Numbers: Ghosting

This piece is one of the short stories in a collection titled “Numbers” and was used in my senior project for Fiction Writing.  It was also submitted under its original title “Static” into the 2016 USFCA department writing contest for fiction, judged by Naomi J Williams, where it took first place in its category.


There are several things Kaleb must do to prevent a ghost from following him home.  There must be no mirrors in view of the casket; the reflection is a bad omen said to curse whoever sees it with death.  Every time someone exits the funeral home, they must cleanse themselves with a pomelo leaf that has been soaked in water; the same thing must be done when entering a home.  The pomelo leaf, according to his mother, wards off any of the spirits following them.  When it comes time for the closing of the casket, no one should look at it, doing so will tell the dead that someone isn’t ready for them to depart.  The same is true when the casket is lowered into the ground.  Finally, one must literally walk over a ceremonial fire when leaving the burial site for the first time to fully cleanse themselves of any remaining bad spirits.

He repeats this list of things over and over in his head, burning it into his memory.  He doesn’t want to make a mistake; he doesn’t want to be haunted.  He doesn’t need his dad to follow him.

There are other responsibilities too of course.  When the casket is in transit, Kaleb must hold his father’s portrait with both hands and act as if the man is in the car with him.  He must sit alone in the hearse while everyone else caravans behind them, and he has to tell the portrait of a dead man where they are going and all the landmarks that get him there.

No one will know if he doesn’t do it but Kaleb can’t bring himself not to.

He wonders if that means he’s haunted anyway.

Kaleb is sixteen when his dad dies.

As it turns out, pneumonia kills faster than cancer does.

Lung cancer is three years of waiting and listening to Ma chant “he’s going to get better, he’s going to get better, he’s going to get better” under her breath; three years of broken Chinese translations between doctors, nurses, insurance agents, social workers, mother and father, and three years explaining the differences between an advanced directive and a healthcare directive to both his parents over and over again.

Pneumonia, on the other hand, is a two-day stay in a hospital ICU, where the sound of the pump from the breathing machine synchronizes to the rise and fall of his dad’s chest. It’s the night Kaleb pushes two hospital chairs together into a makeshift bed, trying to breathe while wearing a surgical mask as Ba sleeps next to him, unable to breathe at all.

The day after that sleepless night, Ma stops fighting.  For the last three years, Kaleb has watched her say: “endure, endure, endure”, but when she slinks back into the hospital room after talking to the doctor that morning, eyes red and avoiding Kaleb’s gaze, she explains to Kaleb and his two younger sisters that there’s nothing more to fight.

The doctors say that sometimes when they turn off all the machines and silence the beeping it can take several hours before they pass but the tube comes out with a soft gurgle, the chest deflates and before Kaleb can muster up the courage to say something, his dad is gone.

His mother shakes underneath the hand he has on her shoulder, his sisters are crying softly in her lap and all Kaleb can think is finally.

Ma told him once that people don’t reincarnate immediately.  They wait for you to die so that you can all move on together.  He hopes it’s not true because if it is, it means that living is just a life spent running from a dead man.

The funeral home is a huge two-story building with two viewing rooms on the ground floor.  The second story is filled with rooms full of caskets.  Kaleb shuffles into an office where urns are adorned on glass shelves, little paper price tags hanging off of each one.  There are many different designs, sizes and shapes; he hadn’t realized that urns could come in square boxes.  It seems the only commonality between them was that there were too many zeroes at the end of the numbers.

It makes him wonder how much a casket costs.

Ma finds her place next to him and together they sit across the desk from a sharp dressed man not much older than Ba was.  The funeral director’s words are spoken with a rehearsed sense of practice as he pulls out a dense book and begins to talk about dates. The efficiency in the way the director conducts his business tells Kaleb that this man is unmoved by his loss.  A distance has to be formed between them, the same kind of distance Kaleb built between himself and his father, one that was made by doing things like getting a part time job as an excuse not to come home or to the hospital when they told him to.

Apparently, Ba’s funeral has to be held on a certain date, at a certain time, and under certain conditions; only then will his soul be able to depart in peace.  Kaleb’s not so sure he believes this but his mom does so he sits silently, nods his head with every instruction, and listens dutifully as he holds her hand in his.   He can hear his sisters pretending to play in the foyer where his aunts are watching them and he realizes then that he’s the only son of an only son.  The man of the house, the legacy left behind.

