Emily knew exactly how to care for Hugh, a reclusive man burdened with phobias and insecurities. But when his beloved Emily dies, Hugh must manage their business and his unhinged view of the world all while planning his wife’s final arrangements.
The workshop bench called to Hugh. From behind the glass display case with its mini LED track lights tucked inside the corners highlighting various wares and samples. From behind the textured plaster wall painted periwinkle and dappled with prices and offerings. From behind the clock on that blue wall—now with a dark streaky stain—ticking off the time when client-facing hours ceased and the behind-the-scenes work began.
The workbench behind the wall was always his steady friend, away from customers’ views, with its cedar beam legs and worn oak top, nicked and rugged. When muffled voices from the shopfront snaked their way past the plaster and beams, he’d lean into the bench a little harder, allowing the wood to press into his stomach, steadying him, and try to isolate only the cadence of Emily’s words. The top was worn smooth where the oil from Hugh’s tools and hands soaked in along with the scooting and pulling of items across the surface. The constant layer of dust and grit and metal shavings negated the need to sandpaper the workbench top.
Hugh liked his spot with his bench and equipment and ashy existence behind the shop wall. Emily had been the face of their business. The brains. The voice in front of the periwinkle.
From his bench, with the workroom door open, he could see the front door of the shop. Now he was in the shop. Facing the front. The periwinkle all around him. The dark, round stain by the front door. He’d not figured what he’d tell anyone about it, should they ask. He’d hoped they’d simply not ask.
He’d also hoped, should he have a customer today, that they’d not ask of Emily, either. But he knew they would. She was loved. And she’d be missed.
Hugh hadn’t had a single customer today, but he couldn’t bring himself to simply leave the shop’s front unattended and just go to the bench. Emily blamed that preciseness, that over-the-top rule following, on his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Agoraphobia, specifically.
He preferred not to think of his carefulness as a condition.
Just a simple preference to have things a certain way and avoid all interactions with unpredictable people—Emily’s spontaneity and creativity gave him a lifetime’s worth of unpredictability, he needed no more than that. He’d often wondered why Emily had chosen him.
Was he a problem to solve? Did she truly love him? He truly loved her. Even offered to set her free more than once when the crippling fear settled in and he couldn’t so much as walk out the front door of his own home.
She deserved better. To be free.
But she’d stayed. And loved him and cared for him as his wife and business partner.
And, obsessive compulsive disorder or dutiful business owner, he forbade himself from leaving the stool behind the glass case before closing time. He’d crane his neck every five minutes toward the clock in hopes that fifteen or twenty minutes had vanished. He’d wipe the counter down with his microfiber dust rag, removing the dusty remains which inevitably floated into the storefront from his workbench area. Then he’d reposition himself on the stool and start the cycle over again. Until quitting time.
Quitting time when he could work on one simple reload order and one burning.
Filling and burning.
Emily’s idea, both of those. When her parents had died in the car crash, the family, including Hugh and the other in-laws, hadn’t enough funds even when pooled together to bury the couple. Cremation was also outrageously expensive for what it was, but that’s the route the adult children took, each taking turns making unaffordable payments until the funeral bill was paid off.
Then there was the issue of the overly sentimental family figuring on a common resting place to put the ashes so they could all visit.
So Emily got creative. And her sisters joined in.
Her parents had been hunters. Avid ones, amassing an impressive collection of guns, shells—full and spent—and reloading equipment. Emily carefully funneled her parents’ ashen remains into the hollows of shotgun shells. Mixed in gunpowder. Sealed the cartridges.
Each woman fired off as many shots that day as it took to broadly scatter mother and father over the beloved hunting grounds. Emily and her sisters visit that spot each season to pay their respects and share happy memories with picnics, target practice, or simple hikes.
Each season. Four times a year. Without fail.
Without Hugh. Hugh had mustered all he could to manage attendance at the initial “scattering” of the remains. He didn’t think he could go to that spot in the woods again and feel the echo of the shotgun blasts down to his toes. To see the nesting birds rise high up in the air from startling footsteps and chattering women.
No, he’d preferred the solitude and to allow Emily the elbow room to jaw it up with her siblings. That’d been a mistake.
Hugh should’ve gone. Each and every time. Four times a year. For the last six years.
Six times four. Twenty-four.
When had it started?
Another crane of the neck, and the clock graciously dismissed him from his perch. He stood and stretched out the kinks. From his neck. From his legs. Hands. Fingers. He had real work to do now. He rubbed his stomach. Hunger hadn’t visited him in quite some time. Emily had always scolded him about his intake. Reminding him when he should eat during those times he became engrossed in the work. Bringing him cold cut sandwiches in the summer or steaming mugs of tomato soup in the winter.
He'd miss that soup. Her soup.
He’d miss her.
He should be grateful for the time he’d had with her. But it had never been enough, as Emily’s time had been split, not evenly by any stretch, between the shop and Hugh. The shop won out most of the time. But Hugh usually didn’t mind, as he was always close by. Behind the periwinkle wall taking in her muffled condolences to the customers.
Her soft humming as she straightened and cleaned the shopfront.
