by Alyssa Hudson
“When are they shipping the body back?” Vanna asked.
Perla’s hands stilled, and she opened the oven. A waft of hot air warmed the back of Vanna’s neck. Perla stared inside, into the orange glow, shook her head, and closed the door again. The hinges squeaked.
“They’re shipping her ashes back within the week.”
Vanna snatched up her pen, began clicking and unclicking it. “I thought we were having a wake.”
Perla set her towel down on the counter in a sharp motion but didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. Her fingers twitched, hanging there in the air while she struggled without something to hold. For a moment, it looked like she might pick up the towel again, but her arms dropped to her sides. “You know how your sister was. She never wanted us to go into debt over a funeral.”
Vanna bit at her lip, then began drumming her pen against the table. Her mother winced at the sound. “I just thought we’d get to see her again.”
“She wanted to be cremated, and we didn’t see the point of shipping her body from Virginia to Georgia when we couldn’t even let people see it at the wake.”
“The cops didn’t have anything to say about it?”
Perla sucked in a breath. “It was an accident. She was just driving tired again.”
“She was always tired.”
She pressed her fingernails into the wood of the kitchen table, feeling her skin crawl with heat. “This is bullshit.”
“Go home.” The words came out so choked Vanna almost didn’t understand them. “You haven’t slept in days.”
Her mother flipped the towel over her shoulder. “We’re going to have a casket at the wake with Marta’s things in it, to remember her by. Pick out some of the things she left with you.”
Outside, Vanna stood in the hot air for a minute looking but not really taking in the house across the street. She raised a hand. It shook.
“You should come and live with me,” Vanna said. She could hear her sister breathing on the other end of the phone.
“I still have bad days,” Marta said.
“We’ll half the rent, the utilities. You can do the laundry. I’ll do the dishes.”
Vanna pinched herself hard on the wrist, listened to the sound of her sister breathing. “You talk to Mama?”
“For a few minutes,” Marta said, “about the new prints on my website.”
“It’s going good, isn’t it?”
Marta didn’t answer right away, and Vanna could hear the tap running. “I thought about it again.”
“Did you call someone?” She had her checklist of questions.
“I’ll call next time,” Marta said. “I promise.”
Vanna opened the door for her mother, and Perla stepped inside, shucking off her shoes. “It’s on the coffee table.”
“I can’t decide on a picture for the wake,” Perla said. “I love the graduation photos but we all know she hated them.”
“She only hated them after Auntie May made that comment about her awkward smile.”
Perla shook her head, focusing her attention on the cardboard box on the coffee table. She pulled out a white coffee mug with yellow flowers. Be happy! was written in curly, black letters on its side.
“What about the beach photos?”
“She wouldn’t want us to put up pictures of her in a bathing suit.”
Perla inhaled, and Vanna watched the way her chest pulled in, fascinated by the quickness of the movement. “Whatever you think is best.”
“I’m not trying to be difficult.”
“I just want people to remember what she looked like now. All I can see is those photos of the car. ”
The police had given the photos to her mother, and she was the only person who had seen them. “Can I see the pictures?”
“Why in God’s name would you want to see them?”
“I don’t know. I just do.” She licked her lips, turned her eyes to the big window in her living room. The summer sun made her pale blue curtains glow.
Inhaling, Perla closed her eyes. She waved air into her face with her bony hands, as if trying to revive herself. When she spoke, her voice was higher than usual. “Nobody else needs to see them.”
Vanna fought to control her anger. Her mother was upset. They needed to find a photograph for the casket. “There’s that one picture, where we stopped by the road to pick blackberries.”
Her mother started at her for a long time before nodding, reaching into the box again, “Yes, I think she’d like that one.”
When Vanna got out of the car, she gave the tires a good look before kicking at them lightly with her boots. The rubber quivered, and red clay vibrated off, flicking off onto the grass. Marta didn’t notice the muddy mess on Vanna’s tires. When Vanna came around the passenger side of the car, she watched Marta slide straight into the ditch, going right for her target: the tangled mess of brambles at the end of the ditch. She cupped her hands above her eyes to block out the sun. It was early July, too late for blackberries, but Marta had seen them from the road. It had been the red ones that had caught her eyes, and there were plenty on the bush: green, red, and black. Their heavy bodies clustered together, dragged the offshoots to kiss the ground. Marta slowed a little when she got right up to the mess, dark head dipping. She went still, looking at the bushing, thinking, and as usual, Vanna wished she knew what was going through her sister’s mind. It seemed simple to puzzle out. Marta was looking at her bare legs, probably concerned about cutting herself up on the thorns, but there was always the chance her sister’s mind was veering off into darker spaces.
