by Bernie Groves
The candlelight vigil happens every year. Faithfully, for ten years, Rosa Camden has stood at that same bus stop with her flowers clutched in worn gloves. She holds them like she’s guarding herself from something, like they’re a shield from grief. The flowers will convince the grief to leave her be or pass her by like the Lord when he cursed the Egyptians that didn’t mark their doors.
She’s not always alone, though. Sometimes, there’s a man with her. I think he's her husband, except he doesn’t have the look of a husband.
He has these dead eyes, red-rimmed with black half-circles underneath. He doesn’t accompany her often. When he’s there, he always wears a baggy black suit. Looks like he probably wears it to all the important morose occasions, like this one.
She’s alone this year, the final year. Her umbrella shimmers like liquid obsidian. It rains every year on May 1st. The earth wants to share Rosa’s grief, tries to get her to cry with it. But her face is smooth, unwrinkled as fresh parchment. She doesn’t cry, not even that first year on the bus.
* * *
I paid her no mind back then. She entered, just a blur of movement in a sea of movement. It was later that I saw her in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes narrow and long, arcing down to a sharp nose. Her lips disappeared into her mouth, drawn toward her chin, pulled down by gravity. Bolts of panic turned to sweat in my palms. I looked away from her face. I thought Rosa's demons would haunt me too. When I looked back at her through the mirror, her face was the same.
She always sits in the same seat. If anyone has taken her spot around the time I get to her stop, I tell them to get up. Sometimes they do right away. Others wait until they see her, then, without a word, they stand. They see it, the death colossus standing over her shoulder, a bony hand wrapped around like a mark. It’s nothing like the mark that saved the children of Israel—this mark destines her to die.
“Poor Rosa,” I say when she leaves. “She’s not even fifty and she’s gotta deal with the loss of a child.”
The passenger behind me sits in the second row. An unsmoked cigarette rests in the nook at the top of his ear. He’s an office worker from one of those high-rises downtown. He has a newspaper from decades ago in his lap. Why he chooses to read papers from the 60s is beyond me.He watches Rosa on the street, like he can see her through the dark haze of hallowed night. Off the bus, she’s a specter, an after-thought come and gone. The passenger turns back in his seat. He looks at me through the mirror.
“What you thinking?” I ask. “You want to step in and hold her up?”
He shakes his head, a humored smile ghosting his lips. “Don’t think anyone could. She’s marked for death. I won’t stand in its way.”
We glide along in silence. Our thoughts turn from Rosa to other things. Mundane things. The bus is empty except for the both of us and the wet tires against wet concrete. Before long, he leaves too.
I maneuver through well-oiled leather streets. Buildings are blocks of shadowed concrete all stuck together like Lego pieces. The night ages. The streets grow empty, and my shift ends. Nothing wears me out like driving the winding streets packed with cars. They're all rushing some place. To them, I’m an obstacle to overcome. Making a turn takes too much energy. I can’t wreck the bus. I can’t afford to be sued. Life is a constant moving picture, a nonstop movement of people, colors, landscapes, and cars.
* * *
Toward midnight, Rosa sits up in her rocking chair. Every May 1st. The lights are off. She contemplates in a darkness no one else would be comfortable sitting in. She listens for her children asleep in the upstairs room. Their soft breaths mingle, and it reminds her of Leslie. Where a branching pain would usually bloom scarlet in her chest, only numbing-cold lingers.
Leslie was unlike those children asleep upstairs. She was a quiet child, but with an unbridled laugh that spread like a contagion. Leslie was most like Rosa—a good child, a minding child. She followed the rules whereas her siblings upstairs took after their father's unkempt wild.
A presence outside Rosa's door interrupts. “Come in,” she calls.
It floats into the room. It stands by her side. She continues rocking, eyes fixed on her front door. What could more important than the figure standing by her side? The rocking, the slow rhythm, the joints of the chair crying underneath.
“Is it time?” she asks. “I’ve waited. Every year, I’ve waited.”
The figure looms, more shadow than solid object. Its back is elongated and curved toward her. It showers her in darkness.
Rosa has memorized every corner of the family room. The pictures above the quiet fireplace. There are exactly five; four have white frames and one is brown. They're cheap, something she’s not entirely sure is wood. They progress her life. She's a teenager, her hair in a trendy updo, lips red as sin, face tight and smooth. Then her andthe man who’s not home; her eyes are bright with wonder at finding this soulmate. Her first child, fragile in a cotton blanket, eyes tiny slits. Then the first child holding the second. Leslie is the fifth, tiny as a pea, wrapped in pink cotton.
Rosa smiles, remembering the tiny bundle in her arms that drew milk from her in hungry, contented gurgles. Her husband wants the picture taken down. When he comes home drunk, his eyes won’t meet Leslie’s. He thinks Rosa keeps the picture up to hurt him, to punish him. That could be true.
Her gaze travels around the room again, settling on places to absorb their energy. The figure watches. It regards her things with inhuman disinterest.
Rosa's sigh fills the space. She’s afraid her children will wake and come down into the family room, eyes bleary, minds wandering. They don’t.
“Let me see them. Before I go,” she says.
The figure beckons with a long arm. It is not one of us—not human. What need of language does it have? Rosa picks herself up. Like the chair, her bones creak with absolution. She climbs the stairs. It watches.
Her children's limbs twist around each other and the blanket in their double bed. She touches the smooth curve of warmed faces. Her hand lingers atop their heads, where their unruly hair forms a mass. Outside it’s still raining, lighter than before, but she can hear the patter of drops on metal. She mourns their loss before she’s lost them. Raindrops squeeze out of her eyes. “Will they be okay?”
She knows without seeing that it stands behind her. She knows the answer, that they will be okay. That her sister will come for them.
Rosa turns to it. “I’m ready.”
* * *
I wake the moment the sun rises on May 2nd. Its coastal light traces the fine line of the horizon. Another day, another day of movement, of progression. I open the doors at each stop. On a loop, I brake and press on the gas. I pull over. I yield, and above, the sun continues its arc across the sky. I think of Rosa. Her children. Her husband. Her sister. Death clung to her in life and drew me to her. In the sea of movement, she was as still as a picture.
The businessman watches me in the mirror. He wears his pinstriped suit. He carries his folded newspaper. I turn back to the road, appreciating the cracks in the pavement, the potholes. I think of her.
“That’s how Rosa died," I say.
He silently watches pedestrians blur into a single line. It’s a slow night, but I’ve still got hours to go. Stop after empty stop. Even so, I slide along the curb and wait. Cars eagerly rush past as I glide back onto the road.
“You can’t possibly know that,” he finally replies.
I meet his gaze in the mirror and smile a small smile, a bit sad and a bit something else.
Bernie Groves is a writer of speculative fiction currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing. She travels whenever she can and likes to jot down interesting sights. She has work forthcoming in Daastan Literary Magazine and has been published in Literary Yard and others. Her work has also been included in an anthology published by Clarendon Publishing House, Inc. Groves lives in Chicago with her partner and their cat named Mouse.