Papa always told her she was powerful. “Watch, Nikki,” he said, pointing at the sky, “Stare at that cloud and wish it away… Keep staring. It will disappear.”
“Papa! The cloud is breaking apart!! I did it, Papa. I did it!”
“Yes, Little One, you did… And now you know how powerful you are.”
That was Papa. He was always trying to make sure she felt powerful. Maybe it because he saw what it was like to be a girl in this world, or maybe it was just because she was his flesh and blood. Whatever the reason, it was one of his favorite topics. He always said, “Darling, anyone who tries to keep us down will get a double dose of regret.” He meant it too, she was sure of it.
Even on his deathbed, he would wax eloquently about the power she would wield in the world. “Nikki, know your talents and the world will fall at your feet.” Or, “Nikki, don’t forget you have the power to convince them to do what you want.” Or, “Nikki, never let anyone tell you, you can’t do something. You can do anything you want. You are in charge of your destiny.”
She wasn’t in charge, though, not really. If she was, he wouldn’t have succumbed to the disease that stole all of his vitality and left him a skeletal, bleeding mess. From the first diagnosis she had prayed, begged and bargained. She felt like all she did was pray, as this new epidemic swept through the gay community, killing so many of those they held dear. She had stared at the withering bodies of uncles, friends and finally her father, willing the disease to dissipate, like the clouds of her childhood. It didn’t. She was powerless to stop it.
Staring now into the coffin, which held the remains of her life, she had never felt so alone. She was an orphan. She was sixteen and had no one, except for the strange, cold, indifferent aunt who had begrudgingly agreed to take her in. Where was her power now, she wondered, biting her lip.
Aunt Bea was sitting in the back of the funeral home, staring straight ahead, as if she could avoid the horror of her nephew’s death by not looking. Or perhaps, it was his living she was scandalized by. Nikki refused to go sit beside her. She would not leave until she was summoned. She wasn’t going to let her sit back there, pretending her father’s death, his life didn’t matter.
She sat, watching the few remaining friends come and go, some also sick and dying, supported by lovers as they paid their final respects. She continued to sit as shadows grew long and the patrons dwindled and died away completely. The room grew dark and quiet. She heard Aunt Bea stirring, then shuffling to her feet, followed by the muffled thump of her cane as she made her way down the carpeted aisle.
The thumping stopped and Nikki felt a hand on her shoulder. “It’s time, Nikki. Say your goodbyes.”
“No. I won’t go until you pay your respects.”
She felt the hand on her shoulder stiffen for a moment. “Push in so I can sit, Nikki…” Nikki didn’t move. “Please, I just want to sit and talk.”
Nikki stood, moved one seat over, and plopped into the chair, rather harder than necessary. Aunt Bea lowered herself into the aisle seat, propping her cane between her knees. She took a deep, shuddering breath. “You think I had a problem with your father, and that’s why I didn’t come around.”
“No one did. His whole family disowned him. Over something he couldn’t help being.” The power of her emotions overwhelmed her and she stood, toppling her chair. She was unable to contain herself any longer. All of the pain and anger that had been building for months had reached its breaking point. “He was a great man and none of you bothered to know him! Over something he couldn’t control… and it made no difference. He’s gone and I loved him and I’m stuck with a stupid bigoted family who abandoned him… Abandoned us! You weren’t there when he was dying. No one was there! I hate you! I hate all of you! And I’m not leaving with you until you go up there and you pay your respects!”
She stopped abruptly. She had sobbed and snotted and spit all over Aunt Bea. She didn’t care. She stood over her, glaring at her, daring her to yell back… But she didn’t. She continued to sit there, her eyes squarely on Nikki’s… And then she stood. Nikki was sure she would turn and leave and she would once again, be abandoned and alone, doomed to the worst kind of foster care.
But Aunt Bea didn’t head for the back of the room. She turned and lumbered toward the casket, bent her knees, and lowered herself slowly to the prayer bar.
She knelt silently for a long time before she spoke. “I should have checked on you. I didn’t even know you had a daughter and that’s my own fault. I didn’t abandon you because you were gay. My sister, well, she was always a bigot and I’m sorry for that. She didn’t tell us anything about you. We didn’t know what became of you and frankly, I was afraid to ask.” She shifted her weight back and forth as she spoke. “When I told her about you, about your daughter, well, let’s just say she was less than kind… And no longer speaking to me. I can’t help that and I don’t care. This girl you raised, she’s fierce and she’s right. You deserve my respect. I’m sorry I waited for her to yell at me. I just felt like it would be disrespectful. I think… I think Nikki needs to know, I’m as afraid as she is right now.” Her shoulders sagged and she leaned onto the bar for support, as great, wretched sobs wracked her frail body.
Nikki watched from her seat. She wanted to stay hardened. She wanted to be angry but she was moved, in spite of herself. The old lady’s sobs echoed through the room and Nikki found herself getting up and tiptoeing toward the casket. Reaching it, she placed a hand on her aunt’s shoulder.
Aunt Bea looked up and tear-soaked eyes met tear-soaked eyes. Nikki reached out a hand to help her up. “Let’s go home,” she offered.
“Yes. Let’s. I’ll make you some dinner.”
“Thank you,” Nikki answered, allowing the old lady to take her arm as they walked, “I would like that.” As they left the funeral parlor, the young girl thought, perhaps she had found her power after all.