I can remember the day almost exactly.
It was Rosie’s birthday. I had a gift for her tucked under my arms (a pile of books, all of them wildly fantastic) and I was running to our little cave in Gull’s Cove. Rosie liked to call it the Secret Garden. I don’t know why: there weren't any plants in there, just sand and rocks. But that’s Rosie for you, I guess. She had all her quirks and then she’d give inanimate objects their own quirks. That teapot loves knitting. The bus has an awful cold today but the pharmacy doesn’t stock medicine powerful enough for it. My phone wants to be on Australia’s Got Talent but doesn’t actually have a talent. I would laugh at her and then she’d pretend to hit me and say “Shut up Xander, you’re making the phone sad!”
But I digress. It was maybe eight-thirty in the morning. Thursday, summer holidays. It was incredibly humid, as if God just dropped a bucket of water into the air but it forgot to fall down. The sun was still quite low in the sky, and it was casting a reflection in the ocean. It was almost blinding. I wanted to paint it. I guess that was my talent, painting. I painted, Georgie studied, and Rosie… Rosie did everything.
I knew Rosie would be there already, and Georgie too. Georgie was early to everything. Even school. Some days she would turn up at the school at seven o’clock and just sit outside the gates, waiting for the teachers to turn up and let her in. She called it being punctual. I called it hating herself. Who chooses to wake up at six o’clock every morning? She likes to tell me I should go early with her. I tell her that if she suggests that again, I’ll transfer to the boy’s school down the road.
I raced down the old wooden steps onto the beach and made a beeline for the water. The beach was my favourite place. I had grown up there, and every time I stepped into the water, I felt like a little kid again. I kicked my sandals off and put them on top of the box I had wrapped for Rosie. She wouldn’t mind if it was a bit sandy. The water was cool on my feet. My footsteps sank into the sand. It felt like a perfect day.
I got to the Secret Garden after ten minutes of nearly getting my feet stuck in the sand. It was quiet in the cave. Maybe they weren’t there yet. But then I saw a shadow move, so I barged right in.
“Happy birthday Rosie!” I yelled. “To many more years of knitting teapots and un-talented iPhones!”
Then I looked up, and Georgie was crying, and I realised that for Rosie, there would be no more years at all.
I turned around straight away and sprinted back up the beach and onto the road, Rosie’s present lying forgotten in the sand. Georgie followed me, her footsteps margin with mine in the soft sand. As soon as I had stepped into that cave, I knew something was wrong. Georgie didn’t cry easily, and Rosie should’ve been there. My mind was racing more than usual, trying to come up with different reasons as to what had happened.
All that I came up with was nothing I wanted to believe. My first thought had been death. I tried to shut that down quickly, but my mind kept playing awful scenes, like a horror movie that Rosie starred in. I pushed my legs harder, willing myself to fly down the road like a bird.
Birds didn’t have problems. If something went wrong, they could just fly away. Not me, though. I was completely and irrevocably tied to the ground, my humanity acting as a chain. I remember one time Georgie told me that birds grieve too. I didn’t believe her. Birds are to free to grieve.
As soon as I entered my house, my stomach dropped like a stone. Mum was on the phone, and she was crying. We locked eyes for a second and there was something in them that told me everything. That was the moment that I was forced to accept that Rosie was gone, and wasn’t coming back. It felt like being let go and being pushed down at the same time. Like flying through the air, but someone shoots my wing and I fall into an ocean and drown. I’m a good swimmer, but there are some things you can’t out-swim.
I heard a sniff behind me, and I remembered Georgie. That was so selfish, to just wallow in my own misery. Georgie didn’t cry, but she was so sensitive. I pulled her into a hug, letting her bury her face on my shoulder. A couple of years ago, I was too short for her to do this.
“Dad rang me,” Georgie whispered. “Just before you got there. He said I had to get — get home quick, and it was about Rosie.”
“What did you say?” I whispered back.
She took a shaky breath. “I told him I wasn’t going anywhere until you got there.”
We stood there for a few moments more, listening to my Mum say “Okay,” and “I’m sorry,” and “I’ll let them know.”
Finally, she finished, and she led us into the living room and told us to sit down.
“There was an accident,” Mum told us. “A car accident.”
I started shaking. Not little shivers. It was like there was an earthquake, and my heart was the epicentre. I got scared. I didn’t want to hear any more, but at the same time, I wanted to understand everything.
“What kind of car accident?” I asked hoarsely. I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Rosie was my best friend. She was practically a sister. She couldn’t be gone. She was too young, way too young.
“There was a drunk driver. He went off the road, and Rosie was walking there…” Mum hesitated. “The paramedics said there was nothing they could do.”
Under the table, I found Georgie’s hand. I gave it a squeeze. She didn’t make a sound. Just let tears fall down her face, into her lap, and onto my hand.
“Okay,” I said. I meant it as a dismissal, but Mum didn’t leave.
“Xander,” she said quietly.
“No,” I said. I guess that was rude, but I wasn’t in the right mindset to care about manners. Looking back, I think I should have said something to Mum. She treated Rosie like family. We’d known each other since we started school. It must have been just as hard for Mum.
But Mum finally took the hint and left the room. She turned around for a second and gave me a sad kind of smile before closing the door.
Georgie and I sat like that for a while, just staring at the closed door. It felt like closing the door on Rosie’s life. It was too final, too much.
“It’s not fair,” Georgie bit out.
That was true. No one deserved to be killed by a drink driver at eight o’clock on a Thursday morning, much less Rosie. Rosie was the kind of person who lived her life in a whirlwind of colour and noise, and that’s how she should’ve gone out. Tied to a firework at the ripe age of 86 and let go with a bang, in an explosion of light in the sky. That was the only way I ever thought Rosie could die. She always seemed so immortal, like nothing could touch her. I thought she was untouchable.
“I know,” I said.
Georgie and I didn’t say anything after that. It was too quiet. All I could hear was Georgie breathing and the fan. I didn’t think anything like this could happen on a day like that. Tragedies happen in winter, in the pouring rain under booming claps of thunder.
So that was me, the bird with no wings. I wanted to fly away. Rosie had. A sudden wave of emotion hit me like a tsunami, dragging me down into the depths of the ocean. It was anger and sadness and fear, but most of all it was loneliness. Rosie was always there. Sure, I had Georgie, but I still felt like there was a piece missing. Maybe birds do feel grief, but I don’t think it could possibly be anything like a human’s grief. I wished I was a bird. I wouldn’t feel so much, so intensely. If this is what it means to be human, then I didn’t want it.
I got my phone out and plugged my headphones in. I put on this emo shit. I don’t know why. I don’t usually listen to that. I guess I just needed something to distract me. Something loud and screamy. Something that reflected the cyclone inside me. Me, the earthquake, tsunami, and cyclone. Me, the natural disaster.
Wait, no. I wasn’t that natural disaster. I was the tiny, weak, insignificant bird caught in it.
I put my headphones in my ears, then turned the volume way up. I put it louder and louder, until I couldn’t hear anything else at all. Just me, the music, and no Rosie.