By Ziying Jian
Bex Foster has a secret: she can hear the voices of her dead parents. How will her friendships and relationships be altered by this secret?
“Pssst… Brad! Do you think our little girl will be okay? Going to Manhattan all on her own?” said Rachel.
“Bex will be fine, honey,” said Brad. “The first rule we taught her growing up is to avoid strangers! She’s very smart. I’m sure she’ll find her way home.”
“I’m just worried. We can’t actually protect her…What if she does get into trouble, then what?” Rachel replied, her voice becoming increasingly thin.
“True…she might fall down the subway tracks! Or worse, get pushed off!”
“OUR POOR SWEET CHILD! DON’T GOOOOOOOOooo…” Rachel and Brad screamed in unison.
Bex snapped the curtains of the windows open in annoyance. She wiped the condensation and saw snow falling in wisps outside as she tried to ignore the incessant voices of her dead parents.
“Oh, what a beautiful morning to go to Manhattan,” she declared loudly. “I’m going to see Kate!”
You thought the voices would stop after the first week of their passing. You thought their presence was all a figment of your imagination. It’ll end, you said to yourself. You’re just stressed out. But the voices persisted in your consciousness. Dialogue that could only belong to your overprotective parents. Or rather, your former overprotective parents. It’s been almost a month. You are parentless now, but it feels like they never left you.
Were. Are. English tenses were not meant to deal with spirits.
You turn on your heel and head towards the bathroom to take a hot shower. Mornings like these clear your mind. The state of water acts as the only barrier between you and your parents, their airy existences unable to penetrate its liquid nature.
The smell of sweet nutmeg hits you once you enter the kitchen. On the table, you see your favorite homestyle omelet in all its eggy glory. A small drawing made with tomato sauce tops the omelet, stick figures of you and your grandma in Santa hats holding hands, just like how your mom used to do it. Your eyes well up with memories.
“Grannie, you shouldn’t have.” You dig in and find comfort in the sweetness of the tomato balanced with the saltiness of the eggs.
Grannie is sitting on the other side of the table, a bowl of oatmeal in front of her. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart,” she says. “Let’s focus on the present today. I’m blessed to have you, little pumpkin, in my life.”
“Love you too, Gran,” you say. There’s a lump in your throat. “Gran, I’m going to Manhattan later today.”
Gran’s eyebrows raise up. “Oh? What’s the occasion?”
“I’m meeting up with Kate,” you say, hesitating to meet her eye. “It’s been a long time. We have a lot to catch up on.”
“Ah, Kate!” Gran exclaims. Her eyes cloud with worry. “You haven’t seen her since the funeral, right? She needs you.”
“I promise I will make sure she’s alright,” you say.
You feel a small vibration in the back of your head. Something drives you to ask: “How do you deal with the pain, Gran? Of losing your daughter and son-in-law?”
Grannie sets down her spoon and looks up. “Bex, when you’re pushing eighty-five, you’ll find that a lot of things die. I lost your grandfather when your mom was just in college. He was a helicopter pilot, and—” Grannie’s voice cracks. “One day, he disappeared while flying from Brooklyn to Chicago alone. His body was never found.”
You stop chewing.
Grannie continues. “It was really hard to care for the two of us without him. But we managed. Your mom was juggling two different jobs and her studies, all to keep us going,” Gran says. “She said, ‘Dad wouldn’t have wanted us to go down without a fight.’”
“And for some reason, that stayed with me.” Grannie laughs, leaning back in her chair, closing her eyes. “You never go on without them. You go on with them. Who knew she had so much wisdom.”
You gulp down your food. This is the first Christmas you’re spending without your parents. As you eat and watch the snow fall, your mind wanders back to them.
Grannie calls you over to the shrine after you’re done. You grab a handful of incense sticks from a drawer before using a match to light the top. A few seconds later, your grandma blows out the spark and wafts of lavender, marigold, and peppermint fill up the room. You tilt your chin and close your eyes to breathe in the scents and pay your deepest respects.
Now, your parents are the most mysterious beings in your life. Their presence waxes and wanes, like the phases of the moon. Rather than voices, you hear echoes, but you know echoes eventually fade out forever. Your parents’ reality—the reality of them still alive—will disappear entirely once their voices dissipate. You find it difficult to pray, but you try your best anyway for their safe journey to the other side.
Girls Write Now On the Other Side of Everything: The 2023 Anthology
Do you know what it’s like to communicate with your family across a salty ocean’s divide? Do you want the sun and moon to enter your home with stories written in embers? Do you seek voices that will punctuate the darkness? Welcome to the other side of everything. It’s the other side of silence, the other side of childhood, the other side of hate, the other side of indifference, it’s the other side of sides, where the binary breaks down. It’s a new paradigm, a destination, a different perspective, a mindset, a state of openness, the space between the endless folds in your forehead, hopes for tomorrow, and reflections on the past. This anthology of diverse voices is an everything bagel of literary genres and love songs, secrets whispered in the dark of night, conversations held with ancestors under the sea.
I was inspired to write this story after reading a prompt on an Instagram post. I thought it was an interesting idea to explore the intersections between life and death, but also establish what makes them so different. I liked playing with the idea of a person who was caught in a gray area and having to explore how to separate death from life, or maybe learning not separating the two at all. This piece underwent several edits and scene shifts, but the quirkiness of the parents remained.
Ziying Jian is a junior who immigrated to the U.S. from China when she was five. She loves playing golf, tennis, working as the light technician in her school’s theater production and writing for her school newspaper, where she covers topics like school affairs to guest speakers. She was formerly on the debate team, where she placed 2nd speaker and was the 2021 State Championship winner. She is currently a Girls Write Now mentee, where she is working on speculative fiction. When she's not furiously typing out short rants, you can find her coding Java or Python.