Thank you to J. Deo (@JDeoWrites) for the wonderful sensitivity reading on this chapter! I am not Sikh and most of the description of the funeral is their work.
TW: religion, death/grief, reality distortion, attack on/near a place of worship
“Are you sure this is alright?” I asked, for the third time that night.
Will scoffed, adjusting my collar with a focused expression. “No reason it wouldn’t be. You gotta relax.”
“I just – how do I explain to people how I knew him?”
“Would you stop moving? I haven’t tied a tie in four years-”
“You don’t have to,” Isaiah said from the other end of the room, fixing the buttons on his white shirt in the mirror. “You’ve never been to a Sikh temple, have you?”
“I’ve never even been to a church. I don’t think either of you understand how staggeringly out of my depth I am here,” I complained. I knew I was being whiny, but it was that or find something else to take out my problems on.
“You’re the one who wanted to go,” Will shot back, tossing her hair over her shoulder and still fiddling with some of my hair to make it lie flat. I’d already told her her efforts were wasted, but she was apparently just as stubborn as I was. “I’m just as happy not to. I feel like I’d probably burst into flames once I crossed the threshold.”
Isaiah rolled his eyes. “Sikhism isn’t like that. Everyone’s welcome here, that’s kind of their whole thing.And as far as trans stuff goes, this temple’s pretty good.”
“You’ve also been read as a dude for what, fifteen years? I still have to shave every day and quite aside from that, I dress like a skank.” Will caught my worried expression and snickered. “A cute, feminist skank. Is that better?” Then she shrugged. “I dress nice, I get read as a guy.”
I couldn’t imagine that somehow, but I supposed I’d just gotten used to it. I’d had a few trans friends in school, most of them closeted, and I could appreciate Will’s wariness. Still, I wished it wasn’t just me and Isaiah. The realization that we were the only two Salts left in Ottawa was starting to sink in. I hadn’t been asked to stabilize anybody yet, but I imagined it was just a matter of time, as terrifying as the prospect was.
“You haven’t stolen my phone again, have you?”
“-go to hell,” I snarled, then felt myself turning pink at her grin. Okay, that had helped. I pulled my own phone out, waggling it vaguely in her direction. “I have my own thanks.”
Isaiah cleared his throat. “If you’re done flirting?”
“Not flirting,” I grouched. “Fine, let’s get going.”
I glanced in the mirror, double-checking my outfit one last time. The dress shirt and jacket was a bit big on me, and despite Will’s insistence I thought the tie was kind of overkill, but the slacks fit well enough. I couldn’t shake the discomfort over not having my denim jacket, but after one attempt to put it on, Will had fixed me with such a withering glare that I thought I might burst into flames.
As it turned out, though, the Sikh temple was refreshingly lowkey, at least from outdoors. I’d expected cupolas, maybe a mosque or stained glass windows – I didn’t have a lot to draw on. Instead, it was a simple, kind of blocky building, with glass doors leading into a lobby.
The real surprise was walking in and realizing that, for the first time in my life, I did look like I belonged. There were plenty of white folks mixed in with the crowd, but the crowd itself was –
“They’re all brown,” I said with a quiet thrill. “Er, Indian, right? South Asian?” I desperately tried not to embarrass myself in front of Isaiah.
Instead, he just gave me a gentle nudge with his shoulder. “White family, huh?” he asked.
“Several,” I grumbled. “Most of them shitty. One of them called me Gemma for two years.”
I searched the crowd for Mrs. Chaudhury, and finally found her in a white dress, talking to some others. I was too nervous to approach her, though, and stood there like an idiot for a little while until Isaiah tapped me gently on the shoulder.
He was standing with another woman in a long dress wrap, who smiled at me and handed me a kerchief. “It’s important to cover your head inside the gurdwara,” she said, and she didn’t sound mad, but I still swallowed awkwardly. Oops. Maybe I should have done more than a cursory Google.
“Alright.” I did my best to tie the kerchief over my head, and bit back a curse as my hair kept slipping out of the way. I didn’t know for sure, but I figured swearing was also pretty disrespectful.
“Here, here.” Isaiah stood behind me and bundled my ponytail up under the kerchief, knotting the scarf underneath it.
