The lights hurt. She blinked until her vision cleared, and the room came into focus.
Her mother stood at the foot of the bed staring down at her. Arie closed her eyes again.
“Are you awake?” Evelyn’s sharp voice sliced into Arie’s brain like a scalpel. “Arie?”
No. Arie let herself sink back into the darkness. Maybe, she thought, just maybe she could find her way back to the Light—the real one—the Light that bathed her in warmth and an all-encompassing, no-words-for-it love. It had to let her back in. She didn’t think she could stand living if It didn’t.
The next time she awoke, her father’s gentle smile greeted her. Arie let the warmth of his eyes spill into her own, feeling simultaneously grateful and... disappointed. The love that she had always reveled in felt pale, almost sickly. A wave of guilt flooded into her for making such a comparison, but even her father’s love couldn’t compare to the Other.
“Hi, Daddy,” Arie whispered. Her throat burned.
“Hi, baby.” Her dad placed the straw of a plastic mug with the hospital’s logo on it to her lips. Water—cool and pure.
Her throat still hurt. Arie reached her hand up to it, grimacing at the pain.
Her fingers ran across the cloth lump of gauze bandages and sticky tape. Had something happened? Strange that she could remember being There with such stinging, poignant clarity, but she couldn’t remember anything about what had happened to her body right before.
“Was I in an accident?”
Her dad hesitated and looked away. Arie’s heart thumped. Although a quiet man, Ed Stiles was a pastor and not one to avoid questions, especially hers.
“Arie.” He cleared his throat and took a sip of her water. “It wasn’t an accident, hon. Somebody tried to hurt you.”
Her dad nodded.
Something felt wrong. Arie struggled to remember but only managed to work up the beginnings of a wicked headache. “Who?”
“We don’t know.” Her dad’s smile faltered and melted away. “We were hoping you did.”
The fluid dripping into her arm was clear this time. Probably a good sign. Her mother sat on the bed next to Arie, holding her hand. Oh, crap, I must be dying. Wait. That’s a good thing.
“Don’t call me Ma. You know I hate that.” She sniffed and cleared her throat.
“Are you crying?”
“Don’t be silly.” She brushed her daughter’s hair back from her face then held a straw to her lips.
Water. Arie swallowed. The cool liquid simultaneously burned and soothed as it went down.
“It was amazing—so beautiful.” A wave of frustration made Arie’s head pulse, proof her heart was still beating. The puny, everyday, earthly words weren’t enough to explain what she’d seen and where she’d been.
“I don’t see what’s so amazing about getting stabbed in a parking lot in the middle of the night.” Her mother’s face, devoid of makeup for the first time Arie could remember, contorted in pain. She stood and paced at the end of the bed.
“That’s not important.”
Her mother spun, face twisted with incredulity. “Not important? Honey, you were attacked.”
Honey? Another first.
The endearment and the residual effects of the Other Side created a joy bubble that rose and spread into a wide smile. Probably looked goofy as hell. Well, not hell. If the Other Side was anything to compare it to, Hell probably shouldn’t be taken lightly either. Arie pushed that thought aside. The things she’d seen were all that really mattered.
Arie tried sitting up, but tubes tethered her to the bed. She fell back, weak.
“I saw Heaven. It was... I can’t even begin to—”
“Arie, that’s enough. You’re getting too excited. You need to rest.”
Her father walked in, holding two cups of coffee. His brown eyes sparkled when he saw her. “Well, look who’s awake.” He handed his wife her coffee then took her spot on the bed.
More hair brushing. Must be a thing people do in hospitals.
Arie tried again. “Dad, I went to Heaven. It was beautiful.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” her mother snapped. “Not this again.”
“Evelyn, it’s okay.”
She whipped around. “Did they say her medication would do this? I’ll check with the nurse.” She strode out of the room.
“It’s not my medication. It was so real. More real than this is. And there was a... Light. It was love. I knew who It was. It was as if I’d always known.”
“Shh.” Her father covered her hand. His touch was soothing.
