Contemporary Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

Potential CW: Mentions of death (non-explicit)

Ander’s twin in the mirror looks more confident than he could ever hope to be. 

Clearing his throat for what seems to be the tenth time that day, he once again stares shakily into his reflection’s gaze, wishing he could trade places with it. His papers crinkle in his hands, words tumbling around the page in cartwheels. He glances down again, his lips practicing the movements that will start the address, trying to memorize the phrases that seem all too eager to run away from him. 

“I-We are g-gathered here today to-to...um..we-”

He curses silently as he stumbles over his words. Even facing an audience of one, it is still hard to stop his heart from racing like he’s high on adrenaline. It’s as if his mouth is filled with mud with how thick and sticky it feels. Rubbing his temples, Ander wipes his sweaty palms on his pants and starts over, praying he doesn’t stutter. 

“Ahem! We a-are here today-I mean uh-gathered here today to h-honor the...ah...p-passing of um...the...passing of a…”

He trails off, watching the way the sentences blur in and out of focus like smudges of ink on paper. He rarely has trouble speaking like this, yet his words stumble around in his mouth like broken puzzle pieces. Resisting the urge to just throw the speech into the toilet bowl and flush it down into the sewers, he instead leans over the sink and sighs. His breath fogs up his reflection like smoke, and for a moment he stands there, arms outstretched, trying to forget everything that’s happened in the past few days. His lip trembles as his heart grows heavy, gaze flitting to the bottle of shampoo lying on the counter, a gift left by his mother that lay unused.

“Focus,” he says, keeping the quiver out of his voice. His fingers itch, wishing that he was holding a warm hand instead of a monotone, cold draft typed up in a mental fog. His chest aches as he looks down at the speech again, unsure if it’s the stage fright or the implication behind the rows and rows of tiny words that’s shredding his voice down to nonsense. Sucking in a deep inhale, he starts over, trying not to choke on the fat lump of tongue stuck near the end of his throat. 

“We…We are gathered here today to honor the p-passing of a beloved family member and friend.” 

He pauses for a moment, before continuing, licking his lips as he does so. The speech is arduous, and he can’t help but briefly feel like Sisyphus, a man in Greek mythology cursed by Hades to forever roll a stone uphill as punishment for his crimes. 

Sweat slides down his forehead as his eyebrows clench together. He speaks until his throat turns dry, and even then he tries to continue until his words have dissolved into a hoarse rasp. He looks up as he stops speaking, eyes focused on the mirror- his audience. His reflection judges him, expression identical yet almost mocking, as they lock gazes. 

The tension is broken by the vibrating of his phone, rustling around in the pocket of his pants. Ander fishes it out with shaking hands and stares blankly at the cracked screen. His reflection follows his stare, the leer on its face changing to an expectant look, asking him the question that’s kept him up for countless nights.

Are you really ready for this? 

Swallowing the thirst he feels lining his mouth, he clenches his fists and looks away. He has to be ready. There is no other option. 

Adjusting his tie, he steps back from the counter and smooths out the wrinkles in his coat. If he bites his lip hard enough to keep it from wobbling, he can almost pretend that he’s simply attending a regular conference. He silences his phone and places it back into his pocket, feeling the familiar weight settle against his leg. 

Breathe. The speech in his hands is the report he’s typed up for the meeting. He’s choking because of the tie around his collar. The weight upon his shoulders is simply the brush of the heavy fabric of his coat. 

He turns and leaves the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. 

As he sits in his car, inhaling the musty scent of oil and sweat, he briefly recites the speech in his head again, before starting the engine. The car wheezes and puffs as he twists the key as if it’s unwilling to leave just yet. As the garage door opens behind him, he backs out slowly, eyes trained on the mirror. Someone watches him back. 

The entire drive feels both torturously long and yet infinitesimally short, the grind of asphalt against his tires just an unpleasant reminder of his destination. As he’s driving, he grips the wheel hard, his knuckles burning, and mutters the speech under his breath like a prayer, watching the road intently. 

Twenty miles. Then ten. Then five. Then one. 

Ander turns, watching as the grass field comes into view, dotted with bright flowers and gravestones, and sighs, resisting the urge to adjust his tie. There’s a lump forming in his throat, and he swallows hard. He’d forgotten to drink water beforehand, and now his entire mouth feels like a desert. Practically sweating over the wheel, he slowly parks the car and gets out, chanting the speech in his head, his eyes darting around everywhere. 

There’s already a small procession gathering by one of the gravestones, a giant black smudge against the bright green background. Ignoring the shivers running down his spine and the way the papers in his hands are now damp with sweat, Ander shuts the door behind him and walks to the graveyard, breathing in the summer air as he does so. The sky is clear and beautiful, nothing like the movies. There’s no rain, no grey clouds come to profess their grief for the departed. The sun still shines as brightly as ever, nauseatingly cheerful and full of life. It is the perfect weather for an afternoon walk.