“Thanks,” I mumbled. “I’m bad at this.”
“It’s alright, dear,” said the woman, giving me a pat on the shoulder. “Be quiet and respectful, take off your shoes and wash your hands. You’ll be alright. My name’s Hushaima.” She took my hand in both of hers. “I’m Gurjas’s cousin. It’s lovely to meet you.”
“H-hi. I’m Jamal.”
“Why don’t you two sit next to me during the ceremony? You look awfully lost.”
Isaiah nodded, and I decided to follow his lead. Everybody was dressed so beautifully – I hadn’t known anything about Sikhism aside from a few basic details before meeting Mrs. Chaudhury, and now I felt myself both intimidated and entranced by a world I’d never been part of, so different from the isolated life I led. If I died, who would come to my funeral? Who would even know?
That wasn’t the point. I jerked myself away from the cycle that I knew I’d worry myself into. Today wasn’t about me. So instead I followed Hushaima and Isaiah into the temple itself, sliding my shoes off of my feet and shaking the last drops of water off of my hands.
The ceremony was much shorter than I’d imagined, although I had the strange feeling I was picking things up in the middle. There were readings from scripture and hymns, both of them impenetrable to me, but they sounded nice. I hoped Gurjas could hear them. Once it was over, someone came around and started handing out something that looked kind of like cookie dough. I glanced nervously around, then by the time he reached me, I just did what everybody else was doing, and offered my cupped hands, letting him scoop out out a dollop. “Th-thank you?”
“It’s the prashad,” Hushaima explained, obviously entertained by my ignorance. “It’s been blessed and given as a religious offering. Now we hand it out to everybody to eat, in Gurjas’s memory and in devotion.”
“Oh… so, kind of like communion.”
There was a quiet noise from behind me as Isaiah struggled to contain his reaction. “Not quite,” he managed to say. “For one, it tastes good.”
“Ah.” I took a bite. It was sweet, warm, and melted on my tongue.“What-” I stopped myself again, and took another bite.
“Yes.” Then I stared down at my napkin. “… Also, apparently I was hungry. Thank you.” I decided not to ask what it actually was. Somehow the mystery made it better.
People began to trickle out of the hall, and I crumpled my napkin, depositing it in the garbage on my way out. When I turned around, Chandra was standing with Hushaima, her white dress and headscarf soft against the surroundings, and she smiled at me. “I wasn’t sure if you’d come.”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “Well, you know. I wanted to -” Then I shrugged. Words were stupid.
She opened her arms and drew me into a hug, planting a gentle kiss on my forehead. Then she withdrew, smiling at Hushaima. “This is the private investigator I was talking about.”
“Really?” Hushaima looked at me with new eyes, and I swelled a little with pride. “You’re so young! That’s impressive. Maybe I should hire you.”
I bit back the please I am poor, and instead nodded as solemnly as I could muster. I was trying to be good.
“Where are the kids?”
“Oh, Akal has them. They’re playing with their food again, but at least that means Ruben isn’t wandering off trying to catch leaves again.”
I stifled a snicker. That sounded like kids to me. Then – I didn’t know how to describe it. Something changed. Something roiled, sick, in my stomach. I pressed a hand to it, wondering what was wrong. Maybe it was just how quickly I’d eaten that prashad stuff.
Chandra frowned slightly. “Ohh, I might have to lie down. I can feel a headache coming on.”
“It’s been a hard day! Don’t worry a bit. I’ll take care of cleanup -”
“Shush,” I said, interrupting Hushaima. “Sorry.”
Isaiah glanced at me. I ignored him, and then looked – properly looked at Chandra’s dress. It was harder than it should have been – it kept shimmering, like heat-haze. That wasn’t just the dress, I realized. It was everything.
“Chandra, what colour is your dress?”
“White, of course.”
“No, it isn’t.”
She looked down at the dress, which was drenched in emerald green. “…Did I spill something on it? Where did all that blue come from-?”
I froze for a moment, pieces falling into place – then took off for the door.
I couldn’t wait. I stopped just inside of the glass doors, bare feet arching against the tile.
Kiera stood in the parking lot outside, her poison leeching into the air. She saw me, and her eyes glowed that awful, bitter green, and she smiled with teeth like needles.