Isabella was sitting on her gravestone. She was waving goodbye to papá and moving her mouth. I couldn’t hear what she was saying—mostly because my heart was a drum in my ears—but I could read her lips: “I’ll see you next year.”

Papá turned and started walking toward mamá and me, his eyes both happy and melancholy. I knew he’d longed to hug Isabella and pepper her cheeks with kisses the way he used to. He wanted her to laugh that big laugh of hers, the one that made it feel like the sun was rising in the room.

I longed to hear that laugh, too.

Mamá squeezed my shoulder. “You don’t have to talk to her if you’re not ready, José,” she said when I met her eyes. Anything to look away from Isabella. “We’ll come back for next year’s visitation.”

I was tempted to say yes, but I’d skipped the graveyards’ Dia del Espiritu visit last year. During that time, it’d only been three months since her death. I hadn’t been ready to see her waiting by her plot, as a ghost, untouchable.

I could feel Isabella watching me. I knew she wanted to meet my eyes, but I wasn’t ready for that either. The last time I saw her eyes, they’d been blank and doll-like.

“Do you think she’s angry with me?” I said.

“What?” Papá asked. “Why would she be angry with you?”

I shrugged. Not because I didn’t have an answer, but because I didn’t want to tell them that I was angry with myself. That regrets weighed heavy on my chest. “I miss her,” I said.

Mamá nodded. “Maybe you should tell her that.”

I sighed and thought about it as I observed the rest of the graveyard. There were other ghosts wandering around their plots, some waiting for their families and others laughing with friends. 

Had it been easy for them? Could I laugh with Isabella like that? There was only one way to find out.

“Okay,” I told my parents.

Mamá removed her arm from my shoulder, and I started walking toward Isabella’s direction without glancing her way. I stared at the clean-cut grass instead, which still smelled wet and fresh.

When I reached her gravestone, I looked up and met her eyes. For a moment, all I could see was those lifeless eyes. Her broken and twisted body. The way it’d flown fifteen feet when the car hit her and landed near the stop sign in the corner. We’d only been a couple of blocks away from our home.

I blinked, and the memories vanished. Isabella was not gone but right in front of me. Staring at me with life—or at least, something that resembled life—in her eyes.

She looked exactly the same. Her body was back to normal. Her hair—which was still despite the strong wind—was still long and dark, her skin still light brown, her smile still bright. She always smiled with her teeth. Even now.

My body was shaking, and I wished that the sun and the clouds would disappear. Although, deep down, I knew that wouldn’t help.

“Cat got your tongue?” Isabella said.

I didn’t react for a moment, but then I narrowed my eyes. “You think this is a joke?”

Isabella raised her eyebrows. “I’m sorry?”

“Is this all a joke to you?” I said.

She crossed her arms the way she always did when we used to argue. A hand squeezed my heart when she did that. “This is the first time we talk since I died, and you want to argue?”

“We wouldn’t be here if you’d listened to me.” I was trying to keep my voice low, but I wanted to yell. “I told you we shouldn’t have snuck out to the party.”

“I can leave, you know?” she said. “Or do I have to remind you that these visits are voluntary?”

I didn’t want her to leave, but I didn’t tell her that. “Don’t you get it? You’ve been gone. After today, we’ll go home without you.”

“And that’s my fault?”

“No, it’s mine!” It was loud. Too loud. So loud that the chatter and laughter around us stopped. I was breathing fast, and I kept my eyes on Isabella’s. I didn’t want to see everyone staring at me, blaming me for the mess I’d caused.

Isabella shot them a smile, and slowly, they all went back to talking. She turned toward where I knew mamá and papá were and nodded. Finally, she met my eyes. They had the same warmth and understanding mamá’s eyes held, and even though Isabella was standing right in front of me, it made me miss her more.

“Were you driving that car?” Isabella said. She uncrossed her arms.

I only stared because I knew where she was going with this.

“Were you drunk and behind the wheel?”

“No, but—”

“Then you’re not the reason I’m dead.”

“I should’ve fought you harder,” I said. “I should’ve convinced you to stay.”

“No one could’ve known what would happen that night.”

“I could’ve thrown you out of the way,” I said. “I could’ve jumped in front of you. I could’ve yelled. There are so many things I could’ve done differently.”

I was crying then. I hated crying, but I let the tears fall. I wanted her to see how sorry I was that I hadn’t been able to protect her, not even after she’d spent her entire life protecting me. “I failed you,” I said. “I’m so sorry, Isabella. You have to forgive me.”

“Damn it, José, there’s nothing to forgive.” This time, she raised her voice. “He killed me. He decided to get drunk and drive to the party. It wasn’t your fault!”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to convince myself of,” I said, shaking my dead. “But I don’t believe myself.”

“Then believe me,” Isabella said, her voice rough and her eyes stern. “You were a good brother the whole way through. I died that night, but how many more times did you keep me safe? Have my back? Made me laugh when I cried?”

She put her hand up in between us. I couldn’t touch her—my hand would fall right through—but I put it as near as possible to hers. She felt like a current of air. “You have nothing to regret, okay?”

I sobbed. Wished I could hold her hand for real. “Okay,” I said. My chest was still heavy with pain, but the way she said it made me believe her. We stood there until my cries turned to sniffles.

Isabella nodded, smiled in a way that made my heart both expand and shrink, and sat back down on the gravestone. She asked, “What have I missed?” and with that question, it was like the barrier in between us fell, and we were back to being us. Back to eye rolls and bickering and laughing about things that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else—not even our parents.

Somewhere along the way, the clouds dispersed and before I knew it, the sun had begun to set. The sky was orange, pink, and a little purple. Isabella smiled at it, her eyes lighting up at the sight. It reminded me of all those times we used to sit in the front yard with our friends, watching the sunset together.

“Do you…” I started, but then I shook my head and said, “Never mind.”

“Ask me,” Isabella said, studying me.

“Do you wish you were still alive?” The real question I wanted to ask her was, What happens when you die? What happens when you’re not here, in this graveyard, once a year? But we weren’t allowed to ask, and they weren’t allowed to answer.

“I don’t know if I can answer that,” Isabella said, tilting her head. “Do I wish I could hug amá, and dad, and you? Yes. Do I wish I could walk further than my plot? Sure. But… death isn’t evil. It just is, like life.”

There was so much I wanted to argue: But you wanted to sing in front of thousands of people, and be my best woman at my wedding, and swim in clear blue waters, and you didn’t get to do any of that. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to hurt her.

Besides, she was starting to fade away, vanishing into the air as if death was breathing her back in after a very long exhale. Most of the people were gone now, and the ghosts were going home—wherever home was. My parents said goodbye one last time, and when they walked away Isabella told me one more thing.

“I got to live a life with you, brother. A lot of bad things happened but a lot of good things happened, too. I didn’t get to live a full life, but that doesn’t mean my life wasn’t full.” I could see the colors of the sky through her now. “No regrets, okay?” she said.

“No regrets,” I said, and she smiled as she disappeared into the sun. I could think of no better place for her to go.

June 04, 2020 23:52

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Erick Morin
04:01 Jun 10, 2020

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, it's powerful. I like the feeling of regret and guilt, as well as the setting. I could feel the emotion coming through the words.


Itxy Lopez
18:29 Jun 10, 2020

Thanks so much, Erick! That's exactly what I wanted to portray, so I appreciate you taking the time to comment.


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