Her scent of lilacs and vanilla and tomato soup wafting through the open workroom door when the shop was empty.
About the only time Emily left Hugh to himself was on her runs into town to gather supplies or groceries. And those were quick and to the point.
The longest stretches were those trips to the hunting grounds with her sisters.
Hugh stood behind his workbench, the padded mat under his feet remembering exactly where he liked to stand and eased the pressure from his knees. His tools were arranged in precise order, from largest to smallest. A neat curl of periwinkle ribbon, satin and smooth, waited for him at the end of the bench. Waited for Hugh to incorporate it into the final work. He ran the dust rag over the bench and tools, giving all a light brushing, sending the remains of unknown number of folks to the floor in dusty wisps.
He shook his head. How many times had a customer asked if they received “all” of their loved one back. No one ever receives them all back.
So Emily lied. And the customer would nod a teary acceptance. And Hugh would say nothing, just bow his head in humble respect during those times when he was within eyeshot of a customer. That customer’s loved one was—or would be soon after the pit was fired up—all over the shop’s floor. All over the ceiling. The glass case.
Floating in the air.
Stuck to the periwinkle plaster.
And all over Emily and Hugh as they journeyed home each night.
Hugh tried not to think about that part. That someone—in some form or another—was always with him. Maybe that’s why eating was such a deal. He knew, even if he didn’t dwell on it, that he’d likely consumed bits and pieces of every cremation he’d performed with every meal.
As much as he loved his solitude, he was never, ever alone.
Hugh picked up his funnel and began setting up the reloading station. He had a couple of orders. He’d start with the simplest first. And one that mirrored the first time he’d helped Emily with her crazy business idea.
As word spread regarding Emily’s ceremony for her parents, Emily was recruited to do likewise for others’ deceased loved ones. Reloading shotgun shells from their kitchen table in their cozy one-bedroom nestled at the side of the lane. Hugh had helped. Happy to be under the same roof as his true love. Happy not to have to leave for a job outside the home. Emily was all he needed.
When the complaining grew over funeral options and expenses in their cash-strapped—and rapidly aging—community, Emily had another idea.
“Hugh. Let’s charge. Not a lot. Just cover costs and our simple living expenses. We don’t need much, you and I.” She’d tousled his hair and sat on his lap. The only human in the world he’d let into his space. “We could offer what the funeral services don’t. Creative disposals—past the necklaces and urns. And cremation.”
“That’s a lot. Why not just keep it simple—”
“Hugh. Diversify or die.” She’d kissed him.
And he conceded to Emily’s runaway creativity. But, it turned out one must have licenses and certifications and some manner of education to run a crematorium. And a proper setup was cost prohibitive.
They’d sat on the idea. Tossing pros and cons around like hot potatoes around the dinner table. Hugh’d eventually lost interest in the body-burning business. Emily had not. Her passion for the idea burned fresh with each season.
With each trip to the forest with her sisters to pay homage to her gone-too-soon parents. After those long afternoons away from Hugh, she’d come back full of life and vim and hopes and dreams…
And she’d pressed. Carefully. Because she’d known that’s how Hugh would respond best. Careful. Calculated. Precise plans.
And, carefully, they began building a rudimentary pit. One that could reach eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit and not alert the far-reaching neighbors. One with a specialized grate and pulley system that could be lifted so the cremains could be gathered. Hugh had pointed out this system is flawed. Their cremains wouldn’t be pure.
Dear old Aunt Sally goes into the heat, but only a thimbleful of aunt Sally comes out, along with a teaspoon of Fred the butcher and half gallon of the Posey’s old cow. That cow that had served the Poseys so well over the last decade and they just couldn’t bear the thought of not having something to remember her by—as if the extra rims around their belts from the fresh milk and butter weren’t remembrance enough.
Emily had chided him. It was the thought that counted. And if they wanted all their loved one—or beloved pet—they’d have to go through the proper funeral home or veterinary services.
Hugh’s fingers flew over the shells and funnels and packs of gunpowder. Setting each one into the press. Sealing the ashes and powder together. For someone’s final earthly send-off.
Almost done with the customer’s order. He could pay his meager bills for another month with the payment. Five simple shotgun shells. One month of food and electric. Their property had been paid off free and clear. Everything in the couple’s name. Emily’s doing.
Emily was everywhere.
He tidied up the special order, placed the shells in a simple white box, and tied it shut with a red ribbon. The address on the order indicated that soon he’d hear these five shots echo across the valley. Over his house. Through the trees and down the lane to the secluded shop. Through his bones. Each shot reminded Hugh of the day he’d watched Emily and her sisters fire off their parents.
Between the hunters firing at prey and the reloaded cremation shells ringing through the afternoons, gunfire was a common, unreported occurrence.
The shot from the small crematory business certainly went unreported, or Hugh wouldn’t have been able to come to work today.
Hugh readied his apron for the trip to the pit. Death was a nasty thing. Necessitating dust rags, aprons and periwinkle touch-up paint.
From his place on the padded mat, he could see the dark, round stain on the periwinkle plaster to the right of the doorframe. Periwinkle—Emily’s favorite color. Nearly the color of her eyes. She’d told Hugh blue made people feel at ease—a comfort color. He enjoyed the walls and had even let her paint the workshop the same hue. He drew comfort from the color, Emily had been correct.
