Blame – by Emma Space

We are a black-clad river, running down the front stairs of the church. The reflection of stained glass lights the pavement in rainbows of blue, yellow, red. The brown of my shoe scuffs against the granite steps. Everything is too tight, too new.

Brianna has only been dead for forty-eight hours.

Lila is stepping blindly down the stairs, and Caroline is holding her up. Mom is somewhere ahead of us, the black shoulders of her blazer another run in the stream.

Have I cried yet? The light reflects from Mary’s halo, strikes my right eye, and for a second I cannot see.

The ride to the cemetery is short. I sit length-wise on the back bench of the minivan, my legs cramped up. My suit pants are too short. I wore this suit to prom, I think. It was one of the only things I have still hanging in my bedroom closet.

Carolina and Lila sit in the middle row. Lila’s forehead is pressed against the black video screen built into the headrest in front of her. The three of us have not been all together in this car since they dropped me off at college. It is too small, too cramped to hold all of us and who we are becoming.

Dad drives, Mom gives terse instructions. We have never been to the cemetery, only pass by it on our way.

It’s a miracle, Dad said last night. His fingers itched for a vice. It’s a miracle that your sister isn’t in cuffs right now. They could do it, you know. They should do it. He shook his head, looked down through the cracks in the porch boards.

I don’t know if she realizes yet, he said, and his voice was heavy.

Lila, her sweating forehead pressed to the inset screen, certainly moves like a woman who has been indicted. She moves from sitting to standing mechanically. What does it feel like to be in a car again? I want to ask her. How does it feel to keep moving forward?

It’s not to rub salt in the wounds. I’m curious.

Brianna has been left behind, and Lila keeps moving forward, and I watch both of them from behind a pane of glass, my nose pressed flat. I can watch, but I cannot reach them.

A left, my mother says. We are in a procession, the hazards blinking in front of us. I do not know how my father could get lost with police officers to light the way, with this whole string of mourners spinning out in front of us, behind us. Caught in the current that propels us forward. Even if we made a break for it, we would still, inevitably, find our way.

When we reach them, the cemetery gates are dark and low-lying, bridging a cracked pavement. The grass is dry and dying. The cars file in, one by one. Aunt Lisa and Uncle Howard drive a red Toyota camry, and it bumps over the pavement in front of us. The cherry sheen is almost obscene. We park by the side of the road in a line, bumper to bumper, tipped slightly into a dry ditch.

My mom turns around in her seat. She has eaten most of her lipstick off. Her eyes are creased around the edges in ways they weren’t on Saturday. If we need to leave, she says, we can. We don’t have to stay the whole time.

She does not look at Lila.

Mom was the one to cajole Lila out of bed this morning, coaxed her into black dress bought in haste from Marshalls, combed her hair out of its futz. Lila will regret not going, she said. She would regret not getting to say goodbye. It’s closure.

I do not know if Lila understands what goodbye means right now. She gets out of the van, following procedure. First, the door latch. Then the opening. Feet on the ground, weight off the seat. Stand. Caroline watches her balance on her feet, her face apprehensive. Caroline had begged to let Lila stay at home, but she stands here now, her forehead furrowed.

I follow my sisters out of the car like a landed fish, squirming between the seats. My feet hit the pavement and I stumble, the heat oppressive. It is only ten in the morning, and yet.

The cemetery is flat, uninterrupted by greenery and shrubs. Rude monuments erupt at intervals through the dry grass, crosses and weeping angels. Plastic flowers that wilt under the sunlight. No shade to rest under. A tent hangs sullenly over an empty grave, and already it has attracted a crowd. The spindly portable chairs crowded in its shade are nearly all occupied.

A sizeable crowd. Are they also all watching Lila?

I recognize so many of the faces that are pretending not to look. Teachers I recognize, some I wish I didn’t. Kids from Brianna’s and Lila’s birthday parties. Parents of those kids. People who had been in my grade who are no ? longer kids.

My dad claps a hand on my back, a manly sort of gesture. Onward, he says. So we do. We cross the road together, all five of us, and join the press. My suit itches at the back of my neck, around my wrists.

As we cross into the shadow of the tent, a hush falls over the crowd. Heads turn strategically away from us. Mom ushers up to the front row, where Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Howard and Aunt Lisa and Tom are all sitting, shell-shocked, staring at the gleaming coffin in front of them.

I sit between them and Lila, as though my presence will keep them from seeing her. Will keep them from looking at her, watching her. Do they hate her? If it was my daughter in a coffin, my granddaughter, I think I would hate. I sit straight and tall, try to cast a longer shadow.

The priest appears at the head of the coffin. I do not know where he has come from, but he holds his hands out to all of us, his doughy face gleaming in the unseasonably early heat. Thank you, he says, and quiet ripples across the assembled. The cut of his alb shows off his collar. A thin shine of sweat decorates his forehead and his upper lip. I can hardly hear the words out of his mouth for staring at the gleam of his face.

Aunt Lisa, Uncle Howard, Tom are invited to stand. They each bring a white lily with them, lay their flower on the dome of the casket. Tom has been crying, but he is desperately trying to keep an upper lip. Howard is stiff, as though his puppeteer has left him hanging in the frame without direction. They file back to their seats and do not raise their heads.

Next to me, Lila gasps for air.

The father keeps talking. His voice rises and falls in carefully planned modulations. I do not hold onto the meaning of his words.

We’d had no viewing. Closed casket. Still, I feel as if I can see through the wooden panels to where she is laying. Her hands clasped over her stomach, her face quiet. For some reason, I can’t help but to think of her in her confirmation dress, the ruffles tangling around her ankles the same way it did when she was thirteen.