“But why is she mad?”
“She... Honey, she’s not mad. She’s just upset.”
Not a foreign state for Evelyn Stiles. But how could a pastor’s wife be upset about Heaven? Arie was so tired she almost couldn’t force the question out of her mouth.
“Arie, I know something’s happened to you. Something... life-changing. And I want to hear all about it when you’re able. I do. But you need to understand; something happened to us, too. The doctor... Honey, the doctor told us you were dead. We thought we’d lost you. We were still sitting with him in that awful little room trying to comprehend what happened when a nurse came running down the hall. I think your mother is still trying to process everything. She needs time.”
“Daddy, it was so beautiful.”
“I know, honey. You’re going to tell me. But not now. Close your eyes.” He trailed his fingers over her forehead, a magical touch from her childhood. It erased the day, he’d said every night as he tucked her in.
Arie’s eyes fluttered. Maybe just for a minute...
The small room felt like a coffin, hot and stifling, all the air used up in the swelter. People always talked about Wisconsin as if it only had winters, but summer, though as fleeting as a butterfly kiss, also carried a punch.
If there was any air conditioning in the office, Arie couldn’t feel it. The one small window had two file cabinets jammed up against it. Dusty manuals and three-ring binders piled on top killed off any hope of fresh air. Arie angled her arms away from her sides, irrationally hoping for a stray breeze to offset the dark circles forming there. Another trickle of sweat slid down her spine, pooling along the waistband of her skirt.
The man sat silently across the table from Arie. Basilio Gallo wore his cropped black hair short, tight to his scalp, broken only by a crescent-shaped scar over his left ear. The scar trailed across the side of his head like a little pink worm. His leg jiggled manically as though he was trying to siphon off an overflow of energy. Darting black eyes scanned the wad of papers he clasped.
She couldn’t help staring at his hands. When not scrutinizing papers, he gestured wildly, accenting every statement with emphatic jabs of his stubby fingers. Dark patches of silky hair scattered ever so lightly across his knuckles, adding shadows to the movement. His hands were so clean. Her gaze returned like a cognitive tic to stare at his hands, wondering how he got them so clean. Nobody else would notice or even care, probably, unless they knew what this man did for a living.
She needed this job. And considering the nature of it, she hadn’t thought there would be a lot of contenders for the position. But the stack of applications next to the guy’s elbow was disconcerting.
Arie cleared her throat. Gallo looked up sharply, but she had already plastered on an appropriately pleasant expression. Her left eye twitched at the effort. She faked a cough into her fist, using the distraction to scoot back in the chair. Her pantyhose were in full mutiny; one side half-twisted clockwise in an attempt to cut off the circulation to her leg, and the other surrendered to a snag which, despite a blob of iridescent Tango Mango nail polish, threatened to uncase her thigh like an over-boiled sausage. She silently cursed her mother’s relentless indoctrination in “how to be a lady.” What other twenty-five-year-old wore pantyhose these days?
He pronounced it “Airy,” an image she would never relate to.
“It’s Arie, like the initials R. E. Arie Stiles.” They were the initials for her given name, which Arie told only to the IRS and God.
“Fine. Arie. What makes you think this is something you can handle? It ain’t like TV. I don’t care what you see on those stupid crime shows. There’s nothing exciting about death.”
Arie was tempted to tell him just how familiar with death she really was, but she wasn’t sure whether that would make her appear more qualified or just weird. Instead, she merely said, “I know it’s not. Blood doesn’t bother me—other people’s, that is.”
She didn’t think it did, anyway.
“Blood is the least of it. Wait ‘til you go home and find someone’s brain stuck on your shoe. Besides, it’s the smell that gets to people.”
She swallowed hard. “The... um?”
“Smell. Death has a smell. It gets in your clothes, your hair, your mouth, everywhere. You’re gonna be tasting it days later. I’m tellin’ you. It gets inside you.” Smiling, Gallo tapped the cage of bone that protected his heart, assuming he had one.
