The big tent set up for the funeral is crowded with people wearing burlap morning gowns. The air inside the venue is filled with the smell of incense mixed with oriental lilies, a combination that stifles your lungs. I watch as the master of the ceremony calling out people to come forward and pay their respect to the dead, watch as he pours cup after cup of sorghum spirit into the small thatch pot filled with dark sand. In the background, I hear the low chanting of the sutra. The rhythmic chant is broken by the occasional whimpers and sniffles, turning into pieces of nonsense drifting in and out of my ears. White lilies surrounds the temporary stage in the front , creating a sea of white with a few dapples of purple violet among. The florists I hired had outdone their job, even though I am pretty sure Mom would have hated it. She despised refinement. I smile subliminally when my eyes sweep over the space. I can easily pick up more little details she would have fussed about.
I don’t know half of the people you invited.
The cater is horrible. I don’t like their chicken.
How many times have I told you not to wear your hair down? Your curls are everywhere in your face.
But of course, she can’t make a peep this time.
Since she is lying in the casket.
I blink. My eyes are dry from the severe sleep deprivation. The whole ceremony has lasted for seven days with six visitation days and the actual funeral day. Each night when I stayed by her body in vigils, I thought about that Wednesday afternoon.
It was an overcast day. The after-school student honer guards assembling had been canceled because of the drizzle at times. I was thrilled to have an evening off. It was a little bliss and I intended to enjoy the most of it. Everything was fine, dull yes, but fine. Then I got a call form the hospital.
Your mother was in a car accident.
I hated the obscurity in those words. There were too much space for wrong assumptions, for something I already lost, for hopes. I kept asking myself when I was finally in the morgue: What was I expecting to see? That mom was probably just hurt. That she would sit in the ER and complained about the hateful hospital smell. That I would get a call from her and she would tell me they made a mistake, she was home and safe. I didn’t know all this time, I was only entitled to wish, but not to hope.
It was hard that first night when I finally got home. I was exhausted and lost, standing in the apartment I shared with Mom for the past seventeen years. It was weird, knowing that she was right here the night before, and the next day she just vanished. The tears were unstoppable, so was the wile that followed. That night I drained all the tears I had and passed out on her bed. Since I woke the following morning, I haven’t shedded another tear.
Mom was a lot of things. She was a drama queen who dared too much, cared too little. An insensitive asshole who brought more trouble than ten people combined. Her weird code of moral drove the people around her insane. She might be the most disastrous person in the entire district, but she was also the most optimistic woman one could ever encounter. One thing I know for sure is that she wouldn’t wish to see me submerging in sorrow. She would want me to pull my shit together and face the misfortune like a grown-up (Or, more likely, cheer for her because she finally didn’t have to pay taxes to the goddamn government).
Fuck, I miss her so much.
“You are fucking selfish to leave.” I accuse in a low voice. My eyes land on the dark wooden casket resting in the middle of the front stage.
“Xin.” I jerked when my mom’s sister, Auntie Ru, appears at my side. She gives me a weak smile and pats on my shoulders softly. I find people like to do that, patting on someone’s shoulders, as a gesture of comfort. It’s funny that you can learn these small facts about humanity only when you are placed in a miserable situation.
“How are you holding up?” She says her voice wobbles a little. She looks pretty like Mom, with inky black eyes and hair. Warm skin and thin lips. Classic Asian (or Taiwanese, to be more precise) features. The only notable difference between her and mom is their heights. Mom was relatively taller than most of her family, except for me. I am always the tallest among the girls with my 5.7-foot stature, making me stand out in a group without actually doing anything. Along with some not-quite-Asian features (Hair a few shades yellower, eyes a whisky color that they almost look amber under a certain angle of lighting), I am a total freak in my hometown. I swear Grandpa looked at me funny sometimes. And Grandma was outright disgusted by my existence. To Chinese traditional value (or maybe the shit only exists in Grandma’s fried-up head), it’s a disgrace to be born with an impure bloodline. Being half American doesn’t bode me well. In her eyes, I will always be an outlander in her family, a stain couldn’t be washed off. I doubt that I will be vindicated by the fact that I am the only legacy left by her daughter.
“I am okay.” I assure her. My easy tone belies the pain in my heart. She glances at me warily and I can see words forming on her lips. It takes her a few tries to finally spit them out.
“You are only seventeen. You should let us take care of the funeral.” She scolds, but her tone is warm. There were some objections when I offered my help to pull out the whole ceremony. They all thought I was weak and miserable, but I turned out to be the most composed person in the entire prepping process. I was the one who contacted the funerary service, arranged the dates, and mailed out the obituaries. Everything has been good so far. Later, we will cremate her body. And I will bury her ashes under a sycamore tree, like what she said when we were watching Flipped several years ago.
“Teen movie.” She mused beside me, pointing a poky cookie at the TV. “All bullshit.”
“You are just jealous that your life is not even half romantic as it is.”
“You know what?” She sat up straighter. I cocked my head one side with a raised eyebrow. “You are damn right. Maybe I don’t have a sycamore tree to rescue, but make sure I am buried under one, won’t you.”
“Because it’s romantic. Girl, get your head together.”
I smile at the memory. “She is my mom.” I say, staring at my lap. “I’ll do anything for her.”
She gives me that pitiful eyes I am so sick of. “My husband and I have been discussing... adopting you.” She raises a hand when I open my mouth to protest. “You think you can live on your own. But you are still underage. You need a legal guardian. I don’t want you to think you are causing us trouble. You are my sister’s only child and I will take care of you unconditionally.” She stops and gives me another sincere smile. “You are not alone, Xin. You still have us.”
