ALL GOLD, ALL LIGHT
Miranda wasn’t my cousin by blood, but she had this way of smiling that felt familial, like our muscles were molded from the same meat. I started thinking about her smile that day and I haven’t stopped since.
The funeral was in the high school cafeteria, I don’t know why. The room smelled like instant mashed potatoes and floor wax. She was up at the front of the room, center stage, where the football boys would sit during lunch. She’d hate that, she always ducked away from too many eyes, grinned down at her shoes.
Her casket was open. They’d put too much makeup on her, and placed her hands over her stomach. I glanced at her as I marched by the box, just a peripheral side-swipe and all I saw was the red stain of her mouth. I couldn’t look at her full on.
She was there, but not really.
Our whole family sat in a cluster and sobbed; we sucked up shallow breaths in unison. Tears dripped off our noses and we dabbed them with already-damp tissues. They played some Alan Jackson over the loudspeakers and we all shrieked; it started with Aunt Judi and we all chorused up with her, choking. We were strangled wolves; elephants nosing bones while country ballads played.
It took almost an hour to say goodbye to her, and then another to say goodbye to each other. I was pulled into hug after hug, my spine rung-out-dishrag limp. My aunt wrapped her arms around me and I rested my chin on her head. She looked close enough to Miranda to be mistaken for blood: blonde and petite and soft around the edges. We didn’t linger, I could only look at her the edges of her face. Grant came next; big Uncle Grant, who looked so out-of-place anywhere but in a milk barn. His face was red, his eyes were swollen. We both staggered toward each other, arms forward, like Romero extras. I walked into his chest, and when my arms wrapped around his middle his knees buckled.
Grant is a big man, but I am a big girl; I didn’t falter. He hiccupped against my hair, and a shudder sliced through him. His shirt smelled like outside, like grass and chicken feathers. I could hear his heartbeat in between his shaky breathes and I closed my eyes against it. Nothing was real, not his weight and not that steady rhythm in my ear. He pulled away. I watched his bones knit back with his joints and ligaments; he returned to six-foot-three and impenetrable. I got on my tiptoes to kiss his cheek, and his stubble was so sharp it scratched my lip. I could taste blood a long time after.
The last thing Miranda ever said to me was, “I love you.”
I got idyllic last words, words that you could engrave on the backs of your eyelids, that glow on-and-on in your skull. She was leaned out the window of a school bus, and the sun caught her hair and lit up her face. Her skin so white it blurred.
I was rushing on nervous feet to get to my own bus, practically panting, trying to leave. I had a senior year itinerary rolling through my brain: look for scholarships, do homework, eat. Buses were about to roll, drivers were breathing life into their engines and I had to get to 32 before the doors closed. My nerves crackled electric.
I glanced at her, just a peripheral side-swipe, and saw her head poke out of that window: all gold, all light.
She smiled as she said it: “Hey, Kenzie, I love you!”
I forgot to say it back.
Makenzie Smith is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. She is currently a student in the BFA program for Creative Writing at Arkansas Tech University.