Raghini Singh was impossible to forget.
I remember everything about her, from the flicker of her laughter to the way she rolled her eyes when she was being teased. She was an enigma. Nothing seemed to bother her. And even after three years, I can’t wrap my head around the fact that my sister is gone. From her amber flames for hair to her need to argue with television show hosts, she was everything I was not. I was 14 when she disappeared from our lives so suddenly. My parents wouldn’t tell me what happened, but I know. I read the newspapers behind their back.
“Seventeen-year-old St.Xavier’s High School senior Raghini Singh dies in a landslide on NH 10 days after graduation. She was accompanied by fellow seniors Ali and Dhruv, Param, and Maya. Param and Maya were both brutally injured. However, all other passengers survived the unfortunate event.”
I remember feeling angry at their choice of words. She died because it was a freak accident. It was just another unfortunate event. And the rest of the world moved on with their lives as if it never happened. That’s how it felt. It was as if someone had just turned off the radio and took away all of the music in the world and I was left with the awkward silence and the fear of creating more chaos with the eggshells left underfoot. And even as I tried my best not to create any more cracks in our already shattered floor, eventually, the floor just fell out from underneath us.
My Dad left us two months after the memorial service. He said he couldn’t “handle” the way that mom was grieving. We both knew that it was an excuse. He’d always had one foot out the door, whether he’d like to admit it or not. Mom was just too tired to fight. So, I sat at the foot of the stairs and watched him leave. He kissed me on the forehead.
“I’m still here if you need me, kiddo.”
I nodded and stared at his worn leather shoes. I didn’t believe him. He wasn’t just leaving me. He was leaving Raghini, and that felt so much worse. Darkness settled in my stomach as I watched my dad shut the door behind him. I ran to the window and willed him to turn around, to see what he was leaving behind. But my father was not that kind of guy. And just like that, he left us to pick up the pieces. He left me to hold everything together. And now he has a wife with fake boobs and a stepdaughter who pretends she doesn’t hate him so that he’ll give her money. I guess he got the life he wanted. At least that makes one of us.
It was the last day of my senior year when I saw her again. Raghini, in all of her glory standing in front of me as if she never died.
“Alia. Wake up, sleepy head. You’ll be late for your last day of school.” Her voice rang as clear as a bell in my head and my heart dropped 100 stories in seconds. My eyes snapped open, but there was no one there. I was just hearing things. I nearly choked on my toothbrush when she reappeared in my bathroom mirror. Her red hair was unruly and her hazel eyes were bright with life. My stomach was in knots and I was sure I was going insane.
“Are you really going to wear that on your last day as a senior? Don’t you want to be remembered?”
I looked down at my outfit in dismay. I wore a tan cardigan over a striped t-shirt, jeans, and Levis. My auburn hair was too straight to do anything with, so I wore it in a ponytail. I didn’t really like makeup, so I just wore mascara and chapstick. I wasn’t looking to be remembered as the girl whose sister died days after graduation.
“Yeah, I figured…” I looked up and she was gone. Again.
I was frozen there for what seemed like hours before my mother’s tired voice echoed through the door and shook me back to reality. “Ally, it’s almost 15 after. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, mom. I’m coming.”
School. It’s time for school.
The last day ended without another Raghini sighting, so I just chalked it up to eating too late. Or maybe I needed to stop falling asleep to the sound of the TV. But then I saw her again weeks later on graduation day. And this time she stayed. And this time I was sure I was going insane.
I stood in front of my closet. Nothing was working, and I wanted to look good for graduation. It was the one time I’d probably see Mom and Dad together, and I wanted to take pictures so I’d have proof that they even showed up in the first place. But nothing in my closet was working.
“Try something of mine.”
Her cheery voice startled me and I nearly fell into my dirty laundry hamper.
“Don’t worry, I’m not haunting you.” She smiled. “I’m just a figment of your imagination.”
“I…I don’t understand,” I stammered. “How are you here?”
“You needed me, so I showed up.” She shrugged her shoulders and glanced through my closet with a look of disappointment. “I know you were young when I died, but I thought I at least taught you how to dress in less… beige.” She clearly disapproved of my choice of wardrobe.
“Let’s see what I’ve got,” she said. “Mom still has all of my stuff, right?”
“But she doesn’t like it when I go in there. She’ll be really upset if she finds out,” I uttered in hesitation. I was not ready for one of mom’s breakdowns.
“She’ll never know.” She winked at me and walked towards her room as if she never left it. As if she had been living in it for the past three years.
The door creaked loudly and my heart stopped for a few seconds. I listened for any sound of my mother’s footsteps to come bounding up the stairs to tell me that I had no right to disturb the shrine. But there were none. And so I entered the room and it was like stepping back in time. It was exactly the way it was on the day she died.
The walls were sunshine yellow and the comforter was patterned with sunflowers and daisies. Lace curtains swayed to some unknown source and everything was coated in a thin layer of dust. Raghini stood in front of the closet waiting for me. Everything was organized by color. Everything was so…Raghini.