“Providing this kind of service”—his eyes held Arie’’s, as though daring her to challenge the euphemism—”is not for the weak. We take care of the problems no one else can handle.” His hand—that clean hand—cut through the air, sweeping the “problems” away. “Don’t kid yourself that this is just some small-town outfit. We’re right here next to the I-94 corridor. We run jobs from Madison to Milwaukee and wherever else we need to. We go in; we handle the situation. We’re what you might call the specialists of death.” His fingers twitched quote marks over the last few words.
“It’s nice that you take, um, pride in your work.” An errant, sweat-dampened tendril of hair flopped over one of Arie’s eyes.
“What do you expect? It’s a business.” Gallo squinted at her. “That’s what you gotta keep telling yourself. A business. Keep the emotions out of it. And what you gotta ask yourself is: can you do it? Can you handle it?”
Arie cleared her throat. Could she?
“Don’t forget,” he added. “If you work up to full time, after a year, you get three sick days and a week’s vacation. Also health insurance. It’s crappy, and the premiums are killing me, but still.”
Thank goodness. Death had benefits.
“I don’t understand. Did you say ‘BioClean’?”
Arie could see the war waging beneath the facade of her mother’s near-perfect control of her facial expressions. Despite the barest Mona Lisa smile that a lifetime of cloaking her emotions automatically carved out of her mother’s lips, disgust showed in the infinitesimal tightening of her eye muscles and in a shadow curling at the corner of Evelyn’s mouth.
“What exactly is this BioClean, punkin?” Dad asked.
“It’s a crime scene clean-up company. I interviewed last week, and the owner called this morning to offer me the job.” Arie almost overdosed on the toxic levels of perkiness her own automatic response produced.
“But, why on earth... ?” Her mother’s voice trailed off. It did that a lot. Her long, pale fingers touched the amber beads around her neck that coordinated perfectly with the rich earth tones she favored. The perfect pastor’s wife.
Exhausted, Arie dropped into her usual spot at her parents’ kitchen table—only four long strides from the back door or seven to get through the door leading to the living room. She’d measured.
Arie sighed. She’d never acquired the stamina to sustain social falseness the way her mother had. “I need the job.”
She decided not to bother with the obvious. Her parents were well aware of the circumstances that ended her last job. After all, working late nights at the bar had killed her. It wasn’t her fault it didn’t take. And her parents didn’t know that her rent was already three months past due, and she’d started hiding her car in back alleys to avoid the repo dude—when she could rally herself enough to get off the couch, that is. The eviction notice had finally penetrated the haze of depression she’d been living with since being squashed back into her body shell against her will. Some wills were bigger than others.
At any rate, Arie needed a job. Any job.
Her mother lifted her fingers to her temples, rubbing at the tension that details of her daughter’s life inevitably brought her. She threw in a grand display of in-through-the-nose, out-through-the-mouth breaths designed to illustrate her control and dropped her hands to her teensy waist. “What about the job at the bank? I gave you the application, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but it’s only part time, and it only pays minimum wage. And no benefits.”
The latter fact scored a direct hit what with the hospital bills that kept piling up after “the incident,” as Evelyn insisted on calling it.
Sitting quietly at the kitchen table, her dad nodded slightly at the point Arie made, but his wife slid a quelling glance in his direction.
“Besides…” Arie eyed the back door. Just four strides. “It’s temporary. Just while I figure things out. You don’t understand what it’s like to have been—”
“You’re right; I don’t understand. I’ve never understood what you’re doing with your life.” Evelyn reverted to her usual back-up weapons: a main course of disillusionment with a topping of guilt. “Regardless of what you think happened during that incident, you still have to make your way in the real world with real people doing real things. You can’t keep living in this fantasy world that you’ve decided...” Evelyn pressed her fingers to her temples. When she finally spoke again, her voice was I-am-calm-I-am-peace saintly. “You have such potential. All of your teachers said so. Didn’t they, Edward?”
Permission granted, her father nodded.
