*Sensitive content - This story contains a scene dealing with the death of a family member
Jimmy was 12 the first time he smelled formaldehyde.
He was at a sleepover at his neighbour Zach’s house. They were playing Dare, Dare, Double Dare when he challenged Zach to show him something he had never shown anyone before. Zach bounced off the bed, grabbed his flashlight and led Jimmy to the cellar entrance.
"Wait 'til you see this," he squealed, taking the lead.
The musty cellar smell was so thick Jimmy could taste it, the earthy dampness churning his stomach. Jimmy swallowed hard. The dirt stuck under,his fingernails as he felt his way down the stairs. The faint glow of the flashlight all but disappeared as Zach forged onward. A damp blanket wrapped around Jimmy's thin frame, penetrating his thin pyjamas and making him shiver. The cold made his toes curl tighter around the edge of the rickety stairboards. His bare feet searched for solid ground until they felt the hard-packed dirt. Just then, Zach pounced out of the dark, holding his flashlight under his chin, distorting his facial features into a grotesque figure he belted a heinous laugh. “Ah! Ah! Ah!” Jimmy jerked back then lunged forward, grabbing Zach's flashlight.
"I knew it was a dumb idea to come here!"
It wasn’t his idea, it was his mom's. She insisted he try to go out to see friends instead of sitting alone in his room for hours on end. She called Mrs. Henderson, and the two planned the sleepover even though they knew the boys barely spoke at school.
"Weren't you going to show me something? he said, his voice rising.
Zach pointed his flashlight at the far wall. An eerie glow reflected off glass jars, lined row upon row on wooden shelves.
"Preserves? Is that why we came here?"
Zach didn’t respond. Instead, he wriggled his way down the length of shelves to the far end. Then, standing on tiptoes, he stretched until his stubby fingers reached the two-quart canning jar on the top shelf. Carefully, he lowered it to eye level and looked at Jimmy.
"I bet you've never seen anything like this before?”
Jimmy's eyes strained to see what was in the jar. All he saw was a murky pink liquid.
"Is that it?" he asked, shrugging his shoulders. "Spoiled preserves?"
Zach tilted the jar and shone the light in it. Jimmy squinted and peered, trying to determine what was in the liquid. A shape was emerging, a pinkish-white wrinkly blob, skin-like. Zach shifted the jar slightly while watching his friend's expression. Jimmy craned his neck.
"Huh? What are those? Hooves?"
He stepped closer, his nose almost pressing the glass. Zach rotated the jar slowly, making the form settle on its side while keeping his eyes on Jimmy. This time, Jimmy could make out a head, a snout, and two eyes screwed shut. He gasped, "Ugg! A dead piglet!"
Zach turned the jar slightly. "Look again! Look!" he said, his voice rising to a crescendo. "It's a special piglet!"
Finally, he couldn't stand it anymore. He shoved the jar in his friend's face... and that’s when Jimmy saw a second head attached to the body. "Ewe, gross," he moaned, recoiling against the shelf. "How can it have two heads?"
"It's called a Siamese pig," Zach said in his sing-song, know-it-all voice. "I bet you've never seen anything like this before, eh?"
Jimmy had to admit that he had never seen a two-headed pig. "And you swear you've never shown it to anyone?"
"I swear!" replied Zach. "My dad warned me never to take that jar down. He said the liquid used to preserve the piglet is poisonous. It's called formalhide."
Jimmy was mesmerized. It was so tragic and yet so fascinating at the same time. He gazed into the jar spellbound, trying to figure out how this could happen.
"So, I guess I've won the dare, eh?" Zach's high-pitched whine yanked Jimmy back into the game. "Now it's my turn to choose one," Zach’s cheeks flushed with excitement. "Dare, Dare, Double Dare! I dare you to open the jar and touch it." Zach's cheeks flushed with excitement. He clapped his hands, chanting, "Touch it! Touch it! Touch it!"
So intrigued was Jimmy with the Siamese piglet that he grasped the jar in both hands and twisted the lid off despite his better judgment. Toxic fumes wafted out, assaulting his senses, engulfing him in a pungent odour that made his head reel and his eyes sting. He scrambled to screw the lid back on, but the jar slipped from his grasp and crashed to the floor. Jimmy froze, staring at the puddle of foul liquid seeping into the dirt, leaving nothing behind but the two-headed blob marooned on an island of broken shards.
“Nooooo! My dad's going to kill me!" Zach screeched.
Jimmy gasped and fell to his knees, inhaling the fumes. Why was the odour so familiar?
Then, without warning, he was transported down a long aisle lined with wooden benches on either side, filled with people in dark clothes and tear-stained faces. Jimmy's chest tightened. He cried out, "No! No! Please, no!" but the scent overpowered his will, and he saw himself at the front of the aisle, head bowed, looking into a light-oak casket. A gentle breeze blew through the chapel window, carrying the delicate fragrance of lilacs. Oversized bouquets of stargazers, lilies and baby's breath perfumed the air, but none of it was enough to mask the smell of his brother Andy's corpse.
The smell of formaldehyde unlocked the anger he had carried for three months. Gut-wrenching sobs shook his fragile frame; tears flowed freely as suppressed sorrow gushed out. “Andy, why did you leave me? Why? Why?” How could he go on without Andy?
As the tears subsided, he felt a hand on his back. It was Zach looking down at him.
“I’m so sorry, Jimmy. I’m really, really sorry.”
Zach extended his hand. Jimmy rose, slowly coming out of his haze.
“You’re okay, buddy… I've got you." Wrapping Jimmy's arm around his neck, he led his friend to the stairwell. "Let's get out of here," he said, guiding Jimmy up the steps.