“I’ve got some leggings in the truck,” she called.
Marta’s head perked up, and she cupped a hand over her eyes and pivoted to look at Vanna. “Think my ass will fit into them?”
“I think you’d better try.”
Marta climbed out of the ditch and Vanna went to the trunk, popped it open and retrieved the leggings. She checked the tag; they were labeled M/L. She thought they should fit her sister and handed them over to Marta when she came up.
“Thanks.” Marta kicked off her shoes and worked the leggings on.
“I want those back.”
“Where’s my green dress again?”
“Move in with me, and you’ll see it again.” Vanna stuck out her tongue.
Marta went still for a second but quickly went back to tugging the waistband of the leggings up over the swell of her hips. When she was done, she smoothed the fabric of the skirt of her dress and slipped back into her shoes. “I don’t want to drag you down.”
“We all have bad days.” Vanna knew it was the wrong thing to say, even as she said it.
Marta patted Vanna’s arm with a shake of her head. “Yeah,” she said with a smile, rapidly drooping. She stepped away before Vanna could respond, heading back to the blackberries.
Vanna watched as her sister used the skirt of her white dress as a sling to hold the berries, smiling even though Vanna suspected she didn’t feel good after their conversation. It was part of those patterns Marta was trying to break. She always mulled over every conversation she had, picking apart all the things she’d done wrong, all the things she said, shouldn’t have said, should have said. Maybe though, this time her sister was focusing her attention on blackberries, breaking the pattern. Maybe she was finally learning how to do that.
Maybe it was the actual truth of it because Marta looked happy, standing in the ditch in the brambles, smiling. Vanna pulled out her phone, squinting at the screen in the bright light, sliding through the apps to pull up her camera. Her fingers shook and sweat dripped down her neck. Her sister always looked best when she was focused, and Vanna didn’t have enough pictures of her. Marta now was so still, hands on her skirt, trying to decide which berries topic next. Vanna raised her camera, but she still didn’t see anything. It was too bright in the summer sun, but she located a shape that was probably Marta’s head, snapped a half-dozen quick shots, stopped. Marta reached for another berry, plucked it off the bush. She snapped one more photo for good measure and put her phone back into her pocket without looking down. The whole bush trembled from the shockwaves of Marta’s intervention, and she couldn’t look away.
This was one of the good days.
Stationed at the entrance of the funeral home, Vanna became used to the ritual of shaking hands and hugging and pulling from the same stock of sentences: Yes, my sister was too young. It was good that it had been a quick death. You’re probably right. She probably didn’t feel any pain. Thank you for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers. Where’s Mama? In the room to your left with the casket.
She’d been in that room all night. Every time she thought about moving there, going to see the casket her mother had set up, she ended up tugging the sleeves of her black button-down, the one she’d borrowed from her sister and never returned, and taking a single step forward. She took that one step many times, but she could never make herself move far beyond the double doors. Her legs didn’t feel like they would support the journey to that room, and she felt safe by the entrance, by the vases of yellow roses her grandmother had sent to honor Marta.
Her mother came out of the room later in the evening with red eyes, and she hugged everyone in between herself and Marta before coming to speak with her.
“I need some fresh air.” Perla rubbed her hands along her cheeks, trying to wipe them dry. She didn’t touch Vanna, hadn’t since they’d gotten the news. “It’s time to say goodbye to your sister.”
For two or three minutes after her mother left, Vanna remained by the door. Her hands shook, but she inhaled, held, exhaled, and took another step. The bones in her legs sent out little shocks of pain, and she didn’t know why it hurt. Her sister wasn’t inside. No ashes. No remains. Just a congregation of her things the family had gathered into a pile.
When she reached the doorway, she saw that the room was darker than she pictured it. Her sister’s apartment had been bright and clean to encourage happiness. It was, her sister claimed, part of her cure.
Vanna went right to the casket, eyes fixed on the wall, so she wouldn’t scare herself away. She saw the teddy bears, even though Marta didn’t care for them, her Be Happy! mug, and several framed photos. Next to the casket, was the blown-up version of one of the blackberry picking photos she’d sent her mother. Not the best one, she thought with a frown, but she liked to believe Marta would have been okay with it, the one with her hand outstretched. Her smile there wasn’t awkward.
Vanna didn’t know what to say, even in her head, to the strange sight. Marta’s dark hair should be arranged neatly on the cream satin, and Vanna should have been able to say her goodbyes to a peaceful, made-up face. She should have been able to touch her sister’s cold hands and feel like there was some part of her still lingering in this world—but her ashes hasn’t even been shipped and parts of her could probably never be recovered. Whatever connected them together had dissolved, no longer lingered, and Vanna couldn’t find it in herself to do anything but stare at the items making indents on the lining of the casket and pretend to pray out her goodbyes.