“Don’t call me Ma. You’re not a sheep. And you know I’m right. If you would just apply yourself, you could do anything. What about college? You only have a year left. Don’t you want to matriculate? I don’t know how you can just leave your education dangling. Of course, you need to re-think that silly degree you insisted on. I mean, really? English Lit? Is that going to help you get ahead in this economy? You should have taken something in computers or business like your brother. He’s doing so well—”
Arie’s shoulder muscles scrunched so tight they almost twanged. Not again. “Mother, stop. I’m not Brant.”
“And we don’t want you to be.” Arie’s father stepped in on cue. “You just need to buckle down, that’s all.”
“Edward.” Evelyn reclaimed the conversational helm. “You can’t tell me that you think this disgusting cleaning job is a good idea?”
He cleared his throat. Loudly. “I can’t say I like the idea—”
“There. You see?”
“—but if this is what Arie wants—”
“And that’s another thing, this ridiculous refusal to answer to her own name.”
The screen door banged against the frame on Arie’s way out, the same bang as when she was fifteen and forbidden to go to Leanna Schwarz’s birthday party because Leanna’s mom worked as an “entertainment specialist” at the Boys Only Club. It had happened again at seventeen, when nobody had believed her story about burglars taking the minivan on a joyride up to Madison and, in an amazing coincidence, left it outside Abercrombie & Fitch, Arie’s favorite store at West Towne Mall.
After all, criminals had a right to dress well. Besides, there had been a sale on summer dresses.
As usual, after a fight with her mother, Arie ended up at her best friend’s place.
“I seriously don’t get what the big deal is. You’d think your mom would be all Kübler-Ross about dying, right? I mean, she’s a minister’s wife. And what’s wrong with being dead? It’s not like you stayed that way.” Chandra’s voice came out squished as she pretzeled around her knee, daintily polishing her toenails purple-black. Chandra was heavy into body art, although thus far, she had managed to limit piercings to her left eyebrow, her nose, and a tiny angel kiss above her upper lip. The rest of her body was her palate, although she hadn’t started on tattoos. Yet.
Arie sat on the faded floor pillows that were her best friend’s only furniture. She sighed, pulling her feet out from the cramped, crossed-leg position that had stopped being comfortable when she was twelve. Her right foot tingled one notch below falling asleep. Arie wiggled it.
“You need a couch,” she said irritably.
Chandra looked up. “You need a nap.”
“Which I could take if you had a couch. And I’m not crabby.”
Arie considered snagging the bag of Doritos that she knew Chandra would have stashed in the kitchen. Her mouth salivated. But no. She tamped the craving down. She’d promised herself she’d stop using chips and ice cream as antidepressants.
Chandra snorted, turning back to dabbing the inky liquid onto a stubby pinky toe.
“You smeared,” Arie pointed out, earning a glinting, green-eyed glare. Sighing, she thunked her head back against the wall.
Of course Chandra didn’t get it. She’d been born and raised in southern California and had moved to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin just before middle school. She was used to being thought of as weird—reveled in it, in fact. Arie, on the other hand, came from a long line of proper, beige-y Midwestern ancestors. She had never fit in with them, but they’d never lowered their expectations.
“So let me get this straight,” Chandra said. “You don’t want to discuss the fact that you were bumped off, died, and had a layover in Heaven, but you got a job cleaning up dead people anyway?” She finally untangled her long legs, straightening them across the floor.
Arie knew ignoring her wouldn’t work. Chandra would just keep vulture-circling the subject until Arie gave in.
“I don’t mind talking about death. I just don’t want to talk about mine.”
Chandra had a fascination with the Other Side—in all things weird and paranormal, actually. From the moment Arie had gotten out of the hospital, it had been all she wanted to talk about.
“Obviously, I’m not afraid of death anymore,” Arie finally said. “It doesn’t bother me, so why not make money off it? I could sure use it.”
Chandra squinted at her best friend. “I think it’s an awesome job. The fact that it tweaks your mom’s butt is just an added benefit. When do you start?”
“I already did. I went in for training yesterday.”
