I understood immediately why he had picked her as his model for the week. Despite my best efforts to avoid the thought, I could imagine him leaning lovingly over her, his shaggy, greasy hair concealing his eyes as he perfected every detail. He would paint her lips that alluring velvet red and dust her face with a fine powder make-up before moving behind her to curl her thick locks. His attention to every inch of her paid off as much as it did with all the others—even in the photograph, she was so beautiful that I feared she could bring me to tears if I looked at her for too long.

A red-faced businessman knocked my shoulder in his rush down the sidewalk, and I grabbed at the icy glass in front of me to steady myself. Glaring at his back, I adjusted my scarf and glanced back at the canvas photograph on the other side of the window. Truly, it made sense that she was his current favorite. She had been so pale in life; it must have been simple to preserve that skin in death.

I tore myself away from the scene and headed inside, suddenly aware of a painful chill in my gloved fingers. At the desk, Rafaela filed her nails, boredom obvious in her startling green eyes.

“Welcome to Joaquim’s Funeral Services,” she said habitually. “What can I do for you?” Smirking, I leaned on the desk, prompting her to look up. “Oh, Adelia! I’m sorry, it’s been such a drag today. No new customers, so the old man spent the whole day working on the Huerta girl.” She glanced over at the display window, where the photograph stood propped up on its aged easel. “He did a good job, I can admit that. Hard to look at her and believe she was hit by a bus.” I nodded in agreement, peering towards the back room.

“Is she still in there?” I asked curiously.

“Yeah. Her funeral is tomorrow. I think Alejandro is driving the hearse. It’s always good money, so he’s excited.” The secretary rose to her feet, eyeing me coolly. “I’m going to close up shop. He’s in the back, if you’re trying to talk to him.” I bowed my head gratefully and hurried to Joaquim’s workshop, trying my best to open the creaking door quietly. My nostrils were immediately greeted by disinfectant and hyacinths, and I was relieved to see that the coffin was already closed. The undertaker was wiping sweat off of his brow, just seconds before it dripped onto his freshly cleaned table.

“Adelia,” he greeted me absently, his glasses teetering close to the edge of his nose. “What brings you here so late?”

“Just making sure you’re remembering to eat,” I teased, holding up the crumpled paper bag I had packed for him. He eyed it curiously, finally reaching for the glasses and saving them from a journey to the floor.

“I planned to eat at home,” he remarked, only to smile lightly. “I appreciate it, though. Thank you, dear.” I felt my face flush with pride, and thrust the bag at him, barely remembering at the time that we were trading our banter over a table that had just recently held up a corpse.

“You…did a really good job,” I murmured, motioning at the coffin. “She looks beautiful.” Joaquim sighed, peeling off his gloves and tossing them onto the counter.

“Her fiancé was at the consultation,” he replied. “He wouldn’t stop talking about how she looked like an angel, even when she was alive. I wanted to let him see her that way one more time.” My heart caught in my throat, and I said nothing, prompting him to shake his head once more. “I should go. I’ll need to be back early tomorrow to meet with Alejandro.” He lay a hand on my back, guiding me towards the lobby. Rafaela had already left, and we both hesitated at the front door in a tense moment of silence.

“…Goodnight,” I said simply, hoping my dark hair covered my reddened face as I retreated into the outside world. Maybe it was his eyes, or his simple, sharp voice, but I always left Joaquim’s Funeral Services feeling as though I had lost a battle. Considering I had never needed his typical work, it was alarming.


I had barely stepped through the door when my brothers appeared in the hallway, identical smirks on their identical faces.

“Ooh, she smells like death!” Bernardo cackled, feigning a gag.

“She’s been hanging around the Reaper again, brother, what do you expect?” Ignacio chimed in. “Has he taken your soul yet, Adelia?”

“Not yet,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “I offered him a two-for-one deal on you two instead.” I breezed by them into the kitchen, where my mother and sister prepared dinner. They appeared to be the only ones there, and I couldn’t help but shrink back in disappointment. I wasn’t sure why I expected my father to be there, reading the newspaper like he used to. It had been weeks since he’d returned from the town hall while I was still awake.

