“It was a lovely service, Father. Very beautiful. I know Mrs. Ruiz thought so,” Mrs. Sanchez assured the priest, looking upwards into his soulful eyes. “She didn’t say so, but I know. It’s all so emotional…” She looked down the front of her almost shapeless, black skirt that reached down almost to her ankles. “…with the circumstances and all,” she finished, smoothing out creases caused by sitting for so long.
Father Singer humbly smiled, slightly deepening the fine lines around the corners of his pale blue eyes. “You’re too kind. Mrs. Sanchez. It was truly inspiring to see so much of the community here to support family and friends, given the ‘circumstances’ as you say.” The priest crossed his arms, a black leather, well-worn bible clutched in his right hand. “Horrible. Just horrible.” His eyes caught a crown of tightly pulled, dark hair peeking just above Mrs. Sanchez’s left shoulder, as his glance was immediately intercepted by the diminutive—yet stoic—figure before him. “You two haven’t left for the cemetery yet? I’m surprised. They…they were best friends, no?” he questioned solemnly, bringing his face closer as if to exchange gossip. “How is she taking it?”
Mrs. Sanchez gave her head a slight turn toward the direction of the priest’s gaze, her eyes subtly following suit and then catching his eyes again. “She’ll be fine; she’s coping. We all are, though I can only imagine what the Ruizes are going through right now. I suppose there is a lesson to be learned from all this, but what I couldn’t begin to fathom.” Father Singer nodded, then opened his mouth to speak with Mrs. Sanchez interrupting, “Not for us to question. Wouldn’t you say?”
“So true. So true. It would be an exercise in vanity to try to understand the mysteries of the Divine. I just asked since they just seemed so inseparable. Thick as thieves those two.” A blush suddenly overtook Father Singer’s face, searing his fleshy cheeks and lips, as he swung his arms behind his back, the fingers of both his hands tightly wrapping around the book’s spine. “I…”
“They’d been friends for some time—a long time—and cared for each other very much. They were…are good girls. That hasn’t changed.” The tension around Mrs. Sanchez’s eyes began to betray the austere expression she had maintained most of the day (and throughout the service). She pulled her hands behind her, white-knuckling her modest, black leather clutch. “Things are still very fresh, you know. Emily maintained herself during the service—the Lord be praised—but going to the cemetery and watching…The church service was enough for today.”
Stumbling over his words, the priest wiped away small beads of sweat that had formed on his upper lip with his right hand and then, quickly, returned it around his back. “Of course, I…I certainly didn’t mean to insinuate otherwise. Emily and Rebecca have never given anyone cause to assume the contrary, Certainly, not me,” he assured with greater attention paid to the words that left his lips. “Please don’t think….”
“No worries, Father.” Mrs. Sanchez coldly consoled. “I know you are concerned, and Emily’s father and I appreciate it. With time and prayer, we will all get through this. Like I said, this is a difficult time for all of us.”
“Yes, of course. I do hope all this won’t affect her leaving us for college in the fall; it’s just a month or so away, after all.”
“Why would it?” Mrs. Sanchez’s words were pointed, pinning the priest’s feet to the dark, broken-in hardwood floor beneath his feet. “What happened is tragic, but she will learn to deal with it and accept what’s happened; this won’t be the first heartbreak she’ll experience in her life, nor the last. Nothing has changed. She will go to UT Austin on scholarship in the fall despite all this. Wants…and decisions—no matter how foolish—don’t signify.”
“Yes, I…” Father Singer stammered.
“It was a beautiful service, Father. Keep all of us in your prayers, won’t you?”
“Yes, Mrs. Sanchez. You can count on that, but do let Emily know she is in my thoughts. I know the girls had planned on going to school together. So tragic. At least, that is what you mentioned last month after bible study.”
Mrs. Sanchez nodded, glancing over the priest’s shoulder at the grand crucifix that hung over the church’s altar and turned around to collect her coat and spirit her daughter away home. Collecting her things, she observed her daughter sitting at the end of the pew and staring blankly out of the window at the cottonwood trees outside.
