Minnie, sitting alone in a pew at the back of the church, was trying very hard not to sneeze.
She was nearly as far away from the altar, cross, and font as it was possible to be while still physically remaining inside the church, so the effect was not as bad as it could’ve been, but even at a distance the holiness itched at her, burrowed under her skin, inflamed her infernal mucous membranes.
The priest was droning on and on— kingdoms of the holy and such, blah blah. Minnie tried to force herself to pay attention, in the vain hope that distracting her ears would also serve to distract her itchy noise and throat.
“Alethea’s memory will live on, and all that knew her will remember her as a pure, kindhearted, innocent—”
The entire church swiveled at once to stare communal daggers at Minnie, who at that moment was grateful for her own demonic histamines, which had so conveniently covered up the far less appropriate reaction of bursting into helpless laughter at the idea of Alethea being called innocent.
The priest cleared his throat. “As I was saying, Alethea will be remembered by her loved ones, her mother and father and sister, faithful congregants all, and of course by her dear fiancé, Mr. Norman Henderson…”
Minnie resisted, with some difficulty, the urge to blow her nose ostentatiously into her sleeve at the sound of that bastard’s name. Come on, she told herself. Just a little while longer, and then it’ll all be over…
She closed her eyes, sat back, and thought of Hell as the service droned to a close.
Finally, after what could’ve been days, the organist struck up a dour hymn that made Minnie’s nerves crawl, and the assembled mourners stood up and began to filter, murmuring sadly, out of the church. Many of them stopped to pay final respects to Alethea, laying flowers in her casket, letting tears fall on her pristine gown, and suchlike.
Minnie slowly made her way up the nave and joined the queue, politely waving little old ladies and stone-faced teenaged boys to go on and make their farewells before her.
She watched from only a few feet away, a hiss pressing against the inside of her teeth, as the execrable Norman leaned over and pressed a sloppy, weepy kiss to Alethea’s cold cheek.
At last, everyone had gone. The final notes of the organ rang out as Minnie sidled up to the casket, boot-heels clicking elegantly on the stone floor of the church.
She leaned over the side of the casket, and gazed tenderly upon Alethea’s face, pink cheeks and delicate lips frozen into peaceful stillness.
“Friend of the deceased?”
Minnie whirled around, and, taken by surprise, sneezed explosively right into the pinched face of the priest.
“Oh dear, I am so so sorry,” she lied. The priest looked as if he were trying his best not to seem perturbed, wiping Minnie’s snot carefully off his face and collar with a fusty, ancient-looking handkerchief. Minnie could see red welts forming where her demonic fluids had landed on his skin, and managed to transform her triumphant grin into something resembling a bereaved simper before he noticed anything out of the ordinary. “Yes,” she said sadly, “you might say we were friends…”
The priest nodded solemnly. “So sad, what happened to her,” he said gormlessly. “Such a shock to the whole community. I christened her, you know… beautiful child, beautiful child…”
“So horrible,” Minnie agreed. “I mean, an aneurysm, at her age… You don’t expect that sort of thing to happen! And just before she was about to get married, too… a tragedy, really…. Oh, Alethea!”
Giving into her most theatrical instincts, she swooned dramatically, draping her whole upper body over the side of the open casket, and emitting a keen that echoed through the empty, cavernous hall. “So beautiful, even in death!” she howled. “You wouldn’t even be able to tell, if you didn’t know! It almost looks like you’re just sleeping, Alethea…”
The priest put an unwelcome, clammy hand onto Minnie’s shoulder, fashionably and unorthodoxly bared in her black dress, which he instantly withdrew with a jolt, as if he’d been burned. Minnie smirked, her head buried in the crook of her elbow. Still got it.
She straightened up, resolving her expression back into grief as she turned to him, and noted with satisfaction that his hand was already beginning to grow inflamed where it had touched her skin.
“I’ll just, uh,” he said, beginning to itch in earnest at the red marks on his chin and neck, “I’ll just. Hm. I’ll see you at the graveside service, I suppose…?”
Minnie just smiled at him, perhaps a bit too sharply, as he tottered away, muttering about aloe vera.