Such a funny joke. 

He reaches the crowd of people, where a few others are still pouring in from other sides, their black suits and dresses contrasting so sharply with the flowers in their arms. There’s a mild breeze in the air, blowing everyone’s clothes and hair about in an almost serene manner. Ander can almost imagine an artist painting this very scene, his brushstrokes vivid even against the sky, where fat clouds slowly make their way into the horizon. 

Their gazes turn to him, and for a moment he hesitates, reminded of the reproachful look his twin had given him in the mirror. Then, he looks at the casket, still unburied and pristine, its hull shining in the sunlight. His fingers clench, and he bites his lip to prevent a sob from coming out. It is wholly improper for the person speaking to break down halfway through, not when he still has a promise to keep and farewells to oversee. 

He waits a few minutes more, watching as more and more people join, their bodies dissolving into the shifting mass of black fabric and forlorn faces. When the field becomes quiet and it’s apparent that no more will join them, he clears his throat, casting one last gaze at the casket before turning his eyes upon the crowd. He prays his voice will not waver. 

“We are…gathered here today to honor the passing of a beloved family member and friend.” 

He feels the lump shift in his throat and resists the urge to cough. 

“She was more than just beloved. She was everything to everyone. To some, she was a dear friend. A sister. An aunt. A…A loving mother w-who I can’t even begin to describe.”

His voice cracks for a moment as he loses his composure. He tries not to choke on the lump in his throat, which has grown much larger in the span of a minute. 

“She blessed the lives of all she…um s-she really uh…”

He stammers as the lump bulges in his throat, cutting off his airway and his voice. Members in the audience look on, confused, as his voice dissolves. No, no, no, he thinks, panicked. Not now! Not when the speech is going so smoothly! 

He glances back at the casket, and the light from the sun blinds him, and he staggers and for a moment all is still and then-

His heart climbs in his mouth and words pour out like a rush of blood to his head. The lump bursts; it is not fear nor grief; it is love. It is a feeling that cannot be expressed through the simplicity of written words. It is visceral, and it is violent, and it explodes into the air. 

“She was beautiful and kind and so, so loving, and I can’t even tell you how amazing of a person she was.”

All formality falls away in that moment as his mouth moves faster than his mind can process, spurred on by the reins of his soul. His speech is forgotten, lost in the waves of his passion.

“I’ll never forget how she tried to make a fruit smoothie but failed and the blender exploded and fruit bits and vegetables sprayed all over the kitchen. And even though it was a mess, we were laughing and laughing as she plucked cantaloupe mush from the counter and tried not to slip on the strawberry juice. We were all laughing so hard that we couldn’t even drink what was left in the blender.” 

He pauses for one microsecond to breathe, not even daring to look at the audience. All that’s in his head are the words he could not fit on the page. 

“She once tried to make barbeque for us but the grill burst into flames halfway through and nearly burned down the patio. It was a real mess but she still smiled through the whole thing, you know? She even tried to salvage the burned sausages and eat them to show us they were still good, and I’ll never forget how funny it was when we saw her make that disgusted face as she put it in her mouth.”

He spares one glance toward the crowd, where he sees people’s lips twitch, and then he continues, babbling like a madman. 

“When we are all younger, a huge thunderstorm struck the house, and the lights went out. We were kids at the time so we were bawling our eyes out and screaming every time lightning struck, so she ended up finding us under the covers. Rather than telling us to go to bed, she stayed up all night reading stories and making a pillow fort with us until we eventually fell asleep. I-I know it sounds childish and silly but she was the type who never stopped dreaming. Man, she really…it was the little things you know? There are an infinite amount of ways to show your love, and she still managed to find more.”

Then, he tells them. His love speaks of her love, the infinity-plus-one ways she opened her heart to the world. He speaks until his throat stings, and the people listening to him turn from stone to clay, their expressions slowly changing as the words tear away from his heart and spill out onto her grave. 

“She was always smiling. It was like her trademark, that cheerful smile that couldn’t be dampened by anything. She was smiling when we were babies, she was smiling when we grew up, she was even smiling when-”

His voice breaks for a moment, before he clears his throat, determined to finish. 

“A-And I think…I think she’d still be smiling now, wherever she is.” 

There is a moment of absolute silence as the crowd shifts and sways. He can see their raw expressions, so different from the disgust his reflection had worn. The breeze has stopped; the only sounds are quiet sniffles and ugly sobbing and the occasional murmur of comfort. He lowers his head, trying to imagine that bright smile he had spent the last ten minutes ranting about. 

Then, the wind blows again, and for a moment, he can almost feel it, the love so great that when it left, it took half his heart with it. 

A second later, it is gone. 

December 11, 2021 04:54

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