BY AMY WANG
A week after my mother died, I locked myself in the bathroom to see if I could dig deep enough into my stomach to get all the bad stuff out. I’d brought a spoon in with me as if I could scrape the back of my ribcage for all the evil that was holding me down to earth and leave it gunked together under the showerhead, next to the rivering clumps of dark hair, most of which still smelled like her shampoo. In the mirror, I watched my spine stipple like a bowstring, each bone knock-kneed as I wisted in the shadow of the sink, mesmerized by the way my skin parted itself beneath the craft scissors. It almost reminded me of cartoon animals, all the ways in which their technicolor bodies stretched and reformed on the screen.
On the other side of the door, my big brother practiced obscenities, words he had learned from my uncle when the two of them were sitting in the backyard, pitching stones at the pigeons because there was nothing else to do. Damn-fuck I heard. Fuck-shit-holy-damn.
It was my small aunt who found me, splayed out on the shower tile like the wet underbelly of a fish. Aiyah, she told me afterward, when I was awake again and the cut across my belly had been taped shut with a lady’s pad. You were so pale I thought you’d used up all my whitening cream. By the bed, my big brother frowned and snorted at me, his head shaking like an angry dog. What did you do that for? He asked me, and I said nothing because I couldn’t tell him then that it was because I was trying to dig out all of my sins because our Sunday school teacher had told us all that we were sinners. I couldn’t tell him that it was because I didn’t want to go to hell. He would have seen it as a betrayal of our pact, because she only said it after the two of us snatched the wig from her head and ran off with it and that meant the two of us were going to go to the bad place together, and what I had done would have meant that he would go alone.
My father, alerted by the hullabaloo, came running into the room, his shirt still unbuttoned from the afternoon nap. What the hell is going on? he asked, the room’s curtain fan sending flurries of white into the air like pieces of lint. In the haze of my pain, I could hear our next door neighbor’s dog barking. It was loud, like it was right next to my ear, and it cut through my father’s voice, through my aunt’s tear-choked explanation, through the sobbing of my brother who was screaming now that I had ruined everything.
I opened my eyes. The curtains in the room were a burnt shade of red but they hadn’t been that way before, had they? Outside, the barking of the dog was still rolling in the air and it matched my heartbeat perfectly. All I could think of was a vivid image of my mother’s face, her eyes closed against the sunlight, against the life that she’d lived, her face empty of pain as she lay with her head in a place very similar to this one, this room with its bathtub and its stained-glass shower curtain and its tiles that still smelled of bleach.
My brother was the one who first proposed the pact. You know mom is going to hell, he’d told me after we heard about the accident. The bible says so. In our bedroom, the air was a heavy, undulating thing, the kind that coaxed you out of the house with promises of rain showers and poolside frolicking and then smashed you on the pavement like a bug. I know, I’d told him.
That means we have to go to hell too if we want to see her, he said. And then he spat in his palm, his eyes as bright as the sickled phlegm in his hand. Swear that we’ll both go and see her so she won’t be lonely. I stared down at his hand, at the wet-slick of his fingers.I swear, I said.
The next Friday, we dressed ourselves in our nice jackets, the ones with the pearl buttons that tasted like M&M’s when we swallowed them down, each pearl-garnished token seeding itself like a light in our mouth.
In the church, we sat in the pews and felt the ironed folds of our dress clothes tack to our backs like chewing gum. This sucks dick, my big brother mouthed at me from across the aisle, his lips rounding out the last word with all the satisfaction of someone who knew what they were doing was wrong. Dick, I mouthed back, equally entranced. In this way, we tried to accumulate enough sin in order to see our mother, our fingers counting each misdeed as if they were more precious than the quarters our small aunt and her husband dropped under our pillows every night, which we fisted and then swallowed down. By then, we had learned that the only way to keep something was to save it in your stomach. It was too late for our mother, we told each other, but it did not have to be too late for anything else.
All around us bobbed bad haircuts and the glistening combovers sported by men old enough to be my grandfather. In the front, my mother’s picture stared down at us, her face airbrushed and wrinkle-free in a way it had never been in real life. Her name was a turn-free syllable in the minister’s mouth, and he stumbled over it during the eulogy as half the church slept and the other half tried to stifle their yawns, the women with their wristfuls of clattering bangles, the men in their nicely cufflinked suits, each movement making a sound that was similar to that of jangling chain link fence.
Underneath my starched pinafore, the wound on my stomach ached, weeping something that felt red and bloody and yet showed up as nothing on my hand whenever I pressed it discreetly to check. She was a lovely and peaceful woman in life, the minister said, and in death, she will follow the good road.
He probably would have dropped his high-handed tone if he knew that she had been a massage-parlor prostitute and that she’d died because one of her clients had gotten angry about how little effort she’d put into his rub-down and slashed her throat with the dull end of a broken bottle of beer, so our little aunt hadn’t told him. It’s not a lie, she told us, after we heard and confronted her about it.
May she rest in peace, he finished, and my big brother coughed into the flat of his palm. The two of us looked at each other, and as everyone stood up, we stood up too and filed past the casket, our hands empty of the flowers we were supposed to be carrying. I left gum under my seat, my big brother whispered into my ear. I wonder if sins count for double in a church.