Mourning Wood - Heather M. Orgeron

For Erin.

Thank you for humoring an old friend.

Your assistance was invaluable.

I’m jamming out to some old school 90s R&B while painting the final touch of rose onto Mrs. Thibodaux’s lips when Prissy barges into the prep room, her mouth running a mile a minute—the way it tends to when she’s overexcited.

My little girl drops her black Jansport bag near the door before dragging a stool over to the table and climbing up beside me. The metal screeches as it scrapes along the cement, making my shoulders tense and my teeth clench tight. “Before you look in my folder,” she announces, reaching to brush an errant strand of hair from the cheek of the old woman, “lemme tell you what happened.”

Oh, Lord. Here we go… “Well hello there, daughter of mine.” I plant a kiss to the apple of her cheek, noting the actual rat’s nest that sits atop her own head. I swear she’s presentable when she leaves the house. What happens after that is beyond me. “I can’t wait to hear what havoc you’ve wreaked on your fellow first-graders today.”

She gives me a heavy dose of side eye. “It wasn’t me. It was Jenny Boudreaux.” Her lips pucker like the poor girl’s name tastes sour on her tongue.

I nod. Of course, it was.

“Which one?” I hold the pallet of nude eye shadows out for her to choose.

She points to the one in the middle—beige with a hint of gold. “That one.” Her blue eyes wander to the outfit hanging from the hook across the room. “It’ll look nice with her dress.”

She’s right. The gold will be gorgeous paired with the deep plum hue. My little girl possesses all the attributes to make a great mortician someday. Her attention to detail is astonishing for a six-year-old, and her comfort around the deceased is borderline scary, but crucial in our line of work.

After coating the brush with color, I urge her on. “Well, what did Jenny do to make you move your clip?”

“Can you believe she asked me who’s funeral I was going to?” Her little finger points straight up and wags as she cocks her head. “Just because I was wearing my black pants and my new boots.” Which also happen to be black, and of the combat variety—along with her charcoal T-shirt and black leather jacket.

Long gone are the days when I could dress her up in pinks, lavenders, and ruffles… I miss it.

“Uh-huh.” I lean in closer to the body to get a good look, making sure the application is even on both eyes. “And what did you say?”

“I said”—I have to bite down on my lips to keep from laughing when her head whips side to side—“I don’t know yet… and then I looked at her like this…” Her strawberry blonde brows dart toward the ceiling and she widens her eyes. “And then she sucked in some air really loud and I told her it might be a good idea to get her affairs in order.”

“Priscilla Louise Daigle!”

“What?” Her little button nose scrunches, and it has nothing to do with the stench of formaldehyde lingering in the air.

“Dammit, child! You’re gonna get yourself kicked outta that school before long.”

She shrugs. “She’s so dumb, Momma. Jenny didn’t even know what that meant. Only Mrs. Bourque heard what I said, and she made me move my clip.”

I’m gearing up for a nice long rant when the door once again flies open, nearly popping off its hinges—only this time the body filling the doorway is that of my mother. The sound of the metal knob slamming into the wall forewarns that she ain’t happy. “They’re gone!” she shrieks, grabbing two fists full of her auburn bob and tugging. “Just took the money and ran.”

My heart starts beating double-time. The makeup falls from my hand, clanking against the metal tray. “Wh—who’s gone?” I ask, afraid I already know the answer.

“Those con artists you hired to renovate the chapel!”

A bitter taste forms in my mouth. “Ma…I’m sure they just had something come up. I’ll try to get in tou—”

“They. Are. Gone.” Her tone is one that bodes no argument as she begins pacing back and forth in the small room.

“Oh, shit,” Prissy hisses, wanting no part of the epic blowup about to ensue. “I’m going find Paw-Paw.” She snatches up her school bag and runs out before I can swat her little bottom for cursing.

It’s a good thing that our clients are mostly dead, because my family can be downright embarrassing. Oh, we