“No sign of Papa yet?” I asked nonetheless, if only to alert my family of my presence. Graciela turned from the pot to wave a soup-covered ladle at me.

“He called earlier. He’s working late, of course,” she explained. “How is mister Joaquim?” Even from my distance, I could see my mother wince slightly, and bit my lip.

“…Working hard, as usual.” My voice sounded forced, like it was coming from someone else’s throat. I had expected such a reaction from the twins, but Mama? She had always been quiet about my friendship with Joaquim, even when it began slowly drifting into something else.

As my younger sister passed me by, hauling the pot into the dining room, I moved to lean against the counter, my eyebrows raised.

“Is something wrong?” I asked softly. She looked over at me, cautious as ever.

“You can’t expect your mother to have no problems with it,” she began. “Her oldest daughter spending all of her free time with a man more than double her age.”

“He’s still younger than you, Mama,” I said, half-joking. She rapped me on the head affectionately and allowed herself a thin smile.

“You watch your mouth.” She returned to the pan, scooping up some rice onto each of the plates beside her. “I’m not your brothers, Adelia. I don’t think he’s some vampire out to prey on young girls. But there are worse things for him to take from you than your blood.” I frowned, even as she handed me two plates to take to the main room. The dish smelt wonderful, but not wonderful enough to distract me.

“You think so?” I asked. My mother looked away, focusing on the meal.

“Just be careful when you’re in there,” she said, before vanishing from the kitchen and leaving me to hurry after her. I recognized that voice; in less words, it told me that I wouldn’t hear any more about it from her.


Joaquim offered me a mask when the smell became too much for me. The lightly scented cotton relaxed me immediately, and I folded my arms on my chest, looking down at the body he was working on. Ninety-one. Male. Natural causes. He looked so peaceful, even before Joaquim’s work, that I couldn’t imagine he had been in much pain when he departed. It was a soothing thought.

“Can you pass me that scalpel?” the undertaker asked, barely glancing up at me. I obliged as quickly as I could, suddenly aware of how clammy my hands were. My mother’s words kept echoing in my head, made louder by her unwillingness to explain herself, and the air felt thick around me. My chest was starting to ache, and I didn’t feel as if I could attribute it to the man with the open chest cavity on Joaquim’s table.

“I love you.”

The words tumbled out before I realized that they were even in my head, and I felt my heartbeat falter. Joaquim was still for a moment, his scalpel inches away from his work, but when he put it aside, he was making full eye contact with me for the first time that I could remember.

“…No, you don’t,” he replied bluntly. I blinked, taking a step back.

“What do you mean, I don’t?”

“Listen to me, Adelia.” He looked down at the body between us. “When I work, it’s easy to look at these people and imagine who they were in life. I know this man was a widower, and that his son found him in his bed after not hearing from him for five days, but that’s all I know.” He smoothed the stranger’s wispy hair out of his face, the sadness evident in his eyes. “I create stories while I work, and you create them while you watch me. I think of all the things they could have been in life, and I fall in love with people who don’t exist.” He shook his head, his gaze returning to me. “So do you.” In the silence that followed, I pulled off my mask and let it drop onto the table. I had to work against the lump in my throat, even when it felt like it was going to strangle me.

“How do you know?” I finally choked out, my fists clenched at my sides. My voice was trembling pathetically. “You must think you know me pretty well to make that assumption. How do you know I don’t just love who you really are?” Joaquim smiled sadly, returning to the scalpel and shaking his head.

“Because,” he said lightly, “you’re just like your mother.”





Darby JoyceDarby Joyce considers writing to be her first true love and is excited for any chance to share her work with the world. A sophomore at Salisbury University on Maryland’s eastern shore, she studies international relations and psychology, but she spends her free time playing Quidditch and seeking out little adventures. Though her nineteen years of life have sent her to live in all corners of the world, she currently resides in Columbia, Maryland.

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