A Promise Kept

I wouldn’t let Will come with me to the cemetery; this was something I had to do alone.

He didn’t know Lizzie. My cousin died years before I met him. It wouldn’t be right for him to be here. Meeting my relatives was one thing; this was different – this was family. Besides, I’m not sure Lizzie would have liked him.

As I walked among the headstones, flowers in one hand and pearls in another, I thought about Will, about our life… about why I was here. Worry had clouded his pretty brown eyes when I had told him where I was going; it was the same look he gave me when I decided not to attend my mother’s funeral last week – an unnerving glare that made me twitch. I could tell he disapproved. I wondered if he regretted taking me to dinner that night in Richmond a year ago. I wondered if he knew that sitting from across him in Calvin Klein heels and a tight sleeveless dress was the kind of girl who wouldn’t attend her mother’s funeral. Would he have simply said he that had a nice time but he’s not really looking for anything serious right now? Probably — but then again, he didn’t know Amy Barnes.

When dad called to tell me that Amy’s condition had taken a turn for the worse, I didn’t rush to the airport. It wasn’t a condition for Christ sake, she’s a fucking addict and her poor health was a product of her own making. Will finally convinced me to go…

“Emily, she’s your mother,” he spoke to me like I was a stranger and not his girlfriend. I suppose I shouldn’t blame him.  He was dating Emily Barnes – journalism major, top of her class. He had never met Amy’s daughter.

“She’s not yours, it’s not your decision.” He didn’t understand. To Will, a daughter should care about her mother, should miss her when she’s gone… and I did, in a way. I missed who she should have been, and I missed who she never was, but I didn’t miss her.

Round and round our argument went until I booked the flight home. I didn’t the energy to argue, so I just gave in. By the time our plane landed, Amy was in critical condition. By the time we got to the hospital, she was dead. I didn’t go into her hospital room. I didn’t need to say goodbye.

Though I refused to go to the funeral, I did technically attend the viewing. Whilst relatives were huddled about in the funeral parlor, l crept to into the back room where the body was waiting so I could look inside the casket. I don’t know why I needed to look…guilt, grief – maybe …who knew. What I found inside nearly knocked the wind out of me. Yet, it wasn’t sadness nor the sight of Amy’s body that shocked me — it was an opportunity. I could finally make good on a promise that I made to Lizzie years ago.


“EMILY JEAN BARNES” I awoke to the distant shriek of my mother’s voice; the use of my middle signaled that she was not pleased – not that this time was any different than the rest of my life. “YOU BETTER BE AWAKE!” She screeched again, her voice came closer with each passing second. I could plainly hear the click-clack of the woman’s heels walking up the wooden stairs as she approached my bedroom.

Ummm…Go Away, I groaned as I heard the twist of my doorknob turn. The woman refused to even extend the courtesy of a simple knock. The whole idea of privacy was apparently an alien concept; the woman consistently barged into my room like a warden inspecting a cell. Once, I bought the woman a dictionary, hoping she might actually leaf through the pages to understand complex words such as privacy or, god forbid, sobriety.

“I heard you, the first time.” With a grumbled hesitation, I turned to see the scowl that was permanently etched on Amy Barnes’ face. I couldn’t remember when that scowl had replaced my mother’s smile.

Indeed, the memory of my mother was as elusive as a phantom, haunting the corners of my mind but never within grasp. Sometimes I think I can see her hiding beneath the caked on powder on her face, a ghost of the woman, the woman who wanted a child, the woman who smelled of flour and apricots. But it was only a shadow, a trick of the light. Perhaps… my mother never existed at all.

“We have to be there in less than an hour and you’re not even dressed.” Amy nagged, slurring her words. A haggard looking woman stared at me with cold, almost dead eyes. The sound of her backwoods southern drawl lingered in my ears. The faint aroma of stale beer assaulted my nose and me dizzy. Great, she’s already cracked open the Budweiser, I thought in disgust – though I supposed under the circumstances, it was understandable.

“I’ll be ready in a minute,” I responded. My voice cracked, but thankfully it went unnoticed. I wiped the droplets of sweat from my forehead, hoping Amy would be satisfied and leave me alone.

The squeaking ache of my door swinging open proved that I had no such luck. Instinctively, I felt the woman’s eyes drifting through every corner of my room, staring disapprovingly at the scattered bits of laundry and rolled up papers that decorated the floor. “You need to clean this mess up when we get home.”

“I will.” I lied.

“You should wear your nice black pair of heels.” Amy babbled on, pulling at the stray strands of fabric on her sequined navy dress and cardigan; her clothing choice was nothing short of tacky.