There’s a garish pink and white casket in the far corner of the showroom that Kaleb can’t keep his eyes off of.  It reminds him of a wedding cake.  It would probably be funny to be buried in it but he’s pretty sure that’s disrespectful.  Maybe it would be fit for a child but the size of the coffin looks too big.  Do they make small ones for small humans?  Are they cheaper?

His mother approaches him, and for the first time since she told him that she was turning the ventilator off, speaks to him directly.

“You should pick the casket.”

He doesn’t know why he nods; Ma’s not looking at him and he’s too afraid of his own voice to say anything.  Instead, he fixes his eyes on the director’s back as the older man leads the way into the one of the showrooms.  His mother falls out of step with him, lingering three steps behind.  He thinks he can hear his aunts flank her, their arms probably around her shoulders.

Kaleb keeps his head up and steps into the showroom.

He hears his aunts murmur to each other about their grief.

“It was too soon,” one of them says but Kaleb wants to say that it’s three years from diagnosis to death.

“He was so young,” the other responds but Ba had lived over half a century with three kids he spent little time with and a wife who did all the work at home.

He almost wants to hit them when they both say they’ve lost sleep over Ba because he can count all the times they visited in the last year on one hand but then they say something about dreaming and Kaleb’s rage quells, giving way to curiosity.

“Well,” First aunt says, “We’ll all probably dream about him tonight.”

Even though Kaleb has only ever seen burial boxes in television before this, the caskets don’t look right without a body inside them.  They’re all half open, meant to show off the different interior lining each one sports but aside from color, Kaleb can’t really tell the difference.

The director leads his family to each one on display like a tour guide but instead of following Kaleb takes his time to parse over the different caskets himself, wandering off from the group and trying to maintain enough attention to read the little product tags describing each casket.

The truth is, Kaleb just doesn’t care, nor does he know what any of these things mean.  “Full Rubber Gasket Sealer” and “Continuous Welded Construction Completely Sealing the Bottom” are barely words he registers and all he really does whenever he approaches a new box is stare at the little numbers at the bottom of the laminated piece of paper.  That, at the very least, he can process.

He’s partway through going down the bullet points for a “Grecian Gold Shade” casket when the director sneaks up on him, having finished the guided tour for his family.  “You can touch them if you’d like,” the man tells him.

Kaleb’s fist tightens at his side, his nails dig straight into his palms, and he does not step forward.

The man approaches the box himself and begins to close the casket, beckoning Kaleb to approach.  “This,” the director says, sliding a slot open on the lid, “is a compartment, now you could put anything you want in here, a letter you want him to take with him, his things, anything-”

Kaleb allows his hand to ghost over the top of the compartment.  He can’t think of a single thing he’s willing to say out loud to Ba.   There are many things he should say, there are many things people to tell him to say, but Kaleb would much rather keep his own honest thoughts to himself.  He can’t hurt anyone that way.  Besides, even if he wanted to write a letter to Ba, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to spend more money just for a little drawer when he could just put it next to the body instead.

The director, thankfully, leaves him alone after that, choosing instead to bother his much more responsive mother.   Kaleb continues to circle around the different rooms and finds himself no closer to picking one over another.  He doesn’t know what his family expects, he’s never done this before and he doesn’t know how to do it right. He wonders what makes one casket so much better than the others, if the differences between them meant anything at all and why they were so damn expensive.

Eventually second aunt approaches him and tells him with a broken voice, ”Listen to your dad, his spirit will tell you what he wants.”

It feels like a stupid thing to do but Kaleb tries anyway.  He closes his eyes, tries to picture his dad in his mind.  Please, he finds himself asking, tell me what to do, but Ba has never helped him with anything, least of all with this so Kaleb points to the cheapest casket and doesn’t think anything more of it.

The funeral itself takes four more days to prep. He and his sister are all excused from school for a week. Technically- traditionally, it’s a hundred day wake, but no one does that anymore.  It’s just not practical to put lives on hold just because someone else’s has ended.

The house smells like nothing but incense and there’s a continuous Buddhist chant looping from an old tape recorder that they had bought from a temple ten years ago.  Every time the last trio of incense has burned to the red ends at the home shrines, someone has to come in, light three more, and pray again, that way the prayers can raise with the smoke into heaven ceaselessly.  That someone was usually Ma, although Kaleb keeps a cautious eye on the incense sticks to make sure that the smoke never ends.

