Short story by K.J. McPike
My vision tunnels as I step toward the casket. The white flowers and the black dresses and the charcoal suits fade into the background, and all I see are her hands. Interlaced fingers peek over the edge of the lacquered wooden box. They are long and slender and decorated with French tips and a silver thumb ring with heart shapes cut out of the thick band.
I know those hands. I know those hands, but I don’t know what they’re doing tucked inside the soft white ruffles lining the coffin. Less than a week ago, they were right next to me, digging through the clearance rack at Gadzooks and placing feathered hats on my head and spinning me around to face mirrors. Now they are pale and unmoving.
I inch toward them in a daze, drawn by an invisible force. The rest of her body comes into view and my brain screams, It’s not Anna! I want to agree. This girl doesn’t look like my older sister. Her face is puffier, and far too pale, even under the thick beige makeup. Her black hair is curled too tightly. Her lipstick is too bright. But those hands…those hands belong to my sister. I’d know them anywhere. I spent years watching them flipping through magazines and painting my toenails and grabbing the TV remote out of my grasp. I saw them fly up in apology after they accidentally burned my ear with a hot roller. I marveled at them as they flew over piano keys so fast I could hardly keep up.
Those are the same hands, only now they’re frozen.
The thought makes my heart thump so hard I can’t hear anything else. I hate it for being so loud—so disrespectful. Anna’s heart will never beat again, and mine is taunting her. I want to rip it out of my chest and slide it into those hands that have looked out for me for the last thirteen years. We all know they deserve it more than I do. If giving up my own heart would make those hands move again, I wouldn’t think twice.
Something tugs at my skirt, and the rest of the room snaps back into view. I realize my face is wet, and there are people babbling around me. Their voices form a dull roar, and I hate them for sounding like it’s any other day, like life could still go on after this.
Another tug. “Ambuh!”
I look down at my baby sister. She’s holding up her tiny arms, willing herself into mine. Her brown eyes are wide, scared. Tears threaten to spill onto her cheeks.
At least she knows all of this isn’t right. It takes all my strength to move, but somehow, I reach down and pick her up.
“Hi, Allie,” I manage.
Her weight shifts in my arms as she leans across my body to look in the casket. “Anna sleep.” Her toddler voice is high, but I can hear the tension, as if her two-year-old mind knows what she said isn’t true. She looks to me for confirmation, but I can’t formulate a response. I just hug her to my chest and smooth her black chiffon skirt.
Aunt Patrice walks up beside me, breathless and holding out her arms. Black mesh hangs off her hat and covers her face down to the top of her lipstick-smothered mouth. “I’ll take her, Amber,” she huffs. “I just put her down to grab a plate.”
My stomach churns with resentment.
How can she eat? How can she even think about eating? I don’t want Allie around someone so callous.
“I’ve got her,” I say curtly, tightening my hold on my youngest sister. “You just…eat.” I turn my back to Aunt Patrice. I hear her sigh behind me, but I ignore her. I don’t feel bad. Her heels click in the other direction, and I’m sure she is heading back over to the food.
“Anna wake!” Allie squeals. Her voice isn’t sad or authoritative like it is when she is trying to boss someone around. She sounds excited, like she really believes Anna just woke up.
I can’t seem to find air. I shift Allie so she is looking over my shoulder—away from Anna. But she strains and twists around to look at the casket.
“Anna wake!” she says again, louder.
My eyes blur with tears, and all I can do is shake my head. “Shhh,” I manage. I can’t bear the thought of Mom and Dad overhearing. They are already beside themselves; this will send them over the edge. “Look at Anna’s ring,” I whisper, pointing it out to Allie. “Isn’t it pretty?”
I don’t know how I get the words out. My voice quivers and doesn’t even sound like me. More moisture builds up along my lower lashes, and the blue of Anna’s favorite dress turns into sapphire swirls that dance around her hands. I blink, fighting it back. In the instant right after my lids lift, Anna’s ring catches the light, as if her thumb just twitched. My entire body goes numb. I almost drop Allie, but her legs tighten around my waist, and I jolt to keep my hold on her.
“Anna wake.” Allie’s voice is firm now, her brow furrowed as her eyes bore into mine.
My heartbeat is even louder now, throbbing in my ears. What I saw couldn’t have been real. It had to be my imagination. But my gut insists otherwise. It insists Anna’s thumb really moved. Was that what Allie saw, too? I swallow hard, my eyes fixed on Anna’s hands. I can’t look away. I can’t miss it if she moves again.
