Tess was the youngest in the receiving line. She was an only child, and unlike her friends she didn’t have any cousins to keep her company on the worst day of her life. It was just Gran, Pop, and Aunt Jane. She gave up hope after the first hour that any of her friends would come. The adult faces blurred passed her that mumbled hollowed out apologies and empty promises that things always got better in time. She was short for eleven and barely came up to most of the mourners chests, as they crushed her in a hug that no boa constrictor could ever hope to achieve. The old lady who currently trapped her, smelled of mothballs. The woman’s arms were flabby yet held an impressive amount of strength. Tess swung her face out searching for help, but instead she felt her unruly curls had become ensnared by the gold cross that hung around the woman’s neck. Pop! Where was he? He promised to stay with her. He promised and she was trapped in some stranger’s hold. She wasn’t raised to be rude, but the panic that rose from the pit of her stomach made her lose all sense of reason. Tess squirmed and her nails grazed across the woman’s wrinkled arm. The added contact sent a jolt of Tess’s arms. Blessedly, her captor released her. But, Tess’s hair kept her tethered to the woman. She was too close to this person. She tugged harder. She didn’t care about her hair. Hair always grew back.
“Oh dear, I am so sorry.” The woman chuckled and turned to the man that was with her. “Gerald, we need your assistance.”
Tess’s face pinched in irritation as a man who was next in line came to help.
“Easy, girl. I’ll get you free.”
Girl made her sound like a horse. She wasn’t an animal, she was Tess. She stopped trying to wrench free and let the man with the coke bottle glasses work. His fingers were knobby with arthritis. Tess felt every shaky jerk. He wasn’t helping at all. Just cut it. Please.
“Let me help.” Aunt Jane materialized from behind Tess. She was all grace in her floral print skirt that bounced with every step. She was the rainbow after a storm. Tess breathed out a sigh of relief as Aunt Jane righted the problem. “Thank you for coming, Mrs Stinson. Mr Stinson.”
The elderly couple hobbled off, but Tess was still locked in a trance from the prolonged contact. After the accident, she didn’t like to be touched, least of all by strangers. She bit her lip bloody at the hospital as Gran and Pop held each of her hands. She felt light as air and they seemed to be the only thing anchoring her to the earth. But she didn’t want to be tied down, she wanted to fly away, scream, kick the walls, but none of those things came to pass. She was trapped voiceless, motionless inside her body.
“You look like you could use a bit of breakfast. There’s still a few bagels in the backroom.”
Tess’s head whipped toward her aunt. She knew that Tess needed an out and was freely giving it to her. Tess’s mouth twitched as if to say yes.
“Bring me back one too.” Aunt Jane gave her a wink.
The room was ordinary, but held a small counter that held a basket with muffins and bagels. Bottles of water sat unopened next to the basket. This room was a refuge of sorts, offering a quiet peace. Tess wandered past the table and chairs, where their coats laid piled. Gran’s suitcase of a purse was at the edge of the table, as if standing guard against any unwelcome guests. Tess eyed food, she didn’t think Aunt Jane was hungry either. At Gran and Pop’s this morning, no one had touched their breakfast. Tess had watched as Aunt Jane picked apart her eggs with a fork, but never actually ate them.
Tess didn’t want to go back into that room. She wanted to run down the street and onto Broadway, where the city dissolved into giant elm trees that were burning gold in the fall weather. She wanted to hear her feet crunch the leaves as she ran to the pond. She wanted to sit at the edge and watch the ducks bob after the bread she threw to them. She wanted… she wanted so much more than this. The park was her mom. It was life. This place was built on sadness. It was too warm and stuffy with recycled air. It defiled her memories of late nights on the porch reading, while her mom failed miserably at Sudoku. Tess leaned with her back on the counter, letting the hard edge bite into her back.
She glanced around the room again. Paintings of cottages hung on the wall, with their chimneys billowing smoke, and tiny bible verses of comfort printed at the bottom edge. The words were supposed to bring comfort and hope, but they left Tess feeling dizzy and confused. Do not let your hearts be troubled. It was only part of the verse Tess knew. And it was just as incomplete as her life had been over the last five days.
The heated room chilled. Tess looked to the solitary window, but it wasn’t made to be opened. Goosebumps crawled up her arms, and her hair on the back of her neck tingled. The lights hummed and flickered. Tess took a tentative step forward as a water bottle toppled off the counter. Tess spun around in time to see a boy with oddly green skin, and the bluest hair she’d ever seen wink out of existence. That’s not real. Tess rubbed at her eyes, she was alone once again. The bottle laid a few feet away. She picked it up and examined it. The side was dented but toward the top, not the bottom to where it would have caused it to fall. She placed it back in the middle of the counter with the rest. It couldn’t have fallen on its own, but the boy couldn’t exist either. She would have heard if someone had come in, and besides people weren’t green. The boy she thought she saw was clearly as old as she was and kids her age didn’t go about coloring themselves with green markers. She was tired. Her eyes were playing tricks on her. Tess glanced around the room again. Everything was still the same as it had been, yet the air still felt charged with electricity. Sleep. She hadn’t slept through the night since before, that’s all it was. Her mind was playing tricks on her.
