and with the soft creaking of wood being relieved, Lucy's visitor departed.

She didn’t know how to feel, as her limbs were freed from stasis. A demon? No, a demon could never speak so neutrally. She turned to look, to call after it with the questions that piled in her mind, but it was gone.

Whatever it was, she felt an unexpected satisfaction from its visit. Closure, however unimaginable the circumstances. She stood, and began the slow walk back. Her faith was strengthened with a compassion for something she didn’t know existed, living underneath a star-filled sky that might never falter again.

Credited to rephlexi0n