The Engine

Wrapped in polyester spandex, Rebekah’s skin broils from the drowning humidity of August. She wipes away the beaded perspiration on her brow with the back of her hand, then shakes the dampness against her plum-colored skirt.

It should have been black but having only four days to find something to fit her expanding six-month pregnant body had left her with few options. She didn’t want to waste time browsing floral maternity dresses, wishing they were black, and hating that she wished they were black. So instead, Rebekah had loaded up her family and gotten on the road for the two-hour drive to her parents’ home to help her mother with the preparations detailed in a legal document notarized years before. A run to the store was out; online shopping with overnight shipping was in.

Rebekah slips her hand under her blouse hem and tugs at the waistband of her skirt, the cursed elastic agitating the stretch mark-rippled skin of her belly. Even the fabric won’t give her a moment.

“We gotta head to the cemetery,” says Jack. Rebekah tears her gaze away from the hearse two cars ahead of theirs. From beside the driver’s side door, she looks angrily across the vehicle’s roof to her husband leaning his hands and chest against the car. Their children screech from the backseat, fussing over their car seat straps and whining louder than the purring engine attempting to cool the interior from the hot box it had become.

“Everyone’s waiting,” he whispers gently, his fingers drumming on the metal roof. Rebekah glares at him. She knows the funeral procession is waiting on them. Her eldest cousin Ashley is in the car behind theirs, his hands on the wheel and his partner beside him. Ready to go to the cemetery to say their last goodbye.

But she’s not ready.

She needs a moment.

She needs more time.

Blinking hard, the tears she needs won’t come. Ever since the phone call telling her that her grandmother passed away, she’s felt them imprisoned. Her lungs were water balloons strapped to a faucet, stoppered by the knot in her throat. She wanted them to burst, to release the pressure in her chest.

She reassured herself there would be a moment, appropriate and forgiving, when the heartbreak could come. Then wasn’t the time; There had been too many tasks, too many obligations to complete, to honor the passing of the matriarch. But now, that grief had swelled too large and was pinned inside her.

Breast cancer couldn’t kill Rosalia Sporlein. Neither could a broken hip, chronic asthma, nor dementia. The poacher was a common respiratory infection she just couldn’t shake—an everyday cold virus that stole the last two months of life from under them.

Initially, Rebekah was unworried. To keep the little one inside her womb safe, just in case, she stayed away from the nursing home. But as Rosalia’s cough lingered, her time spent “resting” continued well past the usual timeframe, Rebekah began to pray fervently to the universe.

Then, the ominous answer came. What she wanted most—to wrap her arms gently around her grandmother and press her firm, thirty-one-year-old cheek against the ninety-four-year-old’s delicate, silky one—she would never get.

Rebekah turns away from Jack and stares at the elongated vehicle ahead, the corner of her grandmother’s polished cherry coffin peeking through the curtained rear window. A beautiful wooden box that somehow holds the body of a woman—a force—who had worked a full-time office job during an era that shunned her for not remaining at home with the six children she was determined to send to college. A passionate woman who loved her husband of fifty-two years, grabbing his bottom and planting kisses on him publicly, despite the family’s secretly proud yet open embarrassment. A nurturing woman who gave every child in her life The Little Engine That Could, encouraging them with a tale of perseverance while dismissing traditional gender roles.

Rebekah’s favorite book.

Closing then setting the book onto the bedside table, Rosalia’s hip cracks as she stands up. She arches her back and twists to shake her body from the aches of kneeling beside her visiting grandchild, reading stories well past bedtime.

Rosalia chuckles. “I’m getting so old. My body’s breaking down.”

Rebekah furrows her six-year-old brow. “You’re not broken, Grandma.”

Her grandmother grunts as she returns to her knees, prayer-positioned at her granddaughter’s side. She brushes aside a lock of hair from the child’s forehead, her gaze on the hand and hair, her granddaughter’s eyes on hers.

“No, not broken.” Rosalia smiles and places a kiss on Rebekah’s nose. “If I were broken, would that worry you, sweet child?”

She shakes her head into the pillow, her small lips pursed, and eyebrows pinched together.

“Rebekah, the little train, the red one with all the toys,” her grandmother says, pausing until Rebekah nods. “She had a bad day and broke down. Sometimes, we break. When the little train broke with all the toys to care for, what happened?”

Rebekah’s face smooths as she answers, “The little blue engine came. But Grandma, the other engines left her behind.”

Her grandmother places her palm against her granddaughter’s cheek. “Yes, sweet child, they did. But then the little blue engine showed up.” She dips to kiss the child’s forehead. “I want you to remember there will always be a little blue engine. Sometimes it will be you. Sometimes it will be someone else. But there will always be a little blue engine when you need one, because people are more like the little blue engine than we ever realize.”

Rosalia had always been Rebekah’s little blue engine.

She gasps for air as a sob chokes her. Her round belly contracts from the baby kicking within, causing a ripple of muscles tightening to course through her body. Rebekah presses her hands against the hood of her car, dropping her head as tears wash over her cheeks, unable to fill her lungs with the air she needs to breathe through this pain.

“Beks,” says a soft voice behind her. A hand rests on her shoulder, spinning her around. “Come here.” Ashley pulls her into his chest.

She accepts the embrace, his wool suit coat swathing her in more heat. The tears rain down her cheeks, soaking his pressed white shirt. The socially acceptable time to hug lapses and she tries to push away.

Ashley tightens his arms around her, his voice cracking with sadness, “Not yet. We need this.” Rebekah clasps her hands together behind his back, acquiescing until she feels it.

When they finally let go of one another and wipe the moisture from their faces, Rebekah inhales a deep breath of heavy air. She climbs into the driver’s seat of her car, ready to say a final goodbye.

She knows she can.