“And you’re just now telling me?” Chandra looked stunned.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to go through with it. Besides, it’s like being on call. I have to wait until someone dies. And I won’t be on the first team called out either, unless it’s a big job. I had to go in for a bunch of Hep-B shots though, and the training is, like, three days. I guess I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing.”
“It’s kind of weird hoping that someone dies, huh?”
“I guess.” Not really. Death was wonderful. But Arie didn’t want to start all that up again. “It’s not only death scenes, though. It might be a meth lab or something. From what Basil Gallo said, there are a lot of those projects up north.”
“Geez, that could be dangerous.” Chandra met her gaze. “All those chemicals. What if you blow up or something?”
Then I die, Arie said to herself. Again.
At least the first job wasn’t a murder. Leonard Petranik died all on his own, although nothing about his death could be termed natural.
“Hoarder,” Grady said.
Short, squat, and built like a stump, Arie’s new partner spoke with the authority of his senior status. He’d been with BioClean 911 for nearly a year and was already their third most experienced employee. This did not generate confidence in BioClean being a long-term employment option.
They stood outside a small ranch-style home in one of those working-class neighborhoods that were deserted during the day. Arie looked at the call sheet and tried to figure out where Grady got the information that their “client” was a hoarder. The only items listed were the homeowner’s name—Leonard Petranik—the address, lots of insurance information, and a small box checked UNATTENDED DEATH. She followed Grady to the back of the van where he pulled out supplies.
“How do you know he’s a hoarder?”
Grady pointed at the ranch’s windows. A sun-faded Dixie flag and a dingy-looking beach towel hung in place of curtains in the large picture window. In addition to the dubious decorating choice, there was something else off about it. It took a few seconds for Arie to realize that neither flag nor towel hung free. Instead of falling in loose folds, the fabric was mashed against the panes, flattened nearly to the top of the windows where it bunched unevenly. One corner of the flag had slipped off the rod, or whatever it was attached to, exposing a triangle of jumbled colors. Arie’s brain told her that something must be holding up the bit of flag, but it looked as though it was levitating. The kaleidoscope of colors added a festive splash to the otherwise dreary exterior.
A second set of windows, smaller and lacking even a towel for privacy, were situated at the far end of the house. A bedroom, maybe? An assorted mix of boxes of varied shapes and sizes blocked the bottom six inches of the windows.
“Maybe he was moving in?”
Grady pointed again, this time to the one-car garage located at the opposite end of the house. The bifurcated door bulged askew, the left side prevented from closing by layers and layers of newspapers wedged underneath.
Grady was already pulling on a yellow Tyvek biohazard suit. He leaned against the back of the van, tugging the fitted “bunny suit” up over his tennis shoes, wiggling his way into the protective gear. Arie had tried one on during training and wasn’t looking forward to the stifling heat. She wished she had thought to wear shorts and a tank top like Grady. She was stuck in a short-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of ratty tennis shoes that she had already determined could be thrown away if needed.
Her second discovery was that yellow Tyvek did absolutely nothing for a girl’s hips. Arie stared down at herself. She looked like a lumpy, ambulatory banana. She copied Grady by wrapping a strip of crime scene tape around her middle to take the suit in. Now she looked like a lumpy banana with criminal tendencies. Sighing, she watched Grady pull on a second pair of disposable booties.
He didn’t explain why they needed double wrapping, and Arie didn’t ask. She had already figured out there would be things she wouldn’t want to dwell on.
The odor assaulted her halfway up the sidewalk. Grady looked over his shoulder, and Arie waited for words of encouragement and inspiration. He was, after all, her supervisor.
“If you have to puke, make sure you get the mask off,” Grady said. “It really sucks to hurl in your mask and have it wash back up in your face. And don’t puke on the scene. We’ll just have to clean that up, too.”
Words to live by.