I blink and, out of nowhere, blurt out: “And Dad.”
She freezes, staring at me like I had a second head on my neck.
“I am not parentless.” I say and realize, yes, I still have my dad. These days have been crazy enough that his existence has been completely forgotten. “I have a father.”
“Yes, you do.” Auntie Ru still looks at me oddly. “But he is across the Pacific.” She swifts so she can look me directly in the eyes. “And he doesn’t even care enough to attend your mother’s funeral.”
I bite my lips. Well, this is definitely my fault. I didn’t even call him. “Yeah... about that...” I reach under the burlap mourning gown I wear and pull my phone out of my jeans pocket. “I should probably tell him Mom is gone.”
“You didn’t?” She said with a frown. I can tell she is trying hard not to roll her eyes at a girl who just lost her mother. I cringe, standing up from the plastic stool I perched on in the past 3 hours. Before I turn to the exit, she grabs my arm.
“You want to live with your father?” She asks. Even though her face is kind, but there is an edge of reproach in her voice. “Have you thought this through? This will mean leaving your family and friends behind. This will mean moving into a different country.”
To be honest, I haven’t thought this through. But for god’s sake, I didn’t even think of my father until approximately three minutes ago.
“He is my dad, Auntie.” I say like she was stupid. But we both know I am the stupid one here. She sighs but does not stop me from exiting the venue again.
He picks up the phone a bit longer than usual.
“Who is this Precious?” A voice so low comes from the other side, carrying a dooming edge. My dad, Xavier Alston, does have a resonant voice, but this sounds like someone is pressing their voice extra low as a threat. Like a tiger triggered by danger. I shiver uncontrollably.
“Can’t you recognize your own daughter’s name? Or we finally reach an agreement that this name you gave me is ridiculous? You know you can call me Xin if you want. ”
My parents weren’t married. When I was born, they agreed to have Mom raise me in Taiwan. She would take me to visit Dad for a couple of months every year but she never stayed. After I was old enough, I took the plane on my own to see Dad over winter and summer breaks. Mom gave me my Chinese name, Xin, which meant heart in English. Dad gave me my English one, Precious, claiming it’s a perfect name to match my Chinese one. When I grew older, I had complained about how cheesy the name he gave me was. But Dad just thought it’s cute.
There is a long silence on the line. I hear the small breath pull out before the speaker answers. And this time, I am fairly sure he is not my dad.
“Oh, yes. Precious. Of course.” The man splutters. “Daughter, of course.”
I narrow my eyes even though he can’t see me. “Who are you? And why are you answering Dad’s phone?”
“Taylor Burner.” He answers too quickly, sounding nervous. I pull my phone to double check the number. I didn’t accidentally dial the wrong person.
“In case you don’t know,” I say, pressing my voice lower to mimic his tone before. “My dad has a huge ass gun. If I were you, I wouldn’t have stolen his phone.”
“You think I am a thief.” The man huffs out, sounding almost offended.
“You didn’t give me many clues.” I drawl with a grin. I don’t know why but talking to this stranger somehow eases the tension in my chest a little.
“Who’s that?” My dad’s voice drifts from the other side of the phone, muffled by distance.
“Precious. I...” Burner doesn’t have the chance to finish his sentence before Dad’s rumbling voice fills my ear.
“Precious, dear. I haven’t heard from you for days. Everything good?” He sounds apprehensive even though I notice an undertone of disapproval.
“Oh, yeah. I’m sorry. Something happened.”
I look back to the tent set up for the funeral, where Mom’s portrait was placed lonely at the entrance. In the picture, she smiled so widely. A perfect image of the carefree woman she used to be. I inhale sharply, swallowing back the tears that threaten to break free.
“She is gone.”
“Who is gone?” Dad asks. The apprehension in his voice grows thicker.
“Mom.” I choke out. Shit, I am not supposed to be sad. I was doing fine being a grown-up ass. But Dad’s voice was like an alarm, waking me up from the haze of the past few days. All of a sudden, I feel so cold. Maybe, after all, I can’t handle this well as I gave myself credit for. “She was hit by a bus several days ago. She didn’t make it.” I stop to pull in a long, shaky breath. “She’s dead.”
“Jesus Christ.” He curses. And he repeats those words three more times before he says: “I’m coming to you. If I leave now, I probably get there tomorrow.” I hear him start pacing around the room.
“You don’t have to come.” I wipe my face frantically. “The funeral will end soon. There is no point.”
He sighs heavily, struggling to make a decision. “You shouldn’t be alone.” He finally says.
“I am not.” I assure him. “Plus, you don’t wanna be reprimanded by people here. They all think you are heartless not to come to the funeral.” I laugh bitterly.
Knowing my dad, he is probably rolling his eyes now. The thought makes me chuckle. Dad never gives a crap about my family here. He would avoid them at all costs, including Mom. “You should have told me earlier. I would have come to pay my respect despite how much I hate the other half of your family.” He grumbles.
I laugh heartedly. I love Dad for his fuck-them-all-and-I-don’t-give-a-shit persona. “I miss you, old man.”
He grunts. “42 is not old enough.”
“Actually...” I tumble over my words. “I... I was thinking maybe... I can stay with you for a while.”
The answer is instant. “Of course. Stay forever if that’s what you want.”
What I want...What do I want? I smile into the phone. “I will text you the flight info. Pick me up at JFK, you still in New York right?”
“No. But, okay I will pick you up at JFK.” I know better to ask why. He will tell me you young lady doesn’t have to know.
“Thank you, Dad.”
“Always Precious. Promise to keep in touch.”