Mama said the funeral would make closure happen. I asked her what closure is. I thought it meant when they closed Haley’s box to bury her, but Mama said closure means we’ll feel like Haley is really gone.
We get in the car after the funeral and the inside of my tummy feels hot, like it’s doing a somersault. What if closure did happen, and we stop thinking about Haley or missing her when we get home? I squeeze my eyes shut and remember her freckles and the little silver ring on her nose, and hum her favorite song for the whole ride. I won’t forget.
Everything in the house still looks like Haley’s about to come back. Her coat is hung up by the door. Her red shoes are on the wiping-off rug. Her backpack is on the couch from the last time she did homework. It’s all covered with words and pictures from the time Haley drew on it with a fat black marker. Mama got mad when Haley did that, and they yelled, but now Mama must have forgotten that Haley ruined the backpack because she picks it up, rubs the pictures with her fingers, and starts crying so hard it sounds like coughing. She says Haley’s name over and over, so maybe the closure didn’t work after all. That’s good. I grab the sleeve of Haley’s coat and hug it. It’s fat like a marshmallow, shiny silver and makes a swizz, swizz noise when you rub with your fingernails.
Mama is saying bad words about Jake. Daddy grabs her arms and says, “Don’t say that!” and Mama yanks her arm away really fast. She’s mad that Jake came to the funeral, but I’m glad he came, because Jake and Haley were in love and going to get married someday. When they put Haley’s box in the ground, Jake picked up a fat, wet, slimy piece of dirt and got his hand all brown with it. He dropped it onto Haley’s box. I think he wanted Haley to know he was there.
Dead people can’t hear us crying, and they can’t feel slimy pieces of dirt land on their box. They don’t even know they’re in the box at all. They’re just asleep, forever.
After he dropped the dirt, Jake hugged me. His neck was warm. He smelled like Daddy’s bottle of aftershave, that smell that makes my nose wrinkle and feel like sneezing, even though it’s sweet and I like it. When Jake let go, I didn’t want him to. I wanted to bring him back home with us, and for Mama to like him, too.
I take off my shoes and put them next to Haley’s big ones. Uh-oh, mine have mud on them. Then I look at my dress. Mud there, too! Did that happen when Jake hugged me?
If Mama sees mud now, when she’s already so mad and sad, she’ll yell. Haley sometimes cleans me up when I don’t want Mama to yell, but this time I have to clean myself. I hold my breath and run past Mama to Haley’s room.
Haley says it’s rude not to knock, so I tap her door three times before I go inside, even though I know dead people don’t care about knocking. Her room is gray and magical and quiet. Without the lights on, the wardrobe and bed have dark shadows under them, where I pretend monsters live. I sit in the squishy desk chair that spins around. I call it her Queen Chair, and monsters can’t get you on the Queen Chair. Sometimes Haley lets me sit in the Queen Chair to do my numbers pages for school. Or if Jake is over, he spins me in it as fast as I want until I say stop. Sometimes, though, Haley and Jake lock the door, and when I knock, they tell me to play by myself for awhile. That only happens when Daddy’s gone and Mama falls asleep with the TV on.
Haley’s desk drawer is open with some drawings sticking out. I pick at the edge of one. It’s a fairy in a green dress with Haley’s face. The fairy has tears all the way down her face and dripping off her chin in little dots that Haley colored blue. I pretend the fairy is sad because of her handsome prince Jake, who can’t come over much because the Dragon Mama breathes fire at him.
Or maybe the fairy’s crying because she knows the person who drew her is dead.
I spin the desk chair around. Haley’s room goes in a circle. There’s her bookshelf with the castle snow globe, where I think she and Handsome Prince Jake will live happily ever after. There’s the seat under the window where Haley brushes her hair. There’s her bed with dirty clothes. I wonder if Mama will wash them. She says Haley changes outfits too fast to keep up with. For the first time maybe ever, Mama could get all Haley’s clothes clean at the same time.
I let out a big sigh. That means none of Haley’s pretty clothes will get worn anymore. Maybe when I’m older, and the dots on my chest turn into boobies like Haley said they will, I can use those clothes. Haley promised that when I get old enough to have a Secret, like she does, I can wear her things.
Haley says everyone gets a Secret someday. They’re things you can’t tell your Mama and Daddy, or anyone but maybe your sister and your best friend. I think I’ve already had a Secret. I kept a Valentine that Mama tried to throw away. It was from Daniel at school, but Mama said I wasn’t old enough to like a boy.I cried so much that Haley helped me find it in the trash when Mama and Daddy went to the store, and she taped it in a book so I can look at it whenever I want.
Haley said a Valentine isn’t good enough to be a Secret, though. I have to have a bigger, better Secret to be old enough to use her things.
But what if Haley’s stuff isn’t still here by then?
When Grandma Marilyn died, we went to her house. Mama and Daddy took boxes into every room, and they packed all Grandma’s things away and wouldn’t let me keep any of it. Maybe they want to do that to Haley’s room.
It’s not fair! Haley said I could watch her scary movies when I got older, and use her skateboard. I won’t get to do any of that if they take it away. I won’t be able to rub the gold letters on her colored pencils, or play games on her phone.
Tears splash on the fairy. Oh no! I wipe it off fast. I can’t stop more tears from plopping out of my eyes. I put my forehead on the open desk drawer and stare at the floor while my body jerks and jerks from crying. A shiny rope of wet slides out of my nose and falls into the old blue carpet.
I feel sad, so sad that my tummy and my heart are like two puddles, black and cold and nasty. I want to kick the desk and the Queen Chair and break the snow globe and rip up the fairy picture. I want Haley to come back. I want her to clean up my dress and tell me a story and make Mama stop saying bad words to Daddy. But she can’t come back. Being dead lasts for the rest of your life.