She made her way back to the auditorium, the bagels forgotten. Tess was so very afraid of slipping further into the darkness. The pink lighting attempted to soften the ache in the room, but it only made Tess blink harder to bring everything into focus. She had to focus. The boy wasn’t real. He was an impossibility. Focus. Tess wound around the crowds of people who gathered into groups, and headed toward the front. The flowers were bright and alive, but only for a matter of days, Tess knew. She never understood flowers. Gorgeous, but putting them in a vase seemed cruel, it was if you were cutting their lives even shorter. Who would want to live out their days cooped up inside? She ran her hand along the edge of the table, that reduced her mom’s life to a series of photographs. Gran and Pop, watching as mom took her first steps. Aunt Jane and mom on a road trip after high school. The Arizona sun warming their skin. Her mom’s vibrant smile couldn’t have been brighter as she held a newborn Tess. Each photo seemed to be happier than the last. That’s who her mom was, a bright shooting star.
Everything about this place was designed to help ease the pain, but Tess knew that it was the pain that kept her moving. She stared off to the side at the ebony casket. It was much too big for her mom, who was as petite as a hummingbird. It didn’t seem right that a box so boring contained a person who was so in love with life. The prerecorded music came to a hush. It was starting, the beginning of the after.
A hand gently rested on Tess’s shoulder. Aunt Jane knelt down, and Tess fell onto her aunt’s shoulder. “That’s my favorite.” Jane pointed to the photograph of last Christmas. Pop’s quick reflexes with his new camera immortalized the moment. They were putting the final touches on the tree, when Aunt Jane decided the tinsel worked better on her sister and Tess than on the tree. Pop captured Tess with her head strewn with the silver tinsel. Her mom laughed as she tried to keep her own tinsel wig from falling off. Jane was in between the two, covering her face to hide the soda that unfortunately erupted from her nose. Tess felt Aunt Jane’s arm pull her in tighter. “We’re going to need each other a lot in the next few months. I was wondering, if it was okay with you, if you would want to come and live with me instead of with Gran and Pop.”
Tess stared at her aunt. Aunt Jane’s brown eyes glistened. Gran and Pop were wonderful, but last night that hushed conversation between them had shaken Tess. She thought it was going okay living at their house. It wasn’t home, but Pop woke her up each morning with a smile and pancakes waiting in the kitchen.
“She still hasn’t spoken a word since the accident. I’m worried, Jon.”
“Give her time, Annie. Tess will talk when she wants to.”
Tess was frozen at the top of the stairs. They were in the kitchen, and assumed she was asleep. They didn’t know she wandered the house for hours before collapsing into a dreamless sleep.
“What about school, Jon? The kids will treat her different. I’m worried they’ll call her a freak.” Gran broke down into deep bone rattling sobs. “I don’t know how to help her.”
Freak. She was a freak. Tess walked as quick as she could without making a sound back down the hall and into her room.
Aunt Jane squeezed Tess’s shoulder. “What do you say Tessie, you and me against the world?”
Yes. Tess tried to shout, but her lips were glued shut. She nodded her answer instead. Aunt Jane lead her to their seats. People were flooding in, and Tess couldn’t help but notice how the silver chairs with their rough spun cushions swung around the room like soldiers at attention. And there was Tess in the middle of the front row, facing an ugly wooden podium. Its sides were worn white from the hundreds of hands that had gripped its edges for that extra support of trying to find the right words to say goodbye.
The odd mixture of the sweet scent of the flowers and the potent perfume of the people made the air heavy. Tess’s chest raced to find a lungful of clean air. Her dress was suddenly too tight. It pressed against her skin as if she’d just taken it out of the wash and put it on, not caring that it wasn’t dry. Pop and Gran filed in on either side of her and Aunt Jane, they were the bookends to keep them from falling over. But what they did out of kindness added more heaviness to the air around Tess.
Aunt Jane wrapped a warm hand around her clammy palms, and bent down and whispered into Tess’s ear. “Take deep slow breaths with me.”
Tess exhaled long and slow, and sucked in another breath.
“The flowers are a bit overpowering. And Mrs Stinson’s perfume smelled like a mummy.” Aunt Jane added. “Don’t be afraid to breathe through your mouth.”
The pair sat like that for the entirety of the service; breathing in sync, hanging onto one another, and wishing they were miles away.