“You realize it’s a funeral, not the prom, right, “I fired back at her, eying her choice of clothes with disdain. Amy lashed out a reply, but the words faded into the distance. I knew the woman was speaking, could feel the aggravating buzz of sound bouncing off my eardrums, but the conversation had dwindled into white noise; she was saying something about respect or, as I suspected, the lack of respect.

“… Mess… Find anything…time “Only snippets of the woman’s prattling actually registered in my mind. I wasn’t listening. My eyes flickered away from Amy and rested on my alarm clock sitting mere inches from my elbow; it read 11:30 am in neon yellow lights. The funeral service started at noon.

My swollen ankle caught on a wrinkled hoodie that lay buried underneath old soda cans, resulting in a near nosedive toward the stained carpet. Thankfully, my right arm caught the corner of my dresser just in time; granted a few photographs weren’t so lucky. Steadying my leg, I slowly reached down to pick up the two pictures frames that had fallen. I felt a lump form in the hollows of my throat as I stared at the photograph of Lizzie’s graduation – it had been a good day…


“Hold still girls.” My father asked, holding up his cheap cardboard camera; his arthritis was acting up again. His hands could barely grip the camera.

“It’s her fault,” I managed to say in between laughs. Lizzie was sabotaging each picture by poking me in the sides.

“Is not,” Lizzie teased, reaching up to steady her oversized cap so that it doesn’t tumble to the floor. “Ok, ok I’ll be good… ”She paused and surveyed the room as if looking for something or someone. “Where did Aunt Amy go?”

“Probably out for a smoke,” I said while as I rolled my eyes. I was just glad she was gone for the time being. The only thing worse than being around Amy when she was intoxicated was being around her sober; her tone and mood when she was sober made Revelations seem cheerful by comparison.

“Move a little to the left, I want to get the entire stage in the background,” My father almost shouted; it was hard to hear him over the bustle of voices in the auditorium. The entire Civic Center filled with families celebrating their children. Hands were shaken; hugs were exchanged. My cousin and I were no different. “Elizabeth lift your head up, I want a good shot of you and those pearls.” Pride emanated from my father’s voice as he looked at Lizzie; the smile that crept across his lips when she opened her present reminded me of the same goofy happy face he makes when he and I watch bad Sci-Fi movies together. I couldn’t wait to see his face when I graduated.

“Thank you, Uncle Pete,” she smiled, lifting her neck up in an exaggerated fashion. The pearls slipped out of the folds of her maroon robes, glistening like diamonds under the room’s fluorescent lights. “They’re beautiful.”

“Actually they are from both of us,” My dad added and sent a sharp wink in my direction.

“Yep. I picked them out and I let dad pay for them.”

“How generous of you,” Lizzie joked as she tilted her head towards me. Mock surprise veiled her blue eyes.

I threw my left arm around my cousin in response, a feat that would have been impossible earlier when she was wearing her four-inch heels. I smuggled in her favorite pair of flip-flops in my knapsack so that she wouldn’t be forced to spend all day in her dress shoes. Pulling my right arm close to my chest and placing my hand above my heart, I pretended to take offense to her sarcasm. “I only make so much babysitting and no-offense cuz but I’m kinda behind on my comic collection. Especially since you keep raiding my best volumes.

“ Emm hush” she said as she raised her finger to her lips; her head swung wildly in all direction as though she were scanning the faces of the people standing near us, trying to make sure her friends didn’t hear about her love for comics – which was, of course, all my doing.

I tried and failed to suppress my laughter. “Oh come on Lizzie, you should wave your nerd flag with pride.”

“Girls, we’re going to be late for dinner.”

“Sorry, Dad.”

“Sorry, Uncle Pete.” We dropped our playful antics and turned to face my father. My cheeks moved to their appropriate positions as I prepared my smile. I never liked smiling in photos, neither did Lizzie.


“…. Your father and I will be in the car…” Amy’s said, hurriedly withdrawing her fingers from my desk. I never even noticed that she had come into my room. I gazed at the picture one more time. I decided that this is how I will remember Lizzie: a mess of blond hair, pearls, and maroon robes – not the lifeless body that lay covered in glass and blood – not whatever waited in the open casket at the funeral home.

Four days had passed since that night of the car crash. The gash above my right eye had been stitched, the bruises on my arms had transformed from their Easter egg shade of yellow into a color more resembling the peel of sliced eggplants that sat in the fridge. A red plaster cast held my fractured ankle in place.

My wounds were healed, but that night still haunted my dreams; every night my mind replayed a succession of images that ended in horror: Lizzie driving, the swerving car, and then nothing but blood.

I made it to the closet and shoved through the array of hangers, searching for that one dress I wore a year ago at my grandfather’s funeral. I hated that dress; the fabric felt as foreign to my skin as the man in the casket had been to my memory.