Or maybe because the walls brought out the rich blue of her eyes.
Hugh had allowed his arthritic fingers to linger over that dark, round stain this morning when he opened the shop. It was dry now. He’d not figured out what to do about it yet. He didn’t know where Emily kept the periwinkle touch-up paint.
He’d fired up the pit first thing before opening the shop. It needed preheating, so to speak. Hugh had expertly prepped and wrapped the body in a muslin tarp and tied it up with twine yesterday. The mummy form rested on the utility cart all lined with bricks of ice, just now starting to drip. He used industrial tongs to replace the ice blocks back into the freezer. No need to be wasteful.
Hugh rolled the rig out across the yard—a yard so rutted up with mole hills that he’d have to take care not to lose the package on the way to the smoldering pit.
Emily never worried about the smoke from the cremations. Hugh had fretted over it, at first, until Emily solved the problem. They offered free services to the neighboring farmers—the ones most likely to see a billowing cloud rising high into the sky at the edges of their properties. The ones most likely to call the law. And then the couple offered services to the law.
The conservation officer servicing their county had aging parents. And a conservation officer’s salary.
The local sheriff had a ninety-three-year-old grandmother. And aging parents. And a small-town elected official’s salary.
Emily never felt guilty about billing for the services. The work was worth it. Hugh, now at the deep pit, rolled the body in. The mummy toppled face down into the glowing hole. A dark, round stain had started on the back. Not quite as big as the one on the periwinkle entry wall. He watched for a moment as the muslin caught fire, erasing the stain in hungry flames. He closed the iron lid down tight and walked a few feet further into the yard and opened the oxygen intake. One can’t have fire without air.
He turned back to face the porch. The smoke wafted from the ground, stinging his eyes and enveloping him in the familiar gray embrace of a body reclaimed by the elements.
And he swore he saw a wisp of periwinkle braiding with the darker grays from the muslin wrap. He knew that was imagination—a bit of Emily rubbing off on him. A bit too sleep deprived. Blood sugar no doubt dipping.
He walked back inside to his bench and hung up the apron, wet from the melting ice and smokey from the pit. He rested his eyes on the dark, round stain and tried not to relive yesterday’s ordeal.
When the young man had brought Emily’s phone back.
From the woods.
Where she’d gone to pay her seasonal respects to her parents. With her sisters.
And with this man. Ten years Hugh’s junior. Open. Smiling. Bright.
Not riddled with phobias and conditions.
This strange man was free.
And Hugh had decided later that night, after closing time, that Emily needed to be free, too.
He focused down to the workbench. To the empty hourglass. The size of a dollar bill in height and width, the glass supported on either side by slender spindles of oak. The last one in stock.
Emily’s favorite piece. She’d filled several of these over the years. “To have them for all time” was her sales pitch. Hugh thought that great. “For all time.”
The family chose their loved one’s favorite color, and Emily would mingle the colorful grains with the ashen remnants.
Tying a matching ribbon to the middle.
He had a few hours—two, probably, from the size of the body—to wait until he could gather the remains and give them a proper final resting place in the hourglass. He opened the stopper on the bottom of the piece and poured in periwinkle blue sand.
A peaceful color. Emily’s favorite. It would blend well with the ashy gray of her remains. Mimicking the flecks of gray in her eyes. He returned the stopper and tipped the hourglass on its opposite site. He stared as the sand grains jostled for position at the narrow neck between the glass bulbs.
Gray and blue. Blue and gray.
It was missing something. Hugh had always thought the hourglass mementos missed something. Two-tone and lacking depth. He glanced up to the stain on the wall. Darker blue than the surrounding plaster after the scrubbing down.
He chose a long metal file from the line of tools on his bench. He wiped each side of the file on his pant leg, removing a thin, ever-collecting layer of dust. He removed the stopper from the hourglass once again and took both items to the wall.
To the stain.
Hugh scraped the plaster, the darker blue stain, in fine dusty chunks into the hourglass with the periwinkle blue sand.
He stopped filing when he reached bare wall and enough particles had entered the tiny hole in the hourglass to appease him. The rest he left in a mess on the floor, on his arms, on his pant legs.
With the dust rag, he cleaned up the outside of the hourglass. He replaced the stopper again and twisted and turned the piece to watch a more interesting show. More varied. More creative.
Like his Emily.
As Hugh picked up the satin ribbon, he had second thoughts. Maybe he should reload her. Pack some shells and send her off to be with her parents. He could do that. Manage one more trip to the woods to give Emily a final, free resting place.
But Hugh never liked sharing. He only ever shared with Emily. He let the ribbon dangle in his fingertips.
And if Hugh put Emily there, in that spot that she so eagerly shared with this other man each season, then Hugh would be sharing Emily in the rawest sense.
Hugh tied the periwinkle ribbon to the slender part of the hourglass and removed the stopper. He placed the tip of the smallest funnel he had into the hole.
He and the hourglass would wait for the pit to do its job.
And Hugh would keep Emily to himself for all time.