Wait by Christine Salek

I get to the wake, and the first people I see are her parents, and what strikes me most is that they don’t look any different. She and I went over to her house every day after school and we’d say a quick hello to them before we disappeared into the basement to do homework or play Scene It or make out. One of them would be washing the dishes and the other would be reading, and when they greeted us it was a warm hug of the most perfect, most needed words. “Hey!” “How’d the day shake out?” “There’s our girls.” But I arrive today and I try to look for differences — like how her parents are wearing all black, how they’re not smiling — no, they are smiling, greeting people at the door, laughing, inviting people into the space just like they will at our wedding someday. But — say you imagine what it’s like when you’re in the same room as your dead daughter — you imagine her parents running to her casket, sobbing, willing it not to be true, hovering over her body and gently stroking her soft, pale face as if their love alone can bring her back. But they don’t look any different. They still look alive. And the crowd parts, the line to see her moves, and I move up with it, and I finally get a look at her from behind her uncle’s bald head, and she doesn’t look any different either. She’s still got color in her cheeks, it looks like. Maybe even more than usual, that’s how alive she looks. And I had started to wonder, right after I greeted her parents and I joined the line of mourners, I was thinking, just you wait. I’m prepared to see her, prepared for when I get up there and her chest starts to move and her eyes spring open and we all celebrate because it’s her best joke yet. We all should have expected it, she’d say, why didn’t anyone expect the winner of the National College Improv Contest to do this? Someone gives her her guitar next, the white one that was supposed to be buried with her that’s leaning on its stand next to the flowers, book pages and ticket stubs and photos of us woven through the strings, and we all sing “When I’m 64” all night long, because it’s the first song we can think of to mark the moment, that it’s a certainty now, a certainty that she will make it out of her 20s and 30s, 40s, 50s, and when she turns 64, we’ll have the same party again, but better. And so I’m finally standing over her, my heart racing, the beginning of a smile pulling my mouth wide, and she doesn’t open her eyes. So I wait there a moment and I clear my throat so she knows it’s me. I say, “Hey,” so she knows it’s me. “How’d the day shake out?” A lot of people have been talking to her as they go past, some muttering prayers, others saying a final goodbye before the lid closes — I see the lid now, on her left, held open, as if to let her breathe — and I clear my throat again because it’s not goodbye for us. Because she has to open her eyes for me. Because if she didn’t open her eyes for her parents, and she doesn’t open her eyes for me, then who is she waiting for? Because if she doesn’t open them soon, they’re going to close that lid and drive her down the street and put her in the ground. Because once she’s in the ground, it’s going to be too late, because she’s going to be dead.

Christine Salek has lived on both coasts and currently resides in Wisconsin. Their writing ranges from sports journalism to flash fiction to music and everything in between. They work at a library, watch a lot of women’s sports, and tweet @enbybird.