Excerpt: Undying Love
A Horror/Thriller Novella
Twenty years ago…
MORGAN SMITHWELL WANTED to be a mannequin. She stared at the tall, lithe figure, at the lifeless model’s perfectly smooth skin, then to its beautiful dress. Off the shoulder, long and elegant, the royal blue crushed velvet gown was almost exactly like the one in the latest issue of Teen Magazine. With a pair of matching kitten heels and dangly rhinestone earrings, the outfit would be complete. She bit her lip and imagined herself in the crushed velvet, her hair swept into a sophisticated up do, and dancing cheek to cheek with Tom Dillon, Greenfield High School’s star quarterback. Her metal braces caught on her chapped lips, tearing the tender skin, and bursting the fantasy.
And it was a dumb fantasy. Tom was her ‘Jake’ from Sixteen Candles. Dark hair, dark eyes, perfect body, smart and an all-star athlete. From the moment she’d seen him walking down the hall on the first day of freshman year, she’d had a crush on him. Over time, that crush had deepened. When they were sophomores, they’d been partnered together to work on a science project. Since then, he’d occasionally say hi to her, or give her a nod to acknowledge she existed. And she would take those small moments and daydream, imagining the two of them together. God, if anyone at her high school suspected she was in love with him, it would only give them more reasons to make fun of her. Especially Tom’s beautiful, bitchy girlfriend, Alexa, who, after gym class, took pleasure in reminding Morgan that she simply didn’t belong by making snarky, mean comments in the locker room.
“How’s the funeral home, Morgan?” Alexa would ask. “Since no boy will go near you, do you play with the dead guys’ penises?”
“That dress would look gorgeous on you.” Her mom moved alongside her carrying the sweater she’d just purchased, and knocked Alexa from her mind. “It would really bring out the blue in your eyes.”
Thanks to her Coke-bottle glasses, no one noticed the color of her eyes. They were too busy teasing her about her family’s funeral home. They called her Wednesday Addams—even though she didn’t look like the television show’s character—and would make crude remarks about what her dad did to the deceased women he embalmed, or, like Alexa, say how Morgan and her mom liked ‘stiff’ sex. None of their taunts were true. Her parents were respected members of their community, who honored the dead, along with their family members, by laying them to rest with dignity. If the kids at school found out Morgan applied make-up on the deceased prior to a showing at the funeral home, she imagined they’d come up with even more ways to bully her.
“The Homecoming dance is just two weeks away,” Mom continued. “Let’s find your size so you can try on the dress.”
Morgan shook her head. “That’s okay. No one has asked me to go.”
Mom took her arm and dragged her toward the racks of gowns. “It’s almost the twenty-first century. Either ask a boy you like, or just go with your girlfriends.” She stopped when she found the blue dresses, pushed hangers aside, then pulled one off the rack. “Here’s your size,” she said holding the dress in front of Morgan.
“Mom, it’s way too long.”
“We’ll hem it.”
Morgan let out a sigh. “This dress is for skinny girls with flat chests.”
Mom gave her a patient smile. “You won’t know that until you give it a try. Please?” She batted her long lashes. “Indulge me.”
Morgan loved her mother, but she didn’t get it. “I have no friends who are going.” She had no friends, period. Well, there was Julie, who she knew from band, but she only called to ask about homework.
Her mom frowned. “Is there a boy you like?”
Morgan shook her head. She was too embarrassed to tell her mom she was in love with a boy who’d said hi to her a total of eleven times. Pathetically, she’d kept track.
Mom led her to a full-length mirror outside the dressing room, then held the blue dress in front of her again. “Wouldn’t it be fun to at least try on the dress? Maybe a few others, too?”
Morgan didn’t look at the gown, but at her mother’s face, at her flawless complexion. She glanced to the zits on her own forehead, chin and cheeks, then quickly went back to studying her mother.
“What is it, honey?” Mom asked. “Why are you focused on me and not on how pretty you’d look in the dress?”
“Because I’ll never be pretty,” Morgan admitted. Not with tears or bitterness, but with acceptance, since she favored her father’s side and looked a lot like her grandmother, who hadn’t been an attractive woman. “I’ll never look like you.” The only thing common between Mom and her was their eye and hair color. Her mom was a beautiful woman. Slim and curvy, she had a pretty smile, striking features and long, thick, dark hair. Morgan wasn’t fat, but she wasn’t skinny, and had a large chest and wide hips. Maybe beneath the layers of acne she, too, had striking features, but she doubted it. Similar to her grandma’s, her face was too round, too average. As for the hair…Morgan hadn’t inherited her mother’s straight locks but her father’s curls, except hers were a mass of frizz.
She met her reflection in the mirror. Bottom line: she was butt ugly, and putting her in a pretty dress wouldn’t change that fact.
“I think you’re very pretty. Dad does, too.”
But wasn’t that what parents were supposed to think or say?
Mom set the dress aside, and still standing in front of the mirror, she smoothed her hand over Morgan’s long frizzy hair. “When I was your age, I had acne, too. Yours will clear up, just like mine did. Once we get you fitted for contacts and your braces come off, you’ll see just how pretty you truly are.” She smiled. “You won’t be able to keep the boys away.”
Morgan’s chin trembled and she fought to keep from crying in the middle of the department store. Her mom’s eyes widened, and she quickly hooked her arm through Morgan’s and led her out into the parking lot. Once they were in the car, Morgan let the tears loose.
“Why are you crying?” Her mom gave her a tissue. “Honey, talk to me.”
