The wind is not enough to chap my cheeks, it doesn’t blow my hair, but I turn back anyway. Going back in for pantyhose will make me late for work. Pantyhose aren’t a requirement or even a necessity, but this morning in the lull of the soft winds it feels like a pantyhose morning. There is a tugging in my gut, the nagging sensation that I have forgotten something. Yes. It will rain. My legs will be cold even without the wind. I need those pantyhose.
My phone beeps as I struggle into them. I don’t look. I never look.
I know I’m late. You don’t have to tell me or send me a reminder. I’m the one that’s late. I know. As I dragged the pantyhose (black and red, a horrible pattern that belonged on a couch but thick) up my legs I observe my ring finger. Empty. Nails chipped. No one else would notice but since I have my eyes can see nothing else.
I sag into the bed, staring at the nail visible beneath the red. Not even white. Off white. Slightly jagged.
When did it split?
It doesn’t rain in Georgia, not in the winter, but the smell of the impending rain permeates my car. My umbrella is in the house; I can see it in my minds eye, laying helpfully in the foyer.
At least my legs will be warm.
As I turn from the neighborhood my phone beeps again.
An urgent sound. Mechanic and urgent.
“Shit.” I pull it from my bag, glancing down at the message. My breath catches in my throat, freezes there as I stare down at the message in my hand.
Into eternity I stare
Long enough to miss the light
And the next
Long enough for the car behind me, a dingy red sedan with a haggard-looking soccer mom lifting her middle finger sky high to drive around.
The words are plastered on the screen, bold and unmistakable, but my mind could not comprehend.
Like trying to see through a newly settled fog or hearing a whisper through the cover of water, I can not parse the meaning of the words.
I tried to call. Call me. It’s Mom. She’s dead.
I tried to call.
Mom is called?
Mom is dead.
My heart speeds up and stops—it does not begin again.
On its own accord my car pulls onto the side of the road and I stumble out of it, my knees hitting the ground, hand clutching the phone.
He answers immediately—yelling rather than talking.
“Where were you? Where are you now? Where are you? Someone has to identify the body. Where are you?”
“Where the hell are you?”
What. Where’s mom?
“She’s in the morgue.”
Why? A muffled, choking sound before he responds. Where is he?
“You need to come to the hospital. You need to be here.” My mind is slow, thinking through a fog or a haze. I’m late. These pantyhose and now I’m late.
“Just—just come. Where are you?”
I watch myself as I stand outside of my body. The eyes cartoonish in their width. Car door ajar, pantyhose ripped from thigh to ankle. A steel gray curtain of rain come to obscure me from the rest of the world. His voice comes not from the phone but from around me, miles away.
It is forever before I answer.
“I—I’m here. It’s raining.”
My sister is huddled in the corridor, crouched, drawn into herself as a child. Her shaking—violent yet frail—unnerves me.
If I touch her she will shatter. Through cement I crawl trying to get to her.
It is just like they said. The corridor? To the morgue? The way they show it in the movies?
Just like they said.
Her eyes lock with mine, but they don’t stay. She releases me and turns away, closing into herself.
I would go to her but I can’t. I can’t comfort her and she does not wish me to.
I’m not her mother.
He runs up to me, his face contorted. He looks like he wants to hit something; his fists are clenched into balls, his normally clean cut suit wrinkled. It is black and he looks like a mortician.
I want to comment on his state of dress.
What are you wearing?
“Why are we here?” I inquire instead, my voice echoing down the dark halls, turning corners and escaping us. He pulls back abruptly, a crease between his brow. He sees a ghost. He must have. I have grown heads. I must have.
His voice is impossibly incredulous for the place, condescending and yet vulnerable. “Wha—you have to. . .” He stops and presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose.
His ring is back on. They are together again, I suppose.
He takes a deep breath before commanding, “You have to identify the body.”
Again my heart flutters and stops. “What? Wh—why can’t you?” He shakes his head wordlessly.
Ah. I’m the oldest. The responsibility falls to me.
“So you haven’t seen her?” He shakes his head again. Surging within me, a wave crashing over my heart—when did it begin beating again—hope.
“How do you know it’s her?” Again he stares. He sees the ghost.
“This is. . .they said it’s just a formality. It’s her.”
It isn’t like the movies.
It’s nothing like they said.
I don’t go into the room at all. A screen. A small screen. Surely they have the money for something larger? It seems strange to take people for their last image and show them on such a small screen.
Everything you are. And you get a small screen.
A small screen. A sheet pulled back. I step closer, involuntarily. My legs step forward, really. I am again on the outside.
The brows, thick and unkempt. Dark, darker than the curling hair even. They look like hers.
The eyes are closed but the lashes—clumped and short, lashes that anyone would hate, lashes like the ones she hated—those look like hers, too.
The nose is wide, the nostrils thick. Perpetually flared. Even there they are so. Like hers.
The mouth with the full lips. Its slightly parted. I stare at that longest. Perhaps its cold in there. Surely I should be able to see breath.
Out here I can see my own.
But the mouth does not move. Nothing moves past it. No breath expelled across the lips.
My brain cannot process the image. It looks like her. The eyes are closed but the lashes look like hers. The nose. The brows. The hair, pushed back in a style that she would never consent to, that looks like hers, too.
But it isn’t her.
Two days ago her eyes were open and bright. Her teeth glinted in her small, brief smile. She asked about muffins. Whether or not we wanted to take home muffins. Blueberry and some sort of oat.
We didn’t. Her muffins were awful. Are awful.
I shake my head once, then twice, and then like a mechanized doll I cannot stop shaking it.
No. No. No no no no no no no. That’s not her. That’s not my mother.
I see my sister stand from outside of my body. Her shoulders are heaving but no sound passes her lips either. Perhaps that is natural given where we are.
Hands that are not familiar grip my shoulders.
Get your breath off of my neck, I want to yell, but I can only form “no.”
That’s not my mother. That’s not her. That is not my mother.
His eyes meet mine and suddenly I am silenced, the breath taken from me. Not by him. It is just removed, gone.
A bespectacled man with downturned lips steps into my line of vision.
“Is that your mother?” As if he didn’t hear what I said.
Again my mouth moving on its own, disassociating itself from my brain.
How can it be? No. No. That is not my mother.
“What are you wearing?” The voice is thick and cloudy, almost like my sister’s voice but older. It came from her, though.
I stare down at myself. The pantyhose are ruined. I will never wear them again.
Fuck you, I want to yell at them. Fuck you. You’re ruined. You waste of time you stupid pieces of shit.
“I thought it might rain,” I respond and she nods. To her it makes sense. The image is gone from the screen but ironed into my mind.
I glance up the corridor as a woman with a clipboard walks briskly toward us. She talks. We listen. I sign papers. I listen.
She keeps referring to the body and she uses my mother’s name. But that isn’t her. That is not my mother.
I escape to the restroom—how have we gotten to a funeral home—and pull out my phone.
I dial her number.
She does not answer.