There were tunnels. The garbage had been piled to nearly ceiling height in most of the rooms, but Petranik had constructed a rabbit warren of burrows. The walls of trash were divided into stratified layers, separating into different eras like an archaeological dig. The eighties, which predated Arie’s birth by a decade, hit about shoulder high. In one small section, Arie spied the black edges of VHS tapes, a five-inch thick VCR, a boxy gray dinosaur of an IBM computer, and a squashed-flat box that previously held “The Clapper.” A small, multi-colored pyramid poked out of the wall. She grasped it, dislodging a small shower of Bubble Yum wrappers and Styrofoam fast food sandwich boxes. The wall shifted ominously, and Arie held her breath. She had nearly caused a trash avalanche over a rescued Rubik’s Cube. Being smothered to death under a pile of trash was not appealing. Unless...
Unless it meant a chance to return to the Other Side. Arie wondered if Petranik was there now. A wave of jealousy almost doubled her over, making her drop the toy.
She had also lost sight of Grady. Then Arie heard him foraging up ahead. Another sound, a low-pitched humming, filtered through her mask, growing louder and louder the farther down the hall she walked. The sound, an atonal vibration, snuck past her respirator and seeped into her ears. Arie froze, mouth dry. It was almost—not quite but almost—like the sound from the O.S., a pervasive, surround-sound of disparate beings joined in a harmony of noise. A green bottle fly bounced off Arie’s face shield.
Oh. This wasn’t heaven’s harmony she was hearing but a symphony of flies doing what flies were created to do.
Arie joined Grady at the door to a bathroom. Leonard—under the circumstances, Arie felt they should be on a first-name basis—had killed himself in the bathtub. Considerate of him, really. Maybe he’d expected any spray from his sliced wrists would land on tile, making the clean-up job easier for whoever was faced with the task.
Unfortunately, Leonard must not have factored in what several days of his death going undetected would leave.
Or maybe he wasn’t considerate after all.
A writhing curtain of flies covered the walls and ceiling. What could be seen of the floor was littered with insect husks. An entomologist’s dream: the life cycle of the fly from egg to desiccated hull and all the wiggling mass in between.
Arie stepped back into the hall to reassess her newly chosen career path.
Grady stood in the door, watching while she grappled with the writhing horror show in the tub. Arie tried to focus on the scene in the detached way she imagined Grady did. I’m a professional.
It might have worked except, when she rubbed her forehead, she jostled her face mask, letting the smell squeeze underneath. The breathing space filled with the odor of rotted, decaying meat. Once it was under the rubber seal, there was no escaping it.
Grady said something. The mask muffled his voice.
“What?” Arie pointed to her ear.
He leaned in, speaking loud and slow. “Take your mask off.” He gestured at her respirator, miming raising it.
Was he nuts? “Why?”
“Come on.” He gestured impatiently and began pulling his off, which convinced Arie there must be some reason for this idiocy. Maybe he needed to tell her something.
Arie noticed his puffed cheeks about two seconds too late. The smell knocked her upside the head like a physical blow. Tears flooded her eyes—the reaction either a physical response, an instinctive flushing to protect the orbs, or an emotional one as her brain reeled in horror. If her skin could have curled back, it surely would have. Arie’s knees buckled, and she retched.
Bellowing with laughter, Grady resettled his respirator. Stomach still heaving, Arie was afraid to put the mask back on. Grady grabbed her elbow and shoved her back down the hall. Arie stumbled through the house, heading blindly for the door. Her body was in full flight mode, propelling her toward fresh air.
In the yard, she dropped on all fours, simultaneously retching and gulping for air. It was not fresh air—not by a long shot. The odor still lingered. Arie’s lungs sucked it in anyway. Her eyes continued to water, and then her nose joined in, snot running freely down the front of her suit. She shook so hard her muscles ached.
She vowed to whip Grady’s ass just as soon as she regained a minimal amount of control over her body. The bastard was leaning against the van, still hiccupping in the wind-down phase of hysteria.
Pulling herself to her feet, Arie tried to incinerate him with her eyes. It would have been more effective, she knew, if the front of her banana suit wasn’t covered with her own snot.
“Welcome to BioClean,” Grady said. “Grab the camera.”