Lizzie and I had sat together at Randy’s… no, Jacob’s… ummm, still not it…, whatever – we sat together at his funeral. I didn’t even remember the man’s name. The only thing I knew about him was that apparently, his DNA shared chromosomes with mine. Beyond that, he was a stranger. Lizzie deserved more. She deserved a better dress than this… but, it was all I had. The car horn blared in the distance – Amy’s patience was wearing thin.

The house was empty but there was a heaviness to the air that I could not explain. Everywhere I looked, I saw Lizzie.  She was sitting on the sofa reading, or in the kitchen, raiding my cheese stash from the fridge. Like a specter haunting the edges of this world and the next, her presence lingered in every inch of the house.

Her tennis shoes lay underneath the coffee table; her bright blue eyes stared back at from most of the photographs on the mantle. Even the welcome mat in front of the door still showed the stains of the grape juice she had spilled last week.

The car ride was nearly unbearable; my father drove in silence whilst my mother primped her hair and patched up her makeup. Her painted nails scraped against the radio dash, changing the station from one awful country song to the next. She’s either cursing traffic, my father’s driving skills, or the fact that we are late. My father’s grip on the steering wheel tightened with every word she spoke; by the time we reached the intersection of Abercorn and Rio, his whites were painted white.

We pulled up to the same funeral place where we had my grandfather’s viewing. The main parlor of Fox Funeral Home reeked of bleach and Old Spice. Though tissue boxes were scattered throughout the room, there were almost no tears in sight. Everyone was gathered in small groups, talking and catching up; some people were even laughing.

Uncle Kenny told jokes about his construction crew; his booming voice hovered above the parlor music that played in the background.  Aunt Lorrie had already taken off her shoes and her inability to walk a straight line was very noticeable. Uncle Roger bitched about his latest girlfriend that he had met at Rehab. Lizzie’s mother, Aunt Jo, kept her head down buried in a bible, staying close to the casket. A few of Lizzie’s friends from school stood huddled together in the northeast corner of the room.

No one had noticed the Barnes family yet. “Try not to embarrass us for once.” Amy glared at me, taking a swig from the flask she had stashed in her bag. The putrid stench of Crown Royal coated her breath.

“I think you have our roles in this family confused.” I said whilst clenching my teeth together; it was the only way to prevent myself from gagging.

“Not here, you two,” Dad hissed. His voice was quiet but stern – a warning for both of us to be on our best behavior.

Dad never really knew what to say regarding my relationship with my mother. After a fight, he would take me to the movies or put on the X-Files if the hour was too late; it was his version of an olive branch, a way to keep me distracted so that I wouldn’t utter that terrifying two-syllable word: Divorce.

My stomach lurches at the sight of the pearls around Amy’s neck – the pearls Dad had brought Lizzie for graduation. I knew Lizzie had left them somewhere in my room, How did Amy get them? I pointed my finger towards her neck and shouted. “Those aren’t yours!”

Amy just smiled. “She won’t need them anymore…” That was all she said but I could hear the rest of the sentence echoing in my head as though the words had actually left her lips: and they look better on me anyway.

I felt my cheeks turn the color of a tomato as my bad leg lashed out in front of Amy, catching her step off guard and tripping her. The pain was worth it. Her balance wavered and she fell. “You little sh….” She screamed unable to finish her colorful description as my father clamped his hand around her mouth.

Everyone turned to stare; a few hushed “Oh My (insert deity here)-s” could be heard in the distance as I made my way toward the center of the room, leaving Amy and my father behind. Every time I took a step, a relative blocked my way; they circled me like vultures, extending their sweaty hands and half-hearted condolences before making attempts at polite conversation. In these conversations, I maintained a carefully composed script of obligatory answers:

Yes, it’s very sad

I’m 14 now

School is fine

No, I don’t go to church

No, I don’t have a boyfriend

Good to see you too

I created this internal script years ago and replayed it at every family reunion. Of course, mild alterations were made to suit this particular occasion; it kept the pleasantries to a minimum, and I didn’t have to remember anyone’s name.

The music stopped and everyone scrambled to take a seat. The seat on my right stayed empty. I’m glad – it was Lizzie’s seat. She often said that she always wanted to be on the right side of me, especially when I was mad.

“Dearly beloved…” When the eulogy began, the water-works finally started. Relatives who only moments ago were chatting about their lives were now wailing. The man at the podium was only here because Aunt Jo was a member of his church. Lizzie stopped going to church at the age of nine, and I knew she wouldn’t be thrilled.

Slowly, each row of chairs was emptied as family and friends lined up to view the body for their last chance to say goodbye. I tried to think about what I will say when it’s my turn but every word felt inadequate…hollow somehow. I took a deep breath; my eyes shifted from the vacant seat to the casket and back again. Quietly, I muttered a promise under my breath: Don’t worry Lizzie, I will get the pearls back for you.

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