Father Singer looked over at the forlorn figure sitting alone in her own thoughts, lost in the silent vastness of fluttering leaves outside. “Poor girl. This can’t be easy for her.”
Mrs. Sanchez stood still and erect, her wool jacket heavily draped over her rigid arm. She turned with her eyes downcast and then directly aimed forward. “No,” she responded, icily, “and it shouldn’t be, but that’s her cross to bear…and the family’s.” Peeling her stare away from the priest’s, Mrs. Sanchez brought her right wrist up to her chest and glanced at the time. She tapped the glass with an unpolished—yet manicured—nail, reprimanding, “Shouldn’t you be on your way, Father? The dead won’t bury themselves.”
Father Singer cleared his throat, slowly walking backward to the rectory door behind him and to the right. “By God, you’re right, Mrs. Sanchez. I am sorry if…”
“No need,” she injected with her right palm held out. “I know I am not making things easy for you.” Mrs. Sanchez wrapped her full arms around herself as if in consolation.
“You mentioned before that you were surprised that we were not at the cemetery.”
The priest nodded.
“We aren’t going because the Ruizes asked us not to.” Mrs. Sanchez’s lips began to tighten, fine, vertical lines forming above her pursed lips. “It would be too difficult for Emily to see her friend,” she declared as an immediate look of remorse fell over her face like a veil. With a knowing glance, she continued, “Things haven’t settled yet; the town won’t let it be. Time. We all need some time. Besides, if Emily goes, it will be all about her. That’s not fair to the Ruizes, Emily, or…This is Rebecca’s day. Enough has been taken away from her family and that poor girl already.”
Again, the priest nodded, finding himself temporarily unable to speak due to the lack of oxygen in the room. “I…I’m sorry your family and you are going through this. Sometimes people forget that others are worthy of forgiveness until they, themselves, need it.”
“Who’s talking about forgiveness, Father? There’s nothing to forgive. Bad things are going to happen with little help from us. The girls made their choices and prices were paid. Unfortunately, I don’t know when my Emily will be able to stop,” Mrs. Sanchez concluded, mustering up a smile as a sign to the slightly quivering man before her that it was okay to breathe. Checking her watch again, she tapped the glass face. “Go!”
Frantically, Father Singer backed away, digging his right hand through his vestments and into his left pant pocket to find his car keys. “Yes, thank you, Mrs. Sanchez. I will see you soon. Bible study on Thursday. Thank you…and I will keep you both in my prayers,” he assured, rushing into the rectory, leaving behind the fading echoes of hard-soled shoes on terrazzo and Old Spice.
A smile escaped Mrs. Sanchez’s lips as she imagined the spectacle of a crazed, robed man spinning and leaping his way to the time-weathered, tan Toyota Corolla parked at the rear of the church. She turned around and walked up the aisle to where Emily sat. Stopping just before her, she sat herself in the pew in front of her daughter and turned to face her. “Stop your pouting, Emily. We couldn’t go; you know that. Coming here was probably a bad idea, too, but I doubt anything would have stopped you from coming. Better that I was here to keep the town’s busybodies in their places than to let you face this on your own.”
Emily was of average height and small in frame, dressed in a modest black dress with a matching cashmere shrug. Her hair was pulled back and bound in a severe ponytail that reached midway down her back. She licked her pink lips and looked up at her mother; her hazel eyes more green than gold after three days of crying and little sleep. “Did you hear them? Whispers? Was anyone staring?” Emily turned and looked back out the window, wishing the wind would take her from that place.
“No. I didn’t see or hear anything,” she assured.
“Well, that’s a good sign, I suppose,” she responded, falling deeper into a sea of green.
“No. They just know what they are doing, little girl. It wouldn’t be the first time gossip spread like the plague throughout the congregation during a funeral. Remember Mr. Prichard last year? Vicious.” Mrs. Sanchez took her daughter’s hand and gave it a squeeze, hoping her irreverence would bring a smile to Emily’s pallid face. “I wish I were joking, but you know how people are. Your fault or not, you are the one that’s here, so everyone will have an opinion about you…and what happened.”
