Once upon a time there was a woman who worked for a crematorium.

This woman did not enjoy her work for the sake of working, but found that she enjoyed the hours, and she enjoyed the paycheck, and she enjoyed the freedom that the paycheck allowed her when she was not working.

When she was first hired at the crematorium, the man who hired her explained to her all of the procedures and rules that must be obeyed. He explained the necessity for privacy, so no one could see the sometimes unpleasant care and handling of the dead; the importance of a clear chain of custody, so remains would not be misplaced or misidentified; and the importance of cleanliness, so that the crematorium would be respectable, and the remains of different people would not get mixed together.

After working side by side with her coworkers for several days, she noticed that, when it came time to roll the person into the furnace, it was always done head-first. She asked one of her coworkers about it, and was told that it was a regulatory requirement. She shrugged and continued working.

This woman worked at the crematorium for many years.

One evening, this woman found herself the only person in the crematorium after a long day. This was not an unusual situation, as she had attained a level of seniority. She had one more dead person to cremate before she could take off her uniform and dust mask, and go home to her family and her pets.

This particular dead person had once been a bodybuilder, and she was heavy and cumbersome to handle alone. When the crematorium employee got the coffin onto the rollers, she discovered to her dismay that the body was positioned feet-first. She considered wrestling the corpse onto the conveyor and turning it around, but she was already very tired. She was alone, and no one would ever know that she had broken the feet-first regulation. She hit the button, and the small pressboard coffin began to roll towards the furnace.

As the door to the furnace opened and the coffin started to roll into it, she heard a small, quiet voice. She immediately slammed the button to stop the rollers and halted the coffin in its tracks. She yanked the coffin back from the flames, its bottom already having blackened a bit, and pulled back the top, afraid that she had nearly sent an alive person into the flames.

But the woman in the coffin was most assuredly dead.

“Please don’t burn me up,” said the dead bodybuilder, through lips that were beginning to moulder.

“You are very dead,” said the crematorium worker. “I have to burn you up.”

“Then let us strike a bargain,” said the dead person, as opaque multicolored tears rolled out of her slack eyelids. “Leave me unburned for only a little while. If you do this, I will tell you secrets of what awaits us all.”

“Fifteen minutes,” said the woman, and the dead person agreed.

And so the woman leaned down, so her warm pink ears were near the dead person’s cold gray lips; and the dead person told the woman secrets.

And then the crematorium employee burned the dead person up.

The woman went home to her family and her pets, and she ate dinner, and she watched some light entertainment, and she went to bed. Once there, she lay with her eyes open and stared at the ceiling. She closed her eyes, and in her mind she saw the strange tears rolling down the dead woman’s face as her depleted lips flapped and her voice croaked.

She thought about the secrets that she had been told, and she found herself tossing and turning all night, and dreaming of flickering orange flames and billowing black smoke, and of white ash covering the world.

In the morning, the woman was very tired indeed. But she got up, and she put on her uniform, and she went to work.

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