“I’m graduating this year, and this is my last chance to go to Homecoming.”
“Well, maybe you can go to Winter Formal or Prom.”
Morgan blew her nose. “Fat chance. No one will ask me. Even if I suddenly wake up beautiful.”
“Why not?” Her mother’s brows pulled together. “That doesn’t make sense.”
She didn’t have the heart to tell her mom that being the daughter of the local mortician and living above the funeral home made her the weird girl. The person no one wanted to befriend. The girl no one loved.
“Never mind,” Morgan said.
“I love you, so I won’t never mind. Tell me.”
Morgan sighed. “I’ve never had a boyfriend, and I’ve never been kissed. I’m ugly, and the kids think it’s totally gross that our family has a funeral home. They think I’m gross. Sorry, I shouldn’t have told you all that. It’s just…I went into senior year hoping that it’d be different. That the kids at school would be, too. That maybe they’d accept me. You know, invite me to a party.” She released a huff of breath and looked out of the window. “That maybe they’d talk to me.”
“I had no idea,” Mom said, her voice shaky.
Morgan looked to her and immediately regretted what she’d said. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
Mom shook her head. “How could I not see this was happening? You’re in the band and go to football games, you’re in choir…your grades are excellent, and you’re always happy when you’re at home. I thought everything was great with you, so I never once questioned whether you were struggling with anything.” She took Morgan’s hand. “But you have been…silently. That makes my heart break, because I want you to be happy.”
“I am. And I don’t care what the kids say about the funeral home. I love making our clients look good for their families, and I still plan on going into mortuary science so that I can eventually work alongside Dad.”
“But?” Mom prompted.
“But…I want a boyfriend.” Tom’s killer smile filled her mind. “I want to fall in love and have what you and Dad have. I want to be loved.”
“Honey, what you’re feeling is very natural. One day, you’ll find love.” Mom’s cell phone rang. She picked it up and glanced to the tiny screen. “Sorry, it’s your dad,” she said, then answered. Her face immediately paled and her eyes dimmed with sadness. “Okay, we’re on our way home.”
“What’s wrong?” Morgan asked after her mom ended the call.
“A young boy was killed last night. A drunk driver ran his car off the road and he died from the impact. The family have asked for us to make arrangements for them.”
Growing up in a funeral home had never scared Morgan. Dead people didn’t scare her, either. She’d always looked at the deceased as temporary guests in their house, and admired how well her parents dealt with the families who’d come into their home to grieve for their loved ones. But, at an early age, she’d learned that not everyone died in their sleep, that some people died violently, and some way too young. The young ones always made her sad, especially the babies. So little, so much to live for…
“Who’s the boy?” Morgan asked.
The next night, Morgan lay in her bed, staring at the unmoving ceiling fan. She’d spent yesterday and most of today in her room, crying, grieving for Tom. The boy she’d loved, and now…now he was gone. There would never be a chance to make her fantasies come true. Never a first date, or a first kiss. He would never fall in love with her, and she wouldn’t lose her virginity to him. As a sob tore through her, she rolled onto her side and curled her knees toward her chest.
Tom was so special, so talented and handsome. If he had lived, and she had blossomed from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, then maybe, just maybe, he would have done more than only say hi. Tears streamed down her cheek and onto the pillow. Maybe he would’ve gotten the chance to know her, love her.
Once word about Tom’s death had spread, the school administrators decided to close the high school for the following two days so students and faculty could attend tomorrow’s wake and Wednesday’s funeral. Morgan, of course, would be there. But because she’d gone to school with Tom, and he was her age, her parents had both agreed she shouldn’t help with Tom’s cosmetics, or greet the grieving guests who would flood their funeral home. Instead, Mom had taken care of applying the make-up and grooming him. Morgan had wanted to handle that, since she knew every plane and angle of Tom’s handsome face, and the way he’d worn his hair. He’d had such great hair. So thick and dark…
God, she wanted to see him. Just one more time. Have a quiet moment with the boy she loved.
Tomorrow, first thing in the morning, the family would arrive to view Tom privately. Later, hundreds of people would crowd the downstairs to pay their respects. There would be little time for her to be alone with him, if at all. Dad had a strict rule about Morgan being in a room by herself with a dead person, even when she’d applied cosmetics. She was too young, he’d say, too impressionable. Which was ridiculous. She was nearly eighteen and planned to join the family business. The dead didn’t bother her. Dead people didn’t tease her, make fun of the way she looked, or what her parents did for a living.
Tom never had, either. He hadn’t gone out of his way to talk to her, but he certainly hadn’t been mean. She’d bet anything he’d been a sweet guy, who’d loved his parents and brother and sister. And now he was gone.
As fresh tears filled her eyes, she sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Sleep would be impossible. Not with Tom lying in their basement, where the embalming room was located. She glanced to the clock, saw that it was two in the morning, and toed on her slippers. Not bothering with a bra, she pulled a heavy sweatshirt over her pajama top, then went to the door. After opening it, she listened for her parents, whose room occupied the third floor attic. Not hearing anything, instead of using the elevator, she quietly made her way down the steps to the first floor, which was used for wakes, and continued on until she reached the basement.
She flipped the switch at the bottom of the steps. The fluorescent lights flickered briefly before coming alive. Her heart pounded hard as she made her way to the embalming room. This was very bad. Her parents would be extremely angry with her for sneaking into the basement, but she didn’t care. She loved Tom, and now was the only time she would have with him.
As she wrapped her hand around the doorknob, dread and anticipation made her stomach both twist and tingle. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.
Do it. Come see me.