Little Billy loved when people died.
Not because he didn’t like them, nor because he was some sort of necrophiliac. No, Little Billy loved the parties.
Great Aunt Margaret, a lady so old he never really remembered her or got to visit much, finally kicked the bucket. When the long-expected phone call came, Mama tightened the bowtie on his suit, forced him to shine his shoes, and plopped him in the backseat of the car.
“Here,” Mama told him, “Hold this. We got to get over to Uncle Jake’s and Aunt Margaret’s.” She handed over a plate of deviled eggs, and Little Billy held tight to the plastic wrap around the edges. Mama wouldn’t be pleased if he let her beautifully piped eggs get messed up.
Daddy drove them across the county to Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jake’s house. Though Uncle Jake had died years ago – Billy could still remember the butterscotch pies at that fantastic to-do – everyone still called it his house.
When Billy arrived, it smelled the same as all the other wakes he’d been forced to attend. He found the air heavy with cheap ladies’ perfume and cigarette smoke. A couple coughs and a wipe of his eyes, though, and he could see through the folds of skirts and suit jackets to the kitchen.
Billy took a Chinet plate from the line and scooted it down the buffet. He added a grape-jelly meatball here, a roll there, some chicken pot pie (true funeral food, and far more than a six year old would ever eat). He loaded up the remainder of the plate with a nice helping of pies and puddings, then went to mill around with the older relatives.
“Oh, Little Billy,” his Aunt Jennifer cheerfully squealed. “You gonna eat your desserts first, are you?”
He nodded and took a big bite of meringue. “Yes’m.”
“Watch out you don’t get a stomachache!”
Little Billy smiled, but Aunt Jennifer wasn’t Mama or Daddy, so he didn’t have to do what she said. He ate a bite of coconut cake, finding it moist and delightful.
When his stomach got too full, he scooted around the house and hid his still hefty plate next to a plastic Country Crock bucket and a sewing machine. He’d come get it later.
“Little Billy!” his Mama said with a scowl. “Where’d you run off to? You go pay your Great Aunt Margaret your respects before I tan your dog hide.” She grabbed him by the upper arm and tugged him through the kitchen, taking time to grab a napkin from the food line and wipe his dirty face. “You better learn not to act like that in public, y’hear?”
“Aww, Mama, I was just havin’ fun.”
“Ain’t no one havin’ fun. This is a viewin’, not a party.”
Little Billy held his breath. He knew what the payment for the rest of the fun times at a wake was, and he didn’t really like it. But he had come and ate Aunt Margaret’s food, so he supposed it only right.
He went with Mama and Daddy into the cold, still sitting room at the front of the house. An old woman was laid out on a bed, her eyes closed and arms crossed over her chest serenely. Little Billy gulped when they got closer, now noticing the weird makeup and inhumanly long eyelashes.
His Mama sighed and looked to a woman Little Billy didn’t know. “She looks so natural.”
“Oh, yes. Been done by the funeral home. They did such a nice job, didn’t they?”
Daddy coughed. “Oh, definitely. It’s like she’s just sleepin’ there, ’bout to wake up any second.”
“So nice. It’s great that they have such good make-up for funerals now…”
While the grown-ups talked behind him, Billy got a little closer to the corpse. He’d not known Aunt Margaret very well when she was alive, so this viewing didn’t give him the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach like all the others had. He put his elbows on the side of the bed and leaned forward, wondering morbidly what it meant to die.
He jerked back when one of Aunt Margaret’s eyes opened. “You get some of that pie you love, boy?”
His mouth opened wide, and Little Billy looked to his parents, still lost in conversation with the living. He gulped and returned his gaze to Aunt Margaret. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You better eat all of it. Don’t want your sticky food getting all over my good sewing supplies, y’hear?”
“Go get that plate and eat all of that food, even if you get sick. Shouldn’t have been allowed to run around like a haint in the first place… what’s this world coming to? Kids these days.” Her head returned to the restful position and her eyes closed.
Little Billy took off at a dash back to his plate. He sat down beneath the hall table and and started shoving the food down, swallowing as fast as he could. He made sure to finish every bite of pie, even the dull, soggy crust that he would have normally left behind. He forced down some of the chicken pot pie.
His parents came after him, angry scowls on their faces. “William Elliot Harper! That was incredibly rude! You put that down and go right back in there-”
But Little Billy shook his head and plunged ahead into the mashed potatoes. “No! Aunt Margaret told me to do this!”
His parents took away the plate, placing it next to the butter tub for the time being, and bodily dragged Billy back to the viewing room. While they made apologies for him, he stared at the dead old lady.
His mom shook his hand gruffly. “Apologize to your Aunt. Her mama just died, and you can’t go runnin’ round like you ain’t got no manners!”
Billy stared at Aunt Margaret. “I’m sorry,” he said without looking up at the living woman. He waited for Great Aunt Margaret’s face to turn toward him.
After a few more moments, Daddy tugged him away from the room. Billy kept his eyes peeled on the corpse – for a brief moment, he thought he saw Aunt Margaret smile wickedly and laugh.