I hadn’t really gotten the chance to get used to her sixteen year old face. It had sort of sprung up on me. One day, I walked into the living room where she was sitting with Lila, and I realized all at once that Brianna’s baby face had gone. All of the awkwardness had been smoothed out of her arms and her legs. When she laughed, she sounded like an adult. I had seen her grown all at once, and I had been unsettled.

I hadn’t known her anymore. And now I wouldn’t get to know her again.

I try not to think too hard about what her face would look like. I picture her sleeping, her eyes closed and peaceful. Her hair done in curls, just how Aunt Lisa did them for middle school graduation.

The priest asks us to bow our heads, join him in prayers.

I bow, but cannot pray.

We meet up with the rest of the family at La Cucina’s. It’s the place we go for prom. Where Brianna would’ve gone this year with her date, where Lila would have joined with hers. They were both the youngest daughters, the youngest grandchildren. Born within three months of each other. And now one is lying in the ground and the other stands on the threadbare carpet of the local Italian place, staring vacantly at the waiter’s shoes.

I think we’re going to the room in the back, Mom says. She puts her hand on Lila’s elbow and tugs. The front room is full of other families, whole families, eating. I close my eyes. They do not look at us either.

The glass between the back room and the front is warped, bubbled. My grandmother’s white hair is blurred around the edges, and I cannot see the particulars of her face. Dad pushes into the back room first, onward, and we follow. I do not know what to say. I do not know how to be.

Our grandparents stand to hug us. They take careful time with Lila, as if to say, that’s okay. You’re still ours. Even if they hate a little, they do a good job hiding it.

When my grandfather gets to me, pulls me close, he whispers in my ear. Talk to Tom, would you?

I will.

A buffet table is laden with spaghettis and zitis and pennes. Marinara, meatballs. Food easy to keep warm in metal trays. No one is eating. My aunt sits at the table with her head in her hands and my mother swoops in next to her, older sister, always there. Wraps her arms around Lisa’s shoulders. We pretend not to see.

Tom is sitting on the opposite corner of the room, his face stony. He stares at the old fashioned paneling on the wall, his fingers tight around the wrapped silverware.

There is no way to approach him casually, so I do it purposefully. My footsteps are heavy. Again, no one sees. No one is looking.

Tom is two years younger than me. Caroline’s age. We’ve grown apart since I left for State. Not enough effort on my end, maybe, and he started playing football and dating and riding BMX whenever he had the free weekend. His sandy hair is in his eyes, his nose is turned up at the end, just like Brianna’s. I pull out a chair and sit next to him.

It’s fucked up, you know, he says.

I don’t disagree. Yeah, I say.

Not that she’s dead, I mean, Tom says. He is staring at the candle in the center of the table, at the light that is flickering in the cut glass holder. His eyes are red and his face is stony pretend. I mean, it is,  but also it’s fucked that your sister’s here. She shouldn’t be here, man, you should’ve had the decency to keep her at home.

My heart skips a beat. I’m sorry? 

Your sister. Tom enunciates each word like I’m the one who’s stupid. She shouldn’t be here.

I swallow. He’s grieving, he isn’t thinking right, we all knew that’s what they were thinking. It’s my sister, he doesn’t get to talk about her like that. He’s confused, he’ll come around eventually. Shut up, I say, which is the nicest thing I can think of. Stop talking.

You know I’m right. He plows ahead, his chin set and mulish, his neck bowed. Lila fucking killed her. Lila gave her the beer, Lila asked her to drive, Lila walks away without a scratch and now here she is—

I deck him.

I do not remember the moment between sitting and standing, between my hand on my thigh and my fist against his cheek. His face, distorted under my hand, his hair blown back from his face, his eyes comically wide. The chair falls back and he falls back with it, probably more from surprise than the power of my fists.

He blinks up at me.

The whole room blinks at me, every eye in the private room, every eye in the restaurant beyond drawn by the noise. No one says anything. A rock emerges in the flow of the current and the water erupts around it, flecks of foam and droplets of water scattering across the surface.

My hand is shaking, so I stow it inside my suit. I love her, I say. I am speaking to Tom and also to everyone else. I love her so much, and I’m not going to stop just because she’s gone. And I love my sister too. No one is going to stop loving Lila because Brianna is gone.

That second one is a wish, maybe, I am willing it to be true.

Tom untangles himself from the chair, touches his bottom lip. Tasting his blood, maybe. She killed her, he says again. And I can’t just turn a blind eye to my sister’s murderer

A plate shatters across the room. Lila is sickly pale, her hands limp, staring at Tom like she’s seen a ghost. Caroline is holding her hands as though the dropped ceramic will hurt Lila.

Shut up, I say, because no one else is going to. Don’t talk about my sister. They were both drinking, and they both got in that car. The rest of it isn’t her fault.

It can’t be her fault. My sister can’t carry that around forever.

Tom stands up, puts the chair back in its place. I think you should go, he says.

The rest of my family is looking at me, their eyes wide and startled, hands clenched. Caroline bolsters Lila, a hand on her shoulders, another hand holding her wrist. Okay, I say, looking at the two of them. They are holding each other up, holding each other together. There is nothing else to say.

I leave.

The eddies swirl around me, tugging at my pants and at my hair as I leave the repast, as I walk past the booths that I have eaten in since I was a child, as I step past the hostess stand and out into the parking lot. The sunlight is hard on the top of my head. My feet do not stop as I walk across the pavement, down the sidewalk, over the weeds that press their heads through the asphalt cracks.

Pulled forward, forward. With my face in the shadows, I can clearly see my silhouette.

Emma Space is a recent graduate from the English Master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She enjoys being outside with goats, walking in the woods, and writes a lot of science fiction. You can find more of her work on instagram at space_scribbler .