I’ve heard stories of miracles, stories of people who’d been pronounced dead only to somehow wake up again. Anna could be a miracle. She could be the one they write stories about, the one whose heart didn’t really stop but was too faint to trace and had been fighting to get stronger every day since the machine at the hospital stopped detecting it. Anna was a fighter. She could do it. The doctors still don’t know what caused her heart to stop. Maybe it never really did.
My mind is on fire. I hold my breath as I wait for another movement. Just one more so I can be sure—so I can shout at the top of my lungs and tell the whole room my big sister is still fighting to live, that she would never leave me.
Allie stays quiet, and I can hear the tick-tock from the golden clock on the wall. I can feel my pulse in my throat. Come on, Anna. Show me you’re still in there. Please.
But she doesn’t move. She’s still as a stone.
Pressure builds in my chest, and a sob bursts out of me before I can stop it. Holding Allie tightly with one arm, I reach out my free hand to steady myself against the smooth polished wood. It takes me a moment to realize the horrible cries I hear are coming from me.
Someone rushes up behind me, and I feel a hand on my shoulder. I’m too ashamed to look up at the touch.
“Hey.” The gentle voice belongs to our neighbor, Mr. Lauria. “Let me take Allie.”
I sniffle and nod, and I don’t put up a fight as he slides her out of my grasp.
Allie looks at me, hesitant, but I run my hand over her dark curls and tell her it’s okay. She loves Mr. Lauria, and I know it’s my fault she’s nervous. I shouldn’t have let myself fall apart in front of her.
“I know you want to be strong for her.” Mr. Lauria’s lined face is a mix of warmth and concern. “But you have to grieve, too, Amber. It’s okay to be sad.”
All I can manage is another nod. Mr. Lauria gives me a flat, reassuring almost-smile, and I watch as he makes his way to one of the enormous flower arrangements with Allie. He starts counting the petals aloud, and Allie repeats the numbers after him. When I turn back to Anna, I can’t help but glance back at her hands. I can’t shake the feeling that she really moved. My fingers tremble as I reach over to hers. Maybe I can feel a small movement to let me know my big sister is still with me.
“Anna,” I whisper. My palm reaches the top of her hand, and it is like I am touching ice.
Then it is like I am touching fire. Something flashes behind my eyes, as if there are a million people taking my picture all at the same time. The glare blinds me.
Then I hear Anna’s voice. “Amber.”’
I swear my heart stops. “Anna!” I grab at air, hoping my hands will find her, but the casket isn’t in front of me anymore. Nothing is. “Anna, I can’t see! Where are you?”
“I have to go, Amber.”
“No!” My arms fly in front of me, frantic to grab ahold of my sister before she can leave me. I stagger forward, but the space around me is empty.
“Take care of Mom and Dad. And Allie—make sure she remembers me, okay?”
“A part of me will always be with you. I love you.”
There is another flash of light. “Anna!” I scream again. “Anna, no! Don’t go!”
Someone pulls me into a hug. At first, I think it is my big sister. But then I smell cigars. I realize the person holding me is much too tall to be Anna.
“Amber.” The deep bass of my grandfather’s voice rumbles in my ear. “Sweetie, let’s step out for a breather, okay?”
My face is buried in his chest. When I pull away, I can see again. I am back in the funeral home. Back with the white flowers and the black dresses and the charcoal suits. I realize everyone is looking at me, the sea of faces painted with shock and pity. Did none of them hear Anna talking to me?
“Grandpa!” I choke out. “Did you hear her?”
He sighs but doesn’t answer.
Suddenly, I feel pins and needles sticking my right hand. I instinctively grab it with my left and gasp. Something hard is wrapped around the base of my thumb. When I look down, I see a thick silver ring with heart-shaped cutouts along the band.
My eyes bulge. I whip around to face the casket again. Anna is still inside. Her eyes are closed, and she is unmoving. But her hands… Her hands are bare.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
K.J. MCPIKE is the author of the Young Adult Paranormal Fiction novel XODUS, the first in her Astralis series. She has also written short stories and several articles that appeared in Western Horse & Gun magazine, formerly known as Western Shooting Horse. K.J. has a habit of moving across (and out of) the country, and to date, she has lived in 11 different states and visited 9 countries. Despite her nomadic tendencies, she spends at least a few months out of the year in Seattle, where she regularly consumes too much caffeine and is more likely to be found in a coffee shop than her own apartment.
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