Vanna searched through her kitchen cabinets for the strainer and found it behind a stack of Chinese takeout containers. She didn’t remember putting it there and decided to give it a rinse before using it. The water got hot right away since her sister was in the shower. Vanna ran her fingers along the mesh with a little soap, rubbing until there were substantial bubbles forming around the tiny openings, before flipping it upside down to rest in the sink. She pulled out the sprayer and sprayed the wire until the water ran clean. Vanna examined it for a moment to make sure she’d gotten all the soap before cutting off the water and filling the strainer with Marta’s blackberries. She turned the knob for the cold water until it was coming out in a quiet stream and gently cleaned the berries with her hands.
She heard the shower turn off. A door opened and closed. Her sister was walking around Vanna’s bedroom, opening and closing her dresser drawers. It was quiet for a stretch. Vanna’s closet door squeaked as it was swung open, squeaked a little differently as it was swung close, then clicked shut. Marta was getting dressed while she patted the blackberries dry.
Marta came into the kitchen with a red towel wrapped up on top of her head. “I stole my Florida t-shirt back.”
“Goodie. Just don’t take back the green dress. I was going to wear it to a party.”
Marta laughed and came over to select a few blackberries. She popped one in her mouth, eyes closing at the taste. “Totally worth the mess I made of my dress.”
Vanna ate one, not really understanding her sister’s love for them. Maybe she’d gotten one that wasn’t perfectly ripe, she thought, and tried another. It was sour. Her eye spasmed, and she eyed the strainer full of berries with distrust. “Soak it in the bathroom sink. I’ll see if I can get the stains out with a little bleach.”
“It’s a nice dress.”
“These are nice blackberries.” Marta laughed at her face. “If you want to, you can wash it and keep it.” She ate a blackberry, made a face.
Vanna smiled, triumphant.
Sticking out her tongue, Marta grabbed a handful. Vanna thought she looked happy. “Good day then?”
Marta didn’t look at her, didn’t answer for a long time. She ate her handful of blackberries one by one, enjoying the variations of taste. “Yes,” she said, finally, “a good day.”
A few days after the wake, she contacted the Virginia police about her sister. The policeman, who sounded sympathetic and raspy over the phone, asked four times if she was sure about the photos. They’d been on the phone for twenty minutes, verifying that she was actually the sister of Marta Cabunada rather than some stranger with a morbid curiosity and, another few minutes going back and forth about the actually sending of the photos. He wasn’t comfortable sending them via email, but Marta swore so fiercely that she wouldn’t share them that he’d sent the jpegs to her account, hanging up after a sigh into the phone and a quiet, “My condolences.”
She went to her email, at first, only to see if the email had come through as promised. It had. Vanna circled it with her pointer but didn’t click. Her leg jumped under her desk. She went and made herself dinner, couldn’t bring herself to eat it, and then returned to her computer. Vanna thought, dimly, that she was developing her own pattern of avoidance.
She forced herself to break it.
She opened the email. The officer, she noticed, hadn’t included a subject or body. There were just a bunch of thumbnails, and Vanna could already make out her sister’s gold car, the telephone pole, some of the damage. Without allowing herself time to think, she opened the first thumbnail.
It was a shot of the whole car, the telephone pole looming over it. The hood was scrunched up, revealing dark metal and plastic, and the drivers’ side door had been thrown open. From the distance, she couldn’t make out any details. She went to the next photo. It was the front of the car, one of the front wheels turned almost so they were perpendicular with the rest of the car. Had her sister tried to swerve to avoid the pole? The next was the one she wanted, the drivers’ side seat. They’d taken her sister, tried to save her. The seat wasn’t covered with blood, but there was some, flecks of it on the dash, on the steering wheel, on the shattered, spidery windshield. The next, the back of the car, looking less damaged. The passenger side seat, its window rolled down, made it difficult to see some of the blood on the driver’s side. There was nothing in the passenger seat itself except shards of the windshield. A close-up of the mangled parts: the tires, the windshield, the headlights.
Vanna rose from her chair, feeling out of sync with her body, and dropped into her seat at the kitchen table. She took a bite of her dinner. It was lukewarm, and she couldn’t make herself chew it. She thought she should make something else, or better, get out of the apartment. With a burst of energy, she got up, plate in hand, and threw her food away. After she set the plate in the sink, she put on her shoes, grabbed her purse, but she didn’t go to the door. She hurried back to the computer and examined the contents of the email again: all those thumbnails, no subject, and no body.