The voices whisper to me while I sleep; they curl around my shoulders and hiss their secrets in my ear. They have many secrets. Secrets of love gained and destroyed, of promises broken, of deaths in dark alleys that never saw the light of day. They tell me their tales of the lives they’ve lived and lost, of their regrets and doubts, of the ones they’re leaving behind. They follow me around, smothering me, until finally they fade into the darkness; the mysteries of life no longer important to them. But there are always more. After all, people never stop dying.
It’s mama’s funeral today, so there’s a new voice whispering in my ear. I try to ignore it as we enter the graveyard- I need to be here today. Rosa needs me to be here. She’s trembling and her hand is clutching mine desperately, as if I’m a lifeboat and her only hope of making it out of the ravenous sea. I can’t abandon her.
“Becca?” she asks, staring up at me with wide eyes. She’s the only one who calls me Becca. I’m Rebecca to the rest of the world. Becca is the name of an older sister who reads stories at night, Rebecca the name of a young adult who must support her family. “Is my dress too big?” she asks, worry wavering at the edges of her question.
“No,” I lie. Truthfully the dress drapes around her, and she’s lost in the endless folds of black fabric. Mama would’ve known how to hem it. She could’ve fixed it. But mama isn’t here now.
Rosa nods, unbelieving. She huddles down as the coffin is lowered into the icy ground. Her shoulders slump and she suddenly looks so much younger. I keep holding her hand.
Then Mama’s voice creeps over to me. I’m sorry, she whispers. I’m sorry I left you alone. I clutch Rosa’s hand tighter until my knuckles turn white. I’m not alone, I try to say back. I have Rosa. But the words don’t make it past my lips. It wouldn’t matter anyway. The dead can’t listen.
There’s someone speaking now, I think it’s the reverend. He says words that may form sentences, but I don’t know. All that matters is the tiny hand encased in my mine.
The funeral goes on. The world seems to blur and sway. Words of comfort wash over me in waves, but I hear none of them. Rosa is still clutching my hand. I can no longer tell who is comforting whom.
The house is quiet when we return. People speak in hushed voices, as if its sacrilege to appear alive in the house of the dead. They wander in circles with suitable expressions of grief glued to their faces, exchanging stories of how close they were to mama, how much she meant to them. Mama never even mentioned them. There a black cloth draped over the dining room table. It looks wrong, alien. Mama hated black. She filled the house with color and music and life. Now the quiet is deafening.
I still hear her muttering in my ear. She’s getting louder, and suddenly I can’t stay here anymore. I can’t stay in the house that feels so wrong. I can’t stay in the room where she sat, the room that I no longer recognize. I can’t.
I rip my hand out of Rosa’s and start running to the door. “Becca?” she calls after, her voice hollow and small. I feel I twinge in my chest, but I need to go. I can’t stay any longer.
“Rebecca! Where are you going?” more voices that I don’t recognize call, but the door slams behind me and I keep running. Running down the street and far far away. The rain pummels me and soaks into my clothes, but I keep running. Running until all the shouts have faded. All save one. My mother is still with me.
Stop running, she calls. Look after your sister. I gave you a job! Look after your sister! She needs you! But I keep running. Only when my legs fall out from under me and my lungs burn do I stop.
My heartbeat thuds in my ears, crashing around me. But the relentless pounding still isn’t enough to drown out Mama’s voice. I try to hum to block, I slam my hands over my ears, I rock back and forth. It’s no use. Her voice is inside my head, and there’s no escaping what’s inside of you.
The sky has faded to an inky black by the time I realize I need to return to Rosa. Mama’s right, she’s my responsibility. So I pull myself up. The puddles splash through my boots and into my socks and the rain is tinged with ice on the way back. I didn’t notice it before. The walk home is an endless trek, and the cold seeps into my bones. Mothers drag their children to the other side of the street when I approach, revulsion in their eyes. Laughing families in are illuminated by glowing lights. The scenes through the windows look foreign to me, like pictures on a page that you can’t quite believe. But they don’t matter. I need to get back to Rosa.
I don’t know how long I’ve been walking before I see the red and blue lights ricocheting around at the end of my street. The dull wail of the siren echoes down the block, and suddenly I am running, sprinting home. As I get closer people turn toward me and start yelling. Some of them are screaming and one of them is shaking me, trying to tell me something. But there’s only one voice that matters. One voice that winds over my shoulder and creeps into the empty wasteland of my mind. It’s young and scared and echoes with the hollowness of the newly dead. And it only whispers one word:
Becca? That’s when I start to scream.