And if she doesn’t come back, they’ll get rid of the stuff in her room, and then closure will happen and she will be really, really gone. And I’ll cry for the rest of my life.
I jump onto the bed and smush my face right into Haley’s pillow. It has purple flowers on it, and smells like shampoo and the spray that makes her hair stick in crunchy waves like hard gold pieces. I grab the pillow with both hands and pretend I am more like Haley. I will clean up this dress by myself. I will tell Mama that she can not put this room in boxes, she can not tell Jake to stay away, and we can not forget about Haley. Then I will put on beautiful clothes from the closet, get all the numbers pages done because I’m too smart to need help anymore, and invite Handsome Prince Jake over. Maybe he’ll even kiss me on the cheek.
I sit up and wipe my face hard with both hands. Maybe I could be more like Haley. I’m going to be big before you know it, that’s what Daddy says. And Haley never said I had to be sixteen like her to be grown up, just that I had to have a Secret.
What if I took over Haley’s Secret?
I look at the closet. It’s still in there, with no one to guard it anymore.
I walk into the closet and pull up the piece of carpet that’s loose in the corner. I reach into the hole underneath and pull out three bottles. Sometimes there are more, but Haley only had three this time.
They are so pretty. Haley laughed when I told her, so I stopped saying it, because I don’t like when people laugh at something I really mean. But they’re the prettiest things I’ve ever seen. The glass is clean, and so smooth the bottles feel slippery when I rub them. The watery stuff inside is grown-up drink, like the beers Mama and Daddy have when Aunt Melody comes over. Except Haley says this tastes better. One of the bottles is clear like water. The other is yellow like if the sun had melted inside that bottle, with black paper on the front. That has fancy letters typed in gold, words that are too big for me. A tear in the paper looks like a tiny, fuzzy white snake crawling across the black.
My favorite bottle is dark pink. When you hold it up to your eyes and look through it, everything’s wobbly. The wardrobe dances, and the window gets bigger and smaller when youmove the bottle. Haley says when you drink this, it makes you see everything funny, even when you’re not looking through the glass. I wanted to try it after that. She wouldn’t let me.
I wasn’t supposed to know about these, but one day I came in without knocking and saw what she was doing. That’s why she made up the knocking rule. I don’t know why these bottles are a Secret, though. Grown-ups drink them, and Haley was already grown up. Daddy said in a few years, she’d be old enough for college.
Jake will go to college next year. He showed Haley pictures of the one he likes and let me look too. One of the buildings looked like a gray castle with flags on it. I imagined dragons flying over it, even though those aren’t real.
But then I remember that Jake might not go there after all. I don’t know for sure, because I think he’s in some kind of trouble.When Haley’s car crashed, and we went to the police station, Mama kept blaming Jake.
I don’t understand what Mama thinks Jake did. I asked Daddy, and he said Jake and Haley went driving on a dangerous road. Right before they left, Haley had something to drink that made her not able to drive the right way. That’s all he told me, because Mama came in and stopped him. They went in their room and I heard them yelling about whether I was old enough. Later, Mama came out and told me that Haley’s car broke, and that’s why she crashed, but I think Daddy was the one telling the truth.
I guess Jake says he doesn’t know where Haley got the stuff that made her crash, but Mama thinks he gave it to Haley. I heard her tell the policeman that Haley didn’t ever do “anything like that,” that she knew better than to mess with that stuff, and so it must have been Jake who made her try it. So now he’s in big trouble. Daddy says no one is sure what will happen. Mama gets mad when I ask.
Anyway, no matter which story is true, Haley won’t come back, and someone needs to take over her Secret. I stare at the bottles, lined up on the floor.
Mama is lying down in her room crying. I heard Daddy trying to talk to her earlier, but finally he got mad, and then the back door slammed. Right now I’m all alone, so it’s easy to be sneaky and get a cup from the kitchen. Back in Haley’s closet, I twist the black cap on my favorite bottle. It makes a crickly crack sound, then hisses at me. A tiny part of my mind wants Haley to yank the door open and yell at me, but she doesn’t. She’s in that box in the cemetery.
I pour a pink waterfall into my cup. Some splashes on the carpet, but that’s okay. Mama won’t see.
The pink water has tons of bubbles. I bet it tastes like a juice box and soda mixed together. I have one sip.
It hurts. When I swallow it feels hot like I’m throwing up. I cough a whole bunch. It tasted like hot, dirty fireworks going off in my mouth, not like a juice box at all!
“Shoot!” I cough. I almost used Haley’s grown-up word, the one I’m not supposed to say.
There’s still a lot left in the glass. I think if I can make myself take one really little sip without coughing, I will be grown-up enough to use Haley’s things, and we will never have to forget her.
I close my eyes, open my mouth, and slurp a really small bit. It’s warm, and even worse this time. It tastes like when Haley dared me to lick the sidewalk, and made me lick it really slow, and I could taste all the shoes and worms and dog feet that had ever been there. I got so mad when her friends laughed at me that I cried. She hugged me after they left and said she was really sorry, but I was still mad, so she licked the sidewalk to prove how bad she felt, and then we both laughed, and spit and spit and spit into the grass.
This time, I don’t spit. I’m a big girl. I swallow. I cough inside my chest and inside my neck, but don’t open my mouth to let it out. My eyes are wet when I’m done.
I screw the cap back on my favorite bottle and put it in the floor, then run to Haley’s pillow and pretend I’m hugging her.
Header photograph © Shara Johnson.