Ma zips in and out of the house a lot and every time she returns, she seems to have procured another bundle of joss paper and hell money.   “They’re gifts for Ba” She explains every time, even though she doesn’t really need to. “We burn them and send them up to heaven with him.”

Kaleb spends most of his time at the temple, listening to monks thirty years older than Ba explain in broken English the amount of work that rests on his shoulders.

Sometimes, Ma is there too.

There’s a piece of cloth he has to cut into strips and then sew on colored patches that denote the relationship between the wearing and the deceased.  He’s partway through cutting when the doorbell rings.  At this point, a few days after death day, people have heard, although Kaleb’s not really sure how.  He hasn’t had a chance to tell anyone himself. Still, he’s not completely surprised when he sees his friends on his front step.

His friends, these friends, Melissa, Connie, Malcolm, he’s known them since they were all in grade school together, and even though he had never mentioned how sick his dad was, he gets a feeling that they’ve always kind of known.

He ushers them into living room, respectfully, they make their way to the shrine, and Kaleb pulls out nine sticks of incense, three for each of his friends, lights them and clears away the white cloth on the coffee table as they all kneel on his hardwood floor and pray.

He doesn’t realize until later that they do this without his prompting.

When they’re done, Kaleb excuses himself into the kitchen to make tea, returning several minutes later but refusing to sit, opting instead to busy himself with cleaning an already spotless house.

“Kaleb,” Malcolm says. “Sit down.”

Kaleb does not.  “Sorry,” he says instead, “It’s just…now’s not exactly a good time.”

It’s not a lie.  Now really isn’t a good time.  The funeral is tomorrow and he still has lots to do.  His mom had done most of the shopping- the incense, the candlesticks, the joss paper and hell money, but Kaleb still had to run to the printing store to pick up a photograph of Ba and a picture frame that they could use for the ceremony and then for the home shrine.  Honestly, he should have done it yesterday but somehow, time had slipped away from him.

It seems to be doing a lot of that lately.  The last few days have completely blended together.  He can’t seem to remember what happened on what day.  He barely remembers the date of death.

“Do you need any help with anything?” Connie asks but Kaleb shakes his head vigorously.

“You can’t help.”

He has to do it himself.

At night, when there’s nothing they can do, he hears his mom cry through his bedroom wall while his sisters slumber off next to her and Kaleb muffles his ears with his pillows so he can pretend he doesn’t hear.

His friends don’t go to the funeral.  It’s a family affair and honestly, he doesn’t want them there anyway.  He can deal with them after all this, when everything has settled.

He’s the first one in the door, well technically, the funeral director is the first one in the door but he’s the first one who matters that sees the body.  He makes his way to the viewing room and, from the opposite side of the room, can see the profile of his dad, adorned in nicer clothes than he had in life, resting in the casket lifted on an alter.

Kaleb can feel his composure slip. This is the first time he’s seen the man in several days and for a moment he doesn’t move. The near-constant ache in his throat from the past week nearly reaches its peak, threatening to claw its way out in the form of a sob, his eyes begin to water and he’s afraid he’s going to cry.

But he doesn’t.  Kaleb doesn’t cry.  He refuses to.  He hasn’t cried through all of this and he isn’t going to start crying now.  It’s one of the only things his old man taught him, “Men don’t cry,” Ba had said, although he did add a whispered, “At least not where anyone can see.”

People can see.  Ma and his sisters are standing right behind him, his aunts are currently filling a table nearby with two-dozen boxes of donuts their husbands had brought because they didn’t know how else to be helpful, and his gigantic extended family is waiting for him to do his duty.

He takes a few nearly inaudible deep breaths, unroots himself from his spot in the floor, and approaches the director fussing with the table placed in front of the casket where the ash bowl, food offerings, and joss paper are placed.

When the director notices him, he doesn’t greet him.  Instead he immediately begins explaining all the things Kaleb must do right now and hands him two red candlesticks with Chinese characters he can’t read etched into the side with golden wax and lights them.

Kaleb moves to place the candlesticks on the side of the ash bowl, then picks up the special one inch diameter thick incense stick with more golden lettering he can’t read and kneels in front of the alter.  Murmuring a prayer he will repeat for the rest of his life.

The ceremony itself means spending the hours on his knees, touching the cloth headband tied against his forehead onto the cool tile flooring every time the monks signal him to, and listening to them chant in a language no one understands.