“People don’t care what happened, Emily. They care what it looks like because that usually makes for a better story. I wish you two would have given that some thought before…”
“Don’t!” Emily interrupted, thrusting her right palm forward. “I have heard this over and over for the last two days; I don’t need you to keep repeating yourself. Not now. Not here!”
Mrs. Sanchez turned, again, and stared at the crucifix over the altar, noticing the red paint from the wound on Jesus’s side was starting to flake. “Don’t think for one minute that if things were reversed and Rebecca and her mother were sitting here and you and I were at the cemetery, that Rebecca wouldn’t be having the same conversation with her mother right now.” Mrs. Sanchez could hear her daughter softly sobbing from behind, which caused a brutal stabbing in her chest, making it hard to catch her breath. “I thank God every minute of every hour it was her and not you, Emily,” she admitted, pressing the fingertips of her left hand to her lips as if to hold something back. “I don’t know what I would do if I was in Mrs. Ruiz’s shoes. The thought of that terrifies me, and because of that, I am so angry with you girls; her mother has been destroyed by what you two pulled. Honestly, Emily, stealing her mother’s car in the middle of the night; driving to Austin to drink and do Lord knows what; and then driving back at some ridiculous hour drunk and high? What were you two thinking? Or did you at all?
Emily was silent.
“You might as well have asked for this, getting in that car. What you have done is careless and cruel, and it can’t be fixed.
“Mother,” Emily sobbed, “just stop. I’m sorry. We never…”
“It’s not me that you need to apologize to, and the Ruizs don’t want to hear it; they are too angry, plus apologies are just words that change absolutely nothing.” Mrs. Sanchez turned to face her daughter, hoping to delay her own tears that had been threatening to escape all day. She saw the redness of Emily’s eyes and the dark circles that revealed a troubled mind that no one could see. “Get yourself together, Emily. What’s happened has happened.”
“So, what am I supposed to do?” Emily asked, wiping cold tears from her cheeks. “Becca is gone. Our plans. Everything we wanted to do after leaving this place…just…gone. It was a mistake. A stupid mistake. How am I supposed to pretend nothing happened?”
“Who asked you to do that?” Mrs. Sanchez retorted with chilled words. “This ‘albatross’ is around all our necks; it’ll be hard to forget that fact.” She began to taste the sour of venom on her tongue as she noticed the agony that was beginning to burrow its way into her daughter’s pale face. She paused and tried to maintain a semblance of calm, but that was a skill that had abandoned her over the past few days. Inhaling, Mrs. Sanchez continued, “I don’t say these things to hurt you, Emily, regardless of what you may believe. Things just are, and there is no pretending your way out of this one.”
“I can’t believe you are talking to me like this. Neither one of us wanted this to happen. We just wanted to have some fun. Forget this place for a little while and get a taste of Austin before we left in August.” Emily’s head sunk, strands of her smooth, black hair falling forward onto her tear-stained face. She curled the fingers of her right hand around the jet strands and pulled them backward behind her right ear, using her nails to tuck them back into order, pressing harder with every pass. She had wished that things were reversed, that Becca was sitting in that very pew, losing herself in the trees, and she was away from it all, six feet under and gossiping with the earthworms. Hot tears began to fill her eyes, blurring the creases of her dress that she had just noticed.
“Well, it wasn’t worth it.” Mrs. Sanchez’s voice was devoid of anger, her tone motherly but firm, empathetic but chastising. Emily knew her mother’s words weren’t what was cruel; it was the ‘truth’ that had the stinger. “That’s enough of that. We are going home so you can pack.”
“Pack? For what?” Emily’s inquired, her eyes stinging.