It wasn’t long before I found the perfect dress. It was hidden in the back behind her favorite winter coat, a bright blue, a-line silhouette, unlike anything I normally wore. I stood in front of the mirror holding the dress in front of me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had this feeling. Like someone in the world could notice me and for the first time, I wouldn’t mind. Raghini stood behind me beaming with pride when I slipped on the dress. I ran my hands along my sides smoothing the material down, only to discover hidden pockets and a piece of paper in my right one.
I held the tiny folded paper in my hands and looked to Raghini, but she was already gone. I was alone. The paper was yellowed from the past three years and peppered with tiny, faded, penciled hearts on each fold. I opened it gingerly. I couldn’t help but wonder if this could’ve been some of her last words or someone’s to her.
But instead, I found a list. At the sight of her bubbly handwriting, my heart turned into a stone and sunk deeper than ever before. The first sentence was crossed out.
Things I want to do before I go off to college
1) Go skinny dipping at the neighborhood pool
2) Tag something
3) Take a road trip to the ocean/Go camping on the beach and go Cliff Diving.
The bottom half of the page was torn off, so it looked like maybe half of a list. I could hear my mother’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Frantically, I stuffed the list back into my pocket and rushed out of the bedroom. Just as the handle clicked shut behind me, she appeared at the top of the stairs. Her hair looked messy and her eyes were red and glistening like she’d been crying. I tried to come up with some kind of believable excuse and opened my mouth to protest, but she spoke before me.
“Alia,” she gasped. “You look so beautiful.” She wrapped me up into an awkward hug and my nose was tickled with the scent of lavender and lemons. “I’m so proud of you.” And as suddenly as it had occurred, she let go and the moment was over.
“Um, thanks, Mom.”
Then I proceeded to put on the last pair of shoes my mother would want me to wear with that dress. And I completely ignored her when she said, “Alia! Hightops do not go with that dress. Can you for once wear something appropriate?”
My father met us in the school gym and I cringed as I watched my mother squeeze in beside him and his wife. I cringed even more when my stepmother pulled out a mirror and lipstick and proceeded to put on yet another unnecessary layer of Olay on her lips. I was just so grateful that they had decided to leave Amber at home with her grandmother. God knows I couldn’t handle her on a day like this.
Nothing could prepare me for the sight of Raghini beside my mother, screaming like a sports fanatic. Their matching red hair lit like two flames in the crowd. I heard her scream the loudest when they called my name. I barely felt the floor beneath me, and before I knew it, I was no longer a St.Xavier’sHigh student. The world had shifted in a second, and it was time for me to move on. And before the reality of my uncertain future set in, I was happy because she was here.
She walked beside me as I made my way down the halls for one last time. She didn’t stay when I stopped at her memorial bench. She seemed to hate anything that reminded her that she wasn’t really there. I ran my fingers over her name and wondered if anyone even remembered her if they knew why this bench was even here in the first place.
“You know she would’ve hated that. A bench with her name on it.”
I was startled by the voice but instantly brought back to my 14-year-old crush, Param. I would’ve known that voice anywhere. Gosh, I spent so many nights replaying that voice inside of my head, wondering if there were any hidden meanings in the way he said “Hey” and nodded at me. Oh, to be 14 again. I looked up and a familiar colony of butterflies took flight in my stomach. It seems that age does make you wiser, but not less awkward.
He looked the same. Unruly blond hair and frosty eyes that seemed to bear into my soul. He was tall and his shoulders seemed broader than I remembered. He wore a button-up and jeans. I tried not to look him in the face for fear of being caught staring at the scar that now adorned his precious jawline. I was trying to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind, and so I just kept staring at his shoes. They were blue Levis with leather ties.
“You know, you look just like her. Just different hair. It’s funny, I almost forgot what she looked like and yet, I know that I’d recognize her if I got to see her again. Does that ever happen to you?” He sighed and sat on the bench.
“No. It’s kind of the opposite for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I see her everywhere. Some days more than others. Like today, I saw her in the crowd when they called me up.”
“Does it help? To see her?”
“No, not really.”
“You know, I remember she made a list on the day of graduation. It was a list of all of the things she wanted to do before she went off to college. We were only able to get two done before the accident.”
I reached into my pocket and presented the list to him.
“I found it today in this dress pocket.”
“I’m assuming you already took a look at it?” he blushed. It was strange seeing Param blush.
I laughed and it echoed through the empty hall.
“Yes. I read it.”
I was embarrassed and warm at the thought of Param skinny dipping in a public pool, but then I remembered that he did it with my sister and the warm feeling settled into a neutral one. Were they more than just friends?
He answered my thoughts with the other half of the list. He pulled it gingerly out of his wallet and presented a tiny folded paper with identical tiny hearts on it. I opened it eagerly only to find one sentence crossed out.
