Papa was stupid.
That was all I could think of as I lay in bed thinking of what people were saying about him now that he was dead and buried. And the woman who had been in the car with him buried, too, though none of us knew who she was. Just some random woman maybe. Or his mistress. For all dads had their mistresses. Wasn’t that that how the world worked?
I rolled onto my belly, letting my back cool off as sweat had soaked the sheets beneath me. I had been napping when the overhead fan simply stopped working, but downstairs, I could hear the stand fan still running as the neighbor’s dog barked outside. I sighed. Just another quirk of this new apartment we moved into since Papa’s unexpected death. We had been forced to move out of the house we’d lived in for years to help pay his debts, and now here we were in a small apartment in a cul-de-sac, a place that never seemed to get any sunlight.
Yet it was damn hot.
Papa had gone out that night, not planning on returning till the following morning. He and Mama had had another argument, like they always did. It was always about the women. He simply could not get his hands off them. And they couldn’t keep their hands off his money.
But the next morning, he didn’t return. By afternoon, we learned the news long after everyone else did. One of my aunts had been the one brave enough to go to the morgue to identify him, as no one else dared to do it. Even Mama could not do it.
He’d been in a car accident just outside of the city. The car was speeding along the darkened roads, and it swerved, wrapping around a balete tree, a form of a ficus that grew abundantly along the countryside. Papa and the woman did not survive, but the stories still being told of how their bodies were found could still be heard throughout the days following his death. I could not listen to them. He was my papa after all, no matter what a bastard he’d been to us.
Mama had found the apartment through a friend of a friend though we could no longer remember who. It was only a few blocks from our closest relatives, and it was cheap. It was also available on such short notice and that was what mattered, for the bank was quick to kick us out and take over their property we used to own.
And so we moved into the small apartment despite the worried stares of the neighbors who shut their doors and peered at us through their windows, their hands to their mouths. And each time we caught their gaze, they’d look up at the second story window, before looking away.
But that was two weeks ago, and each morning since then they’d say hello and ask us how our night went, whether we were all okay. But of course we were fine.
Why wouldn’t we be?
But the fan was not working and I was not happy. I sat up on the bed and stretched. Mama had taken my sisters and brothers to church with her, as she always did these days since the forty days of prayer were not yet over. According to Father Jim, the number of days didn’t really matter although forty was the norm for Catholics like us. He said it could be hours, days or even years if you wanted, depending on Papa’s sins.
So Mama settled for forty days, since that was the way things were done, though she would have settled for none. She was tired of all the stares and the whispers behind her back. The dead man in the closed casket, long buried in the family plot of his family, had received less judgment than she was receiving now. Some said it was her fault that his dick wandered, and that if she had only been a good wife, he would never have strayed. He would never have died the way he did.
It was a battle she could never win. But Mama was strong and we had to be strong with her.
I didn’t realize how cold the room had gotten till I found myself shivering. I glanced up at the fan again. It was not moving. I looked around the room, noticing that the lights were out, too, and outside, dusk had begun to settle. I rubbed my hands against my arms and stood up. I shivered.
The floor was ice cold.
To my right was the door that led to the stairs, and to my left was a wall-to-wall closet, one of its two doors pushed open. I couldn’t remember having left it open, but maybe one of my sisters did, I thought. The side of the closet that was open was empty, no clothes hung from the wooden rack, nor any hangers. But what did hang from it made me bring my hand to my mouth to stifle a scream.
It was a noose.
I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and looked again.
And it was real.
Outside, the world grew silent, the only sound to be heard was the beating of my heart in my ears.
Run! My mind told me.
Run run run!
I turned towards the door leading to the stairs and froze. This time, I wanted to scream as loud as I could but nothing came out of my mouth. Maybe it was fear. Or maybe it was her. But I just could not move. I could only stare at her, my eyes moving from the sight of her face down to her bare feet.
She was pale and thin, with long straggly hair that hung down the sides of her face and her chest, her arms limply hung along her sides and she wore a thin blue shift with flowers and butterflies though they seemed as lifeless as she did. There were no whites to her eyes, just a never-ending darkness that seemed to reach deep into me and fill my heart with its coldness.
And her feet, I could not stop staring at her feet.
They were not touching the floor.
Step in the closet, she said though her pale lips never moved.
No, I wanted to tell her but no word came from my mouth. I still could not move.
Step in the closet, she ordered. I’ll make things better for you.
It was a will not my own but my legs began to move towards the closet and I shook my head, tears falling down my face. No. One foot moved, and then the other. No, I whimpered again. I’m not going inside the closet. But my legs kept moving.
I willed every ounce of strength I had to move my legs towards the stairs, feeling as if my feet were stuck in tar. But even when I found myself facing the stairs again, the girl stood – no, she did not stand. She floated above the top of the stairs.
Would I end up brushing against her? Would she raise her arm and grab me? The thoughts whirled through my mind even as her words continued to fill my brain with how things would soon be better for me, that this was the way things happened. Papa was waiting for all of us, she said. She was waiting.
– Step inside, she said again.
I began to pray, struggling to remember the words. “Our father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name–”
– Step inside.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven–”
– Step inside.
“Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins…”
Suddenly I was moving, as if whatever bound me to her will broke. I ran as fast as I could, through the door and past the girl, entity, whatever she was, floating at the top of the stairs. The skin of my arms prickled as I brushed against something ice cold and feathery but I did not care. I ran down the stairs, almost falling down the steps but gripping the bannister just in time as the front door opened. Mama walked in, asking me why I had locked the deadbolt—only I didn’t.
As I made it down the stairs, she took one look at my face and everything fell into place.
She knew then why the rent had been so low, why the place had remained empty for months. She knew why the neighbors looked at us the way they did, asked the questions they asked each time, and that things being moved around the house was not Papa visiting us at all. For how would he visit the ones he’d stopped caring for a long time ago?
And Mama was not stupid. She never was.
She grabbed me, still barefoot and shaking, barely able to speak, and before my brothers and sisters could enter the house, she ordered them all to get out. Out, out, out, as upstairs we heard the closet door slam shut once, twice, three times, the glass mirror shattering with a deafening roar. Outside, the neighbors ran out of their homes, making the sign of the cross and praying out loud the same prayer I could barely even remember when I was inside with her, their faces glistening with perspiration for it was still as hot as hell on that summer night.
“As we forgive those who trespass against us.”