“Your father and I talked last night, and we think it’s better for you if you leave for Austin sooner than later.” Mrs. Ruiz’s own words left her cold, as she began to sense the floor beneath her begin to buckle. “You can’t stay here. Not now. The novelty and drama of a tragic death and expensive funeral will wear off soon and fingers all over town will start pointing in your direction. If you don’t leave now, I’m afraid you never will, and you have worked so hard to get to where you are now, to where you are going.”
At a loss, Emily grasped the edge of her pew with her hands as if to prevent herself from falling. “Mom, I can’t leave, Not now. How…”
“You can and will. There is no sense in wrecking your life more than you already have because you are too busy having your feelings. It is your choices—both Rebecca’s and yours—that brought you here today, so figure out how to deal with it, and continue with what we have been planning all year. I know I probably sound heartless right now, but… Rebecca died; you didn’t.”
Emily looked into her mother’s black-brown eyes in search of some compassion but saw little; she knew Mrs. Sanchez cared (and loved her very much), but she hadn’t felt much of it since Rebecca died. Her mother could be hard at times, but it was never out of spite or bitterness: It was just her way. She slid her fingertips across her eyes to wipe away her tears, and exhaled slowly through the mouth, pulling back the same offending strands behind her right ear. She pressed her back against the cold, hard wooden back of the pew and started at the flower arrangements of white and lavender roses, accented with sprigs of eucalyptus and Baby’s Breath. She thought about how “not Becca” the flowers were. White and lavender were suggestive of a lack of imagination, which made sense given the age and personalities of Rebecca’s parents; they were in their 30s when they had her and were never very open to anything that smacked of adventure or fun. Becca would rather die than have those colors at her funeral, she thought. Catching herself, she lowered her head and covertly smiled at the irreverence of it all. “So, will I leave tonight?”
“Yes. Tonight. Maybe tomorrow. We will have to see how quickly we can make the arrangements. I can go with you and stay for a couple of weeks to get you set up then come home. It’s only a month earlier than planned, Emily; you won’t be any more ready 30 days from now.” Mrs. Ruiz could feel a warm sting start to invade the corners of her eyes. Turning around, she rose and stood before Emily, then reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out a small paper envelope with “Emmie” written on the front in dark blue fountain ink. Pursing her lips (and holding her breath), Mrs. Sanchez extended her right hand outward toward her daughter. “Here.”
Emily looked at the writing on the envelope but didn’t recognize it. She brought her fingertips to the ridge of the paper’s fold. “What is it? Who’s it from?”
Mrs. Sanchez licked her lips and swallowed hard, maintaining her look of resolve. “It’s from the Ruizes. Dolores, Mrs. Ruiz, gave it to me to give to you just before she left for the cemetery. Despite all, she knew Rebecca would want you to have it. Here. Take it.”
Hesitant, Emily began to lower her hand; she wasn’t sure what was in the envelope or how she would react. Still, it was Rebecca’s. She took the envelope from her mother’s hand; it was heavier than she expected, and whatever was in there made a scraping sound against the thick paper that encased it. Bringing it to her lap, she unfastened it and emptied the contents into her left palm: It was a simple gold locket adorned with a lone ruby at its center: It was Becca’s locket, the one she never took off. Emily felt tears welling in her eyes, but there were none. She knew that Becca was gone: She had seen her in the casket, dressed in a white, linen dress that she would have hated; sat through every pain-staking minute of Father Singer’s sermon with his myth-making about eternal peace and fabled rewards waiting for the devoted in the afterlife; and she was there when the Ruizes closed the casket’s lid and the pallbearers took her away. None of it seemed real, somehow, until that moment. The heart was cold and hard against the skin of her fingers. Emily gently rubbed it between her thumb and index finger, taking great care not to loosen its ruby center, as if to warm it, bring it—maybe Becca—back to life. Every instinct in her compelled her to open the charm to see what was inside, which was something she had never done (nor did Becca ever care to divulge its contents). As much as she longed to see, another part of her didn’t (perhaps afraid that things hadn’t gotten ‘real’ enough). She grasped the locket tightly, squeezing as if to help it pump. Moisture collected around her eyes—another dam had broken. Emily looked at her mother with a defeated stare, then carefully dropped the necklace into the isolated darkness of its container. “Are you sure this is the right thing to do?”