When he’d disappeared out through the transept door, Minnie leaned over Alethea’s still form and grabbed her cold wrist, flipping it upwards. With one black, needle-sharp nail, she dug an unspeakable shape into Alethea’s pale, bloodless palm. Then she raised her own free hand, where a corresponding design, equally as grotesque, had been scratched just days before at the outset of the ritual.
“Here goes nothing, babe,” Minnie whispered, and pressed her palm to Alethea’s.
One circle of Hell… two circles of Hell… three circles of Hell… Minnie counted, taking deep breaths, praying to all that was unholy that this would work.
Beneath her hand, she felt a sudden flood of heat. From Alethea’s wound, bright red blood was flowing, slicking Minnie’s fingers and splashing down onto Alethea’s immaculate white gown.
“Lethe?” Minnie whispered. Alethea’s hand spasmed, clutched around Minnie’s; her whole body jerked, and her eyes flew open. As Minnie watched, the pure, cornflower blue of Alethea’s irises was crowded in by scarlet, the same rich wet red as her dripping blood. Minnie would miss the blue, but really, it was a small price to pay.
“Minnie,” Alethea said hoarsely, blinking those big red eyes, fluttering those long lashes. Minnie wanted to kiss her. Instead, she sneezed again.
“Don’t!” hissed Minnie, pawing at her nose with her unbloodied left hand. “That’ll make it worse!”
“Sorry,” giggled Alethea. She sat up in the casket, and pulled Minnie forward with a gentle tug, pressing their foreheads together. Minnie could sense the hellfire heat surging through Alethea’s veins, clearing out the embalming fluids, lighting her up anew. A second chance— everything she deserved.
“How does it feel? How do— how do you feel?” Minnie whispered.
Alethea rolled her head, cracking her neck and letting out a sigh of pleasure. “Incredible. You did incredible, babe. It’s like— oh, it’s so warm, it feels so good…”
She lifted her bleeding hand away from Minnie’s, and gently blew across it. Her eyes glowed, slightly, as the cuts healed over in an instant, leaving a scabbed scar to match Minnie’s own. Then she smiled, showing off teeth slightly sharper than before, and Minnie felt a swift flush of desire clutch around her insides. “Come on,” Minnie said. “Let’s get out of here before they come to take this stupid box to the cemetery.”
She helped Alethea down out of the casket, then snapped her fingers. The lid of the casket swung shut with a muffled thump.
“What’ll they do when they find out I’m gone, darling?” Alethea said, wiping blood off onto her dress. “Someone will surely notice.”
“Don’t care,” said Minnie with a shrug. “We’ll be long gone by then.”
Minnie, at that moment, could feel no sneeze lurking in her sinuses. With an easy, relieved confidence, she leaned in towards Alethea, ready to finally find that kiss she’d been craving—
Minnie lurched back, unbalanced by the force of Alethea’s sneeze.
“Oh. Right. You too, now, huh.”
Alethea wiped her nose on the puffed sleeve of her burial gown, and rubbed at her eyes, the whites of which were visibly irritated now, going red as her new irises. “Yeah, I guess so. Ugh, I’m itchy. You were really sitting in here dealing with this for the whole service?”
“Of course,” Minnie said. “Anything for you.”
Alethea batted her eyelashes. “So sweet.”
“That toad of a priest called you innocent, by the way.”
“Ha!” Alethea laughed. “If only he knew that—” Minnie never found out what the priest should’ve known (though she could’ve probably guessed) because Alethea interrupted herself with a triple-decker sneeze, nearly toppling over into Minnie with the force of it.
“I think I’ve got some tissues in the glovebox,” said Minnie, swinging a stabilizing arm around Alethea, guiding her back down the aisle towards the exit. “And hey, it doesn’t last long. By the time we’re halfway to Memphis we’ll both be feeling right as rain.”
“Memphis,” sighed Alethea dreamily.
“First stop, Graceland, just like I promised.”
“And then, babe, I’ll take you home. Show you around, introduce you to the family… you know, all that stuff.”
Alethea’s eyes were watering, and Minnie was pretty sure it wasn’t just from the allergies. They got into Minnie’s bright red convertible, sitting pretty (and pretty illegally) at the curb just outside the church doors.
“Let’s go to Hell!” Alethea shouted, raucous and free, and Minnie slammed on the gas, and they sped off down the road, away from the church, leaving the empty casket behind.