4) Tell Param that I love him.
She had loved him, and it seemed that he had loved her too. I handed it back to him. I felt as if I had just walked in on some intimate secret. But he just smiled and tucked it back into his wallet. “It’s the closest thing I have to a love letter.”
I smiled weakly and tried to find something smart to say. But again, I was at a loss for words. This seemed to be a common occurrence with anything having to do Raghini lately.
Before the awkwardness could really settle in, both of our families came from around a different corner. My mother greeted Param with a hug and then we were off. It was time to go home.
My father gave me a Rs.5000 check for college school supplies and then split with Alvira before we could even cut the cake. Raghini hung back in the corners most of the time.
My mother and I ate cake alone that night. And something about her seemed less burdened than usual. She was laughing and even making fun of the game show hosts like she used to with Raghini. That’s when the last thing I ever expected came out of her mouth.
I could feel her watching me for a good few minutes before she turned down the television.
“Alia, baby, I’m so sorry.”
The words came out in a rush as if she’d been holding them in all day.
“What? What for?” I questioned, my mouth full of cake.
“I’m sorry for not being here for you for the past three years.” She placed her half-eaten slice of cake on the coffee table before continuing. “I’m so sorry for not letting you have the childhood you deserved. I watched you today and I realized that you have hardly had any connections with anyone in school. The only person I even saw you speak to was Param, and he was your sister’s friend.”
I could feel my face burn at the mention of Param.
“What can I do to make this last summer the best one of your life?” She grabbed my hands and squeezed them before picking up my empty plate. “Think about it. And I’ll do my best to make it happen.”
I cleared my throat. “Um, actually, I already have an idea. I found this list in one of Raghini’s pockets.”
I held out the list and my mother stared at it longingly before unfolding the paper.
She laughed suddenly, and it was like watching all of her screws turn lose again. She was evolving, changing at the proof of my sister’s unfinished life. It was all coming down.
“I want to finish it for her. And then I’ll make my own list,” I said.
My mother’s eyes were filled with tears.
“You know it’s illegal to deface property that isn’t ours, so we are not tagging anything,” she laughed. “But we can take that beach trip. Who would you like anyone to go with you? Do you have a friend you would like to take?”
“No. Just you. And it will be for Raghini.”
Then she smiled like I had never seen before.
She called off work and we packed our bags that night. We left early the next morning and stopped for donuts and coffee and to decide where exactly we were going. It was only then that I realized that somewhere behind us there was a huge billboard spray painted in neon yellow and pink with the words RAGHINI WAS HERE in all caps. I swear my heart could have exploded at that moment. We took turns driving and passed the time with music and audiobooks. And we talked. We talked about everything. School, boys, books, music. And with each pit stop, Raghini began appearing less and less, until finally we made it to our destination.
We could hear the ocean before we saw it. The climb up the cliff was more difficult than we expected. The mosquitos were relentless, but that didn’t stop me from hearing the sound of Raghini singing her favorite “because they’re so annoying” camp songs along the way. When we finally found a break in the trees, Raghini’s presence faded. Mom looked happy and exhausted. My legs felt like they were on fire. We’d made it to our final destination. I reached for the list in my pocket and held it out for mom. The wind was strong, and I fought the urge to let the list go. To see what it would be like to just watch it fly freely to some other unknown destination. Slowly she reached into her own pocket and pulled out a pen. We both stared at the list for a moment. It seemed that this was the end of our adventure, the final shaping of our lives sat in the form of a teenage bucket list and a pink gel pen. This was it. Our final goodbye, the finale to Raghini’s life.
Slowly, my mother scratched off the final box on the list. With a simple movement, a line was severed inside of us and tied around a completely new idea. For a second, the gray took over and it felt like a storm was coming in. It was raining. No, it wasn’t raining. I was crying. And so was my mother. I wanted her to be here. I wanted to see Raghini, to feel her wrapped around the two of us. I wanted to hear her laughing. I wanted her to know that I’d forgiven her. That even though I was angry that I had to grow up without her, I would grow up for her.
And as each new idea came and went, Raghini’s presence grew smaller and smaller, until the space that she had between us disappeared. And when I looked up, I saw my mother for the first time in years. I saw the red hair and hazel eyes that used to belong to someone else. I saw the pain of losing yourself in a scenario you never expected to live through. I saw the chasm of an empty bed and no one left to hold you. I saw a mother who had tried too hard to carry both of us, even though one was already gone. And for a moment in the world, nothing else existed. It was just her and I and the ocean. It felt as if we were staring below at all of the tears we had cried and we were ready for the final dive. The final release. And the last goodbye.
As we gripped each other’s hands, I stared at the water below us. I waited for her nod before releasing the list into the wind and watching it settle over the foamy waves. Then we took one last look at each other, breathed in deep, and squeezed each other’s hands. And finally, we jumped.
Next blog will be out soon.Desai Thoughts MEdia.
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