Mrs. Sanchez, stoic and unmoving as the stone saints that looked down upon them, gave Emily a subtle nod in an effort to provide her not only the support she needed but assure her that things would be OK (or at least as much as they could be). She came closer, sitting down next to her grieving daughter, who looked more lost than she ever had before, and took her hand. She wanted to tell Emily that everything would work out and that the family’s plan for her (and her future) would not be affected by the horrible events of the past week, but she couldn’t; she just continued to smile, failing miserably at appearing comfortable in her own skin.
Though no words were spoken, Emily received her mother’s message loud and clear. Things were no longer the same, shifted by fate or God, himself. The community, the Ruizes, her parents, and even her siblings looked at her differently. How could they not? She did, after all. She tried to tell herself that leaving early wasn’t as big a deal as it probably was, plus Becca and she had been planning their “escape” from the doldrums of rural life ever since the seventh grade when they both got their periods at the same time and became (at least in their minds) full-fledged women with a wide-open world before them…but, now, she was alone. The life that was waiting for them slipped away with Becca, and whatever future was waiting for Emily was unclear, foreign. She looked at her mother, who had begun to tear up, and then shot a glance over to the white and lavender flowers that had come to symbolize life’s irony and unfairness. The thought that the service (and those flowers) would be some of the last memories she would have of home—and of Becca—chilled her to the bone, causing her stomach to drop and a darkening of her periphery. She felt as if lots of things got buried that day (more than she would even know) and had never felt more alone, despite her mother’s reservedly doled-out assurances. “She would have hated those flowers, you know,” Emily declared.
“What?” Mrs. Sanchez responded, confused.
“The flowers. They’re all wrong.” Emily let out an exhale past her pouting lower lip. “She hated roses. Has ever since I can remember. She thought they were pretentious and for the old and desperate. I don’t even know what to say about those colors except that she hated purple.”
Emily’s mother, whose tears had quickly evaporated, gave her daughter’s hand a firm squeeze and then released it. “Really, Emily.”
“I’m just saying that they aren’t…her. I don’t know who they are, but they are definitely not her. They could have picked something else, anything else. Irises. Tulips. Gerber daisies, even. She loves those…Red, yellow, and orange Gerber daisies would have been better. They are her. That is what should have been up there not those hideous things.”
Her mother let out an exhale as she rose to her feet. She walked around to the other side of the pew and grabbed her coat and purse, tucking a funeral program into her coat’s breast pocket. “This is obviously your grief talking, little girl. Come on, let’s go. We have a lot to do” She extended her hand to help Emily up, but her daughter wouldn’t (couldn’t) move; she just stared at those white and purple flowers. Repeatedly fanning her fingers toward herself, her mother gestured for Emily to get up. “C’mon.”
Emily’s eyes began to tear, as she thought of getting up to leave. Somehow, walking away seemed wrong; it felt wrong. “They should have known they weren’t her. I mean, she was always happy and so funny. She made everyone smile and laugh. Why couldn’t they have picked something that was her?
As frustrated as Mrs. Sanchez was, the look of pain on her child’s face softened her and quenched the fire that was burning on the tip of her tongue. She knew that Emily wasn’t alright. Nobody was. She crossed her arms and looked squarely into Emily’s eyes. “Because, Emily, funerals are for the living not the dead: they are about the people that are left behind and what they need. If the Ruizes need white and purple flowers, they should not have to get your permission to have them.”
Emily quietly nodded and gave her mother a subtle smile. She reached out and clasped Mrs. Sanchez’s hand and held it tightly after going another round with her unruly locks that refused to stay in place. She stood up (her mother’s hand still in hers) and looked at the roundness of her mother’s face, its softness, and the deepness of her inviting eyes, giving her one last nod. “Albatross,” she conceded.