Thursday, June 23, 2011

FICTION: The Incorruptible Housewarming Gift by Susan Franceschina

The body in the potpourri scented attic was a whisper of generations past, with his top hat resting upon his chest and coattails hinting from the sides of the dusty table. But the body was so well preserved that Mariah wondered if he’d actually died yesterday. She supposed he was handsome, but observing his good looks left her feeling as dirty as the old farmhouse she was renting.

Her first instinct was to scream, but she’d swallowed the initial terror. The man was dead and posed no risk, nothing to be logically fearful of. Her next instinct was to dial 911, but being new in town was hard enough without such drama. Nobody wants to be the girl with a dead man in her attic.

Mariah had seen mummified corpses before, but this one was the pinnacle of perfection. His cheeks were pink as if blood still coursed through his body. Resisting the urge to touch his arm, she sunk onto a nearby stool and commenced staring at the man. Who had placed him here? Why had he been left alone in the attic of a Pennsylvania farmhouse?

Mariah’s new job didn’t start for nine days. She had slightly over a week to move in and – figure out the mystery of the dead man. She almost giggled at that. The mystery of the dead man. Sounded like the title of a corny movie.

With a spring in her step, Mariah set to unpacking and cleaning up the old farmhouse. By the time dusk arrived, the place looked livable. For dinner, she drove into town for a medium cheese pizza at a place called Carl’s Pizzeria. Thank God she ordered it to go, because the whole establishment scrutinized her silently as she waited to pay. Aren’t small town folk supposed to be friendlier? she thought.

Bedtime couldn’t come soon enough, because Mariah half believed the farmhouse had to be haunted. True, she’d never seen a ghost or heard a bump in the night before, but with a perfect mummy in the attic . . .

She curled underneath the cool covers, leaving the bedroom window open and making a mental note to buy curtains. Her dreams were relatively boring and definitely not haunted.

The mummy was where Mariah had left him the next morning, and she stood beside his table, almost angry. “I’m not afraid of ghosts,” she said, looking directly at his closed eyelids. “And – I’m new in town . . . so I suppose I’m a little lonely.”

Still no response. So Mariah drove into town for curtains at the Dollar General, which she discovered was the Walmart of the small town.

The cashier was a skinny teenage boy who seemed amused as Mariah went through the checkout. His lips kept curling and he seemed to be wrestling with laughter.

Once in her pickup, Mariah checked the mirror for signs of food stuck in her teeth, or a dirt mark on her face. Nothing. She was flawless. And she’d bought Oreos and cheap blue curtains, not tampons or anything a teenage boy might laugh over.

She visited the dead man moments after returning home. In fact, she seemed to be drawn to him, feeling an inexplicable need to visit him often. He didn’t move. He didn’t speak. He offered her nothing, but he was there like a houseguest who needed taken care of.

The doorbell chimed just as she was about to touch the dead man’s coat, so Mariah barreled down the steps to greet the visitor. An old couple stood behind the screen, and the woman held a basket covered with a pretty floral cloth.

“Good morning,” said Mariah, smiling warmly as she opened the screen.

“Good afternoon,” replied the old man. “It is after two already.” His tone was flirtatious, the way some old men shamelessly speak to younger women.

“Oh, right. I guess it is,” admitted Mariah.

The old woman spoke next. “We’re the Coopers from down the road. Mailbox 75A with the mile-long driveway. We brought you a housewarming gift – a big basket of muffins.”

Mariah accepted the large basket as a wave of sweet baked goodness penetrated her nose. “Thank you. Would you like to come inside for a visit?”

A smile – similar to that of the Dollar General teenage boy – formed on both their lips. “Oh, no thank you,” said Mr. Cooper. “We’ve got to get into town before the storm rolls in. We just wanted you to have this housewarming gift. Say, did you receive any other housewarming gifts?”

Mariah flushed, embarrassed that no one else had visited her. “Um . . . no. You all are the first to stop by.”

Mr. Cooper winked. “Well, I’m sure others are planning to welcome you to town.”

“I hope you’re right,” replied Mariah, waving as they backed down the porch.

“Nice meeting you!” called Mrs. Cooper.

“Nice meeting you too!” said Mariah.

She watched the old couple crawl into an old red pickup and drive off down the road. Of course, the immediate need to visit the mummy took precedence over everything – even testing the delicious smelling muffins. Practically throwing the basket on the table, Mariah barreled towards the attic.


When Dr. Mariah Smith walked into the pharmacy on the first day of her job, she was certain everyone was staring at her. As she filled prescriptions and advised little old ladies about blood pressure medicine, she decided her farmhouse must be haunted. The dead man was playing tricks on her, leaving her brutally paranoid. And the work day moved excruciatingly slow. All Mariah thoughts centered on getting home to her precious dead man.

At ten after five, she almost rear ended an Amish buggy while cresting a hill in her pickup, and her face burned as she passed them downhill. Once in her driveway, she breathed a sigh of relief, but the despair wouldn’t leave until she ascertained the safety of the dead man. He was her houseguest and her tormenter, but she had to check on him. It would kill her not to.

She raced up the steps, passing the second floor for the steep, creaking attic steps to look upon . . .

. . . an empty table in the center of the attic.

Mariah fell to her knees, her eyes brimming with hot tears. He was gone! He had left her! But . . . how? And why? She’d taken care of him, she’d watched over him with love – even as he tormented her with that paranoia.

The next day, the whole town seemed animated. As she drove towards the pharmacy, people congregated in groups along the streets, talking and gesturing with excitement.

Inside the pharmacy, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper were staring at the selection of cough drops. Mariah approached them with a questioning look. “Good morning, neighbors,” she said. “So . . . is something going on in town?”

The old couple smiled. “Oh, that,” said Mrs. Cooper. “The new girl over on Johnson Street ran into the street screaming her head off after finding Heath Phillips lying on her couch.”

“Heath Phillips?”

“Our unofficial town mascot,” announced Mr. Cooper, almost proudly. “One of the first settlers here actually. He died one winter back in eighteen O’nine.”

Mariah’s heart raced. No . . . it couldn’t be . . . “So someone put Heath Phillips skeleton in the new girl’s house?”

The old couple laughed. “Oh, Heath Phillips ain’t no skeleton,” said Mrs. Cooper. “He’s our very own incorruptible.”

Mariah ran outside and towards Johnson Street, the same street on which the stupid Dollar General was located. Four men were placing Heath Phillips into the back of a hearse.

Housewarming gift, echoed inside her head as the hearse drove off. So the little farm town had an incorruptible, a dead man who never decomposed. Like some of the saints of the Catholic Church from which Mariah had left long ago. Heath Phillips was his name.

Loneliness replaced Mariah’s paranoia. So she ate her medium pizza at a booth inside Carl’s Pizzeria before returning to the empty farmhouse. And inside the attic, she lit a votive candle purchased at the Dollar General for Heath Phillips. “I am the Light of the World,” she said, watching the candle burn long into the night.

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