I was in my last semester of mortuary school attending the advanced embalming practicum. Eight of us crowded around the table — Professor Frank at the head, I at his right hand. He was showing us the difference between the industry standard fluid and his own concoction — a mélange of Botox, formaldehyde, and herbal additives which he would not divulge (patent pending). He called it Perma-Glow.
“All you do is shape the features, inject a few cc’s of the solution, and the deceased will maintain the expression and be suffused with a warm rosy glow.”
The fluid in his syringe was milky and seemed almost to sparkle. We all jostled a bit closer to get a better look as Frank removed the safety cap and eyed it to confirm the ingredients hadn’t begun to separate. My shoulder bumped Frank’s as my classmate Ben whispered a joke in my ear.
My lips curved up, my eyes brightened, and that was the moment one of the light bulbs over the embalming table popped.
Startled, Frank’s hand jerked and the tip of the syringe slipped beneath the skin underneath my jaw. His thumb reflexively mashed the plunger sending potent molecules of Perma-Glow into my face. The fluid zipped around inside me like a swarm of furious bees. The burn peaked and then ebbed as my face constricted. It was an instant and an eternity. The needle slipped out. My hand reached the wound as Ben grabbed my arm; “Amelia? Are you okay?”
Frank was blubbering apologies. A coppery taste filled my mouth and dripped down my throat. I stared straight ahead, dumbstruck. Frank pressed a linty tissue from his pocket against the dot of blood oozing from that venomous puncture. They guided me over to the side of the room where the light was still intact.
Then I watched as the concerned expressions hovering around me transformed into smiles.
I was confused, I didn’t understand this phenomenon yet, but I have experienced variations of it every day since.
“Wow,” I muttered. The strange sensations had faded and I was mortified to have everyone hovering over me, so I conceded that I was okay.
Frank squeezed my shoulder and turned back to the cadaver. “Let’s continue.”
After class, I went to the bathroom, caught a glimpse of my face, and drove myself straight to the hospital. When the tests concluded the doctor frowned and called in a consult. He frowned too and called in a specialist. I had half the hospital staff in the room when the specialist finally announced, “Unfortunately it appears the accident has left you with a permanent smile.” Then pausing, he tapped his pen against the chart and added hopefully, “Would you consent to being a part of a research study?”
The smile wasn’t garish. It dazzled, communicating friendly, open, bemusement. While I could still raise my eyebrows and wrinkle my forehead slightly, the drug had paralyzed my cheeks and the lower lids of my eyes. It appeared I had made a face and it had stuck that way.
I managed three more weeks before I had to drop out. Pre-need clients told my instructors they found my countenance unnerving. When I tried explaining my frozen face to a pair of sisters who had just lost their father, the youngest dabbed her eyes and reached across the desk to pat my hand. Then the oldest slipped out of the room to request another agent. She said they did not intend to pay through the nose only to get stuck consoling their funeral director.
I would never appear somber again, but depression draped me like a sopping blanket. The school refunded a semester of tuition, assuring me I could still have a career behind-the-scenes doing prep work.
I consulted an attorney. He couldn’t take his eyes off my face.
“No case,” he declared. “Any woman on the jury would be beating down Frank’s door for her own dose. You look incredible. Your eyes are bright, your complexion is radiant, and that smile could stop traffic.”
“Don’t you understand? I’m disfigured.”
“Amelia, you need to reframe your state of mind.”
I glared at him. “He ruined my career.”
“Listen, it won’t be long before Frank realizes his beautification juice is wasted on the dead. We need to move in now and get you a piece of the action. This is a ten-million-dollar idea, and I’m here to see that you collect.”
He let that sink in and started to nod his head when he saw my eyebrows lift.
“You think I could get — ” I began.
“Two-point-five million, easy,” he finished, sliding a document across his desk. “Just as soon as we handle the small matter of my retainer.”
As I signed on the line, for the first time in months, a hint of the genuine had actually begun to creep into my smile.
Shawna Mayer currently resides in central Illinois with her two cats Omar and Ziggy, and a Quaker parrot “The Bunk.” (And yes, “The Wire” is her favorite show.) Shawna is currently working on an untitled novel about an itinerant preacher who discovers his fiancée is pregnant with the second child of God. She holds a Masters degree in English but is much more proud of the fact that her cheesecake won the coveted “Best Flavored” at the Lucas Brown Partnership Invitational Cheesecake Competition this year. She also wishes to thank her Thursday night writer’s group for their love and support.