The only breaks he’s allowed to take are for burning paper offerings and everyone takes turns standing in the parking lot, circled around a charred tin can, tossing joss paper into the fire.  The paper hell money, the paper joss paper, the paper gold, and the paper things are all gifts that Ba can take with him to the afterlife.   Coincidentally, they’re also all the things people couldn’t give him in life.

Kaleb burns a paper figure of a big house and a pretty little red car that someone handed to him and nothing else.

The morning after the first night Ma doesn’t cry through the walls, Kaleb hears rummaging in her room.  When he peeks in through her half-opened door, he sees piles of folded men’s clothing and two large plastic bins.  She’s sitting on the floor; her eyes are watery and red but still incredibly sharp and focused.  She’s a woman on a mission.

Kaleb is almost afraid to interrupt and hesitates by the door.  He feels like he’s intruding on something, a private moment between wife and dead husband but he reminds himself who he is and softly raps on the door.

“Ma?” His voice wavers, weak to his own ears, lacking any authority.  He clears his throat and tries again.  “What are you doing?”

She glances up sharply but relaxes her shoulders when she sees him, placing the sweater she’s holding in her lap  “I’m just packing up some of Ba’s things.”

“Are you throwing them out?”

She shakes her head, picking the sweater in her lap back up to refold and place into one of the bins.  “No, just putting them away.”

Kaleb would rather she throw them out.  They’re of no use to any of them whether they were in the garbage or hidden in the garage.  The only real difference between the two is the knowledge that Ba’s things will still be here, lingering over them.  He doesn’t say that to her though.

“Why don’t you take a break?” He suggests instead, stepping into the room, placing a hand on her shoulder.

His mother looks up at him for a moment and he watches her hesitate but there’s no denying the exhaustion on her face.  She’s been chipping away slowly with every sweater, momento, trinket she packs away and Kaleb has no desire to lose her too.

“I’ll make you some tea.”  He insists when she doesn’t answer but she just shakes her head.

“No, it’s okay.  The sooner this is done the better.”

“I’ll do it.”

There’s a brief moment of pause between mother and son.  Kaleb can feel his body tense but he doesn’t know why.  His fist tightens at his side.  His mother’s expression does not change.

“Ma,” he tries again, “Take a break, it’s okay, I’ll do it.”

She relents, gives him a soft smile, and promises to help him later.

He waves her off, tells her there’s no need, and that he’ll be done soon.  Most of the clothes are already out of the drawers.  Ma had overturned the drawers and shook the contents out.  All there’s left to do is put the things away.

He spends his time folding in silence, feeling as if he’s packing away the last remnants of a man he never really known.  Despite himself, a small part of him hopes that by sifting through Ba’s things, he could understand a little bit more about the things he is supposed to do but nothing comes.

He gets a feeling that the same was not true for Ma.

When the clothing is done, Kaleb makes his way to the desk drawer, a large trash bag in hand.  Here is where they keep the medicine, the pamphlets, the insurance papers- they call it the cancer drawer.

He takes the desk drawer out completely, places it on the surface of the desk and pauses.

Kaleb feels his resolve slip.

Something about the sight of the still mostly full pill bottles, the copy of Ba’s advanced directive, and a binder listing treatment options from the early days of illness makes Kaleb’s inhales sharper.

These were three years of things that didn’t work.  Three years of different treatments, of false hope and not knowing.

Three years of waiting.

They were supposed to work.

The next inhale comes in the form of a choked half sob.  He’s not supposed to cry.  He’s the oldest one, he’s the only man left, he’s everything Ba was supposed to be and Ba didn’t cry.  Not even at the end.

Kaleb bites his lip in an attempt to muffle his shallow breaths and reminds himself to breathe with his nose but the harder he tries, the less successful he becomes.  He tries to steady himself with the desk and shuts his eyes but that only makes it worse.

There’s a soft knock at the door and Kaleb does everything he can to keep his shoulders from shaking.

“Kaleb?”  It’s Ma’s voice.

Kaleb doesn’t answer, afraid that the second he does, everything he’s tried to be will fall apart in front of his mother.

For a moment, he nearly gathers himself, but then he feels her warm arms wrap around him.  She pulls him closer, says it’s okay but he shakes his head anyway.

He’s not supposed to cry.

But with his mother’s arms around him he can feel a part of him slip and although he can hear the faint whispered echoes of his father’s “men don’t cry,” Kaleb chooses to focus instead on the soft tones of Ma’s voice.

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